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20 Essential 1930s Gangster Movies That Still Hold Up


20 Essential 1930s Gangster Movies That Still Hold Up


As the roaring ’20s roared out of style, an explosive decade found its way into the cinema industry. From bootleggers and criminals to jazz and wild parties, there were several sobering realities of the Great Depression that needed to be depicted on the big screen. And even though times were tough and there was major unrest, movies provided a much-needed escape.

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Naturally, filmmakers mined stories from the streets, made the greatest gangster movies, and took the world by storm. The essential gangster movies of the 1930s had all the makings. For starters, they offered a glimpse into the dangerous world of organized crime, allowing the audiences to live vicariously through the rise and fall of rackets and kingpins. Moreover, the subtle drama, hypnotic performances, and evocative cinematography also created a distinct tone and atmosphere.

During the formative decade, there were a bunch of remarkable titles that have managed to stand the test of time. Even though technology and trends have drastically evolved since the 1930s, these renowned gangster movies continue to appeal to new generations because of their artful storytelling and complex character studies. The movies on this list feature 20 essential gangster movies from the 1930s that remain truly unforgettable even today.

20 Invisible Stripes (1939)

In Invisible Stripes, George Raft plays the role of an ex-con named Cliff Taylor, who tries to go straight after being released from prison but fails miserably. Mainly because of his disillusioned brother Tim, who does not have enough money to marry the love of his life and thus decides to turn to crime. Cliff, who is trying to escape his old enemies, instead falls into the temptation of easy money for the sake of his brother and ends up on the wrong side of the law.

A Gritty Story About Second Chances

Invisible Stripes is a taut thriller adapted from Warden Lewis E. Lawes’ crime novel of the same name. Under the direction of Lloyd Bacon, the film sees excellent life in New York City and taps into the noir style before the genre had fully established itself. Raft is terrific as the conflicted ex-criminal wanting to do the right thing. With so many sleazy villains and the police lined up to take him down, you cannot help but root for him. Overall, this story about redemption and second chances is gripping and poignant. Rent on Apple TV.

19 Each Dawn I Die (1939)

The plot of Each Dawn I Die revolves around an optimistic and unassuming newspaper reporter Frank Ross, who finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation and later accused of manslaughter. He is sentenced to 20 years in prison. Frank meets the notorious and untrustworthy lifer named “Hood” Stacey, who also claims that he was framed for the murder of an informant. The two men team up and try to clear Frank’s name.

Boasts a Haunting Atmosphere

This William Keighley-directed crime drama is based on a novel written by Jerome Odlum. Keighley, while staying faithful to the source material, immerses the audience into the seedy criminal realm and sets the template for the noir classics that followed. James Cagney and George Raft are both charismatic and share a great dynamic as two deeply flawed characters with morally ambiguous intentions. Decades later, its plot and atmosphere are still lauded. Rent on Apple TV.

18 The Roaring Twenties (1939)

An essential watch for fans of the genre, The Roaring Twenties follows three war buddies – Eddie Bartlett, George Hally, and Lloyd Hart – who return home after World War I and try to ease into normal life. Eddie becomes a cab driver, George a bootlegger, and Lloyd starts his law practice. As criminal enterprises rise and fall around them in the Prohibition era, the friends realize that their friendships and loyalties are being tested.

A Nostalgic Trip to the ‘20s

To tell a tale of three interconnected destinies and the effect of jealousy, nightmares, and desire to have the American dream it has on people is no easy feat. But director Raoul Walsh achieves it through this epic gangster saga.

With the help of an ensemble cast that includes Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George, and a particularly mesmerizing James Cagney as the ambitious bootlegger, the movie takes you back to the stylish ‘20s. It features social change, gritty realism, and nostalgia in equal proportion. Rent on Google Play.

Related: 10 Common Tropes You’ll Find in Most Gangster Movies

17 Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

One of the great filmmakers of his era and a Warner Brothers stalwart, Michael Curtiz, is the director of Angels with Dirty Faces. It centers around two pickpocketing best friends, Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, who were once caught in the act. One escaped and turned to a life of crime, and the other was sent to reform school to become a priest. Almost 20 years later, Rocky returns to his old neighborhood and meets Jerry, who tries to reform him.

Boundary-Pushing Cinematic Masterpiece

Angels with Dirty Faces stars Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney as an iconic pair; they were both simply electric, and supporting turns were lent by Pat O’Brien, The Dead End Kids, and Ann Sheridan.

The gangster drama was clearly ahead of its time in tackling issues of crime, redemption, and capitalism. Curtiz has always had a direction that focuses on melodrama. Which is why the movie uses certain tools to explore humanity’s faith in a higher power. Even 80 years later, the movie still holds up because it was boundary-pushing and heartfelt.

16 Algiers (1938)

Algiers received four Academy Award nominations back in the time and was a great influence to several artists, who remade the movie into radio plays and stage musicals. Its premise, set in the titular location, sees Pepe Le Moko, a charming French thief who is on the run from the law and finds refuge in the exotic Casbah. When he encounters the beauty that is Gaby, Pepe finds himself growing increasingly smitten. Still worried about his next big heist, Pepe gets caught up in his love for Gaby, and the jealousy that it evokes in his mistress, Ines.

Infused with a Swooning Romance

The twisting alleys of Casbah act as the perfect backdrop for this gangster movie about love and freedom, a testament to why we love cinema in the first place. Starring Charles Boyer in a phenomenal role alongside Sigrid Gurie and Hedy Lamarr as his love interest and Joseph Calleia as Inspector Slimane, the movie casts an alluring spell on the viewers.

From the turbulent romance to the tense game of cat-and-mouse, director John Cromwell creates a fantastic brew of desire and danger that gangster movies of the 1930s came to be known for. Stream on Fubo TV.

15 Dead End (1937)

Capturing the duality of Depression-era New York, where one side of the river is occupied by the luxury apartments and the other by cockroach-infested tenements, Dead End tells the story of the slums. The two protagonists are “Baby Face” Martin, who has just returned to the neighborhood, and Dave Connell, a frustrated architect at odds with Martin. While the former just wants to reign as the gang leader, the latter is torn between his girlfriend and a mistress.

Authentic Gangster Drama

Through Dead End, director William Wyler presented the world with a hard-hitting snapshot of urban poverty and how it walks hand-in-hand with crime. A true landmark of filmmaking, the movie creates a delicate balance between its grim setting and powerful message about social issues. The ensemble cast, including future megastar Humphrey Bogart as Martin, give their most raw and unforgettable performances.

Because of its authenticity, Dead End still holds up as a movie that spared no emotion and broke new ground. Stream on Prime Video.

14 Marked Woman (1937)

In Marked Woman, Bette Davis stars as Mary, a young woman who works as a bar girl run by the notorious underworld leader, Johnny Vanning. When two of Vanning’s henchmen brutally murder a client who fails to pay his gambling debt, Mary bravely agrees to testify against him. However, testifying against a gangster boss comes with threats and bribes, which extend towards Mary’s younger sister. And yet, Mary puts her life at risk and prepares to stand in the trial.

Lauded as a movie that held the ability to “convey not only corruption but the sadness of corruption,” Marked Woman was nothing if not a crusade for justice against a massive crime syndicate. While Davis was undoubtedly stunning in the demanding role, it was Humphrey Bogart that shone brighter than all-in-one of his earliest roles. The reason this movie holds up today is also because of its timely messages on feminism, staying righteous in the face of adversity, and fighting corruption head-on. Stream on Tubi TV.

13 Pépé le Moko (1937)

A French classic directed by Julien Duvivier, Pépé le Moko centers around the titular charming thief who has been hiding out in the Casbah quarter of Algiers to evade French authorities, who have teamed up with local detectives and are biding their time. While plotting his next heist, he meets a beautiful Parisian tourist named Gaby Gould and finds himself entirely in love with her. However, with Inspector Slimane on his tail, will Pépé be able to put his life of crime behind him?

A Pioneer of the Noir Genre

An exciting, thought-provoking, and poetic gangster movie that infuses elements of a tender and intoxicating romance into its narrative, Pépé le Moko takes French cinema to new heights.

By romanticizing the life of crime and juxtaposing themes of desire and passivity, it gripped the audience from start to finish. Additionally, under the sublime direction of Duvivier, the movie was a roaring testament of how melancholy finds a home in the most shadowy and stylish individuals. Clearly an influential gangster drama. Stream on Max.

Related: Coolest Gangsters of All Time in Movies and TV, Ranked

12 The Petrified Forest (1936)

An essential 1930s gangster movie, The Petrified Forest is adapted from Robert E. Sherwood’s 1934 drama of the same name. Taking place during the Great Depression, it follows Alan Squier, a morose writer tired of his dull life, having dinner at a restaurant where Gabrielle works. The remote location at the edge of the Petrified Forest is ideal for his drifting heart. But when gangster Duke Mantee shows up and takes the patrons hostage, Alan and Gabby must use the dramatic situation for their own gain.

Humphrey Bogart’s Breakthrough Role

While Leslie Howard and Bette Davis sizzled as the main couple, the movie marked Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough role as Mantee.

A tightly-paced thriller with enduring value, The Petrified Forest received particular praise for its opening scene and wise script, and lack of gun-related violence. Director Archie Mayo used the vivid atmosphere of Arizona to his benefit and created a gem that juggled crime and romance in a way that is still relevant today. Rent on Apple TV.

11 Bullets or Ballots (1936)

Bullets or Ballots is an outstanding gangster movie. In it, Johnny Blake, a skilled detective, is called to help after an anti-crime advocate is mysteriously murdered. Blake, who suspects mob boss Al Kruger, decides to go undercover and infiltrate the crime syndicate. With the help of an accomplice, Johnny burrows himself into danger and gains Kruger’s trust. Meanwhile, he tries to bust Bigs Fenner, a henchman played by Humphrey Bogart.

Delivers Pulse-Pounding Thrills

Inspired by a gritty take of the real-life New York City detective, Johnny Broderick, this crime thriller really packs a punch. For those who enjoy a decent, pulse-pounding gangster drama, the movie features epic shoot-outs, characters stuck in a crossfire, themes of betrayal, stylish violence, and genuinely engrossing storytelling. What makes the plot more interesting are the iconic performances from Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane, and Humphrey Bogart. Rent on Apple TV.

10 G Men (1935)

An attempt to subvert genre conventions, G Men was a unique and refreshing crime film that replaced a criminal protagonist with a fearless and determined federal police officer. The person in question is New York City lawyer James “Brick” Davis, whose strict virtues and righteousness has left him with no cases or clients to work with. When his, an FBI officer, is killed, Davis joins training, enters the FBI, and works his way up to infiltrate the organized crime ring responsible for the death.

Style With Substance

A crime procedural that holds up not only because of its nail-biting premise but also for showcasing the crime scene and justice enforcement system with realism, G Men is a highly entertaining movie. It features brilliant performances from future legend James Cagney, as well as Ann Dvorak, Margaret Lindsay and Lloyd Nolan in his film debut. Director William Keighley infuses every scene with a calibrated suspense that feels both appealing and mature.

9 Lady Killer (1933)

The premise of Lady Killer goes something like this: Dan Quigley works as a theater usher before switching careers and becoming a small-time crook instead. After years of running a nightclub/casino and evading the police, he finally gets recruited by National Studio. Soon, Dan has become a rising star. But when his past comes knocking, Dan realizes that his one foot is stuck in organized crime and the other in show business.

An Outstanding Crime Comedy

Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Lady Killer combines two genres that were way too popular in the 1930s – crime and comedy. There is no denying the fact that this pre-Code film transforms itself into a cocktail of crime, desire, and double-crosses. Which is more than enough to satisfy the cravings of modern moviegoers. As an added bonus, it features James Cagney as an ambitious grifter willing to do anything to get rich. Cagney’s swagger remains as entertaining today as it did 90 years ago. Rent on Apple TV.

8 The Little Giant (1933)

In The Little Giant, Edward G. Robinson stars as ex-gangster Jim “Bugs” Ahearn. Realizing that the Prohibition Era is coming to an end, Bugs decides to steer towards a more professional and respectable business. He develops an interest in books and arts, moves to Santa Barbara, learns how to play polo, and falls in love with Polly Cass. But after losing a huge amount of money in Polly’s investment firm, Bugs is forced to call upon his old gang members and use some tricks to extort the money.

Robinson’s Career Defining Role

Featuring a young and charming Robinson at his best, The Little Giant boasted a realistic depiction of life when it is placed in the hands of social change. Mary Astor and Helen Vinson lend flawless support as contrasting love interests. The script, filled with witty and wisecracking one-liners and decent romance, is testament to how progressive pre-Code Hollywood was. Despite being low key on the crime angle, the movie ensures maximum thrills and several satisfying moments. Rent on Apple TV.

Related: 10 Gangster Movies That Represent the 1920s

7 I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

A powerful and truly essential gangster noir drama, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is based on a harrowing true story. It revolves around World War I veteran James Allen, who returns to civilian life hoping to reunite with his mother and brother. As if his struggles aren’t enough already, Allen finds himself sinking into poverty and being forced at gunpoint to participate in a robbery. Afterwards, he is wrongfully accused and sentenced to hard labor on a brutal Georgia chain gang farm.

A Thought-Provoking Look at Justice

Earning universal acclaim for its depiction of a merciless justice system and one man’s fight to escape and evade it, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang shattered all illusions of ethics and fairness. Under the natural direction of Mervyn LeRoy, it painted a grim and disturbing portrait of how low humanity can sink when left unchecked. While Paul Muni’s searing and powerful performance was a standout, the movie, as a whole, was praised as “one of the finest to come from Hollywood in many a day.” Stream on Tubi TV.

6 Scarface (1932)

Hailed as “one of the most highly censored films in Hollywood history,” Scarface takes you to the roaring ‘20s. Paul Muni plays the role of an Italian immigrant gangster, Antonio “Tony” Camonte, who, despite being warned against it, murders his way to the top of Chicago’s crime ladder. As profits soar and Tony’s empire grows, he also comes face to face with a bunch of fatal enemies. Some of whom aren’t willing to spare his life.

An Ultra-Violent Classic

Playing out like a bloody nightmare, Howard Hawks’ essential gangster film pushed boundaries by being one of the grittiest, bleakest, and most visceral portrayals of organized crime on the big screen. Appalling even by modern standards, the movie was banned back in the day for glorifying the gangster lifestyle and using arms like they were toys. Its twisted depiction of ambition laced with unethical practices can still leave audiences speechless. And that’s what makes it a perpetual classic. Rent on Apple TV.

5 Smart Money (1931)

Set against the backdrop of underground gambling, Smart Money tells the story of Nick Venizelos, a small-time barber and a local gambler who seems to win every game. Pure luck or not, those around him encourage and manipulate Nick to take bigger risks. His customers come up with the funds and resources to send him to the city to participate in a big poker game. But Nick only encounters power plays and betrayal at every turn.

Robinson and Cagney’s Only Collaboration

So far, this list has been dominated by two actors – Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Perhaps it is because of their dominating physiques or their quiet intensity, but in the 1930s, the stars became synonymous with mob movies.

Director Alfred E. Green pairs these two together for the first and only time. And the result? Let’s just say Smart Money crackled with the kind of energy that would keep even Gen Z hooked to the screen. Shot on NY streets with a novel-like pace, the movie feels relevant even today. Rent on Apple TV.

4 The Public Enemy (1931)

Directed by William A. Wellman, The Public Enemy is another archetypal gangster film that still reigns supreme. During the Prohibition-era, Tom Powers and his lifelong friend Matt Doyle grew up together on the rough streets of Chicago. They engage in petty thefts and small crimes, but soon begin to see profits in their surroundings and seek to find a place in the cutthroat criminal empires. Tom’s escalating involvement in the bootlegging business comes at great personal cost.

Peak Gangster Cinema

The Public Enemy was James Cagney’s breakthrough role. As the ambitious, resentful Tom, he drove the pulsating narrative to directions one could never imagine. Also worth praising is Wellman’s portrayal of a realistic world of violence – one fueled more by desperation and savagery than purpose. He used lifelike portraits of his young characters and their shaking morals as a canvas to make what would become one of the most influential gangster movies ever. Rent on Apple TV.

3 City Streets (1931)

City Streets stars Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as young lovers. The former is a shooting gallery showman known as The Kid, and the latter is Nan Cooley, the daughter of a successful racketeer. Nan tries to convince him to join her father’s business in order to earn enough money to support their lifestyle. When he refuses, Pop makes Nan an accomplice in murder. The Kid is thus coerced into joining a dangerous path in life, and he will fight dirty to preserve his love.

An Underworld Saga Like No Other

Capturing the underworld through the eyes of an unwilling participant, this neo-noir drama thrives on its atmospheric locales and pulpy plot. Not for all tastes, the movie does have some scenes that are pure cinematic masterpieces, like when Sidney’s character has to take care of the murder weapon. City Streets is director Rouben Mamoulian’s sophomore film, but the slick sophistication and orchestrated violence makes it his best.

Related: 10 Actors Who Seem Like They Always Play Gangsters

2 Little Caesar (1931)

The movie that became a template for almost all the gangster movies that came after, Little Caesar tracks the meteoric rise and fall of a small-time crook, Rico Bandello. Moving to Chicago with his friend, Rico starts off with organizing a robbery at the nightclub where he works. Soon, his ambition and ferocity lead him to eliminate rival gangs, and he takes control of several crime rackets. As Rico grows in popularity and cultivates fear among all, so does his madness and paranoia.

Set Standards for Films That Came After

A massive success and a true cinematic milestone, Little Caesar was greatly regarded as one of the most significant pieces of work. According to critics, “it forged a template for the big-screen mobster archetype that’s yet to be surpassed.” With Edward G. Robinson playing the iconic Caesar, who embodied the character with terrifying authenticity, the movie fused the glitz of gangster life with biting social commentary. Moreover, Mervyn Leroy helped carve a fast-paced story that still holds up. Rent on Apple TV.

1 The Doorway to Hell (1930)

A pre-Code film based on the novel, Handful of Clouds, written by Rowland Brown, The Doorway to Hell tells the story of Louie Lamarr, a young gang leader whose intimidating presence and big brains help him climb the gangland ladder and soon he becomes the violent underworld boss of the entire city. With most of the gangs under his thumb, there’s no way he’s getting out of the business unscathed. Especially when he falls in love with Doris and tries to leave the underworld behind.

Vintage Gangland Flick That Still Holds Up

Starring James Cagney in his second feature film role as a sociopath, The Doorway to Hell is thickly and entirely doused in realism. From the depiction of power, glamor, corruption, and the vices of the lawless underworld to the dehumanizing toll of being in the streets for too long, the movie’s scenes pack a punch.

Along with Cagney, stars like Charles Judels, Dorothy Mathews, and Leon Janney deliver memorable turns. While a bunch of its scenes influenced Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III, The Doorway to Hell also holds up because of its unflinching glimpse into mob culture. Rent on Apple TV

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