The Early Mob Movie Stars
From the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Brothers produced classic gangster movies starring the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson. These films and their antiheroes differ dramatically from the more realistic cinematic portrayals of gangsters in later years. Rarely were the mobsters overtly identified as being of Italian ancestry. James Cagney had the map of Ireland on his pugnacious puss. Robinson was the product of the Yiddish theater. Bogart was English and Dutch.
Robin in the 'Hood
James Cagney usually played a basically good guy who grew up on the mean streets and inadvertently stumbled into a life of crime. These films were made during the Great Depression and thus it was often the lack of opportunity for the immigrant underclass to break out of their station that led the prototypical Cagney hero to a life of crime.
The gangster was not a total victim, however. Most movies had a character, usually the hero's friend or brother, who chose the straight and narrow and did not fall into a life of crime. In Public Enemy, it is Cagney's brother who remains crime-free. In Angels with Dirty Faces, it's Cagney's boyhood friend who becomes a Catholic priest while Cagney's character becomes a hoodlum.
Despite the repetition by impressionists for decades, James Cagney never actually said “You dirty rat” in a movie. But he did scream “Top of the world ma!” in the movie White Heat.
The Cagney persona was guilty of romanticizing the urban outlaw, making him into a kind of metropolitan Robin Hood. In White Heat, Cagney broke his own mold with a powerful and unsympathetic performance as Cody Jarrett, a psychotic killer with an Oedipus complex. Cold-blooded yet perversely pathetic, he is a murderous mama's boy who blows himself sky-high rather than be taken alive.
Play It Again, Bogie
The other legendary screen gangster of the Golden Age was Humphrey Bogart. He started out playing secondary villains but eventually became an A-list star and often played the good guy, particularly later in his distinguished career.
Bogart achieved stardom with the part of the vicious gangster in The Petrified Forest. It has the now-familiar theme of a group of gangsters holding a collection of characters from “central casting” hostage. Almost twenty years later, Bogart played a suspiciously similar role in the movie Desperate Hours. In between he played a variety of good and bad guys. His most famous gangster roles were opposite Cagney in The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces, and his very moving portrait of an aging and tired gangster on the run in High Sierra. He went against the Mafia in the underrated 1951 gangster pic The Enforcer.
George Raft, probably best known for his role as Spats Colombo in Some like It Hot, was a big star of the day and of Italian ancestry. He was also a good friend of Bugsy Siegel and Santo Trafficante Jr. Siegel visited Raft on movie sets, and Raft even helped arrange a screen test for the handsome gangster. Trafficante used Raft as a greeter in the Havana casinos in pre-Castro Cuba.
End of an Era
Bogart teamed with another famous gangster icon, Edward G. Robinson, in John Huston's classic Key Largo. Robinson plays the leader of a group of gangsters who hide out and harass the locals in the Florida Keys as a hurricane looms offshore. Bogart is the hero and shoots it out with Robinson's evil and froglike hood, Rocco. But by that time, the straight-ahead gangster pics were being overtaken by a darker, more stylish genre.