Genre Study: The Gangster Thriller (Part One)

Genre Study is Page 85’s new blog series that examines how genres evolve over time, and how you can make the most out of the genre you’re writing by studying films of the past.

The hot-button question of the day is this: have you seen the trailer for Gangster Squad?

I was lucky enough to be able to read the screenplay a few months ago, and I can’t communicate my excitement for this film loudly enough. Not only is it an excellent champion of the gangster genre, but it’s also a vicarious thrill ride. I highly recommend it from the script alone.

But because the film isn’t slated to hit theaters for a few more months, we might as well pass the time by taking a look at the gangster thriller subgenre.

How Do I Know if I’m Watching a Gangster Film?

Answer: the hats. There are always cool hats in gangster films. You can’t have a gangster film without them.

Look at those snazzy hats.

A few other conventions that are a beloved part of the gangster genre include:

  • Machine guns
  • A mother figure of whom the gangster is fond of
  • A siren/wife/love interest who is probably a) the villain, or b) exists solely to motivate the protagonist in some way
  • Vintage cars
  • Prohibition is involved in some way

A Brief History of Gangster Films

Here’s a very brief overview of the evolution of ganger films.

Public Enemy (1934)

Also known as: a very expensive public service announcement.

“The public enemy is neither a man nor a character, but a problem that we the public must solve.”

If you’ve seen Public Enemy, you either love it or you hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns.

Some people hail it as a riveting classic of the Gagster genre, and herald its shocking ending and brutal scenes.

Others deem it an overpriced PSA.

I say that the real public enemy here is the plot of the movie. Rather, the lack thereof. Any attempt to summarize this plot boils down into a series of choppy phrases along the lines of “well, these people were killed, and there was prohibition, and alcohol, and gangsters, and bullets, and then it ended with a sweeping attempt to summarize the human condition.”

Basically, James Cagny’s character Tom Powers becomes embedded into the world of crime, his brother and mother worry for his safety, and in the end he’s brutally murdered and a single slide is shown, telling the audience that the real public enemy is something that us, the audience, needs to solve.

It’s a gangster film through and through, and I’d recommend it if you’re curious about what a pre-White Heat Cagny was like, and so you can see that his performance in White Heat evolved largely from the role he played in Public Enemy.


White Heat (1949)

Also known as: James Cagny, continued.

IMDB Synopsis: “A psychopathic criminal with a mother complex makes a daring break from prison and leads his old gang in a chemical plant payroll heist. Shortly after the plan takes place, events take a crazy turn.”

White Heat is Public Enemy with a nuanced, intricate script that is not only easy for the audience to follow, but is also suspenseful, nuanced, and interesting. White Heat also came at the film from the perspective of an undercover cop, although it’s clear that James Cagny is the true star of the film.

White Heat as a movie is a solid story in terms of narrative structure and emotional payoff, and it’s quite a step up from Public Enemy.


Read part two of the epic saga, Genre Study: The Gangster Thriller in which we get to Bonnie and Clyde, and 6 tips to keep in mind when writing a gangster thriller.

Stay tuned!

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