From almost the beginning of film history, directors had the impulse to portray crime and gangsters on film. Probably one of the first crime films was "The Great Train Robbery" by Edwin S. Porter. Pioneer director DW Griffith had one of the earliest crime film with his 1912 "The Musteteers of Pig Alley". The other crime films of that decade were made predominanly by the French with Louis Feuilade's "Fantomas" and "Les Vampires" along with George Melies "Bluebeard".
In the 1920s the crime wave picked up steam with a number of films on the underworld. Some of the legendary directors to try their hand at the crime genre were Fritz Lang with "Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler", Karl Lung's "The Street", Priscilla Dean's "White Tiger", Alfred Hitchcock's "The Pleasure Garden", Frank Urson's "Chicago", Harry Hoyt's "The Return of Boston Blackie", , Tod Browning's "The Big City", William Wellman's "Ladies of the Mob", Bryan Foy's "Lights of New York", Lewis Milestone's "The Racket", Roland West's "Alibi", Paul Leni's "The Last Warning" and Joseph von Sternberg's "Thunderbolt" and aptly titled "Underworld".
The Depression years defined the Hollywood gangster and crime film. The defining films of this period were the star driven vehicles for spectacularly realistic actor James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni in the films "Doorway to Hell" by Archie Mayo, "Blonde Crazy" by Roy Del Ruth, "Little Caesar" by Mervyn LeRoy, "Public Enemy" by William Wellman, "Scarface" by Howard Hawks, "Angels With Dirty Faces" by Michael Curtiz and "The Roaring Twenties" by Raoul Walsh. It may have been the cinematic storytelling talent of the directors who fashioned the stories about crime but it was the singular genius of actor James Cagney who brought the flesh and blood realism of the street tough characters he portrayed that make these films classics for generations to come.
There were a number of older directors and newer ones who spun out more crime films in the pre and post war years. Archie Mayo, Lloyd Bacon, Fritz Lang, Raoul Walsh and Roy Del Ruth were tried hands at the crime genre. Some memorable films from the period were Lloyd Bacon's "Larceny Inc.", Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity", "Edgar Ulmer's "Detour", Michael Curtiz's "Mildred Pierce", Fritz Lang"s "Scarlet Street", Tay Garnett's "The Postman Always Rings Twice", Jules Dassin's "Brute Force", Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past", Joseph H. Lewis' "Gun Crazy", Nicolas Ray's "They Live By Night" and the epochal "White Heat" by old crime master Raoul Walsh staring a guy named James Cagney.
The crime films after World War II was embodied by the cynical and world weary face of actor Humphrey Bogart. The directors to work with Bogart include Nicolas Ray for "In A Lonely Place", "The Enforcer" by Bretaigne Windust, "The Desparate Hours" by William Wyler, and "The Harder They Fall" by Mark Robson. Some of the other notable films of the period were "The Asphalt Jungle" by John Huston, "Night and the City" by Jules Dassin, "Strangers on a Train" by Alfred Hitchcock, "The Big Heat" by Fritz Lang, "The Big Combo" by Joseph H. Lewis, "Night and the Hunter" by Charles Laughton, "The Killing" by Stanley Kubrick, "Slightly Scarlet" by Alan Dwan, "Crime of Passion" by Gerd Oswald, and the baroque crime masterpeice "Touch of Evil" by Orson Welles.
The cultural climate of the 1960s was not a very good period for the crime and gangster film but a number of films were still made by name directors. The most interesting crime films to come out in this era were "The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamon" by Budd Boetticher, "Underworld USA" and "The Naked Kiss" by Sam Fuller, "Bonnie and Clyde" by Arthur Penn, "In Cold Blood" by Richard Brooks and "The Honeymoon Killers" by Leonard Kastle.
The biggest talent to emerge out of the crime genre in this period was director Martin Scorsese. Scorsese found inpsiration in the old Warner Brothers gangster films of his youth combined with a new realism coming from independent cinema with his films "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver". The stellar crime films of the decade were "A Clockwork Orange" by Stanley Kubrick, "The French Connection" by WIlliam Friedkin, "The Godfather" and "Godfather Part II" by Francis Ford Coppola, "Badland" by Terrence Malick, and "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" by John Cassavettes,
There were a number of solid crime films made in the 1980s. Some stand out films were"Raging Bull" by Martin Scorsese, "Thief" by Michael Mann, "Scarface" by Brian DePalma, "Blood Simple" by Joel Coen, "Once Upon a Time in America" by Sergio Leone, "8 Million Days to Die" by Hal Ashby, "Prizzi's Honor" by John Huston, "Blue Velvet" by David Lynch, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" by John McNaughton, "House of Games" by David Mamet, "The Untouchables" by Brian DePalma and the comedy ganster film"Married to the Mob" by Jonathan Demme.
With the sucess of Martin Scorsese reinvigorating the crime and gangster film with his own brand of gritty realism and genre touchstones, it seemed that a slew of other directors wanted to try their hand at this crime film. The decade began with the "Goodfellas" by Martin Scorsese which set the bar high in a new standard for the crime film. There was also "King of New York" by Abel Ferrara, "Internal Affairs" by Mike Figgis, "Millier's Crossing" by Joel Coen, "Homicide" by David Mamet, "American Me" by Edward James Olmos, "Bad Lietenent" also by Abel Ferrara, "Resevoir Dogs" by Quentin Tarantino, "A Bronx Tale" by Robert DeNiro, "Carlito's Way" by Brian DePalma, "The Last Seduction" by John Dahl, "Natural Born Killers" by Oliver Stone, "Pulp Fiction" also by Quentin Tarantino, "Shawshank Redemption" by Frankie Darabont, "Casino" by Martin Scorsese, "Heat" by Michael Mann, "The Usual Suspects" by Brian Singer, "Fargo" by Joel Coen, "Set It Off" by F Gary Grey, "Donnie Brasco" by James Mangold, "Jackie Brown" by Quentin Tarantino, "LA Confidential" by Curtis Hanson, "American History X" by Tony Kaye, "Out of Sight" by Steven Soderbergh, and "Summer of Sam" by Spike Lee. Probably the standout films of the decade were "Goodfelles" by Martin Scorsese, "Bad Lieutenent" by Abel Ferrara, "Pulp Fiction" by Quentin Tarantino and "LA Confidential" by Curtis Hanson.
The better crime period of the present period include "Oceans Eleven" by Steven Soderbergh, "Training Day" by Antoine Fuqua, "Catch Me If You Can" by Steven Spielberg, "Gangs of New York" by Martin Scorsese, "A History of Violence" by David Croneberg, "Sin City" by Robert Rodriguez, "Inside Man" by Spike Lee, "Miami Vice" by Michael Mann, "American Gangster" by Ridley Scott, "No Country For Old Men" by Joel Coen and "We Own The Night" by James Grey. A flawed masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the crime films was Martin Scorsese ambitious and epic period gangster film "The Gangs of New York".