Bullets Over Hollywood

The American Gangster Picture From The Silents To "The Sopranos"


By John McCarty

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The gangster, like the gunslinger, is a classic American character-and the gangster movie, like the Western, is one of the American cinema’s enduring film genres. From Scarface to White Heat, from The Godfather to The Usual Suspects, from Once Upon a Time in America to Road to Perdition, gangland on the screen remains as popular as ever.In Bullets over Hollywood, film scholar John McCarty traces the history of mob flicks and reveals why the films are so beloved by Americans. As McCarty demonstrates, the themes, characters, landscapes, stories-the overall iconography-of the gangster genre have proven resilient enough to be updated, reshaped, and expanded upon to connect with even today’s young audiences. Packed with fascinating behind-the-scenes anecdotes and information about real-life hoods and their cinematic alter egos, insightful analysis, and a solid historical perspective, Bullets over Hollywood will be the definitive book on the gangster movie for years to come.



“Thoroughly reviews a century of bad guys, tough broads, and bloodsoaked conflict.”


“As complete . . . a study of the form as has seen print. A fine and welcome exploration of a classic genre.”

The Hollywood Reporter

“More than just a recap of great films; it doubles as a social history of American organized crime.”

New York Post

“Bullets Over Hollywood hits its target.”

Louisville Courier-Journal

“Weaves in . . . stories of bootleggers, corrupt cops, dirty politicians and gangsters such as Al Capone [to] give a sense of where the facts ended and celluloid myth began.”

Albany Times Union

“Fascinating and copiously informative history of the ‘mob movie.’”

Midwest Book Review

“Exhaustive history of the gangster film . . . drawing attention to the forgotten gems.”

Philadelphia News-Gleaner

“Conveys the appeal of . . . such icons as Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, through concise analyses of key crime films and well-drawn personal histories.”

Publishers Weekly

“You will find lots of neat nuggets . . . but, even more, you will find a rich vein of cinematic history, well mined and analyzed.”

Chicago Sun-Times

“The section on women in [gangster] films—‘Molls, Twists, Babes, and B Girls’—is particularly well done.”

Denver Post

“At its best discussing recurring themes in gangster films from the silent era into the 1950s . . . through [to] today.”


“[Has] all my favorites, including White Heat, High Sierra, and The Godfather. Rat-tat-a-tat!”

—Jim’s Picks, The Michael Dresser Show

“A lively history of gangsters in American film.”


“A kaleidoscopic and entertaining look at the gangster genre from the silents to 2004 . . . fascinating.”

Edmonton (Alberta) Journal

“Packed with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and info about real-life hoods and their cinematic alter egos.”

The A-List



The American Gangster Picture
from the Silents to “The Sopranos”

John McCarty

For those young people
who fall in love with film like I did
         at an early age—and who are
   eager to know what came before.

And for “Bugs”—my best pal.

“He will steal, Sir, an egg out of a cloister.”
—William Shakespeare,
All's Well That Ends Well

Gunslingers to Gangsters

       “There are enough killings herein to fill the
   quota for an old time cowboy-Indian thriller.”

—Variety on Little Caesar, January 1, 1931


FOR MOST OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, the era the film medium came into its own, the morality plays of the so-called “cowboy picture,” or Western genre, were a staple of American movies and television, as popular abroad as at home. Without a doubt, the degree of the Western’s popularity with the public waxed and waned, but the genre was so quintessentially American that the American moviegoer and TV watcher’s affection for it remained constant, and their devotion to it almost patriotic—until the form was called out into the street for a shootout by its ambitious heir apparent: the gangster movie.

Sent to Boot Hill, the Western became the victim not only of the gangster movie’s superior firepower but also of the greater relevance the gangster movie’s morality plays had to audiences moving quickly into another millennium.

The gangster, like his forebear in American history and culture, the gunslinger, is a classic character—and the gangster movie, like the Western, one of the American cinema’s staple film genres. In many ways, the two genres are strikingly similar. Gunplay and the violent struggle for power and territory are the thematic linchpins that hold both of them together. In the archetypal Western, however, the focus is typically on the hero—the strong, silent cowpoke, reticent about using his guns, but who is ultimately forced into a showdown with the bad guys who are victimizing the helpless townsfolk.

The archetypal gangster film offers basically the same ingredients, transposed to a modern, usually urban, setting. But then it turns the tables on audience expectations by often casting its spotlight not on the good guy cleaning up the town but on the bad guy, grappling for power and position. This link and others (as well as other distinctions) between the Western and the gangster film are not just superficial, for the gangster film is not simply an offshoot of the Western. It is the heir to it in our popular culture. It is the modern continuation of America’s story reflected on film—a story the Western had grown too old to tell.


During the transitional period of the 1930s to the 1950s, when the Western peaked in quantity and the upstart gangster film came on like, well, gangbusters, the Western and the gangster film sometimes merged when such stalwart B Western heroes as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Tex Ritter, Tim McCoy, and many others found themselves going up against modern-day gangsters rather than Indians and outlaws. This cycle of films even had a name—the “cowboys versus modern gangsters” picture. Some of these crossbreeds were even set in traditional Old West period circa the 1880s, yet they still gave the bad guys the contemporary moniker of “gangsters,” as in 1944’s Gangsters of the Frontier, for example.

Even earlier, such veteran silent-era Western movie stars as William S. Hart saw the handwriting taking shape on the wall. As early as 1920, Hart made a full-fledged gangster movie himself, The Cradle of Courage, in which he played a petty crook who returns from the battlefields of World War I a changed man with a sense of honor and rectitude he never had before. Thus, he becomes a cop dedicated to cleaning up the crime-ridden streets of San Francisco.

This theme of the vet who returns from the war a changed man—albeit one who, unlike Hart, would often turn to a life of crime rather than away from it as a result of his wartime experiences and the economic and psychological pressures he faces at home—would become a fixture of many gangster movies, particularly those belonging to the subcategory of crime film known as film noir.

Like William S. Hart, virtually every other major actor associated with the Western put away his six-gun from time to time, took up a “gat,” a “roscoe,” or a “police special,” and made a gangster movie or two—including the Western’s greatest icon: John Wayne. Of Wayne’s last four films, two were gangster movies1: McQ (1974) cast the Duke as an aging but still tough San Francisco cop in the Dirty Harry mold who brings down a crime lord (Al Lettieri) for killing his partner; and in Brannigan (1975), the Duke plays a gruff Chicago cop turned fish out of water when sent to London to bring an extradited drug kingpin (John Vernon) back to America for trial.

Because the ingredients of the Western and the gangster movie are fundamentally the same, the studios could often get more bang for their project development buck by taking the same story and making or remaking it in both genres. In this way, Warner Brothers could recycle a hit gangster film like High Sierra (1941) as a Western, Colorado Territory (1949), scoring another box office hit, then recycle it back to its gangster movie roots, this time in color and CinemaScope, under a brand-new title— I Died a Thousand Times (1955). Likewise, MGM could turn its gangster/heist classic The Asphalt Jungle (1950) into a Western—The Badlanders(1959)— then update it as a “blaxploitation” gangster movie, Cool Breeze (1972). Another studio, Twentieth Century Fox, could repackage a suspense-filled gangster movie about hostage-taking like Show Them No Mercy! (1935) into a suspense-filled noir Western about hostage-taking called Rawhide (1951). Or the same studio could cost-effectively repackage a potent drama about a dysfunctional family of ambitious, and shady, financiers like House of Strangers (1949) into a potent dysfunctional family-on-the-plains drama about powerful land barons and their sons called Broken Lance (1955).

Back-and-forth reshufflings, switcheroos, and retreads such as these were facilitated not only because the two genres easily assimilated each other’s story ingredients but also because, although set in different time periods, the two genres are fundamentally about the same thing: the American odyssey.


The Western outlaw, like his opposite number the Western hero, was a product of America’s epic nineteenth-century saga—the rugged, often violent settling of the frontier. Likewise, the gangster and his nemesis the T-man (or G-man) emerged with urban America in the twentieth century as part of our transformation from a wild frontier society to an industrialized one in which the ethnic groups pouring into America’s great, growing cities had to struggle, sometimes viciously, to claim their share of the New World pie.

Even though America’s nineteenth-century outlaws such as Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and Billy the Kid sometimes ran in gangs, they were basically loners. They were also fairly young—in their teens or early twenties. Their lawless exploits reflected what might be called America’s “adolescence”—that period during which America grew from volatile teenhood to early adulthood. As the country’s maturing process continued into the next century, these outlaws, reflecting America’s changing cultural (and geographic) landscape, morphed into something new and equally mythic: organized gangs whose individual members became popularly known as “gangsters.”

In an effort not just to survive but to come to grips with one another, America’s urban enclaves saw the rise of numerous ethnic gangs and/or strong-arm political affiliations with such colorful names as the True Blood Americans, the Bowery Boys, the Shirt Tails, the American Guards, the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, the Gas House Gang, the Gophers, the Dead Rabbits, the Sydney Ducks, the Whyos, the Bloody Tubs, the Roach Guards, the Potato Pealers, the Plug Uglies, the Vampires, and the Tongs—groups that frequently clashed head-to-head with one another, and with the law, to achieve economic, political, and social power.

Police forces, buoyed by strong public support, swelled to combat the mounting problem of escalating street violence and the corruption of public officials by these warring gangs, problems that remained fairly localized and manageable until Prohibition.


Of the nation’s failed experiment to get Americans off booze, historian Herbert Asbury noted: “The American people had expected to be greeted, when the great day came, by a covey of angels bearing gifts of peace, happiness, prosperity and salvation, which they had been assured would be theirs when the demon rum had been scotched. Instead, they were met by a horde of bootleggers, moonshiners, rumrunners, hijackers, gangsters, racketeers, trigger men, venal judges, corrupt police, crooked politicians, and speakeasy operators, all bearing the twin symbols of the Eighteenth Amendment—the Tommy Gun and the poisoned cup.”2

When Prohibition arrived on America’s doorstep to deny Americans even a cold glass of beer, the larger and more powerful of America’s urban gangs were beginning to lose ground, crumbling under the weight of public pressure for law and order. But Prohibition enabled them to reorganize and develop even stronger muscle by engaging in illegal bootlegging to America’s thirsty citizens. Thus, the likes of gang leaders such as Al Capone, heretofore looked upon by the public as lowlife thugs and menaces to society, became heroes to that same public because of their flouting of the Eighteenth Amendment.

Reaping huge financial profits from their bootlegging activities, Capone’s gang and other gangs flourished and ultimately grew into a powerful national syndicate that moved into a host of illegal and equally profitable activities after Prohibition was abolished. The mob’s power began to wane during the crackdown of the late 1930s. But the mob got a new lease on life when the government called upon the “patriotism” of important mob chieftains—such as Meyer Lansky and the deported Lucky Luciano—to assist the Allied war effort by using their muscle to ensure that industries and ports vital to the success of the war effort, at home and abroad, did not fall prey to strikers and saboteurs. As a result, the power of the mob not only revived during World War II but also got stronger than ever.

Because of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II, gangsters assumed the mantle of yesteryear’s gunslingers and outlaws, and the story of America’s gangsters replaced the Western as America’s quintessential narrative. It told the story of modern America. And, almost from its inception more than a century ago, the silver screen has been telling that story, and fostering the myth of the gangster as antihero in the process.


Particularly during the golden age of the studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, when each of the major studios was cranking out hundreds of films every year—many of them gangster movies—virtually every major male star in Hollywood played a gangster at some point: Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, Robert Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, John Garfield—the list goes on and on. Most would not become associated with and therefore not be typecast by their bad guy roles. Others, such as George Raft, would succumb to such typecasting. Only three major stars stand out for not only having become associated with gangster roles, but also possessing the versatility to transcend their genre identification and avoid typecasting in such roles: Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart.

Individually, these three made more gangster movies in their careers than anyone before or since. For example, of the almost ninety films Edward G. Robinson appeared in during his film career of six decades, almost a third of them were crime and gangster movies. Cagney, whose film career also spanned six decades, made more than sixty films—a third of them in the gangster/crime genre. As for Bogart, his total is thirty-two gangster and crime pictures out of a total of almost eighty films.

More remarkable still is that whereas many of the gangster and crime films they made (quite a few for the same studio, Warner Brothers) may seem similar and tend to overlap in our minds, the type of character etched by these actors and developed from film to film was quite distinct. In other words, although the plots of the films may have been interchangeable, the personae these actors created in them were not. The murderously covetous Robinson gangster is as different from the psychopathic gangster hooked on violence personified by Cagney as the doomed loner inescapably trapped in his own skin fashioned by Bogart is from each of them. To some degree, every movie and TV crook, gangster, or public enemy played by anybody ever since—from Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Peter Falk, and Warren Beatty to Al Pacino, James Caan, Tom Hanks, and James Gandolfini is a variation to some degree on one (or all three) of the gangland types immortalized by these influential kings of the cinematic underworld. In his bravura turn as mob boss Tony Soprano in the dynamic HBO teleseries The Sopranos, James Gandolfini cleverly manages to embody all three types—sometimes at once!


Many of history’s most notorious gangsters were also outlaws in the traditional Old West meaning of the term. They were descendants in spirit if not actual blood from Old West forbears like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and the Younger Gang. In many cases, the only difference between these descendants and their nineteenth-century forbears was their method of getaway . . . horsepower rather than horseflesh.

It was the economic downturn of the Great Depression, coming on the heels of Prohibition, that contributed to the growing fascination in the country and in the movies with this old/new breed of outlaw gangster. As heartland Americans lost their jobs or saw their farms foreclosed on by that once-admired symbol of the Establishment, the banking system, rural gangs rose up to assault that system, becoming mythic figures to a society whose fear of such gangs had begun to give way to admiration.

Largely because of the tabloid newspapers of the day and the movies that drew inspiration from the blood and thunder headlines in them, the exploits of these heartland outlaw gangsters have taken on the characteristics of myth as strongly as their big-city counterparts, and their colorful names are as famous today as when they lived, killed, and died. Names such as John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Ma Barker and her boys, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, and many, many more resonate still. All had at least one movie made about them, most more than one.


As America comes to grips with its transformation from an industrialized nation to a high-tech, skill-oriented, primarily service-based society, gangster films continue, and even grow, in popularity. There are several reasons for this, I believe.

One reason is the anarchic appeal of the genre itself, which viewers find liberating, especially as the rules, regulations, and restrictions imposed by contemporary society increase. The antihero gangster—like his counterpart hero or villain in the Western—is not bound by fences. He goes where he wants, does what he wants, and takes no bull from anybody. “It’s probably wishful thinking on some level,” says writer-director David Chase in explaining the extraordinary impact on the public of gangster movies in general and his hit TV show about the mob, The Sopranos, in particular. “People want to think that they could be powerful enough and demand enough respect and fear that they could get whatever they want. That’s a fantasy. I walk into a restaurant; they’ll kick the guy out of the table he’s sitting at so I can sit down. Tony Soprano doesn’t have to come home at night; his wife puts up with it. People are scared of him and nobody messes with him—that’s a big wish fulfillment. [Also], our lives have become so enmeshed with bureaucracy and nations and large things, that the tribal nature of human life is becoming erased. We are, at base, a tribal species. And we like stories about tribal conflict, tribal loyalty, and along with that is . . . the notion that people who betray really pay.”3

Another reason is that in times of great turmoil or change, people tend to look back to the way things were. In terms of entertainment, that means opting for the recognizable and familiar—genre forms that may be as old as time but are still relevant, and thus reassuring.

Westerns peaked in popularity during the first half of the twentieth century primarily for that reason: they allowed Americans in the midst of great social, political, and economic change to find comfort in the familiar iconography of a less troubled time—at a time when that iconography still connected with much of the population.

Today, the characters, the landscapes, and the mythologies of the Western no longer provide the comforting familiarity or the degree of reassurance that they once did because our western past is now too remote. It is no longer relevant to an American population that is now too young to feel much sense of connection with the past, the epoch the Western conjures up.

Except for such anomalies as 1990’s Dances with Wolves, actor-director Kevin Costner’s politically correct picture postcard of the American Indian’s frontier experience, and the occasional Clint Eastwood Western, such as 1992’s Unforgiven—films that are more about past Westerns than our western past—the made-in-America Western is today as moribund as its epoch. The best Westerns—the classics of the genre—and those that transcended genre pigeonholing to become classics of world cinema have all gone that-a-way. One has to journey back to 1969 to rediscover the last one—and a very late contribution to the genre it was: The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s violent masterpiece about the passing of the West and, implicitly, the Western genre as well.

European filmmakers sought for a time to keep the Western alive by making so-called “spaghetti” or “Euro” Westerns, films that reflected their love of the Western by mimicking it. Shot on European locales resembling the American West, such as Almería, Spain, many of these films may look like authentic Westerns, but no matter how hard they try, they don’t feel like the real thing—because the Old West experience is unique to America.


On Sale
Apr 27, 2009
Page Count
336 pages
Da Capo Press

John McCarty

About the Author

John McCarty is an adjunct professor of cinema in the Department of Theatre at SUNY, Albany, and the author of more than thirty books, including The Fearmakers, The Sleaze Merchants, and The Films of Mel Gibson. He lives in upstate New York.

Learn more about this author