Reimagining the Gangster: Success, Failure, and Cultural Evolution

Categories: Tragic Hero

Robert Warshow's profound assertion that "In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success," is not merely a statement about gangster films. It serves as a philosophical anchor, delving into the intricacies of societal perceptions of success and failure. Published in 1962 within Warshow's influential work, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," this essay has become a classic example of film criticism and cultural analysis.

Warshow's Argument: Success, Failure, and the Gangster's Tragedy

Warshow contends that society necessitates an acknowledgment of failure, describing it as an intolerable dilemma wherein "failure is kind of death and success is evil and dangerous." The gangster, according to Warshow, is destined to fail because of the societal obligation to succeed, as he represents what individuals both desire to be and fear becoming. The very conditions that lead to success, such as standing out from the crowd, ultimately lead to the gangster's demise.

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Examining this argument in the context of Brian DePalma's 1983 remake of "Scarface" provides a compelling illustration. Tony Montana's ascent from a Cuban immigrant camp to a powerful mafia figure mirrors the typical trajectory of a Warshowian gangster. However, the inevitable downfall follows, emphasizing the theme of success being fraught with peril. Montana's isolation and ultimate demise underscore Warshow's assertion that the gangster, in his pursuit of success, becomes a tragic hero.

An illuminating scene in a fancy restaurant exemplifies Montana's doomed fate.

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His outburst against the crowd mirrors Warshow's assertion that society, in its inability to achieve success, turns against those who do. Montana's proclamation that "You need people like me" encapsulates the paradoxical relationship between the desire for success and the condemnation of those who achieve it.

Evolution of the Gangster Genre

While Warshow's analysis holds true for the gangster films of his time, spanning from "Little Caesar" (1931) to "Casino" (1995), the genre undergoes a profound transformation in the following years. "Donnie Brasco" (1997) challenges the fixed pattern by portraying a police officer infiltrating the mafia and succeeding in his mission without facing the typical tragic fate. This deviation marks a departure from Warshow's established conventions, as success is not punished but celebrated.

Further evolution is evident in the acclaimed TV series "The Sopranos," where the audience sympathizes with Tony Soprano, the gangster protagonist. Departing from the traditional portrayal of a gangster as an isolated figure, Soprano is depicted as an ordinary man facing the same problems and dilemmas as any other person. This shift signifies a departure from the idea that success necessarily separates individuals from the crowd.

Exploring the gangster genre in the years following "Casino" reveals a nuanced perspective on success. The next notable film, "American Gangster" (2007), offers a portrayal of Frank Lucas, a real-life drug lord, highlighting the complexities of his character. While Lucas achieves considerable success in the criminal underworld, the film does not follow the traditional tragic arc. Instead, it presents a multifaceted view of a man navigating both the criminal and societal landscapes.

Contemporary Perspectives on Success

Today, the gangster genre continues to evolve, challenging Warshow's assertion that success is inherently evil. The emphasis on the humanity of successful characters, as seen in "The Sopranos," suggests a departure from the view that success leads to isolation and guilt. The modern gangster, living in the suburbs and dealing with everyday problems, reflects a societal shift towards a more nuanced understanding of success.

Television series like "Breaking Bad" (2008-2013) further complicate the narrative surrounding success and failure. The protagonist, Walter White, transforms from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a powerful drug lord. Unlike the traditional gangster figure, White's descent into criminality is driven by complex motivations, including the desire to provide for his family. The series challenges viewers to question the conventional moral framework applied to characters who achieve success through illicit means.

Redefining Success and Embracing Complexity

As we navigate the diverse landscape of modern cinema, the gangster genre stands as a testament to the evolving perceptions of success. While Warshow's analysis remains a foundational exploration, contemporary narratives challenge the notion that success must be accompanied by tragedy. The portrayal of gangsters as complex individuals, facing the same struggles as any person, defies the earlier archetype of the isolated and doomed figure.

Considering the impact of globalization on storytelling, films like "City of God" (2002) take the gangster narrative beyond American borders. This Brazilian film explores the challenges faced by individuals in the impoverished slums of Rio de Janeiro, where success and failure take on different dimensions. The global perspective adds layers to the discussion, questioning whether the societal attitudes towards success and failure are universal or culturally specific.

Furthermore, the rise of antiheroes in contemporary cinema contributes to the reevaluation of success. Characters like Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013) or Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" (2000) achieve success in corporate realms, challenging traditional perceptions of the gangster while still embodying elements of amorality. The complexity of their characters prompts audiences to reconsider the moral implications of success in various contexts.

Conclusion: Redefining Success and Embracing Complexity

As we continue to explore the intricate dynamics of success and failure in cinema, the gangster remains a compelling archetype, continually reshaped by the ever-evolving consciousness of our society. The genre's evolution from Warshow's era to the present day reflects a broader shift in cultural attitudes towards success. While the tragic hero narrative persists, contemporary interpretations introduce shades of gray, challenging audiences to reassess their perceptions of those who dare to succeed in unconventional ways.

In conclusion, the gangster genre serves as a mirror reflecting our changing cultural attitudes towards success. It prompts us to question whether success inherently leads to alienation or if, in embracing complexity, we can redefine the narrative surrounding achievement. As we navigate the complex web of morality and ambition portrayed in gangster films, we are compelled to recognize that success and failure are not rigid binaries but nuanced concepts shaped by the ever-evolving tapestry of human experience.

Updated: Dec 15, 2023
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Reimagining the Gangster: Success, Failure, and Cultural Evolution. (2016, Jul 06). Retrieved from

Reimagining the Gangster: Success, Failure, and Cultural Evolution essay
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