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Does Hollywood gangster film production in the 1930s support Warshow’s contention that the gangster is a “tragic hero”?

Module: Spectacular Hollywood
Module Coordinator: Prof. Lincoln Geraghty
Academic Year 1 (2020/2021)

This is one of the first essays I wrote in my first year studying Film Studies BA (Hons). In reflection, I did not do enough research, which is evident by the bibliography.

In 1948 Robert Warshow wrote that the gangster in Hollywood film was a tragic hero. By this he meant the gangster we see on screen would achieve their success, because they are under obligation to succeed, but would inevitably meet their death because the means of achieving their goals were all unlawful and aggressive – the audience would share their journey to success only to see it tragically unfold. This view on the Hollywood gangster film is critical when analysing films within this genre as, years after Warshow’s article, we can still see this contention in gangster films such as Scarface (De Palma, 1983) or Public Enemies (Mann, 2009).

The Hollywood Gangster ‘era’ rose in the 1930’s. America had fought a hard war a decade earlier, and the Great Depression started in the Summer of 1929. Alongside this was the Prohibition and rising mass immigration to the United States. These all effected the American population in their own way, and the theatre palaces offered an escape from it all.

The Gangster film provided the escape from everyday life many Americans sought. It challenged their views on socio-economic practices and policies. The Gangster was the ‘hero’ of the story but was mostly doomed to die. The audience would of course know they would die before the character themselves did. The gangster would defy all rules and law and even make their own to achieve success.

This enabled audiences to sympathise with the gangster, as he was able to achieve things the audience may only be able to dream of achieving themselves, however, the ultimate demise of the gangster would drive home the reality, or rather lack of reality, forcing the audience to sympathise with the gangster and form a negative opinion on the establishments that set out to destroy him. This demise of the gangster suggests a certain pessimism forming around the ‘American Dream’.

Little Caesar (LeRoy, 1931) follows the life of Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello, also known as ‘Little Caesar’, a low-time gangster who makes a name for himself and successfully challenges the leadership of a local gang, only to end up on the run and in the gutter, before his inevitable death.

At the beginning of the film, Rico holds up a gas station. We quickly learn he is an intelligent criminal, and not a mindless thug, as he turns the clock back in the diner and asks the server for the time to establish an alibi. This display of intelligence enables a view of admiration, allowing the audience to form an early connection with the character. This intelligence is later supported when Rico points out a flaw in the plan to hold up a rival gang’s club on New Year’s Eve.

During the hold up, Rico kills the Crime Commissioner, McClure. McClure had just announced his intention to leave the club when he discovered it was under the management of a local gang. It’s unclear why Rico kills McClure, but what is clear is that Rico sees himself as above the law and he thinks his actions won’t have any consequences.

In a 2011 critique of Little Caesar, Sonnet writes:

From Prohibition in 1919, which forbade the sale of alcohol, and then the economic disaster of the Great Depression from 1927, criminal figures such as Al Capone accrued considerable public notoriety as charismatic leaders of powerful crime gangs, with immense illegal wealth and seeming ability to evade conviction and punishment for countless crimes. (p. 79).

Rico has already killed the Crime Commissioner and, although we do not see it directly, he has presumably killed a gas station attendant at the beginning of the film – both without conviction and punishment. His challenge for leadership of the gang goes uncontested and we see him become immensely wealthy, achieving “The American Dream”.

Rico’s friend, Joe Massara, wants to leave the life of crime and “want’s out”. He was working at the rival gang’s club and was involved in the hold-up against his will, witnessing the death of the Crime Commissioner. Joe tells Rico that he wants out, but Rico threatens Joe and his girlfriend, Olga, as he threatened Tony, who appeared to be losing his edge. Tony is killed because he was going to tell the police about Rico’s crimes, and this causes conflict for Joe when Olga is trying to convince him to go to the police.

In 1991, Elsaesser wrote “the single-minded pursuit of money and power is followed by the equally single-minded and peremptory pursuit of physical survival, ending in the hero’s apotheosis through violent death.” (p. 80).

Things start to unravel for Rico when he is photographed for the newspaper. He stands tall and eager for people to see him. He is told “That was a bad play, they might pick you up on that”, which is foreshadowing of events to come. When Rico is in the street buying the newspaper with his picture on it, there is an attempt on his life. Rico had just hidden from a black car, identical to the one he had killed tony in in the drive-by shooting. This shows some paranoia and unease, but it was a delivery van that caught him unaware. Rico survived with just a graze to his arm and used this to leverage his way to the top. This is perhaps Rico’s apotheosis. He has made his way to the top and seems untouchable.

Rico decides he should kill Joe, but when it comes to it, he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger, saying “This is what I get for liking the guy too much”. This results in him being on the run, in a 15¢-a-bed hostel. After reading a newspaper article calling him a coward, he calls the police to defend his honour. They trace his call and go to arrest him, resulting in a shootout and the death of Rico. Rico’s final words are “Mother have mercy, is this the end of Rico?” – he is in disbelief that this could have happened to him.

The Gangster film enabled audiences to form a close bond with characters they knew were not far from being a reality – whilst the gangster’s were often seen as a hero for challenging prohibition and doing whatever necessary to achieve the “American Dream”, the films almost always ended up in tragedy with the hero rising to the top, only to die a tragic death and lose it all.

We see the authorities prevail and win their war with the criminals in such a way that grabs the audience’s attention, driving the message home that if they chose to live a life like these gangsters do, they will meet the same fate. Later screenings of Little Caesar also had a message preceding the film:

Perhaps the toughest of the gangster films, “Public Enemy” and “Little Caesar” had a great effect on public opinion. They brought home violently the evils associated with prohibition and suggested the necessity of a nation – wide house cleaning. Tom Powers in “Public Enemy” and Rico in “Little Caesar” are not two men, nor are they merely characters — they are a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve.

These messages drove home the realisation that, perhaps, the “American Dream” was just a Dream. This all supports Warshow’s contention that the Hollywood Gangster is a tragic hero.


  • De Palma, B. (Director). (1983). Scarface [Film]. Universal Pictures.
  • Elsaesser, T. (1991). Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama. In Imitations of Life: A reader on Film & Television: Melodrama (pp. 68–91). Wayne State University Press.
  • LeRoy, M. (Director). (1931). Little Caesar [Film]. First National Pictures.
  • Mann, M. (Director). (2009). Public Enemies [Film]. Universal Pictures.
  • Sonnet, E. (2011). Little Caesar. In L. Geraghty (Ed.), Directory of World Cinema: American Hollywood (pp. 78–80). Intellect.
  • Warshow, R. (1948). The Gangster as a Tragic Hero. The Partisan, 15(2), 97–103.
  • [Featured Image] Warshow, R. (2020). Robert Warshow: The Gangster As Tragic Hero. Scraps From the Loft.