The Gangster Film Sympathy Angle

     Would you feel sympathy for a cold-blooded murderer? Certain types of crime have always been more glamorous than others. The gangster from the 1920s and 30s in Chicago was a celebrity in his own day and remains an icon of the Prohibition era. Hollywood capitalized on the popularity and fame of gangsters by making them the leading men in films and portraying them with popular stars. The Hollywood gangster was not only a criminal but a heroic figure for whom your sympathy is aroused. To see why the use of sympathy in gangster films was effective, we will review the dictionary definition of sympathy and its synonyms, the methods of provoking sympathy, and its possible dangers.

     The dictionary defines sympathy as “a feeling of compassion for another’s sufferings.” Pity, compassion, and commiseration are synonyms for sympathy, but none are as strong. Pity is more of a mental than emotional sorrow for another’s misery or distress, commiseration is an outward expression of pity which is expressed with tears, exclamations, or words of comfort, and compassion is pity with an added, urgent desire to help or change the situation. Sympathy differs from these in the fact that it implies not only a tender concern but a power to enter into another’s emotional experience. It lacks the rareness and mysticism of empathy, which means the ability to actually feel and experience another person’s emotions or thoughts. It is impossible to feel empathy for someone you do not actually know, but it is possible and very easy to feel sympathy for fictional characters when they are dramatically brought to life on the Silver Screen.

     Sympathy is aroused in different people by different things. In spite of this, certain scenarios are used in gangster films which I believe would effect anyone with any kind of sensitivity. Firstly, the lead gangsters were often played by young, handsome, and somewhat likeable actors.

Secondly, at some point during the typical gangster film, someone who is very dear to the lead gangster is killed, causing him to placate his grief with vengeance.

Third, the lead gangster shows genuine affection for another character in the later part of the movie, making him seem more human.

Finally, the character is very sweet and pathetic near the end of the film, making him a likeable character who is worthy of the audience’s sympathy.

     Sympathy can be very dangerous. The most harmful and un-Codish element of the typical gangster film is not its violence or its prurience but its portrayal of crime and criminals. In most gangster films, such as “Public Enemy” from 1931, crime is presented as glamorous, exciting, and profitable, which is extraordinarily perilous in desperate times like the Great Depression. 

Public Enemy 3

Some gangster films, such as the first gangster film, “The Doorway to Hell” from 1930, present crime as justified and criminals as decent men, which produces the hazardous idea that a cold-blooded murderer like Louie Ricarno is not evil.Handful of Clouds 3

Therefore, in either type of gangster film, when the gangster is killed at the end of his film, the audience feels nothing but sympathy for him and forgets his past sins. In addition, law enforcers such as policemen and detectives are often portrayed as heartless, cold, weak, or foolish; the legal system looks ridiculous as gangsters totally outwit and defeat it.

These elements combine to give the audience a warped sense of justice and an unhealthy sympathy for gangsters.

     Having reviewed the dictionary definition of sympathy and its synonyms, Hollywood’s methods of producing sympathy, and the possible dangers of sympathy, we see why it is so effective in gangster films. Sympathy truly means not only sorrow for human suffering but the power to enter someone else’s emotions. Hollywood makes you feel sympathetic toward a gangster after the film has ended by making him seem sweet and pathetic right before he is killed. Gangster films are dangerous because they make the audience have favorable feelings toward crime, resentment toward the law, and sympathy for criminals. The brilliance of the gangster sympathy angle is shown by the fact that, although almost ninety years have passed since the first gangster film was released, it has not lost its golden power to evoke the audience’s sympathy.


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3 thoughts on “The Gangster Film Sympathy Angle

  1. So true! Hollywood is the best at manufacturing sympathy, using all the devices you outlined. For example, they know if a character suffers misfortune or humiliation early in the film, the audience will root for them despite almost anything they may do.


  2. This is a wonderful article about two swell films. I have seen both of these, and I like them both. I think “Doorway to Hell” is more glamorous, but James Cagney is certainly very convincing and compelling as Tom Powers. He is my sister’s favorite actor, but I like him a lot too. Keep writing these great articles, Brannans!

    Promise E. Pope


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