Cinema had been around for fifty years before the UK had its very own wave of gangster movies, after the upheaval of World War II and the reassessment of production codes. Before the war, we’d had American gangster films by the shedload but, for some reason, this was fine. As long as the dark suited mobsters weren’t British, then they were acceptable.
The first major breakthrough in gangster cinema was Brighton Rock (1947) (read our review), an adaptation of the eponymous Graham Greene novel. After this, they came at such a rate that the first gangster spoof appeared in the form of The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guiness (read the review), and went downhill from there.
The end of the fifties saw a return to darker more realistic themes and, later on, other more famous and vaguely related films such as heist movie The Italian Job (1969), Get Carter (1971), and mod-centric classic Quadrophenia (1979). The Long Good Friday (1980) concerns a mob boss struggling to go straight with a project to develop the Docklands into an potential Olympic site, running foul of the IRA, the American Mafia, political and police corruption, and a whole host of other problems.
It wasn’t until Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1997) introduced one Guy Ritchie to the world that the genre was completely revitalised, adding an element of comedy capers to the proceedings. Ritchie proceeded to stink up the water with Snatch (2000), Revolver (2005), RocknRolla (2007). Others from this period include Sexy Beast (2000), Layer Cake (2004), which made for Daniel Craig’s mainstream breakthrough, and the slew of youth/urban crime dramas such as Kidulthood (2004), Adulthood (2008), and the fantastic London to Brighton (2006), about a prostitute and a young girl escaping London mobsters.
But what is the attraction of big men in sharp suits punching people in the face? It’s a tried and tested formula. If there’s one thing this country has, it’s grimly anonymous cities and terrible weather. Also, it plays up to a mythical vision of urban life that doesn’t necessarily exist but is beneficial to all – people outside of cities are terrified by the idea of gangsters snatching them or by being trapped in a gangland shooting, while the people who live in those areas get to pretend they are in the middle of the action.
It’s also a call-back to a time before today’s touchy-feely attitude to crime, when a copper could clip your ear and if you stepped out of line a man in nice shoes would break your kneecaps. Gangster films appeal to people who like to imagine that they could be in a gang, if only they didn’t have a proper job or contribute anything of worth to society. Perhaps they get a vicarious thrill in seeing someone feared by others and appearing superficially powerful.
On a practical side, the films are ridiculously cheap to make. Just get together four ugly blokes, give them four ludicrous names, and have them beat someone up. That’s your first act! No sheen or polish is necessary, as that’s part of the ‘gritty look’. They are cheap, give some quick thrills, and turn a tidy little profit, that’s the attraction of gangster films.
What do you think about gangster films? Let us know below!