American Film Genres

In Module 3 you studied two film genres, the Western and the screwball comedy. In Module 4 you will take a close look at two more genres: the gangster film and film noir.

Gangster Films
The public’s fascination with the gangster film in the 1930s in large part coincided with the stock market crash of 1929, Prohibition (1920–1933), and most notably, the advent of synchronous sound, when movies began “talking.” After all, what characterizes the gangster film more than the “papapapapapa” of the Tommy gun firing?

Unlike the morality crime stories of the silent era, the gangster films during the Great Depression featured a “gangster” protagonist who became the hero. The gangster was generally an ethnic character who rose to the top and was someone to be admired for his drive to succeed in a corrupt society and system that had failed him. Of the three greatest films of the period, Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks, was the most violent and most authentic, with a main character modeled after Al Capone.

Scarface (1932) Official Trailer Scarface (1983) Official Trailer

Ironically, the public’s infatuation with these corrupt, murderous gangsters made the films the most popular and profitable of all genres but also led to the Production Code of 1934, which stipulated that gangsters could not be protagonists and must be taught that crime does not and cannot pay in the end. The public’s fascination with the gangster faded in the late 1930s until 1972, when Francis Ford Coppola brought us a new gangster film—The Godfather. The genre was revived and remains strong to this day.

Film Noir
Like the gangster movie, film noir is one of Hollywood’s home-grown movements in cinema. Noir is French for “black,” referring to the deep and ever-present shadows in these black-and-white films. With the influx of numerous European directors and actors, especially German, after the rise of Hitler in the 1930s (e.g., Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger) and due to the interest in adult-oriented movies based on the “hardboiled” American detective and crime stories from the “pulps,” a new style of filmmaking evolved. This new subgenre of crime film, defined by its content, storytelling, and visual attributes was termed “film noir” by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 and is perhaps the most consciously artistic American style. Watch this video about the origins of film noir.

Origins of Film Noir

Combining German expressionist lighting and attention to mise-en-scène with stories about hard-edged, cynical anti-heroes often seduced by sexy, deceptive femme fatales, film noir in many ways reflected the anxieties of the times, including those of the veterans returning home, discovering a world very different from the one they had left years before.

Module 4 covers the following topics:

The gangster films
Impact of synchronous sound
Impact of Prohibition and the Great Depression Anti-hero gangster
Gangster’s moll Gangster’s “gang” Law enforcement The American dream

Film noir
Intricate story lines
Chiaroscuro lighting, shadows, odd camera angles Witty, tough dialogue
Existential anti-hero Femme fatale

Impact of the Production Code on both genres

After successfully completing Module 4, you should be able to:

MO 4.1 Examine the history and characteristics of American gangster films. [CO2, CO 5]

MO 4.2 Examine the history and characteristics of film noir. [CO 2, CO 5]

MO 4.3 Analyze representative examples of American gangsters and film noir from historical, cultural, and artistic perspectives. [CO 2, CO 4, CO 5, CO 6]


Readings and Videos
Crime and gangster films. (n.d.). Filmsite. [Read Parts 1 through 3 and Examples.]

Cohen, M. (2001, February). Scarface. Senses of Cinema.

Jameson, R. T. (2011, May 2). Scarface (1932). Parallax View.

Film noir. (n.d.). Filmsite. [Read Parts 1 through 5 and Examples.]

Ebert, R. (1998, December 20). Double indemnity.

Watch Unit 7 in the American Cinema video series by Annenberg Learner.

Unit 7: Film Noir

Written Assignment 8
Watch the entire movie Double Indemnity (1944). Considered the definitive film noir, Double Indemnity displays the archetypal visual style, narrative conventions, character types, and themes of the genre. Write a 500- to 750-word essay (2 to 3 pages) in which you demonstrate how this film is an excellent example of the genre.

Your essay should include a brief overview of the film, the analysis of the film’s display of the film noir genre, and a conclusion about the film’s impact on the genre. You should also provide examples from this film to illustrate your assessment.

Ensure that you use APA format for in-text citations and your reference page. [MO 4.2, MO 4.3]

Do you need urgent help with this or a similar assignment? We got you. Simply place your order and leave the rest to our experts.

Order Now

Quality Guaranteed!

Written From Scratch.

We Keep Time!

Scroll to Top