Dreams & Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film

Dreams & Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film

Dreams & Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film

Dreams & Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film


The second edition of this classic study provides a reintroduction to some of the major films and theoretical considerations of film noir and gangster films in twentieth-century America. Ranging from Little Caesar (1930) to Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995), Shadoian guides the reader through twenty classic movies of the genre. His approach is to use brief introductions to introduce distinct eras of the gangster films in each of seven chapters. Moving chronologically, he offers plot synopses and close readings of such definitive examples as Bonnie and Clyde, The Public Enemy, D.O.A. and The Godfather, each accompanied by photographs and author's critiques. Compenendia of facts on each film are also provided. This updated version looks a newer films as well as how the genre has moved into the new century. Appendices look at the movie Criss Cross as an epitome of the genre while others offer different lists of gangster films, including the author's top fourteen alltime, fifty post-Godfather films worth seeing, and fifty vintage films.


Gangster/crime films continue to be made and hold their own in the marketplace. The genre remains a viable framework for getting something important said. Its basic material continues to attract talented people who give it expressive force and creative shape. Its durability attests to its cultural importance. The genre has survived because the issues it addresses have always been central to the American experience, because its formal properties have given them a clarity of outline and lucidity of exposition, and because it has been infinitely flexible in adapting itself to shifting social and cultural conditions. It has played an important role in both forming and reflecting the American imagination.

Despite the excellence and popularity of its films, the genre has been generally held in low esteem. Critics and reviewers, high of tone and brow, have in the main been hostile. Even within the industry, until very recently, its prestige has not run parallel to its proven effectiveness. The reaction seems illogical. It is perhaps the danger of the gangster/crime film that has enforced a defensive distance and a refusal to acknowledge it. It has been troubled by censorship, a sure sign that people have been afraid of what it aims to accomplish and of its power.

The gangster/crime film is a genre like pornography and the horror film, held in contempt socially and intellectually not because it may corrupt and not because it is artistically inferior to other kinds of film but because it realizes our dreams, exposes our deepest psychic urges. Its imperative has been, as well, to stick close to the tawdry, unpleasant, ugly aspects of American life. Shunned by critics for its cheap-thrill sensationalism and muzzled by the industry's sparing financial support, its resiliency is instructive. The genre speaks not merely to our fascination/repulsion with aspects of our socioeconomic milieu that we prefer to shut our eyes to but also to our fascination/repulsion with the most haunting depths of ourselves. We tend to disown and discredit its films because to deal with them means facing those contradictions in ourselves that we evade by our adherence to social norms and to appeasing self- and national conceptions. We sense, instinctively, the threat they pose, and for half a century they have been rated an invisible “X” in our consciousness. While it may be true that individual films in the genre offer differing perspectives on American life, ranging from the explicitly apologetic to the harshly critical, the genre as a whole depicts America as a place of perpetual and violent conflict. It is always sinking its teeth into matters most other “entertainment” films gloss over or relegate to a safe historical past.

The gangster is a paradigm of the American dream. The gangster film is a vehicle that responds to our wish to have our dreams made visible to us in a . . .

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