Genre is a concept that helps to classify movies based on their characteristics. They usually include conventions that are similar for all pictures of a certain genre. It becomes useful for people who decide on what type of film they would like to watch. However, genre does not specifically define movies, as they can strongly differ in the boundaries of the same group. It often includes subgenres that narrow down their characteristics. For instance, the gangster film genre does not include any subcategories, yet it is a subgenre of the criminal drama (Goodykoontz & Jacobs, 2014, Ch.4.2, para. 11). This paper unveils the gangster film genre taking the Scarface movie as an example to show the elements that define this classification.
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The original version of Scarface released in 1932 pictures a story of Antonio “Tony” Camonte and his path to becoming the most powerful criminal leader in the city of Chicago. The film’s main character is based on the figure of the real criminal leader Al Capone, who used to run most of the alcohol business during the Prohibition times in the 1920s. An immigrant Tony Camonte works as a helper of Johnny Lovo who is a local mafia leader. Soon Camonte wishes to gain more power. He disobeys the restriction of not interfering with the group of O’Hara, which controls the northern part of the city, and kills their leader. Later, he goes further and murders his boss, becoming the head criminal leader in Chicago. However, the police are looking for reasons to arrest him and finally get this chance after Camone’s sister accuses him of murdering her husband. The final scene of the movie pictures Tony hiding in a house surrounded by police forces and eventually dying as a result of a shooting.
There are several conventions that describe the gangster film genre. It is the plot based on a criminal story that usually includes a powerful family, and the setting of the early XX century or later. It is a common belief that gangster movies are those that show stories set in the 1920s or 1930s in the United States, yet this conception is not accurate since many modern films fall under the category of this genre.
The primary convention that comes to everyone’s mind when talking about the gangster film genre is a plot building around the world of organized crime. The main conflict is between the good and the evil, yet the classic scheme does not always receive the conformant response from the audience. There are various cases where viewers regarded criminal characters as protagonists. The theme of power, which is the primary idea of the film, intersects with the concept of the American dream. People living in the USA have always supported the concept of the self-made man. Unfortunately, the 1920s became the time when citizens started to believe that all the good things in life could be achieved only by breaking the law. This period became the golden age of the classic gangster film genre that has Scarface as one of its highlights (Shadoian, 2003, p. 29).
A common misconception about the gangster film genre’s setting proves to be accurate here. This is a classic story set in the 1920s to reflect the events that took place during that time. The film unveils the whole criminal structure behind the networks of speakeasies that were popular during the Prohibition. Costumes, music, replicas, and other elements describe the era that took place after the Volstead Act had come in force (Buscombe, 2012, p. 29). The setting in Scarface reveals the fight for controlling the business of Chicago in a manner common to that time, making the story classical.
Since crime is the paramount concept of the gangster film genre, it is understandable that violence is inevitable in this case. Violent scenes became one of the primary conventions of the genre. Scarface features the scene of shooting seven people in a garage, which is a referral to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre committed by a group of Al Capone in 1929. The fascination of the main character with the possibilities of a machine gun is also a part of this convention. In gangster films, human lives do not matter as much as money and power. The genre does not imply any humanity goals and shows the fight for the best place as ruthless as it can be in real life.
A popular misconception about the genre is that the plot is always based on a story of an immigrant individual or group. There was a time at the beginning of the past century when this convention covered the real situation. Most of the mafia representatives had an Italian background. They lived separately in certain parts of the American cities where they cultivated their language and traditions. The golden age of gangster movies includes this convention in the genre, yet modern examples provide evidence that the plot can build around both local and immigrant groups of various backgrounds.
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Expanding the Boundaries
Although it has been mentioned that Scarface is a classic gangster movie, its story of production and release has several elements that have changed not only the genre itself but also the regulations applied to all movies. This film was made during the time when no common law regulating content existed. This fact allowed movie makers to include any scenes they would find reasonable to reveal a story. Nevertheless, Scarface caused a lot of disputes over its violent content. Although the producers mentioned several times that they do not support criminal behavior, the film received many positive comments from viewers who identified Tony Camonte as a good and interesting character. This situation caused arguments among political executives and legislators that were disturbed by the increase of crime support in the American community. Scarface, along with other gangster movies, led to the creation of limiting guidelines known as the Motion Picture Production Code.
Another achievement of Scarface as a classic gangster movie was the mixture of violent scenes and humor. The fact that the main character reveals his happiness over the functionality of a machine gun is both disturbing and funny. This moment gives a reason to believe that even criminal dramas can incorporate comedy in an organic way.
The gangster film genre has several conventions that work to define it. They primarily include the criminal theme that is supported by violence. Other conventions like the setting are no longer defining the genre. The golden era of gangster movies focused mainly on characters of Italian origin to represent the realities of the 1920s in the United States. However, the modern genre can include people of different backgrounds put in different periods. The violence in gangster films has changed the way the movie industry is currently regulated.
Buscombe, E. (2012). The idea of genre in the American cinema. In B. K. Grant (Ed.), Film genre reader IV (pp. 12-26). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Goodykoontz, B., & Jacobs, C. P. (2014). Film: From watching to seeing (2nd ed.) [Electronic version]. Web.
Shadoian, J. (2003). Dreams & dead ends: The American gangster film. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.