The Gangster Film

book review by Gary Johnson

If you haven't yet picked up a volume of the Overlook Film Encyclopedia, you've been missing one of the finest film genre guides ever created. The first three volumes--The Western, Science Fiction, and Horror--debuted in 1983, 1984, and 1986 respectively (when the books were published by William Morrow and later by Harper & Row). When The Western first appeared, its foreword promised that additional volumes (including comedy, romance, war, and others) would be coming. But after Horror was published, years passed and no new volumes arrived. In the '90s, Overlook took over as the publisher of this series, and released new hardcover and softcover editions. The three existing volumes were all expanded and brought up to date with hundreds of new entries--but still no new volumes.

Now, at long last, a new volume arrives--The Gangster Film. And it's everything we have come to expect of the series: it's huge in scope with critical entries on over 1,500 movies. Charting the long history of the gangster film is no small task. Filmmakers around the world have turned to this genre with an especially profound output coming from the United States, Italy, France, Japan, and more recently Hong Kong. So while many of the entries focus on the familiar gangster films of the United States (Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface, White Heat, The Godfather, etc.), the focus isn't limited to Hollywood output. You'll find such influential movies as Julien Duvivier's Pepe Le Moko (France, 1937), Francesco Rosi's The Sfida (Italy, 1958), Nagisa Oshima's The Sun's Burial (Japan, 1962), Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (France/Italy, 1967), John Woo's The Killer (Hong Kong, 1989), Ringo Lam's Full Contact (Hong Kong, 1992), and many, many others.

The Gangster Film encompasses a broad and impressive selection of movies. Each critical analysis varies between two and five hundred words (with longer entries for key movies). The arrangement is chronological, so you can follow the history of the genre as it progressed through the decades. And the entries are accompanied by a generous selection of over 650 beautifully-reproduced black-and-white stills.

However the real reason this book is such a treasure is the generally high level of the individual critical entries. Editor Phil Hardy has pulled together an excellent group of writers. This isn't merely another guide that passes off synopsis as analysis. Hardy and the co-authors possess a formidable understanding of the genre.

The book's title deserves comment, for Hardy envisions a second, related volume focusing on crime movies. While The Gangster Film "is devoted to public crime by organized groups of people," The Crime Film (or whatever it will be called) will "be devoted to private crime primarily committed by individuals." This definition of crime into "public" and "personal" categories isn't particularly helpful and it potentially creates some confusion for the readers. Why, for example, include Gun Crazy (1949) but not Badlands (1976) in the public crime volume? Should we really consider Bart and Laurie from Gun Crazy to be gangsters? And does that really help us understand the movie any better? Maybe a better approach would have allowed for personal crime to include instances where multiple persons were involved. But this is quibbling: The Gangster Films is a beautifully designed and enormously useful volume. I know I'll be eagerly awaiting additional volumes in this series.


The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film (edited by Phil Hardy) is now available from Overlook Press. Suggested retail price: $65.00. Hardcover.


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