Step Into No Man’s Land with Hollywood’s Best-ever Gangsters and Private Eyes in Film
From Edward G. Robinson’s iconic turn as an immortal mobster in 1950’s Little Caesar, to Humphrey Bogart’s genre-defining turn as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Hollywood has captured audiences for generations with immortal gangsters and private eyes. Packed with gritty style and moral ambiguity, these films take us into No Man’s Land, an unseen, never forgotten underworld that lays underneath society’s veneer. We explore the murky grey areas of humanity in all their complexity, with characters that force us to question morality and vulnerability in equal measure.
Nowhere else are the characters more dynamic than Al Pacino’s legendary turn as Cuban drug lord Tony Montana in 1983’s Scarface. At once glamorous, homage-paying and tragic, Tony is an unforgettable representation of the cocaine cowboys of 1980s Miami, combining the thrill of power with the tragedy of all-too-real American excess and desperation.
For a lighter take, we recommend the hilarious and action-packed 1998 remake of the old classic The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges’ performance as the slacker bowler who finds himself wrapped up in a hijacking and pursued by allies and enemies is at turns darkly funny and eminently quotable. A tribute to the noir of times past, it’s hard to imagine few better representatives of the genre.
Glamour and Grit
Though the typical Hollywood-style mobster might be dashing and debonair, Hollywood recently entered a new era, with a focus on the danger, violence and impact of organised crime. Films like The Godfather trilogy (1972 – 1990) give an unforgettable glimpse into the brutal and machiavellian backstabbing that goes on behind the scenes in the upper echelons of the mob. As corruption, often in the form of economic exploitation, begins to ripple outward from the mob’s brinkmanship, we see the wider implications for a city’s politics, power and moral fabric.
Another recent development has been an increase in female-fronted gangster stories, no more prominent than Michelle Dockery’s 2019 Netflix series Godless. Follow the journey of an outlaw turned-lawkeeper as she faces off against the brutal criminal enterprise of Frank Griffin and his gang of outcasts. And in the masterly Goodfellas (1990), we can take a fascinating view of an older mob, as real-life gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) takes us along on his rise and fall.
Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
Though gangsters and private eyes are often remembered as larger-than-life figures, documentary cinema also likes to use the lens to take us into the depths of crime and uncover the real-life stories behind them. From the brilliant The Woodsman (2004), which saw Kevin Bacon’s horrific ode to a convicted pedophile, to Martin Scorsese’s classic Casino (1995), which takes us through the dizzying spiral of Vegas in the 1960s, these films offer us a rare glimpse into the lives of both criminals and those around them.
Of course, crime documentaries are especially news-shaping in today’s world. Free Solo (2018) is an awe-inspiring and emotionally complex documentary that follows the greatest free solo rock climber in the world, Alex Honnold, as he plans for years to climb the dangerous El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park. From sports to politics, there’s no shortage to the topics documentaries can tackle.
Crossing the Line Into New Territory
Though many traditional crime and detective stories take us deep into the underbelly, many more daring filmmakers have done the opposite, opting to take us outside the everyday and introduce us to a genre of film known as ‘neo-noir’. Notable exemplars of this new wave include Lost Highway (1997), with Bill Pullman looking for redemption against a grainy, fractured surrealist story, and Noir-inspired classic Mulholland Drive (2001), where we have no choice but to struggle along with Naomi Watts and her identity crisis.
For a totally different look at the genre, you should also check out Robert Downey Jr’s rather underappreciated Sherlock Holmes (2009). The globe-trotting classic reimagines the beloved detective’s Escher-like romance with the criminal underworld and combines smart deductions with the humour and romantic chemistry between the leads. Deftly blending the experimental with the classic, it’s an original take on the detective classic, cleverly reinterpreted in modern terms.
The Bounty of Noir and Documentary
In recent years, Hollywood has gone out of its way to explore both the nuances of crime and the far-reaching implications it can have on its victims. From the everlasting classic The Usual Suspects (1995), to the world of documentaries which bring us into a criminal’s real-life prison cell, there’s no shortage of content to explore. So put on your film-noir cap and jump into the shadowy underworld of gangsters and private eyes.