What is a genre?
The French word meaning type or kind has long been used in the study of literature. Genres are used in the designation of certain literary styles into categories; a method of classification based on either similarities in the mood, setting, or the social and intellectual milieu of the time. This method was later on applied in the critique and study of film.(Dirks)
A film genre is a classification of films based on the similarities that they have and certain key elements in the films. Film genres represent various rubrics of film classifications based on recurring themes, elements, syntax, and/or cinematic technique that are at once easily recognizable and predominant in the films’ presentation. Other indicators of a film’s genre are its setting, props, period, narrative, icons, characters, and actors, among others.(Neale, 2000)
More often than not films belong to one specific genre but are not exclusively or strictly limited to that particular classification. Most movies, in the Hollywood panacea tendency, span many genres in an attempt to attract a much broader spectrum of the viewing public. Also the term sub-genre comes onto use to describe further classification under a main genre.
Genre categories are often broad enough that they can accommodate virtually any movie. However, certain elements of the movie must be extracted so that it can be examined and assessed as a part of the genre. This then allows the critic to compare the film with other similar works and make meaningful judgments. Every film belongs to a distinct genre but there are exceptions to the rule, those that belong to many genres at the same time and they are called hybrids.
There are genres that can be used to classify other genres. They are known as mega-genres; these include the following: fiction vs. non-fiction, features vs. shorts, silents vs. talkies, regular vs. 3-D, black and white vs. color, local vs. foreign, animated vs. live-action, originals vs. prequels, sequels, and remakes, mainstream vs. indie, rated vs. unrated.
Other common genres are the western, comedy, horror, melodrama, and the gangster films. Naturally, there those films that cross the boundaries of genre; these are often called non-genre films. These include the animate films, classics, cult, and erotic films among others. As a further classification, the term sub-genre is used to refer to specific groupings within a genre. For example, under the comedy genre, the slapstick-comedy subgenre involves exaggerated violence to create funny situations.
However, the genre is not the sole classification of films used. Films can also be classified according to the trademarks of certain directors and authors. According to the auteur system, the actor or director indelible style or signature dictates the look and feel of the resultant film. Therefore certain distinct styles can be used to classify the films. For example some directors like Alfred Hitchcock are known for his thrillers and actors like Jim Carry are known for their quirky, hilarious performances as characters in comedies. However, the lack of a formal theory of genre classification has left the film industry relatively unstudied. Thus, the study of the genre has been there for not more than 30 years.
The crime/gangster genre comprise of films that revolve around the notorious activities of criminals and gangsters that operate outside of law in settings that are often times set in large crowded cities where the crimes and underground activities, occur in such places ranging from dark-lit alleys, sleazy bars, and cheap motels, that define the dark mood of the film to palatial estates, and exotic locations that add an aura of wealth and prestige. These films tell of the rise and fall of these film hoodlums; often based on real-life criminals, these characters are every bit as sinister as the consequently dark atmosphere of the whole film.
To trace the origins of this genre we can look at film noir and see that these two share a lot in common and that the crime and gangster genre can distinctly trace its beginnings from it. Film noir, strictly speaking, is more of a mood or temperament than a genre. The label, noir, is actually a French word that literally means black. Film noir, strictly speaking is more of a mood or temperament than a genre. In the 1940s a Frenchman, Frank Nino noticed that there was a trend of dark-themed American movies that have appeared in the French cinema.
At the time they were making noir movies, the creators of the classic noirs were not even aware of the classification put upon them. Most movies of the film noir classification were done during the period after the 2nd world war. Their themes were largely similar to the German Expressionism that was also happening at around the same time. European immigrant film-makers brought the themes from Europe.
These films often have chiaroscuro lighting, sharp angles and movements, high contrast imaging, the basic elements of film noir. Noted examples of the noir genre were: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Other prominent directors of film noir included Orson Welles, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Douglas Sirk, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and Howard Hawks.
Notable crime and detective stories under the noir category include the Maltese Falcon. Released in 1945, the once 5-part serialized story in the pulp magazine, The Black Mask. Considered by many as one of the most definitive, if not the first noir film in Hollywood, it was surprisingly done under low budgets, it was directed by John Huston for Paramount Pictures. The movie was a faithful rendition on film of Dashielle Hammette’s pulp fiction novel of the same title. Film noir stories originated from adaptations of early pulp fiction detective stories. That was why a lot of the movies at that time were detective mysteries.
The evolution of dark films
Like any art form, films reflect the milieu of its time. The “classic” film noir movies were released during the time after WWII, right at the onset of the Cold War. These movies then naturally reflected the tension, fear, and paranoia of these turbulent times. They were depressed movies, contrary to Hollywood’s more optimistic musicals. The classic film noir movies were a reflection of the resulting insecurities and uncertainty of the period. The nagging threat of nuclear war was a constant source of unease for many Americans during this time.
Naturally, the main characters of the film noirs were hard people. There is the unyielding, disillusioned, male character who would be seduced by a femme fatale who will use her considerable talents at seduction to frame him up for a crime, often murder. After this though, she is also destroyed, like some sort of “retribution”; all this at a time when women are increasingly being given more freedom.
The film noir protagonist is a sad man, a man with a distinctly dark and brooding life struggling to survive in a corrupt society and ultimately fatally falling short. These heroes or anti-heroes can be a cop, a struggling detective, a killer/sociopath, a lone wolf, war veterans, politicians, or simply the guy down the street. He is a desperate man; a man living with a twisted sense of right and wrong, a cynical, and morally tarnished, an obsessed man. On the other hand the leading lady is a vicious self absorbed woman, enshrouded in mystery and duplicity; she is unloving, unreliable, fickle, manipulative and desperate. She is a beautiful woman though for she will need it to draw the hero and destroy him with her. However, she can also be the perfect wife- dutiful, loving, and trustworthy.
Basically, the film noir themes are alienation and bleakness, pessimism and desperation, disillusionment and guilt, evil and moral decay. The plot is complicated and long-winding and typically with an ominous background music, flashbacks, and first person narration. The protagonist is often made to choose to follow after the femme fatale and ultimately ruin themselves.
The corruption, perversion and sad reality of life is shown in the distinct expressionistic lighting, deep depth of focus, skewed camera angles, and unsettling visualization
Film noir’s casual treatment of violence is very much evident in many of the movies under this category. This can be viewed as a reflection of the struggling American culture of the 1940s when the prevailing thought was: survival of the fittest. Tough times call for tough characters thus, the cynical man and the wily woman. It shows a rather unappealing if not an alarmingly violent aspect of American culture and yet it is oddly patronized by the public.
The characters and the situations in film noir stories, although reflective of a somewhat low-key life seem to retain certain values. It must be noted though, that in spite of the coarseness of these characters and the hostility of their environments, they seem to retain a set of values, perverted it may be by the dissonance between their actions and the standards of society. Betrayal is the highest crime and loyalty the purest of virtues. There is a strict code of honor that is obeyed even among criminals and breach of this code is tantamount to the greatest of offenses.
The Crime and Gangster genre
Gangster films are often Horatio Algers or rags-to-riches stories. The criminals in the stories are often immigrants or illegal aliens reaching for the American Dream but upon finding themselves encumbered by the inherent disdain for foreigners and racial discrimination among other obstacles, these people choose the alternative path to reaching their lofty dreams, that is a house in the middle-class suburban setting in lets say California.
The Godfather saga is no different. Published in 1969 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Puzo dedicated the book to Anthony Cleri, his brother. The book stayed on The New York Times best seller list for 67 weeks and sold over 21 million copies.
The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola
“My father made him an offer he cannot refuse…”
Michael Corleone, in The Godfather, tells his fiancée, Kaye Adams, how his father, Don Vito got Johnny Fontane, a fading crooner, into the movie that will make his career. Essentially the story of one of New York’s most powerful and notorious Mafia families in the fifties, Coppola’s film based on Mario Puzo’s most successful novel, of the same title, became more than just another gangster movie, it moved on to becoming an iconic symbol and one of the most canonical examples of its genre id est crime and gangster films.
The Godfather saga was published in 1969 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons; Puzo dedicated the book to Anthony Cleri, his brother. The book stayed on The New York Times best seller list for 67 weeks and sold over 21 million copies.
Mario Puzo’s book and the film adaptation belonged to the wide rubric of crime and gangster genre. As a rule, genres tend to be wide classifications of films based certain similar and definitive characteristics. Initially based on the literary classifications of genre, film critics in the last thirty or so decades have begun to study film as a separate field of inquiry.
Genres much like anything else that goes through the motions of time also change and evolve. Before the rise of the talking pictures there were the silents and even at the early days of film in the dawn of the 20th century, there had been pioneers in the genre devoted to the dark and dangerous underworld.
Early Gangster Films until the Dawn of the Talkies:
The Musketeers of Pig Alley, released in 1912 was credited as the first gangster film and a pioneer in the follow focus method in filming. Written and directed by D. W. Griffith it tells the story of a salesman who was robbed by a gangster who he later meets again in a shoot-out. Following the film, Regeneration released three years later tells the story of an Irish-American orphan who grew up to lawlessness but decided to get himself educated when he falls in love. However, his past wasn’t about to let him go so easily. Directed by Raoul Walsh, the film was shot in NYC’s Bowery district.
The 1903 precursor of the western genre, The Great Train Robbery was a standard edition hold-up story. The one-reeler action picture was said to be the first narrative film; it was based on Scott Marble’s 1896 story. In 1927, Von Sternberg produced what was said to be the breeding ground of future gangster films and was the first modern crime film told from the gangster’s point of view.
Near the end of the 1920s, the first movies with sound-effects, music, and later on dialogue, synchronized with the motion pictures, came. This was at the start of the era of the talkies. At around this time too, was the time of the Prohibition after the WWI, and the rampant activities of real-life gangsters; bootlegging and gang wars fueled the American appetite for movies that show just that. The movies therefore were largely a reflection of the times. In fact, many of the movie plots at that time came straight out of the headlines of yesterday’s newspaper. This time, crime and gangsters indeed became all the more entertaining.
The criminal world’s activities were immortalized in the big screen and the masses loved it. Of course, all this would not have been possible without the aid of sound. Machine-guns in the hands of swearing, swaggering, hoodlums would hardly elicit the desired effect had there been no sound to reinforce vision. Add to this the further advancement in sound technology as well as mobile cameras.
The Lights of New York in 1928 was the first all-taking sound film. It was the story of Eddie, who was to be the fall guy of gangster Hawk Miller, a ruthless gangster until he manages to escape. The movie notably earned a lot as the public took to the talkies so much that the studio which spent only $75000 earned two million bucks. Part of the movie’s appeal was the crisp dialogues and the tire screeching sound effects that was then a novelty. They even say this movie was a favorite of Al Capone.
At the onset of the 1930s, prohibitions especially those from Hays office effectively ended the glorification of the gangster. The office demanded that the movies’ violence be lessened and the portrayal of criminals as tragic heroes be totally stopped. Criminals are not to be pronounced folk heroes; they are to be denounced as psychopaths. To pacify the authorities, film-makers shifted the emphasis to the good guys. However, the good guys are so violent they teeter on the criminal side. A great example of this would be the 1935 G-Men by William Keighley, where James Cagney was a ruthless, vengeful, FBI Agent on the under-cover. He was a “good guy” with a very bad attitude.
By around the 40s, during the rise of film noir, many crime and gangster movies were noirs. The cynicism, brutality, and the overall darkness of these films were clear indicators of the mixing of genres. Notable gangster characters included Alan Ladd as a cold, solitary, professional killer in the film-noirish This Gun For Hire (1942), as well as others- White Heat (1949), Gun Crazy (1949) , Leave Her to Heaven (1945, Cloak and Dagger (1946) were vivid examples of films combining desperation, utter violence, and corruption, among other evil things.
Bonny and Clyde by Arthur Penn raised the bar for violence accompanied by quirky slapstick comedy and blue grass music. The characters of the movie were so famous they achieved near mythical status.
Coppola’s epic saga was a study in power and a great narration of the American Dream. To the many who have seen it, the appeal, very much like other films of the genre was the glorified criminals and the insight their lives provided into their convoluted world.
According to Rick Altman, (Film/Genre) there are three difficulties or contradictions that arise when a film is studied without a genre theory. He said that American critics refused to scratch the not itchy study of film and that this causes three difficulties. The first one is the creation of two notions about the genre (corpus) by classifying films under either and inclusive or exclusive list. It then becomes possible to have a film inckuded in one corpus and be excluded at the same time.(Altman, 1999)
The second contradiction is the uncertainty of whether to include history in the study of genre or not. As it happens, Saussure’s semiotic analysis is fundamentally synchronic, meaning static, and when it was applied to the interpretation of films, the traditional critics failed to realize the potential of the genre.
The third difficulty was that there were two dissenting approaches to Hollywood genre critique. One was the ritualistic approach that views the genre as simply “a mechanism through which Hollywood’s rhetoric flows”, and the other, ideological approach is saying that Hollywood is merely manipulating audiences to conform according to their positions.
According to Altman’s proposition to use semantic analysis on the study of genre, he recognized that there is hardly a general agreement but that there can be a distinction in the integral elements of the films (semantics) and the way these play out (syntax). (Altman, 1999)
The film noir is as much a part of the crime and gangster genre’s evolution as it is a parallel classification that shares a lot in common with the crime genre. It can therefore be said to that they share similar semantic elements and because of the similarity of the time periods of their rise. There is however, a difference in syntax.
In this analysis the focus will be on the elements that are directly related to the most important ideas in the film- that of the struggle for power and the quest for the American Dream. The Godfather is a typical crime and gangster film with a lot of noir influences. That is why it is an ideal film to use in describing both genres.
Violence accounted for a lot in the film. Violence was a way to get the things they wanted when they wanted and how they wanted. It was a means to an end and sometimes it was simply hostile aggression. Don Vito is a perfect example of a violent man with a non-violent behavior. He looked every inch a kind, cultured gentleman and yet he kills and has peopled killed without breaking a sweat.
His men were similarly violent but what made his character stand out was the control he had on his violent nature. He was “…a reasonable man…”, he did not kill without a reason and his reasons were either as a “favor” or as practical way to deal with things.
In the opening scenes of the film he was shown petting a cat. That gave the impression of a man who has 1) enough time and patience to raise a cat, 2) is cultured and refined, and 3) a man capable of caring for his loved ones. As has been said the mafia had a convoluted set of morals and that is clearly seen in the way Don Vito took care of family and friends and equally how he punished them for being a threat to the Family, or for simply being bad company. The cat was symbolic of such a capacity. Cats are slinky, cuddly balls of fur and in a way it balances the hostility in the Dons personality.
Power is maintained through domination. To keep his hold on the family, he performed favors in exchange for loyalty. He “intercedes” for helpless people having to deal with impossible situations and stubborn authorities.
In one scene, Bonasera, the undertaker was asking to retribution. His daughter was raped but the convicts were given suspended sentence. In return for that favor, he kissed the Don’s ring. Much like the way one kisses the ring of the pope or a high-ranking clergy, Don Vito dispenses help through his “intercessions” in exchange for loyalty and submission. We can suppose that not only is this part of Italian culture, or we can look at it as a depiction of surrender. Much like they Christians are asked to surrender everything to God, so it appears that in Don Vito case, he demands absolute loyalty and trust.
Another side of the Don’s violence is practicality. This is clearly evident in their “war-food”- spaghetti. The easy to prepare, all-in-one-meal, is very practical when it comes to cost as well as preparation time; not to mention that it is also very palatable. The practicality of how the Mafia in particular, the Don, dispenses violence has a rather obvious practical side to it. Kill only when it is beneficial and necessary.
The syntax of the above-mentioned elements, point to the quest for the elusive American Dream. Actually, Michael the main character in the movie was the picture of a man who looked every inch, American middle class. His wife was a WASP and he was in the military, he finished college, and was not part of the Family business.
The elements of the story, the violence, the struggle for power, the way Italian stood out in New York, among others hint at the need of these people to get a better life. Even the Don wanted his son out of the crime circle and he wanted their business to become legitimate. He even forbade their Family’s involvement in drugs and things that deal permanent damage to a person. The Corleones were the picture of a struggling people in a harsh and alien world.
The Godfather’s syntax is reminiscent of many of the film noir movies. Often they revolve around desperate people trying to make it in an equally desperate world.
Altman, R. (1999). Film/Genre. London.
Dirks, T. Retrieved October 28, 2006, from http://www.greatestfilms.org/genres.html
Neale, S. (2000). Genres in Contemporary Hollywood. London: Routledge.