Rejecting the Ethnic Community in Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface

  • Author(s): Bryan Mead
  • When: 2016-04
  • Where: Journal of Religion & Film
  • Film scholars commonly suggest that the 1930s American movie gangster represented marginalized Italian and Irish-American film-goers, and that these gangsters provided a visual and aural outlet for ethnic audience frustrations with American societal mores. However, while movie gangsters clearly struggle with WASP society, the ethnic gangster’s struggle against his own community deserves further exploration. The main characters in gangster films of the early 1930s repeatedly forge an individualistic identity and, in consequence, separate themselves from their ethnic peers and their family, two major symbols of their communal culture. This rejection of community is also a rejection of the distinctly Italian or Irish gangster’s religious past which, as Catholic, heavily relied on communal relations, especially in early 20th century America. Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) aesthetically construct this break with community spatially and audibly, with off-screen sound playing a major role in emphasizing the individualization of the gangster protagonist. These films also refuse to suggest that gangsters can reintegrate themselves into their ethnic or religious culture after they establish their individuality. Therefore, the gangster’s attempt to overcome social parameters makes him a public enemy, but his attempt to individualize himself from his ethnic community irreconcilably separates him from his ethnic peers and his family.

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