The Gangster Genre in Harry Potter
Abstract: This essay is about the villains of the “Harry Potter” series having some connection to the American gangster film genres. In this essay, I would compare actors like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart to villains like Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Voldemort. I also compare classic films like Goodfellas, The Godfather part I and II, and Miller’s Crossing to certain plotlines to the books/films.
Does the Harry Potter book series have elements of the gangster film genre? There are many examples to support this question. In the opening chapter of Deathly Hallows, the Death Eaters gather at Malfoy Manor to discuss with Lord Voldemort about ambushing Harry Potter and infiltrating the ministry. This scene feels sort of similar to a scene in the film, “The Godfather” (1972) with the heads of the five families discussing with Vito Corleone about ending the long gang wars between themselves, Vito “sharing” the politicians he has in his pockets and agreeing to the distribution of narcotics. Even though both scenes are different in style and writing they both share the similarities of the head honchos (Vito Corleone and Voldemort) having enough corrupting influence with the politicians of their world to have their “long arms” to control what they want.
There’s a description of the Italian mafia in the book, An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America by George De Stefano that seems to describe Voldemort and the Death Eaters’ motivations:
“A national criminal conspiracy governed like a corporation
with a board of directors called the commission, which extends
its tenacles into legitimate business, politics, and labor.”
That’s basically what happens by the time Voldemort and his crew become all-powerful in Deathly Hallows. Even before then, you see traces of gangster elements in the main antagonists. When gangster films became more defined in the 1930s by Warner Bros. Studios, screen actors like Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart would electrify the big screen as ruthless hoods. The Harry Potter books have villains that uncannily resemble those actors’ screen personas. Draco Malfoy, for instance, is much like Edward G. Robinson as both are ruthless as well as clownish. Indeed Draco, much like Robinson’s famous role in the film, “Little Caesar” (1930) can talk big and try to take shortcuts to get to the top. Bellatrix Lestrange shares a lot in common with James Cagney; both are charming but psychotic rogues who would maim or kill anybody from a drop of a hat like in “The Public Enemy” (1931) where Cagney is a psychotic Irish American hoodlum who likes doing bad things for the sheer amusement much like Bellatrix. Voldemort is very much like the Humphrey Bogart type of gangster: a cold, remorseless killer. In the film, “The Petrified Forest” (1936), (which catapulted Bogart’s stardom) Bogart plays a Voldemort type of gangster named Duke Mantee. Everybody refers to him as the “last desperado” or as a “killer”. Indeed Duke’s physical appearance is very inhuman and monstrous to behold and he also carries a Frankenstein-like shuffle when he walks. Unlike Voldemort who kills for power and racial purity, Duke kills out of desperation and to escape his current life which has become a prison. In other roles, Bogart basically played the same villainous parts until 1941 when he did another gangster role that propelled his star quality as the male lead in “High Sierra”. In that film, he plays “Mad Dog” Earle and he shares a lot of complexities with Voldemort as he tries to assemble a crew. But, as his crew fails him, Earle ends up having a similar destiny to Voldemort and becomes another character trying to escape death until, ultimately, death comes knocking on his door.
Other gangster films that deserve attention are “The Godfather” I and II, “Goodfellas”, and “Miller’s Crossing”. Lucius Malfoy shares a lot of character traits with the main character of The Godfather trilogy, Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) who manipulates the higher powers of government with bribes or threats like when Michael silently threats Frankie Pentangeli that he will kill Frankie’s brother if he does not testify that he knows nothing of the shady business of the Corleone family in part II. It’s sort of similar to Lucius threatening the school governors with curses to their families if they did not suspend Dumbledore in Chamber of Secrets. Like Michael, Lucius has a family that has a reputation in high society even though they are both not legit.
If J.K. Rowling ever did a spinoff story of the dark side of the wizarding world, particularly the snatchers, I think it would be like the film “Goodfellas” (1990). Goodfellas chronicles the rise and fall of Henry Hill who was a foot soldier in the mafia from 1955-1985. Much like the Snatchers in Deathly Hallows, the gangsters in this film are illiterate and dangerous to mess with as they deal with different rackets. Here in Deathly Hallows however, the Snatchers’ sole purpose is to capture muggle-borns and blood traitors, but who knows: maybe these gangs are doing some illegal racketeering on the side in the wizarding world?
Severus Snape’s double agent stint for Dumbledore and Voldemort is very similar to the film “Miller’s Crossing”‘s (1990) plotline. The main protagonist, Tom Reagan (played by Gabriel Byrne), is the Irish American equivalent to Snape as he and Snape are lieutenants to Leo/Dumbledore’s bosses. Both are anti-heroic, mysterious, sharp-tongued, and private, and audiences question their loyalties. And just like the second Wizarding war, there is a war that breaks out between the Irish and Italian gangs over the power of the unnamed city. Also, both Snape and Tom kill an important character in order for their plan to bring peace to their world. They are also similar because both Snape and Tom do these things because of a woman they like very much (Lily Potter and Verna Bernbaum).
Even though the gangster film genre is very much a muggle fancy, I think Jo might’ve seen some parallel of the American screen gangsters to her rogues’ gallery. As the Harry Potter series progressed and its content got darker with each story, it seems that one of Jo’s other themes is power and its advantages and disadvantages. And in the wizarding world, a wand can be just as (or more) dangerous than a gun.