Starting in 1920s, gangster movies underlined capabilities of talking pictures

In Chapter 16, “Gangs and Mobs,” in A Companion to Crime Fiction (2010), Jonathan Munby argues that crime fiction focusing on gangs and mobs can be viewed as a distinct tradition of gangster literature.

I have earlier discussed whether film noir qualifies as a genre or is instead a critical category.

The related genre of non-fiction gangster literature is equally of interest.

Gangs in public life

A Feb. 4, 2014 CBC article is entitled: “The costly distraction that is Vladimir Putin’s Sochi Olympics.” The subhead reads: “Within Russia, the stench of corruption is almost certainly the biggest worry for the Kremlin.”

A related Feb. 1, 2014 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Why the Winter Olympics could be Putin’s undoing: Burman.” As the article notes, Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News, teaches journalism at Ryerson University. His article refers to a book by Masha Gessen entitled The Man Without a Face (2012).

A blurb for the latter study at the Toronto Public Library website notes:

Handpicked as a successor by the “family” surrounding an ailing and increasingly unpopular Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin seemed like a perfect choice for the oligarchy to shape according to its own designs. Suddenly the boy who had stood in the shadows, dreaming of ruling the world, was a public figure, and his popularity soared. Russia and an infatuated West were determined to see the progressive leader of their dreams, even as he seized control of media, sent political rivals and critics into exile or to the grave, and smashed the country’s fragile electoral system, concentrating power in the hands of his cronies.


Warfare is the work that gangsters do

Many lenses lend themselves to the study of violence. Among them is the economic lens, as in Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations (2008).

A quote (p. 148) from the latter study reads: “Whether it’s the mafia-like Mungiki in Kenya, opium-growing Taliban forces in Afghanistan, Columbia’s cocaine-trafficing FARC guerrillas, or the diamond-smuggling RUF in Sierra Leone, many of the world’s religious and political revolutionary groups have day jobs as economic gangsters.”

A previous post about the City of Laval, Quebec, refers to corruption in a Canadian context.

A social science perspective provides another lens, as in Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs (2011). Using concepts from the latter study, we can say that warfare is the work that soldiers and gangsters do.

In The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), Richard J. Evens highlights the role of organized gangs and mobs in the rise of Nazi Germany.

Chandler, Hammett, and Faulkner

Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and William Faulkner, among other novelists and screenwriters, have sought to make sense of violence.

The quality of the analysis of violence depends upon the analyst.

Gangster genre

Jonathan Munby’s overview of American gangster fiction explores, in his words, “an otherwise hidden parallel world” (p. 210).

In the text that follows, I will in many cases omit links for the authors that I refer to, but such links are available at the Toronto Public Library website and elsewhere.

Munby notes that the genre label “gangster” crosses over from Hollywood. He adds that many authors who’ve written novels about organized crime literature have also excelled as Hollywood screenwriters.

As noted below, an overview by John Matthews, of novelists as screenwriters, is available in Chapter 3, “Faulkner and the Culture Industry,” in The Cambridge  Companion to William Faulkner (1995). The topic is also addressed in a 2006 book review, by Adrian Kirsch, of three novels by Daniel Fuchs.

Gangster fiction figured prominently in the period in the 1930s when film made the transition from “silent” to “speaking.”

When Hollywood got wired up for sound, “it found in the gangster story an ideal way to sell the unique qualities of this technological innovation. Gangster stories were plucked straight from topical and sensational news headlines, delivering to audiences an intensely ‘realist’ experience replete with street argot, gunfire, and the sounds of the automobile (Munby 1999: 34)” (p. 210).

Munby’s chapter concentrates on American gangster fiction, “focusing primarily on the way this literature has mediated [that is, forms a connecting link regarding] our understanding of the contradictory character of capitalism and of what constitutes ‘legitimate’ culture – especially with regard to ‘organization'” (pp. 210-211).

Lippard and Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) has been described as the first serious attempt, in the hey-day of “classic” (Prohibition-era) criminality, “to engage the underworld in terms that broke the legacy of reform aesthetics in representing the gangster.”

Fitzgerald’s novel, according to Munby, reveals the contamination of the American Dream, engages “the moral bankruptcy of a certain kind of capitalist business ethos,” and suggests that a gangster’s achievements overlap with those of the robber barons, during an era when the line between legitimate and illegitimate business enterprise had become blurred.

The gangster’s profiteering, Munby notes, through the meeting of the public demand for alcohol during the Prohibition era, helped endear him to the public.

From time to time, people would talk about organized crime’s resemblance to capitalist entrepreneurship, and also “highlighted the degree to which business itself might be construed as criminal.”

In discussing Fitzgerald’s work, Munby brings attention to the earlier fiction of the Christian Socialist reformer George Lippard, author of Quaker City, first published serially in 1844 as The Monks of Monks Hall. The work exploited the possibilities of mass printing, selling over 100,000 copies in two years.

Lippard also chose a vernacular language that corresponds to the world he sought to represent and reform. The content of the work was derived from newspaper coverage of a sensational 1843 court case.

In summing up Lippard’s story, Munby notes that “Quaker City advanced a conspiratorial idea about the powers of a hidden [in this case, upper-class] criminal society, articulating a deeply ambivalent view of capital as both the forger of institutional corruption and the basis for any fight against oppression” (pp. 212-213).

As well, according to Munby, Lippard blurred the line that separated “legitimate from illegitimate Americans.”

Riis and Asbury

How the Other Half Lives (1890), by reformer Jacob Riis, highlighted New York’s lower East Side gang culture. His half-tone photographic illustrations of gang members, notes Munby, “helped confirm a condescending view of the tenement environment as criminally ‘alien’ to America” (p. 213).

Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York (1927) highlights a reformist narrative that charts a shift, according to Munby, from a city carved up by gangs in 1829 to a purported final victory of law and order in 1927.

Other 1920s writers rejected the reformist perspective.

Burnett and Clarke

Little Caesar (1929), by W. R. Burnett, was a best-selling novel and “the basis for the first talking gangster movie to be a box-office hit” (p. 214).

Burnett wrote from the gangster’s viewpoint, in contrast to the view as “seen through the eyes of society” (Burnett, quoted by Munby, p. 216), and in the voice of the street.

The aim was to demonstrate “a style of writing based on the way American people spoke – not literary English” (Burnett, quoted by Munby, p. 215).

George V. Higgins adopted a similar style in his gangster novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972).

Donald Henderson Clarke, a less lauded contemporary of Burnett, wrote Louis Beretti, (1929), featuring an Italian-American New York gangster. The novel was turned into a screenplay for John Ford’s Born Reckless (1930).

As described by Munby, Clarke was an alcoholic reporter who “mixed with gangsters, film stars, corrupt politicians and fellow fourth estate reprobates through much of the 1920s” (p. 214). Later he achieved sobriety and became a novelist creating works, like that of contemporaneous gangster-focused novelists, providing “a sardonic picture of Prohibition and its moral hypocrisy.”

In his work, an alliance is portrayed, as in other gangster fiction of the period, between the media and the gangster.

The media made a practice, in Munby’s words, of writing about “the colorful activities of underworld bosses.” A symbiotic relationship between press and gangster during Prohibition was, he adds, driven by consumer desire:

The gangster’s business was to satisfy a prohibited public demand for leisure pleasures associated with alcohol and the nightlife that accompanies its sale. Gangster ‘style’ was adopted and refined by the fashion industry and sold back to the underworld for emulation (Ruth 1966: 63-86) (p. 215).

The reference to Ruth 1966 is: David E. Ruth (1996). Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918-1934. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wiring of Hollywood for sound

Burnett’s agenda, according to Munby, was to “pass comment on the criminal character of American everyday life in the 1920s” (p. 216). In this context, “the gangster provided the most intimate and telling access to the contradictions of a society subject to both Prohibition and laissez faire capitalist mores.”

The above-noted agenda coincided with the wiring of Hollywood for sound, the Wall Street Crash, and the onset of the Depression. According to Munby, gangster stories were a great way to introduce movie-goers to “talking pictures,” and the stories told by the gangsters themselves “resonated with the desires and frustrations” of the target audience.

Burnett proceeded with a screenplay for Little Caesar and helped out with translating Scarface (1929), by Armitage Trail, into a film, Scarface (1932). A cult 1983 version of Scarface has also appeared.

Fuchs and Wolfert

By the mid-1930s, the gangster as rebellious type shifted from being an ambivalent outsider, exposing the exclusionary character of “legitimate” culture, to a character merely epitomizing “all that is ruthless about the system” (p. 217).

Daniel Fuchs’ three Brooklyn-based novels, which Jonathan Munby characterizes as a trilogy – Summer in Williamsburg (1934); Homage to Blenbolt (1936); and Low Company (1937) –  is described as tracing this decline in the utility of the gangster character in fiction.

In the three novels, Fuchs moves the venue for his gangster fiction from slum tenement and ethnic ghetto to more upwardly mobile settings, where non-Anglo-Americans had the opportunity to seek to “Americanize.”

His first work focused on how a gangster’s ambition is directed toward organizational consolidation, through securing a monopoly on a bus transportation system in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg. Smaller operations are portrayed as being driven out of business through the increasingly effective uses of violence.

In his next novel, Homage to Blenbolt, as highlighted by Munby, Fuchs outlines the extent to which gangsters have become integrated elements of the legitimate economy.

The gangster’s incorporation is completed in the final novel, Low Company, depicting the ouster of a small-town operator by an impersonal, consolidated “syndicate.” The book is grounded in the actuality, Munby notes, of the gangster enterprise’s mid-1930s reorganization and consolidation.

For Fuchs, more money in commerce than in art

In an overview of Daniel Fuchs’ life, Adam Kirsch notes that Fuchs’ Brooklyn novels didn’t earn him as much money as the thirty years that he subsequently spent as a Hollywood screenwriter.

The topic of novelists who turned to screenwriting in those years is also addressed by John Matthews in Chapter 3, “Faulkner and the Culture Industry,” in The Cambridge Guide to William Faulkner (1995).

The essay by John Matthews, which highlight’s William Faulkner’s contributions to the commercial short-story market and to commercial cinema, refers (p. 65) to Faulkner’s exploration of the resemblance between movie making and the conduct of the First World War:

  • One peacetime sphere for high-technology products requiring the advantages of total administration and heavy capital investment turned out to be the movies.

[End of excerpt]

Update: A Feb. 27, 2014 New York Times article is entitled: “Brooklyn communal cool: The brand.” [End of update]

Blurring of lines

Ira Wolfert systematically took up the “blurring of the lines between crime and business and an attendant revulsion at incorporation” (p. 218), according to Munby. His novel, Tucker’s People (1997; 1943), focuses on “the general damage such organizational consolidation of capital inflicts on the lives and agency of everyday folk” (p. 218).

Within Wolfert’s framework, there is no “outside” anymore – “everyone is now within the system.” His novel focuses on the numbers or “policy” racket, structured “around bankers, controllers, collectors, and runners, all of whom fulfilled roles that bore an uncanny resemblance to those that defined their salaried professional-managerial equivalents in the legitimate economy” (p. 219).

Munby also refers to a range of sociological tracts in the 1950s that “uncovered the pathological character,” in Munby’s words, “of the new middle class.”

Twilight of the middle class

Munby refers, in this context, to the observation by Andrew Hoberek, in The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post World War II American Fiction and White Collar Work (2005), that Tucker’s People “charts the destruction of a Jeffersonian ideal. A particular notion of the middle class as populated by independent, small-scale, propertied businessmen has given way to a bureaucratic class of wage-dependent workers without the agency to control their own destinies” (p. 219).

Wolfert’s work, and that of the sociologists, Munby concludes, merges with concerns, articulated in the early 1950s, about criminal “mafia” networks.

Puzo and Winslow

In Munby’s characterization, gangster fiction such as Richard Stark’s The Hunter (1962), the basis of the film, Point Blank (1967),  perpetuated the sense of the syndicate as an impersonal machine.

Mario Puzo’s understanding, however, of criminal organization having a “family” pattern altered this pattern of representation.

The Godfather (1969) provides a view of an apparently hidden society, advanced by an “insider’s” point of view. Although a work of fiction, according to Munby it reads like exposé literature. As well, the novel’s trajectory can be characterized as mimicking that of the history of gangster fiction, from the “colourful” world of New York’s ethnic enclaves to “legitimacy” in the anonymity and incorporated suburban character of later fictional gangster environments.

Puzo’s model, in Munby’s overview – driven by a sense of nostalgia and lament for an earlier era – has been followed in subsequent organized crime novels and films. These include Gangster (2001) by Lorenzo Carcaterra, and “true crime” gangster literature such as Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family (1985) by Nicholas Pileggi, the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990).

Global organized crime

Don Winslow’s work represents a more recent shift, in Munby’s overview, in which organized crime is positioned as more global than local. The Power of the Dog (2005) addresses the complexity of legal and illegal interests in the world of drug trafficking in which, Munby notes, “it is almost impossible to lead an ethical life” (p. 221).

Munby refers to Winslow’s argument that the drug trafficking enterprise resembles the multinational corporation in its structure and techniques, and features government complicity.

As Winslow remarks, as quoted by Munby (p. 221), “Mobsters only wish they had the power of compulsion, potential for lethal violence and license to steal that governments have.”

Winslow is quoted (p. 221) as adding that “no major crime organization has ever existed without the co-operation and/or compliance of politicians, and none ever will” (Gaines 2005).

The latter reference is Luan Gaines (2005): “Curled Up with a Good Book: An Interview with Don Winslow.” Available at:


A Feb. 14, 2014 New York Times article is entitled: “Women of a Certain Era: ‘Flappers’ and ‘Careless People.’”

A Feb. 28, 2005 Salon article is entitled: “From ‘Red Harvest’ to ‘Deadwood.'”

A post accessed in March 2014 at is entitled: “In addition to being the source of a new classicism, studio-era Hollywood was perhaps the greatest machine for sudden and drastic stylistic innovation ever offered to humanity.”

An April 12, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: “Food for the mobster’s soul.”

A May 10, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “The Real Problem With America’s Inner Cities.”

Click here to access excerpts from the latter article >

A May 15, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Latin American Allies Resist U.S. Strategy in Drug Fight.”

A May 31, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Spike Lee Comes to Film ‘Chiraq,’ Unsettling Some Chicagoans.”

A June 19, 2017 London School of Economics and Political Science article is entitled: “Book Review: Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography of Prison Life and the PCC in Brazil by Karina Biondi.”

A History of American Crime Fiction (2017)

A recent resource: A History of American Crime Fiction (2017); a blurb reads:

A History of American Crime Fiction places crime fiction within a context of aesthetic practices and experiments, intellectual concerns, and historical debates generally reserved for canonical literary history. Toward that end, the book is divided into sections that reflect the periods that commonly organize American literary history, with chapters highlighting crime fiction’s reciprocal relationships with early American literature, romanticism, realism, modernism and postmodernism. It surveys everything from 17th-century execution sermons, the detective fiction of Harriet Spofford and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, to the films of David Lynch, HBO’s The Sopranos, and the podcast Serial, while engaging a wide variety of critical methods. As a result, this book expands crime fiction’s significance beyond the boundaries of popular genres and explores the symbiosis between crime fiction and canonical literature that sustains and energizes both.


British Columbia gang culture

An Aug. 26, 2019 CBC article is entitled: “The unusual suspects: How B.C.’s middle-class gangs are unlike any other in North America: Many gangsters driven by desire to belong, to be protected or to emulate gang lifestyle, say police, experts.”

An Aug. 27, 2019 CBC article is entitled: “‘There’s no rock bottom anymore’: B.C.’s evolving gang landscape causing spike in violence.”

Earlier updates

Updates (see also updates at the end of this post)

A feb. 13, 2014 CBC article is entitled: “The corruption Games? Putin foes trying to make the mud stick over Sochi’s cost.”  The subhead reads: “Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny says Sochi Olympics are ‘a monument to embezzlement.'” A Feb. 1, 2014 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “‘Sochi is Putingrad’: Vladimir Putin has made a lasting impression.”

A Feb. 16, 2014 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Construction, corruption and controversy in the Sochi that Putin built.”

A Feb. 22, 2014 CBC article is entitled: “Sochi Olympics’ ‘ugly environmental legacy’ on a small village: Nahlah Ayed.”

A Feb. 22, 2014 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “How Putin’s Sochi dream was shattered by Ukraine’s nightmare.”

A Feb. 2, 2014 Los Angeles Magazine article regarding the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is entitled: “Downfall.”

A March 16, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: “Thugs on the streets for Crimea’s referendum.”

An Aug. 11, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: “Watching the Eclipse.” The subhead reads: “Ambassador Michael McFaul was there when the promise of democracy came to Russia – and when it began to fade.”

An Aug. 11, 2014 New Yorker article, which features Alice Goffman’s work, is entitled: “The Crooked Ladder: The criminal’s guide to upward mobility.”

A Sept. 29, 2014 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Italy exiles mobsters’ sons in fight against mafia: Shy teenager belonging to country’s notorious crime clan wants a ‘clean’ life after living in care of rehab facility.”

A March 24, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “To See Ukraine’s Future, Recall Crimea.”

A March 26, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Bill Browder’s nasty glimpse into the black heart of Putin’s Russia.”

A March 26, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison: For years, conditions inside the United States’ only federal supermax facility were largely a mystery. But a landmark lawsuit is finally revealing the harsh world within.”

An April 3, 2015 Guardian article is entitled: “Can Ukraine save itself from Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs?”

An April 22, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation as Russians Pressed for Control of Uranium Company.”

A Sept. 16, 2015 New Yorker article is entitled: “Why Do We Admire Mobsters?”

A Jan. 15, 2016 New York Times article is entitled: “Why Cartels Are Killing Mexico’s Mayors.”

Also of interest: The State Within a State: The KGB and its Hold on Russia – Past, Present, and Future (1994).

Topics of related interest are discussed at a post entitled:

Empathy is great provided that we use it wisely

A March 4, 2019 New York Times article is entitled: “How Giuliani Might Take Down Trump: The parallels between the Mafia and the Trump Organization are striking, and Giuliani perfected the template for prosecuting organized crime.”

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Colleen O’Marra wrote the following message some time back. It arrived at an email folder that I don’t always check. Here’s her message:

    Definitions of neo-liberalism and ‘economic gangsterism’ aside, it is
    still astounding how so many intelligent societies across the pond
    fell for those [individuals]: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Tito,Hirohito,
    Mao and Pol Pot, just to name a few. Nary a capitalist in the
    bunch.(C. O’Marra)

    [Note from Jaan Pill: I’ve done minor copy editing of the text, to ensure that comments that appear adhere to guidelines related to the contents of the site.]


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