"Everybody calls me a racketeer; I call myself a businessman," said Al Capone when questioned about the legality of his occupation. This equivocation underlies the hazy separation between the legitimacy of capitalist enterprise and the lawlessness of gangster business practices in the Prohibition Era. The gangster film depicted graphic acts of crime as a method towards generating a successful business. During prohibition, bootlegging became the focus of their criminality.

The Volstead Act, outlawing any beverage containing more than .5% alcohol, didn't diminish the public's thirst for liquor and beer. As shown on film, the gangster became the chief supplier of the widespread demand. Legitimate brewers, such as Lehman in Public Enemy, had to go through illegal channels in order to distribute their product. Despite his worried need for reassurance that he doesn't want to be engaged in anything illegal,
Tom threatening a bartender
he is required to go use illegal means (Tom Powers and Paddy Ryan's gangland contacts and speakeasies) to achieve the simple ends. In distributing this beer, Tom resorts to the intimidation, extortion, and more violent crimes in keeping and spreading the power and scope of his liquor 'racket'. Racketeering served as the primary method in maintaining territory. Speakeasy owners, afraid of the powerful, ruthless gangster and his violent methods of enforcing his will, would succumb to his control. All of the gangster's criminal activities revolved around maintaining and expanding his control over the flow of booze into the speakeasies of the city.

The quantitative manifestation of the gangster's control was territory. How many speakeasies within a given section of town defined the power and prestige the gangster had. Within the gangster's territory, he ran the bootlegging business for all the establishments serving alcohol. Those that refused to bow to the gangster's pressure met with dire consequences. Tony Camonte's bombing of a rival's bar, along with his machine-gunning the owner of another, were a function of his drive to maintain control over his ever-expanding business territory. Yet with more territory came more power leading to a perpetual cycle of acquiring territory and power. When there were rival gangs, each with well-defined territories, the eventual desire on both sides to accumulate more power led to a head-to-head confrontation, typically shown on film as newspaper headlines blaring "Gangland War."

The gang war served an important role in the gangster film. It became the final extralegal challenge to the gangster as he rose to the heights of the criminal underworld. Both Tony and Rico each intentionally ignite a gang war as a way to assume control of their gang.
St. Valentine's Day Massacre
The original boss doesn't have the commitment to violence that bootlegging in the criminal, urban underworld requires; they focus on "organizing." The new gangster, in the Tony and Rico mold, use their "business skills" to rise to the top and unseat their less vigorous boss. Their ruthlessness in removing competition through drive-by shootings and mass executions (one scene in Scarface mimics the infamous "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" Capone used to gain control of Chicago's bootlegging business) is evidence of their callousness in conducting business. Showing the willingness to resort to such brutal violence both frightened away remaining competition and elevated the gangster to a leadership role within his gang. In rising to the absolute top of his profession, the gangster becomes a cultural hero in living the American dream of success for the ethnic "other" of the city.

Public Enemy   Little Caesar   Scarface  
  Previous Introduction
Prohibition - The Self-Made Man - The Business of Crime
The Ethnic, Urban, Working Class - Sound and the Gangster
Censorship and the Hays Code - Conclusion
Works Cited