30’s Gangster Films vs. Film Noir

Hello again,

Many people who have never watched an old black and white motion picture would probably have a difficult time differentiating between the different visual and narrative styles that each film possessed. I have friends that absolutely refuse to watch any of these films saying that they’re all the same, “It’s black and white, it’s old, let me know when you have a movie worth watching!!!” As ignorant as some of my friends may sound, they are partly correct, these films are old, literally. However, the use of the word “old” is a bit premature in the context of such films. The visual and narrative styles that we see in today’s films aren’t any different from the past ones; they are simply adaptations and/or evolutions of yesterday’s films. So on the topic of adaptations or evolutions, I wanted to delve into the evolution of the gangster films into film noir by exploring some of the similarities and differences between the two.

The Gangster Film

  • Crime Drama
  • Gangster films were known to have commented on the instabilities of characters as a product of the Great Depression.
  • Gangster films during the Hays Production Code era always glamorized any form of law enforcement (ex: Law Enforcement always viewed as the symbol of light and goodness versus the mobsters that were always viewed as terrible people.)
  • Main characters in these films are introduced as already established lawbreakers.
  • Passive and Supportive female roles.
  • The rise and fall of the gangster is exhibited.
  • The gangster film is a quick-paced dialogue film.
  • The gangster film, towards the end, is shot in low key light as opposed to the law enforcement agent, who is shot in an openly lit area(example: The End of Rico in Little Caesar.)
  • In the daylight the gangster would be shot wearing light colored clothing symbolically camouflaging the criminal from the law enforcement agents. In the nighttime, the criminal would be captured wearing dark clothing which also aided in his camouflage but made him stand out more like a bad guy.
  • Early gangster films of the 30’s were very linear in story-telling. For this reason, the use of classical continuity editing would fit the film very well. Classical continuity editing basically took long duration shots and cut them into a logical progression of shorter shots. This not only diminished the number of shots in the film but also introduced a secondary editing technique known as quick pacing. The shorter shots lent to a faster viewing experience which is exactly how the narrative of the gangster film presented itself. However, towards the
    end of the film, the audience needs some time to reconcile the reality of the demise of the gangster that they grew to respect in some way. For this reason, the longer duration shot is employed in slower sequence of dialogue as the audience bids farewell to the criminal.

Film Noir

  • Crime Drama
  • Serves as a social commentary on the aftermath of WWII in America.
  • Presents the transition of the main character from a lonesome and reclusive being into an infatuated and involved person.
  • The female role also known as the femme fatale was a representation of egocentrism, deviance and despair. The femme fatale, translates to deadly woman, exemplifies a woman that is selfish, goal-oriented, manipulative, beautiful and deadly.
  • Film noir was known to include a specific plot formula that was evident in the 40’s. This plot formula was called war noir. To put it simply, war noir simply introduced the main character as a product of the war years. Presenting the main character as a victim of war provides reason for the protagonist to be introverted (possibly due to some post-traumatic stress disorder.) (ex: main character may have been an ex-soldier scarred by the war years working as a postman.)
  • The film noir visual style was the successor to the German expressionism mainly found in the film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” German expressionism gave way to the contrast between light and dark otherwise known as chiaroscuro. The majority of the film is shot in low-key light.
  • Main themes surrounding film noir are as follows: entrapment, mistaken identity, psychopathology, greed, lust, betrayal and murder.
  •  A very common attribute to the style of film noir is the use of narration from the very beginning of the film by the main character of the film. The film usually begins at the end of the timeline and then uses flashbacks to recount the entire story from the beginning to the point that led up to the narration.

Although both film styles were 10 years apart, they did share common attributes. They had similar visual styles, were examples of social commentary and exemplified the crime drama. On the surface these films were similar, but on the inside they were very different. The concentration of darkness was far greater in the film noir compared to the gangster film. The concentrated dark visual style of film noir directly correlated with its vile and almost law-breaking narrative. Often times, the visual style of the gangster films was shot contrary to the vile nature of the main character until the end. As was described before, the female roles differed greatly between both styles. Many other differences resided in each film. The biggest point being is that one medium was the adaptation/evolution of the previous medium. Although these particular styles may have seemed to have been extinct, thus sanctioning them as “old”, they live on in the modern age as reincarnations in films such as Bladerunner, LA Confidential, Sin City, Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas and many other modern crime dramas.

– The Jew


10 thoughts on “30’s Gangster Films vs. Film Noir

      1. I’m more familiar with James Cagney’s work especially in Public Enemy. I have not seen Each Dawn I Die even though Cagney was in the film. I definitely know what I’ll be doing this weekend! Gonna check if this film is on Netflix.

      2. James Cagney is in almost all of the old films currently in my DVD collection. Each Dawn I Die, The Public Enemy, City for Conquest, The Roaring Twenties, G-Men, Smart Money (another one of my favorite gangster films!)

  1. I can’t wait for the new Gangster Squad movie. I’m not sure how noire it’s going to be, but the trailer is really engaging and well, Ryan Gosling is on a bit of a roll, isn’t he? I’m also looking forward to seeing Sean Penn as Mickey C.

    In an unrelated note, I think I wanna go play that videogame LA Noire too.

    1. Ryan Gosling has definitely been on the uprise for the past decade. He is a very talented actor in my honest opinion. It would be interesting to see how he plays out in this film. Sean Penn is one of those actors that no matter who he plays, he owns the role. He is never type-casted like De Niro is because Penn doesn’t play any particular type he plays all types and that’s what makes him a top tier actor. Never played LA Noir but have seen someone playing it and it sure seemed like an interesting video game.

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