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Genre or Die, Pt 7 (2 of 2): Gangster/Crime Specs

I’ve always been interested in crime and read lots on the subject: I’ll never forget my year 9 English Teacher Mrs. Robins’ face when I gave in a discursive essay – with gory photocopied pictures, no Google images then! – on serial killers. But hey, I got an A.

So it’s kind of inevitable then that I LOVE gangster films. And though gangster films have “peak times” when everybody’s doing ’em, they never *really* go away. Maybe less so for me, since one genre Bang2write gets A LOT is gangster. You may remember I’ve already posted about Marc Pye’s Act of Grace (debuting at the London Film Festival! More on that soon) and of course JK Amalou’s Hard Men only the other day as the last post in this series.

One thing I have learned from the plethora of gangster specs that I’ve read over the years is that it’s really hard to do well. This is probably the most “movie-like” of genres in that MOST scribes seem to use OTHER MOVIES as their reference point in terms of content, rather than real-life experience. Whilst other genres – even those with high bloodshed like horror – seem to draw on people’s real thoughts and feelings in the very least, the gangster specs I see often seem to attempt to recreate other successful movies. I’ve seen Reservoir Dogs rewritten the most time by my generation, whereas Get Carter appears to the fave amongst slightly older writers. Layer Cake is another favourite however, as is Lock, Stock.

One thing all these specs share however is the fact the scribes concerned have mistaken the fact the notion of “gangster” is essentially the arena, not the actual subject matter. We are not potentially going to watch this film because there are gangsters in the world; examining how this happens is WAY TOO BIG for one film alone. Besides anything, as audience goers we are interested most in the minutaie of life: we want to see one character’s journey into BECOMING a gangster (Goodfellas); trying to leave his gangster life behind (Sexy Beast) or fighting gangsters (The Untouchables). In short, “gangster” is the backdrop – this is the world your character lives in and what we want to see is his journey (because it usually is a male protagonist) through that world.

So copying films already in existence is not going to cut it. Gangster films have that same arena in common anyway, what we’re looking for is the NEW way of looking at it THROUGH a new character’s eyes. What really grabbed me about Sexy Beast for example was not Ben Kingsley, as great a performance as that was – it was Ray Winstone’s character, Gal. When all those Brit gangster films reared up in the late nineties/early noughties, most of the leads had been super hardcore nutters like Vinnie Jones in Lock, Stock. Instead then, as a contrast, here was Gal who LOVED his wife, cared about his friends, had achieved his dream of moving to Spain – in short, he was a NORMAL BLOKE. We probably all know fellas a bit like Gal. When a crazy bastard like Don turns up then, is it any wonder Gal and his wife would do ANYTHING to protect their dream, including not only murder but grand larceny?? I know I would.

In short, making your gangster spec stand out is not looking at gangster so much, as at character. Granted, your backdrop must *feel* authentic, but you can get away with a fair bit of leeway here, since I would venture 99% of your audience aren’t going to really understand what it’s like to BE a gangster anyway. But every one of us knows what it’s like to be HUMAN and it’s this human element that is so often missing from gangster specs. Make us believe in your character and we will believe in the notion of “gangster”.

Let’s have a quick breakdown of “types” of gangster:

Old School Gangster: These are the grandaddies of the genre and required watching for anyone serious about writing a gangster spec. As JK recommended, Brighton Rock is an obvious choice, as is the likes of Get Carter and The Long Good Friday. Get ’em on your LoveFilm/Netflix list.

New School Gangster: These type of gangster films often pit one person against the rest of the group, upping the stakes in a “me versus them” way, as in Hard Men or The Departed. Whatever the case, these gangster films often make personal preservation the name of the game, above heists or deals.

Mafia Gangster: There are so many of these they really deserve their own section and no one does it better than Ol’ Scorsese I reckon. The Departed was a real return to form, but the likes of Mean Streets, Casino and Goodfellas are top notch examples. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro really dominate this element of the genre: The Godfather, Heat, The Untouchables. Once Upon A Time In America all show what great gangsters or gangster-fighters they can be. Sometimes it’s not the Mafia that is involved, but other organised crime like Triads in AoG (Chinese organised crime), Yakuza (Japanese, Showdown in Little Tokyo) or Eastern European Gangs. It could even be argued that the multiple Agent Smiths employed by The Matrix to track down Neo are a form of Mafia.

Surreal/Comic Book Gangster: Sometimes gangster will mix with the surreal as in Sexy Beast as Gal contemplates that weird rabbit guy. Other times gangsters will start their lives as computer games like in Hitman. What these types of gangster films share is a curious sense of “unreality” as the plot plays out, though this does not mean they necessarily sacrifice character to do so.

Biopic Gangster: There have been some real larger-than-life gangsters in REAL life, so it’s inevitable they’ve been recreated for the screen. The Krays is the most obvious Brit Choice here and Al Capone in The Untouchables, though there are plenty of others to choose from. Sometimes real gangsters end up in gangster films too, like Mad Frankie in Hard Men as Pops Den. Art imitating life!

What about your favourite gangster films?


Top Ten British Gangster Movies – weirdly includes Reservoir Dogs, though I suppose Tim Roth is in it

Top Twenty Gangster Movies According To List Universe – nearly all American, with photos and clips

The Ultimate Gangster And Crime Film Website – some GREAT stuff here

Film Essay On Gangster & Crime Films – this describes key characteristics of the genre and notable film examples, including silent films

Marc Pye’s Act of Grace, a gangster film about Triads in Manchester – includes photos, synopsis and a clip

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6 thoughts on “Genre or Die, Pt 7 (2 of 2): Gangster/Crime Specs”

  1. Mmmm, lock stock…

    I just recently watched The Usual Suspects. Pretty good movie.

    Watching American Beauty the next night drew a lovely contrast between Kevin Spacey’s characters. 😛

  2. Did you nick those books on crime?

    I always figured that what differentiated gangsters from criminals was the association of organised (or in some cases disorganised) crime. Then I checked my computer’s dictionary and it said:

    gangster – a member of a gang of violent criminals.

    Yeah, thanks for that.

    God, you must been sent a massive amount of shit by little slug pellets who think Reservoir Dogs and Cock, Stock and utter Cock are the be-all and end-all, when in fact they’re a useless regurgitation of earlier films and ideas. The sooner Quentin and Guy stop making films and just die, the better it will be for everyone.

    Because of them we’ve had a decade or more or silly little white boys pretending to act out all tough but would, in actuality, piss themselves and run home to mummy at the first hint of danger. I hope they drown in a vat of boiling vomit.

    Because the best films aren’t about holding an automatic in a cool way and popping a cap in someone, ad infinitum, it’s about the character’s struggle with humanity while working in a business that is morally suspect to say the very least. Or, in the case of Miller’s Crossing, it might just be about a hat.

    Sexy Beast is a great film, but you should somehow try and get to see The Hit directed by Stephen Frears. Hopefully, at some point it will appear back on TV or shiny.

    I was incredibly disappointed by The Departed. It just seemed to be…. not very good.

    Favourite gangster film? Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.

    And before I go…

    What’s not to like about The Usual Suspects? It’s an absolutely spiffing film!

  3. I’m generally not keen on gangster films. But Goodfellas and Sexy Beast would be up there amongst my favourite films. Lock, Stock I absolutely hated.

    But – a question for Lucy – what about hitman/assassin films? They seem to mainly be thrillers but also seem to share a lot with gangster films. Where do you think they fit in? I prefer them usually, not sure why, with Matador, Leon and Nikita all great films imo.

  4. Friendly this place is not.

    Yeah. I liked Lock, Stock and I liked the Usual Suspects. I’m not a fanboy, nor am I saying they’re the greatest movies ever. I understand there is some underground dispute between two parties over the quality of these movies, but I’m in no way a part of it.

  5. Yikes dunno if I would go THAT far GD, I wouldn’t usually endorse killing anyone, no matter how little I liked their movies. Much as I did not enjoy Usual Suspects for its casting debacle re: Pete Postlethwaite and the whole Keyser Soze thing, I think I can just about keep my homicidal urges under control!! And Carlo – I’ve always said like what you want too: whilst I’m not keen on those movies, why shouldn’t you be?

    Caroline – To be honest, I think of hitmen style films as Gangster movies. Hitmen are usually a part of gangs anyway – in fact, I should add that to the breakdown, shouldn’t I?

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