There are times in life, for most of us, when we become so frustrated we want to strike out at someone. Swamped by taxes and a never-ending string of bills, stuck in a job with no future, we’d like to punch out those in authority who burden us with such things.

Of course, most of us don’t do that, because we’re law-abiding citizens and we don’t want to end up behind bars. But if we knew we wouldn’t be caught, would we act on our darkest emotions?

Such daydreams are among the reasons crime movies – which, in a way, glorify the two-bit hoodlum and the mob boss – have been so popular for so many years, according to film historian Clay Steinman.

“These films do provide a fantasy outlet for such things for a lot of people,” said Steinman, who teaches at Macalester College in Minnesota.

Americans’ fascination with the gangster actually has its roots in the 19th century and the Old West. There were those who saw such outlaws as Frank and Jesse James and Billy the Kid as romantic heroes who were robbing from the the likes of rich railroad magnates and cattle barons – both of whom, in many cases, achieved their wealth by suspect means.

Steinman cited obvious similarities between the gangster film and the Western.

“In a way, the 20th-century gangster genre is an extension of the Western,” Steinman said.

In both, there is usually the gunman and his gang following what seems to be a carefree life of lawlessness. Eventually they end up being pursued and cornered by the police, i.e the posse. In one, the final shootout takes place in the natural majestic canyons of the wide open West; in the other, the showdown unfolds in the man-made concrete canyons of the big city.

The appeal of gangster films crosses gender lines – though Steinman thinks that older ones such as “The Public Enemy” (1931) and “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938) – both included in the new six-DVD “The Warners Gangster Collection” – connect more with male viewers.

“It appeals to the male’s rebellious potential of making things right in his own world,” Steinman said. “The movies allow us to kind of play at being violent and rebellious.” He also noted that those older Warner Bros. movies had a grittiness not found in later ones.

Dan Berman, who teaches a film course at the University of South Carolina, thinks the grittiness had more to do with budget than art.

“The Warner films were certainly made for less money than many of today’s films,” Berman said. “But, in a way, that’s why they have such a gritty feel to them and (are) so watchable.”

Berman noted that in the crime films of the 1930s and in later efforts such as “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), the principals become more like Robin Hood figures to the common folk.

“It’s all about bucking the establishment,” Berman said. “And it was also about celebrity. Bonnie and Clyde enjoyed reading about themselves. They had a lot of concern about themselves and how others perceived them, something we can all understand.”

Steinman classified such movies as “The Godfather” as the kind that could appeal to both men and women.

“They’re an odd mix of genres – crime and family,” Steinman said. “I think we admire the order in which the family is run. There is a code that most live by, and those who don’t … well … Sometimes we wish we had such order in our lives.”

Steinman likes to cite the late New York critic Robert Warshow, who wrote an essay on the gangster as a tragic hero. Warshow died 50 years ago, but much of what he wrote still applies.

Warshow focused on the contradictions that we feel when we find ourselves admiring the bad guy on the screen.

“In ways that we do not easily or willingly define,” Warshow wrote, “the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life. … We have the double satisfaction of participating vicariously in the gangster’s sadism and then seeing it turned against the gangster himself.”

Steinman said other factors also should be considered when trying to explain why some crime movies work and others don’t.

“The writing, of course, is important,” Steinman said. “But let’s not forget the actors. I’m not sure anyone would care about “The Public Enemy’ or “Angels With Dirty Faces’ if they didn’t star James Cagney.

“Cagney was a dancer and he uses that talent to evoke an attitude. He is amazing to watch. He is saying something about the character with every movement of his body. He makes us believe he is the gangster.”

Steinman believes there’s a bit of the gangster in all of us.

“Given the right circumstances, I think most any of us are capable of doing violent acts,” he said. “Look at soldiers. I’m sure most of them were just ordinary guys when they joined up. But they eventually found themselves in a completely different kind of world.”

But for most of us, Steinman said, our “inner gangster” stays suppressed, in part, because of the movies.

So the next time you watch Cagney or Bogart or DeNiro or Pacino blow somebody away, remember, it’s just good therapy.


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