British gang­ster films

In Jan Kott’s stim­u­lating book, Shakespeare Our Contem­porary, he describes Macbeth as a play in which “history is reduced to murder“.

There is a sense in which the gang­ster film is about all of human life and society reduced to a raw struggle for power. It might not be the whole truth; but there is enough of the truth in this idea for us to continue to be drawn to this primal story (because there is only one story really) of figur­ative monsters in gladi­at­orial combat; tearing each other apart until only one is left.

But the story is about more than acces­sion, it’s also about tribes. From the smaller tribe of the family, to those larger ones based on ethni­city and territory; loyal­ties and betrayals are always important elements of the plot.


carter2A recog­nis­able ancestor of the gang­ster film is the Jaco­bean revenge drama. Webster, Tourneur and Middleton under­stood only too well how to exploit the bloodthirst of an audi­ence. The recipe is a simple one: have some really nasty things happen to your prot­ag­onist and then have him or her inflict even nastier punish­ments on the perpet­rators. Not only do the audi­ence get a vicarious double dose of gore and viol­ence but they feel morally justi­fied in enjoying it. (Even Shakespeare wasn’t above using this trick in Titus Andronicus).

Revenge is a familiar trope in many gang­ster films. Each film in the Godfather trilogy, for example, is struc­tured around a climactic orgy of payback (“The Corleone family settle all their debts …”) and the theme of a lost power regained and justice meted out crops up in many of the examples given below.


Themes and tropes

The classic gang­ster film, like the Western, concerns itself with a very partic­ular story—the rise and fall of a man who has no patience to progress through the ranks. The gang­ster is a man in a hurry; his time is running out. The motifs of the classic gang­ster film are as follows:

• The hero is an immig­rant who is low in status but desires a higher status.

• The city is the home of the gang­ster; it estab­lishes his struggle to move up the social order.

• Power comes from the will­ing­ness to take power. This means courage, cunning, and a will­ing­ness to murder those who object to sharing power. This is the law of the jungle.

•  The hero is loyal to his immig­rant roots.

•  The antag­onist is the society that cannot tolerate the law of the jungle. The repres­ent­at­ives of the society are the police and the FBI. They are the front line of combat against the law of the jungle.

• The symbols of success are material—such as guns and cars—and women.

• Getting ahead is everything, and the ends justify the means.

Recently, gang­ster films have added an exist­en­tial dimen­sion to the struggle. It is as if hope has dimmed and a kind of nihil­istic death wish pervades the gang­ster and his fate. These stories portray a less hopeful, more desperate gang­ster hero—a hero who is less heroic, and more violent. His struggle is the last act of a condemned man. Gang­ster films are psycho­dramas, the equi­valent of modern­ized tales of gladi­ators and Chris­tians. For all of these char­ac­ters in this genre, there is nothing less at stake than their lives.

Because these stories are primal and male, there is little scope in this genre for male-female rela­tion­ships. The genre does have memor­able women—Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde, Cagney’s mother in White Heat, and Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat—but in each case, the role of the woman is cata­lytic to the action of the gang­ster. In no case is the woman a stand-alone char­acter func­tioning in an inter­esting way in her own world. Whether they be sibling, mother, virgin, or whore, women play supporting roles in gang­ster films.”

Ken Dancyger & Jeff Rush, Altern­ative Screen­writing, 2006

Gang­sters on television

Out 1978

Tom Bell plays a former hard man returning to his patch after a long spell in prison. and finding modern Britain very changed to what he remembered.

The theme of an underdog (usually an ex-jailbird) trying to recap­ture former glory is a familiar one and Bell is believ­able in the part; cold-eyed and quiet voiced.

Lyn Farleigh is memor­able as his mentally unstable wife, bringing an almost tragic pathos to the role.

Fox 1980

A dynastic story about a family of London gang­sters headed by patri­arch, Peter Vaughn, and featuring many British stal­warts of the genre like Ray Winstone.

Defin­itely owing a debt to The Godfather for its themes (there’s even an educated son, Eamon Boland, who eschews the family ‘busi­ness’), Fox often lapsed into cliche but it had some scope and ambi­tion and it was the first tv series to use family loyal­ties as its focus.


Gang­sters on film

Brighton Rock 1947

Richard Atten­bor­ough in one of his two most memor­able roles (the other being Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place) brings a genuine chill to the psycho­pathic Pinky that elev­ates this film well above contem­porary examples of the genre.

John Boulting’s direc­tion and a script by Terence Rattigan also lend weight. The heightened reality of this version, bril­liantly filmed by Harry Waxman, comes much closer to the heart of Greene’s original reli­gious and moral fable than the more recent remake.

Gang­ster films often work better at the level of psycho­drama than social obser­va­tion and only a few success­fully combine both elements.

Get Carter 1971

This film is one of a very few British gang­ster films not set in London but it does involve Michael Caine returning from London to Newcastle (having myster­i­ously shed any trace of a Geordie accent) to invest­igate the suspi­cious death of his brother.

The violent seedy world that the film creates comes close to being B movie cliche but Mike Hodges gives it a style and pace that lifts it and makes its cult status under­stand­able. Caine’s char­acter is a true anti-hero; ruth­less and unsparing as any Jaco­bean avenger. Worth seeing also is a bril­liant cameo by play­wright John Osborne as a louche gangster.

Read the script

Extract from “Get Carter” by Mike Hodges RTF

The Long Good Friday 1980

Bob Hoskins is London syndicate boss Harold Shand. Harold’s just returned from a trip to New York, where he’s hoping to expand his oper­a­tions. He arrives on Good Friday, just in time for an elab­orate yacht party welcoming his poten­tial U.S. affil­i­ates for the weekend. The party is engin­eered by his divinely all-class girl­friend and de facto consigliere, Victoria (the abso­lutely untouch­able Helen Mirren).

In a perfect subver­sion of all moll clichés, Victoria speaks fluent French, has her own money, and is profoundly, unfathom­ably devoted to Harold. Their respectful romantic collab­or­a­tion is enough to convince anyone that Harold’s really got it going on. With the perfect companion and the perfect front, what could possibly go wrong with this busi­ness deal?

For starters, there’s a car-bomb attempt outside of the church where Harold’s mother is attending Good Friday services. And then one of Harold’s right-hand men turns up brutally slain in an athletic-club shower. Harold’s getting flustered and starting to look weak to his asso­ci­ates: As his foundering increases, so does the viol­ence, as is usually the case. In one of the most chilling and unex­pected gangster-meeting scenes of all time, Harold arranges an extensive thug roundup in, of all places, a giant abattoir.

If we needed a meta­phor for the devaluing of human life happening in this film, a slaughter­house might be the perfect vehicle for it. Also, I should mention that the movie’s theme song, composed and performed by Francis Monkman, is completely badass—Miami Vice, eat your heart out”.


By Natalie Elliot, Miss on Scene: True Brit,

The Hit 1984

Terence Stamp plays an English gang­ster turned informant living in Spanish exile. John Hurt, a hitman, and Tim Roth, his appren­tice, kidnap him but delay his execu­tion, wrong­footed by their victim’s calm accept­ance of his fate.

An exist­en­tial road movie ensues, perhaps a little too self-conscious at times, but lent distinc­tion but its first-rate cast and unusual setting. The Spanish land­scape is used partic­u­larly well to add dramatic impact to the story.

Villain 1971

In a bizarre piece of miscasting, Richard Burton plays a cockney gang­ster char­acter loosely based on Ronnie Kray. The film reflects the tastes of the ’70s, ultra-violent and tacky but is unusual, nonethe­less, for its explor­a­tion of homosexuality.

Burton seems uneasy in the role (his only other gay char­acter was in the exec­rable Stair­case) but the fact he agreed to play the role is inter­esting in itself as well as the character’s self-hatred for his own sexuality.


Gang­ster No 1 (2000)

Set in Soho and based (yet again) on the Krays/ Richard­sons era, this film sets out to be the perfect paradigm of the story described above in the intro­duc­tion: the battle for succes­sion between an alpha male and a young challenger.

It’s stagy at times and expli­citly violent at others. David Thewlis and Paul Bettany, however, give it some class and Malcolm McDowell appears briefly to give it a bit of weight.

Sexy Beast (2000)

Ray Winstone was worried about ‘acting with Gandhi’ (Ben Kingsley) who seems unlikely casting for a cockney villain. He needn’t have been, Kingsley is great in the role. He makes the char­acter slightly autistic and child­like in a totally believ­able way. When he asks ‘Why?” it’s in exactly the tones of an obstinate two year old – only this one is dangerous and has a gun!

London to Brighton 2006

A gritty nihil­istic film about a pros­ti­tute trying to protect an underage girl who is picked up by a pimp to be sold to an ageing gang­ster but manages somehow to kill him. Pursued by his dead-eyed son intent on exacting revenge, they flee to Brighton but are betrayed at every turn as the net closes inex­or­ably on them.

This is not Cassavetes Gloria by a long chalk. The world portrayed in the film is stripped of any glamour and the char­ac­ters are mostly cowardly or vicious with the excep­tion of the woman who has a saving streak of decency. It’s a relent­less but compel­ling story with a level of realism that would not disgrace a film-maker like Loach


Other case studies
Perform­ance 1969
A gang­ster (James Fox) on the run from his former employers (two Kray like char­ac­ters) hides out in the decaying Notting Hill mansion of faded rock star, Mick Jagger in this cult 60’s film directed by Nich­olas Roeg.

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