How to Write a Gangster Movie: The Expectations of the Genre

What is a Gangster Movie?

The gangster movie is one that focuses on narratives of organized crime and gangs. A crime sub-genre (and often part of the film noir sub-genre, too), it may follow stories of large criminal organizations as well as smaller groups formed to pursue specific criminal activities. 

Typically, the gangster movie is associated with a particularly graphic depiction of violence. These films often seem to glorify the acts that take place. But below this surface-level understanding is often a deeper look at what makes the criminal underworld tick. Moreover, the characters at the heart of the gangster movie will give the audience an immersive insight into what it’s like to navigate this world.

The gangster genre has been evident throughout the course of cinema as we know it. Arguably the first original The Great Train Robbery film made in 1903 followed the story of gang members. This proves that the genre has an evergreen appeal. It strikes something at the core of what audiences want to see in cinema.

But how do you approach this genre of film? What particular elements are integral to its success? We’ll take a look at the 10 crucial steps to writing a gangster movie below.

10 Key Elements of a Great Gangster Movie

1. A Street-Smart Protagonist

The protagonist is the most important element of any cinematic universe. And the protagonist of a gangster movie is no different. They stand out in terms of their importance to the story’s strength.

The main character of a gangster film often has a spunky, overly confident attitude in order to live the life they have thus far. They have just the right amount of self-assurance in order to risk their lives for the business. In addition, they must be a character that the audience will like enough to follow. And this is why they often have an appealing and distinctive charisma.

Some examples of the typical elements of a gangster film protagonist:

  • Frank Lucas from American Gangster has an unexpected rise to power. After his boss dies of a heart attack, he inherits the throne. He thusly becomes a ruthless crime lord, whose main goal is to reinvent his boss’s legacy. With his charisma and charm, this proves relatively easy.
  • Tony Montana from Scarface works his way up from being a refugee. He goes from listening to his superiors to eventually having the authority to make life-threatening decisions. He does this because he feels he is worthy of the power, disregarding the consequences of his actions.
  • John Dillinger from Public Enemies begins his arc by infiltrating a prison in order to free his comrades. Whilst he is caught on multiple occasions for his crimes, he doesn’t stop. And eventually, he leaves those he once cared about behind in order to get ahead.

The gangster film protagonist must be a savvy mover in this criminal world. Otherwise, they simply won’t last very long. But they also need to be someone the audience will feel it’s worth following. They must stand out somehow, either for better or worse.

Public Enemies | John Dillinger Breaks His Crew Out of Prison

2. The Law Enforcer

Police attempting to catch the bad guy, is this a well-tread story? Yes, but the gangster film relies on it heavily.

The law enforcer who attempts to catch the criminal or gang is a staple subplot in many gangster films. This is because the story always needs an antagonist. But it’s also because the chase is something that the protagonists of this genre crave.

  • They seek attention in order to fuel their ego further. They often believe they are invincible and important enough to break the rules and laws of the ‘normal’ world.
  • The law enforcer will be the barrier the gangsters bump up against when their power gets out of control. There has to be something to bring them back down to reality.

The law enforcer themselves – normally a police officer or FBI agent, will often become obsessed with bringing these organizations down. They will feel that it is their responsibility to return the world to a state of peace once again. The chase between officer and criminal often builds to a standoff. This is the integral moment in the film where only one side can become victorious.

This role is integral to the narrative. If the protagonist‘s actions didn’t have consequences the story wouldn’t have the necessary conflict and drama. The law enforcer antagonist can also provide a good contrast to the gangster protagonist. They’re a reminder of what it looks like to be good in this world.

Eliot Ness in The Untouchables

The Untouchables follows Al Capone – a gangland chief who has accumulated large control over Chicago.

Eliot Ness, a member of the Bureau of Prohibition, is tasked with bringing Al Capone to justice for his crimes. Eliot is a great example of a law enforcer who vows to bring the criminals to justice. He works alongside fellow officers and those who also oppose Capone’s corruption of the city. His work is serious and methodical and in this, Capone finds his match.

Bill Parker in Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad follows Mickey Cohen after he has become the most powerful figure in California. And he plans to continue to expand his criminal organization across the whole of the west coast.

Despite Cohen’s hold on certain members of the police, Bill Parker, an LAPD chief, creates a secret police unit in order to dismantle Cohen’s cohort. Parker and the ‘squad’ are arguably the real protagonists of this narrative. The story is more focused on the attempt to bring down Micky Cohen rather than the man himself. This is often the case in gangster movies.

Joseph Pistone in Donnie Brasco

In Donnie Brasco, Joseph Pistone, a successful FBI agent, manages to infiltrate a high functioning New York mafia organization. He goes against his beliefs by developing a friendship with the top hit man in order to delve deeper undercover.

This particular example shows the battle between head and heart. Donnie has to decide whether to complete his mission, despite the inevitable death of his newfound friend. This returns to the idea that the law enforcer will stop at nothing to bring justice to those who are in the wrong.

It also demonstrates how there can be a lot of nuance in the law enforcer’s journey. They have to wrestle with the moralities and complexities that the gangster world arouses.

Donnie Brasco (2/8) Movie CLIP - This is Life and Death (1997) HD

3. The Mafia

Mafia organizations feature in a wide range of gangster films. This is largely because the mafia forms a key backdrop to most gangster activity, particularly in the United States.

“Mafia: an organized international body of criminals, operating originally in Sicily and now especially in Italy and the US and having a complex and ruthless behavioural code.”

Oxford Dictionary

It also showcases an attractive story of power as a seemingly relatable character rises through the ranks and achieves the greatest power they can. There is often a mirror to the American dream in these stories.

The backdrop of the mafia allows for explorations of power, family ties and hierarchy. So even if your story isn’t going to specifically address the mafia, it’s worth considering what themes and stories this subject brings about and how and why these are important to the gangster movie.

The Inclusion of The Mafia:

  • The Godfather may well be the most well-known mafia film in the history of cinema. The film follows Michael Corleone, the youngest male member of the Corleone crime family. The character arc is one of the best in the genre. Michael initially resists the mafia. However, he is eventually pulled in by all the forces that make it so alluring as a concept – power, loyalty, success and family.
  • Once Upon a Time in America, meanwhile, sees its protagonist David Aaronson relive his life story, going from the New York slums to the top of the mafia. It’s another story of the rise from the bottom to the top. And it’s a particularly good example of the way in which the journey to the top of the mafia can mirror that of the American dream.
  • Live by Night sees America in the 1920s, where prohibition has not halted the sale of alcohol via the mafia. Joe Coughlin crosses an all-powerful mafia boss by stealing his fortunes. This is another story of a strong and wilful individual seeking to rise to the top. And its historical context demonstrates how social and political themes often serve as a fascinating backdrop for these kinds of stories.
Live By Night - Official Trailer [HD]

4. The Location

Gangster movies often take place in large, crowded cities. This juxtaposes the bustling cities filled with unsuspecting members of the community with the secret lives of criminals. The gangsters need the city to blend in as well as operate their vast networks.

The scenes of criminal activity might typically take place in small spaces such as nightclubs, alleyways or brothels. This highlights, for the audience, the feeling of illegality and underworld in the exchanges.

The stakes of the gangster’s actions usually fit with a large setting. However, this doesn’t mean a small location can’t also work equally as well. And so it’s important in writing a gangster movie to lean into the setting and context, whatever it may be.

How do the characters utilize the setting? How does the setting reflect the characters, story world and themes?

  • The Irishman primarily takes place in Philadelphia and Detroit. It sees Frank Sheeran travelling between these cities in order to get his work done. The story is very rooted in the worlds of these cities in the time period it’s set within.
  • Scorsese’s Casino follows the life of Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein from Chicago to Las Vegas after he’s sent by the Mafia to run the Tangiers casino. And the mood of Las Vegas is very much at the forefront of the story.
  • Obvious from the title, King of New York explores the drug lord Frank White’s journey through New York after he is released from prison and gets back into dealing drugs.

These films’ settings are a crucial part of their stories and affect them fundamentally, showing how location is an important part of the gangster film.

King of New York Gangster Movie

5. Rivalry

Rivalry is what keeps a competition going. And the competition between gangs is particularly ruthless as they will pull out all the stops to prove they are the top dog.

Gangs will never want to admit defeat. Instead, they would rather have an extensive rivalry just to prove their superiority and gain respect.

Gangster movies especially choose to portray the plot of rivalry within their narratives. It adds another element, establishing complex relationships between characters from the outset.

Who is the Rival?

  • The main drama of The Warriors is the troubled relationship between each of the gangs throughout New York City. In the beginning, the Riffs are the most powerful gang in the city. However, The Warriors, the underdogs throughout the battle because of their initial modesty, gain respect from each gang as they prove their worth and determination.
  • The Wanderers follows the Italian-American gang of the same name, as they search for respect on the streets. They have established rivalries with other gangs such as The Ducky Boys and Fordham Baldies. However, the rivalries become much more difficult to uphold when the leader, Ritchie Gennaro, falls in love with a local mobster’s daughter.
  • Shank follows a young gang as they set out to avenge the murder of one of their own. In this dystopian future where gangs have taken over a decaying London, Junior and Rager are in charge of The Paper Chaserz. They have a strong rivalry against another gang called The Soldiers who attack after they find out their fortune is compromised.

The addition of rivalries allows for the opportunity of conflict more than anything else. And this is clearly an important element of a gangster movie. It will shine a light on what your protagonist‘s strengths and flaws are and set up obstacles for their goals. It also lays the ground for violence, another key component in the genre.

The Warriors (4/8) Movie CLIP - The Warriors vs. The Baseball Furies (1979) HD

6. Guns, Money and Drugs

What sets a gangster apart from the rest? What is their leverage?

Illegal substances – that’s what. For many gangster films, the criminal activity boils down to three factors – guns, money and drugs.

Linking to the graphic violence that features throughout the genre, guns and other weaponry makes the organization dangerous. It also establishes the hierarchy between the criminals and regular citizens. Violence is an easy scare tactic which the criminals use to their advantage.

Ultimately, guns, money and drugs are most important in a storytelling sense for the leverage and currency they give to the gangsters. This is the language of these worlds, the method for power and what this power is traded on.

So for your own story, it’s important to think about what leverage your characters have. How do they attain their power and how do they keep it? All power comes from the holding of assets. So what assets do your characters gain, hold or seek? This is crucial not only for the believability of the story world but for the narrative progression.

Violence or Substance:

  • Road to Perdition follows the protagonist Michael Sullivan Jr as an enforcer for a mob boss. He collects the debts owed to his boss by a number of speakeasy owners across Chicago. Throughout, he uses weaponry as a scare tactic to achieve his goals. And this is because he, in turn, feels he owes his boss a debt for raising him as his own.
  • Bugsy sees Bugsy Siegel seek control over small-time Los Angeles criminals after they attempt to steal from him unsuspectingly. Bugsy is known for using his money to pay off the witnesses of his crimes in order to climb the ranks of the criminal underworld. Even after his death, his wealth continues to grow. And this emphasizes his legacy within the crime world.
  • In Gun Crazy, a Bonnie and Clyde style crime romance sees Bart Tare fall in love with a firearm enthusiast and follow her across the country. Together, they plan an armed robbery – using Annie Starr’s talent to succeed in their complicated criminal plans. This is until they eventually take it one step too far.
Gun Crazy Bonnie and Clyde

7. Family Ties

Working with your family is always complicated. But when the family business is a mafia empire or gangster criminal underworld this brings a variety of other complications.

Some gangster films depict protagonists who are proud to inherit their place in the family crime group. Others, meanwhile, depict those who simply dread the thought.

The representation of families through the gangster film genre highlight both blood relations as well as loyalty through the organization. Whilst loyalty is a recurring theme throughout much of the genre, it’s often the reason for many characters’ downfall. They may rely too heavily on their established relationships. Whilst for many others high up in the organization blood ties will not compromise their rise through the ranks.

Family ties are a great way to give an emotional depth and complexity to your gangster movie. They may pull a protagonist into this world where they don’t want to be. Or they may make everything more resonant, raising the stakes significantly. Families are a great shorthand for unconditional connection to the gangster world. There’s little these characters can do, it’s their blood.

Gangster Families:

  • Goodfellas sees Henry Hill become obsessed with the criminal lifestyle, flourishing within his role in the mafia. After his downfall due to his drug addiction, one of his closest associates, Jimmy, double-crosses him, planning to have Henry and his wife killed. This betrayal causes Henry to rat on Jimmy and their relationship is consequently destroyed forever. Henry’s arc is defined by the relationship to his family, both his actual family and his mafia family.
  • Boyz n The Hood follows Tre as he is sent to live with his father. Through friendships, he is introduced to the terrifying realities of the gang and drug culture in his new town. Over the plot, each of Tre’s friends suffers tragedies, ultimately scarring Tre for life.
  • Widows begins with the death of a group of thieves. It then sees each of the thieves’ wives band together to complete their husband’s unfinished business and pay off the debts that were left behind. The wives are tied into the criminal underworld via their families. And they have to enter it in order to ultimately escape it.
Widows | Official Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX

8. Gangland Chief

There is always a top dog. The one that runs it all. The one that everyone is scared of, even if they don’t like to admit it.

Every corporation has to have a boss and the representation of this kind of character is seen in most gangster films. This is who the protagonist answers to and often what the stakes are centered around. If the protagonist isn’t able to complete their jobs, they will have their boss to answer to.

The gangland chief plays an important role in the gangster movie lore. They represent an uncompromising attitude that keeps the protagonist trapped. It’s not as simple as the protagonist choosing that they don’t want to be a part of this world anymore. The reality is, instead, that they can’t leave.

The gangland chief is the uncompromising, often terrifying presence that keeps everything in place. Through their power and violence, they make sure that the protagonist will struggle, either in their attempt to leave or in their grasp for power.

Who’s the Boss?

  • In Sexy Beast, Gal Dove, despite having retired from his criminal lifestyle, is approached by a former associate with a job set by the crime lord Teddy Bess. Teddy represents the threat but so does Teddy’s terrifying henchman, Don. Don terrorizes Gal’s peaceful life in Spain. And after Gal kills Don, Teddy continues to question Gal about Don’s whereabouts. By the end of the film, Teddy embarrasses Gal by barely paying him for his services and threatening to visit him soon, implying that he will always be under Teddy’s hold.
  • In The Godfather, Vito Corleone sits at the top of his criminal family. He’s widely respected by other criminals, who often ask for his protection. But his reputation and title also puts a target on his back. He also invokes fear, both within the family and outside it, primarily through his actions. He might seem relatively gentle but he holds vast power through intimidation, such as that through the famous horse’s head placed in a bed.
  • The Departed portrays the gangland chief at the forefront of its narrative. The function of the story is to bring him to justice. The law enforcer, Billy Costigan, goes undercover in order to bring down Frank Costello and his group of criminals. Overall, Frank is able to bring everyone under his control. And his eccentric personality and intimidation techniques give us a clue into why he is able to maintain such a grip on power.
The Departed (3/5) Movie CLIP - Costello Smells a Rat (2006) HD

9. A Revenge Plot

Revenge makes things ugly. When violence and a build-up of tension and emotion are intertwined – the plot becomes that much more interesting.

Many criminals are fuelled by their emotions and the experiences that got them to where they are. Some might let their emotions get the better of them, causing a killing spree. Some may keep their emotions under wraps and are more calculated. In each case, they are charged by their pasts.

Revenge often gives a concrete motivation for the protagonist and pushes the narrative forward. It can be a great way to give the gangster movie a clear structure, giving your protagonist a backstory, goal and antagonist.

Past and Present:

  • In The Warriors, after the death of Cyrus, the leader of the most powerful gang in New York City, a false accusation is made in the middle of chaos. Consequently, the ‘Warriors’ must prove themselves not guilty despite multiple gangs targeting them directly. Whilst they lose members along the way – due to each gang’s own plan of attack – they are victorious in the end, restoring silent respect across the city.
  • Reservoir Dogs follows a group of criminals who after a botched heist, begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant. Each criminal adopts an ‘every man for themselves’ approach. And similar to The Warriors, they create false accusations in order to scare the other criminals into a confession.
  • Gangs of New York‘s major plot is Amsterdam Vallon’s desire for revenge. He vows to take down his father’s killer. Amsterdam lets his emotions take over him and plans to kill his father’s killer, Bill, in an annual public celebration, wishing to humiliate him the same way Bill did to Amsterdam’s father. In the end, his revenge is triumphant and the plot comes full circle as Bill dies via his own knife.
Gangs of New York Amsterdam

10. The Violent Climax

The climax of any film is usually powerful. However, those in a gangster movie typically have to be particularly hard-hitting in order to give the audience a payoff that fits the tone of the overall narrative.

This often comes via the protagonist and antagonist finally coming face-to-face to fight once and for all. Along with this is generally a lot of bloodshed.

The build-up of tension as the gangs are free to commit their crimes however they please, allows for the idea of comeuppance as the climax nears. This may culminate in the protagonist‘s shock death or that of a sidekick who turns out to be on the other side, for example.

Going Out With a Bang:

  • In The Godfather, Michael Corleone has all the heads of the competing five families slaughtered in a concerted attack. In one of the most famous montages of all time, Michael attends his nephew’s baptism as we concurrently see the five bosses brutally murdered. Overall, it’s a sequence of overwhelming and ruthless violence
  • In King of New York, Frank White leaves prison and is determined to return to the life he had before jail. When he does so, he realizes how much the business has grown without him. His anger determines the ruthless crimes he commits as he attempts to rise back to the top. In the film’s final scenes, Frank runs from the police through the New York subway in dramatic fashion, eventually cornered into a taxi.
  • The climax of Scarface sees Montana in a chaotic shoot off with another drug lord and his men. While Montana believes that he is invincible, he is ultimately shot by a right-hand man. And his dead body flops ironically in front of a fountain with the inscription ‘The World is Yours’.
Scarface (1983) - Say Hello to My Little Friend Scene (8/8) | Movieclips

In Conclusion

The gangster film is a great opportunity to explore many of the elements that make a great story in general. Family ties, a rise from the bottom to the top, power, subterfuge, violence, revenge – these are some of the best storytelling ingredients out there. And they all form a crucial part of the gangster film.

Whilst the above ten elements might not always be relevant to your specific story, they teach an important lesson about what makes a gangster movie tick. Moreover, they demonstrate what exactly the key elements of a gangster movie actually are.

What defines a gangster movie and what do audiences expect? Whilst your screenplay doesn’t necessarily need to toe the line, there are a number of expectations that come hand in hand with the genre.

This isn’t just about fulfilling what audiences expect. Instead, it’s about key structural and thematic elements that are often crucial in making a gangster narrative work. The stakes need to be high, the journey significant and the world rich in conflict and drama.

And the way in which these elements manifest is what defines the gangster film genre – violence, crime, power, a rise and/or fall, family, seemingly immovable antagonists. In short, the gangster life is never easy.

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This article was written by Camerin Macfarlane and edited by IS Staff.

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