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?
LINKS AND CLIPS
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