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"Rise and Fall" Gangster Arc

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"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States."
"And now it's all over... I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a shnook."
— The opening and closing lines of Henry Hill's narration, GoodFellas

A standard story arc in Gangster Fiction: the first half of the story depicts the gangster's rise up the ladder of organized crime, accumulating power, wealth, influence, and women; the second half depicts their fall from power into ignominy, failure, and (often) death. Much like in classical Greek Tragedy, the gangster's fall from power is usually caused by a Fatal Flaw: a character trait that served them well during their ascent but subsequently became a liability. Typically, the ending will be a Downer Ending, or bittersweet at best.

This convention emerged as a by-product of The Hays Code, a production code that Hollywood films had to rigidly adhere to between 1934-54. One of the rules of the code forbade films from depicting criminals getting away with their crimes, in hopes of avoiding glamorizing violent crime. As such, gangster films produced in the era were legally obliged to show their Villain Protagonist getting his comeuppance by the end of the film. After 1954, the production code was no longer as strictly enforced, and by the early 1960s, most Hollywood films were ignoring it entirely. The "rise and fall" arc, however, had come to be seen as such a quintessential component of gangster films that it has stuck around long past the point that there was a legal necessity for its inclusion.

However, it helped that this was often Truth in Television for many criminals in real life. Gangsterism tends to be a dangerous, ugly, illegal line of work at the best of times with a fairly high mortality rate, with many real cases of spectacular rises and falls. To cite just examples from Italian-American criminal history, the only acknowledged "Boss of all Bosses" in American Mafia history seized power in a lethal year-long war and enjoyed the position for less than six months before being murdered by an alliance of his underlings and his dead rival's lieutenants. Al Capone famously ran a continental criminal empire based around Chicago before being caught on Tax Evasion and psychologically destroyed by Alcatraz, and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel went from being unofficial founder of Las Vegas and glamorous Mafiosi to being killed for being a violent liability. All of these examples happened either during the life of the Hayes Code or well before it, and became legends. The issue of course is that this was a case of Accentuate the Negative by portraying the downfall as inevitable, when crime could pay and arguably the most powerful American criminal of his generation, Meyer Lansky. lived straight through the Hayes era before retiring on his own volition and living out the rest of his days free, something the Moral Guardians would not want to highlight.

Note that the "rise" and the "fall" are both essential components of this story arc: if a film begins when the gangster has already made a name for himself, or ends while he is still at the top of his game, it's not a straight example.

This trope originated in the gangster films of the 1930s, but can sometimes be found in stories about other kinds of criminals, like drug lords, arms dealers or even White-Collar Crime.

A specific type of the "Rise and Fall" variant of a Two-Act Structure. Compare Being Evil Sucks, Can't Get Away with Nuthin', Do Not Do This Cool Thing, Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!, Bookends, Where It All Began and the various Karma tropes.

Since this trope involves the resolution of a story arc, this list may contain unmarked spoilers.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • American Gangster is a dramatization of the real-life criminal career of Frank Lucas, from his time serving as the driver for a Harlem mob boss through his ascent to become head of one of the most lucrative heroin rings in the United States. He is ultimately arrested when police force one of his cousins to turn informant, and will himself go on to testify against many of the corrupt officers he bribed over the years.
  • American Made revolves around Barry Seal becoming increasingly rich as he becomes one of the most successful cocaine smugglers under the employ of The '80s-era Medellin Cartel and weapons smuggling for the CIA during the Iran-Contra affair. He eventually loses everything, courtesy of the CIA having no more use for him and him being exposed as one of said smugglers for the Cartel, and his narration the audience been following throughout the whole movie is revealed to be an Apocalyptic Log he recorded in a hotel room to provide state's evidence to protect his family, shortly before Cartel soldiers find and kill him. The film telegraphs the fact that it is this trope by showing Barry reading a biography of Al Capone around the halfway point.
  • Blow: The story of George Jung, who became one of the biggest cocaine smugglers in US history. The first half shows him graduate from smuggling marijuana to coke, his lavish lifestyle, and run-ins with flamboyant drug figures including Pablo Escobar himself. Later, we see George lose all of his money after another prison stint, his betrayal by his best friends, and eventual estrangement from his daughter.
  • The Godfather trilogy depicts rise and downfall of the Corleone crime family. Part I depicts how Michael Corleone is forced into the life after an attack on his father, and how he became the ultimate don in the United States after wiping out the opposition. Part II depicts the new challenges Michael faces such as being betrayed by some of his henchmen and facing government heat. Part III shows Michael as a broken shell who failed to take his family legit, how the murder of his daughter shook him on the inside, which leads to him Dying Alone. The cancelled Part IV would have depicted Michael's nephew Vincent steering the family into drugs (something Michael and Vito shunned), which would become the catalyst for the Corleone family's decline and Vincent being gunned down like Pablo Escobar.
  • Hustlers is about a young woman named Dorothy joining a gang of strippers who drug and rob Wall Street investors for money during the Great Recession of 2007-2008. The first half of the film shows Dorothy, Ramona Vega and their friends becoming rich and hosting a lavish Christmas party. The second half depicts their downfall due to Dawn accidentally revealing the strippers' scheme on phone to a client.
  • King of New York: Frank White is released from prison and immediately begins rebuilding his criminal empire, uniting many of the gangs of New York in an Equal-Opportunity Evil alliance and dealing major blows against his Mafia rivals. This soon draws the attention of the police, who start chipping away at Frank's influence. Most of Frank's gang is either killed in chaotic shoot-outs with other gangs or the detectives targeting Frank and he becomes increasingly unhinged and careless as a result. After he shoots the lead detective in public with tons of witnesses around, he attempts to flee before dying ignominiously, bleeding out in the back of a cab from a gunshot wound as waves of cops surround him, denying him even a Dying Moment of Awesome.
  • Legend (2015) features the rise to prominence of the infamous Kray twins, beginning as (respectively) a middling gang leader and a mental patient, before skyrocketing to the upper echelons of London's criminal underworld through a mixture of charm, brutality, and the sponsorship of the American Mafia. However, things begin to slide downhill thanks to Ron Kray's escalating insanity, eventually leading to loss of business, increased police attention, the collapse of Reggie Kray's marriage, and a brutal murder that not even the Krays' political connections can save them from. The film ends with Reggie Kray sitting alone in his room, staring resignedly at the door as the police batter it down.
  • Little Caesar follows Caesar "Rico" Bandello and his friend Joe Massara as they move to Chicago to seek their fortunes. Rico joins Sam Vettori's gang, quickly seizes control of the organization, and bests rival mob boss Little Arnie in a mob war, seizing control of Chicago's northside. However, Rico's impulsiveness, paranoia, and pride ultimately lead to the police crushing his organization, before Rico himself gets shot dead by a police officer.
  • Lord of War chronicles the story of arms dealer Yuri Orlov from before he's sold so much as one handgun. He goes on to amass a fortune and marry the woman of his dreams, but his brother ends up getting murdered by a client, his wife leaves him, and Interpol arrest him. It's a downplayed example, however, as while his personal life is a shambles, the US government frees him before the Hero Antagonist can even finish interrogating him, as they consider him too valuable an asset to be sent to prison... for now.
  • Once Upon a Time in America serves as a massive deconstruction of the trope. We don't see much of Noodles' rise, but we are clearly shown his fall and his desire to go back to the life he enjoyed living, only to realize his time was long past him.
  • The Public Enemy (1931) depicts Tom Powers and Matt Doyle rising up the ranks of a bootlegging operation in Chicago in the 1920s before a gang war erupts and Matt ends up dead with Tom hospitalized.
  • The Roaring Twenties follows Eddie Bartlett as he rises in the bootlegging racket, losing everything in the '29 stock market crash. When he gets gunned down at the end, a police officer asks Panama who he was. Cradling Eddie's body, she sobs "He used to be a big shot."
  • Both Scarface films:
    • Scarface (1932) depicts Italian-American gangster Tony Camonte becoming one of the leading figures in the Chicago bootlegging industry in the 1920s. However, his Hair-Trigger Temper and impulsiveness lead to him either getting killed by the police or arrested and sentenced to hang.
    • Scarface (1983) follows the same general plot as the original film, with a Setting Update to Miami in the 1980s. Tony Montana emigrates from Havana to Miami and quickly makes a name for himself in the cocaine trade, eventually becoming a fabulously wealthy drug kingpin. However, his addiction to cocaine, fits of rage, and impulsive behaviour ultimately lead to his undoing and death.
  • A recurring trope in the films of Martin Scorsese:
    • Casino charts the rise to prominence of Sam "Ace" Rothstein and Nicky Santoro in their efforts to control Las Vegas - the former running the Tangiers Casino successfully enough to gain accolades in the legitimate world, the latter enforcing mob rule on the streets. However, their mutual pride and personal issues eventually set off a chain of events that concludes with the end of Mafia-controlled Las Vegas, resulting in both men losing everything.
    • In The Departed, the Villain Protagonist Colin Sullivan is taken under the wing of gangster Frank Costello at an early age and groomed to eventually become Costello's mole in the police. The first half of the film features him skyrocketing to prominence within the force, using his connections to pin Costello's crimes on scapegoats, getting engaged, and gaining a fancy apartment. However, things start coming undone when Costello tasks Sullivan with finding the police informant in his gang (the other main character, Billy Costigan) - and the police task Sullivan with finding the mole in the department. As a result, Sullivan is drawn into a deepening web of lies and paranoia that results in him having to screw over both factions; in the process, he loses his girlfriend, his nerves, and very nearly his life. Just when it looks as if he's managed to beat the odds and get out in one piece, he ends up getting shot dead by the one cop who distrusted him from the very beginning.
    • GoodFellas: The film depicts Henry Hill's rise up the ranks of the Lucchese crime family, followed by a long descent into cocaine addiction, paranoia, and backstabbing. By the end of the film, all of Hill's former partners-in-crime are in prison or dead, and Hill has been placed in witness protection and has to live a dreary, monotonous life, completely unlike the luxurious and decadent lifestyle he'd become accustomed to.
    • The Irishman depicts Frank Sheeran's ascent from a lowly truck driver to a trusted Mafia associate, Teamster executive, and close friend of Jimmy Hoffa; however, in spite of the lengths he goes to in order to prevent his allies in organized crime from getting exposed, a cavalcade of minor crimes ends up sending them all to prison anyway, where most of them die pathetic, ignominious deaths. After getting out of prison, Frank himself spends his last days in a nursing home, crippled by arthritis and disowned by his own children.
    • The Wolf of Wall Street applies this trope to White-Collar Crime. Jordan Belfort's story begins with his attempt at a respectable career on Wall Street ending in the stock market crash of 1987, forcing him to find a new job selling penny stocks to gullible investors; before long, he's started his own brokerage firm and is raking in millions of dollars every year through a sustained pump and dump scheme. In the end, Belfort's greed, addictions, and overwhelming narcissism result in his wife leaving him, his company being shut down, and Belfort himself going to prison. The twist? Belfort is able to make a life for himself after prison by becoming a motivational speaker for people who want to be as successful as he was at his peak.
  • Smokin' Aces uses this trope out of chronological sequence. Buddy "Aces" Israel is in the middle of his fall when the audience is first introduced to him. Flashbacks show his days as a Las Vegas magician, his introduction to the mob, and forming his own crew to become a gangster himself. When the film starts, Buddy's on a Hookers and Blow binge after getting caught, is being hounded by the FBI to turn state's evidence, and is alienating his friends with his behavior. And that's before an entire Carnival of Killers start closing in on him.
  • Wall Street: Bud Fox is a rookie stockbroker aspiring to the lifestyle of unscrupulous corporate raider Gordon Gekko. Before long, Bud becomes wealthy, enjoying Gekko's promised perks, including a penthouse, his own corner office, and a girlfriend. But Bud's involvement with Gekko and overuse of insider information also attracts the attention of the SEC. It also alienates his father, who is an honest, blue-collar mechanic working for Bluestar Airlines. The tensions between Gekko and Bud reach a boiling point when Gekko reveals his plans to break up Bluestar Airlines. It's a downplayed example as Bud decides to cooperate with the SEC by spilling the beans about Gekko's insider trading activities, in exchange for a lesser sentence. The sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps reveals that after his stint in prison, Bud retires a wealthy man after he turned Bluestar Airlines into a large, successful operation.

  • Gates Of Eden by Ethan Coen (of The Coen Brothers): Spoofed in the story "Cosa Minopolidan." Joe De Louie is a small-time New York capo who moves his operation to Minneapolis MN and tries to take over the town. His "rise to power" ends up being a Humiliation Conga of being ignored by the locals, mistakes from his underlings, and a murder he arranges that lands him in jail (for perjury). The downfall still happens as Joe's gang falls apart in his absence, and he spends the rest of his life working in a barbershop and wondering what the hell happened.
  • Scarface (1932) was closely adapted from a little-known book of the same name by Armitage Trail (the Pen Name of Maurice R. Coons).

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Breaking Bad Spin-Off series, Better Call Saul, charts the rise and fall of Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad's successful and breezily confident mob lawyer. Prior to the events of Breaking Bad, we see him starting out as Jimmy McGill, a law-abiding, hard-working but ultimately unsuccessful lawyer who steadily drifts to the dark side as he grows to inhabit the "Saul Goodman" persona. The show's Flash Forwards to the post-Breaking Bad timeline show Jimmy in his new identity, "Gene Takovic", having escaped justice only to wind up a depressed, lonely, and utterly paranoid shell of his former self.
  • Boardwalk Empire:
    • The first season features Jimmy Darmody starting out as a Shell-Shocked Veteran of World War I who can barely hold down a job as Nucky Thompson's driver — only to eventually reinvent himself as a successful gangster, a friend to certain rising stars in the nascent Mafia, and a protégé to the Commodore. However, the second season begins throwing obstacles in his path, and in time, his impetuousness, ambition, and aggression gradually end up undermining his criminal career and destroying almost everything he loves. Season 2 ends with Jimmy knowingly walking into a trap set by Nucky and allowing himself to be gunned down.
    • The series as a whole covers and consists of Nucky Thompson's arc. From corrupt powerbroker to bootlegger and then full-fledged gangster, until his eventual demise.
  • Breaking Bad: Over the course of the first four-and-a-half seasons, Walter White transforms from a mild-mannered and ineffectual chemistry teacher to an intimidating methamphetamine kingpin, killing dozens and accumulating millions of dollars in the process. The second half of the fifth season depicts him losing almost everything he'd ever built or cared about, and ultimately dying from a bullet wound after saving his partner.
  • Brigada: A story about four friends in 1990s Moscow who form a powerful crime syndicate. By the end, all of them, save for their leader, Sasha Belov, are dead. It isn't any of their flaws that gets them killed, nor does any of them betray the rest, but their Arch-Enemy eventually destroys them through subterfuge.
  • Fargo loves subverting this trope:
    • Season Two: Mike Milligan is a lieutenant for the Kansas City Mafia, sent to assist his boss Joe Bulo with handling the Gearhardt crime family. After Bulo's decapitation, Milligan seizes the reins and wades into a full-scale war with the Gearhardts. After he wins, he seems poised to rise in the organization... which never happens. Milligan's only reward is a tiny office and a 9-to-5 job.
    • Season 4: Set many years earlier, Loy Cannon is shown trying to overthrow the Fadda clan and take over the city with his Cannon Limited organization, eventually getting his enemies to turn on each other... only to find himself cornered and his business absorbed by the newly formed Kansas City mafia. For added irony, he's revealed to be Mike Milligan's father.
    • Season 4 opens with a brief history of organized crime in Kansas City. Liev Moskowitz and his Jewish gang start out as poor immigrants and grow wealthy after taking over the city's rackets. They are then taken out by the Irish mob of Owney "Yiddles" Milligan. The Milligan gang also grows rich and powerful until they are taken out by Donatello Fadda's Italians. The rise and fall of each gang is illustrated by their clothing change over the years. When the new gang is introduced, they are wearing working-men clothes. When the gang is about to fall they are wearing suits, furs, and jewelry. When the season starts the Faddas are now wearing rich-men clothes and are confronted by the working class black gang of Cannon Limited.
  • The Naked Director: Toru Muranishi is not actually a gangster, he's a pornographer. In some ways he resembles a gangster, working in a business that is generally seen as socially undesirable, skirting the law, sometimes getting arrested and jailed, and (to his eventual regret) getting involved with some real yakuza gangsters. In any event his story has all the beats of a rise-and-fall gangster arc. The first season is the rise, as he goes from a nobody door-to-door salesman to the "emperor of porn", establishing his own company and defeating his rival, Ikezawa the porn kingpin. The second season is the fall, as he makes a foolish gamble on satellite porn, overcommits, bankrupts his company, and loses absolutely everything. The only difference is that unlike a gangster arc Toru is not jailed or killed, but ends his story still fighting and trying to make a comeback.
  • Narcos:
    • The first season depicts Pablo Escobar gradually expanding his cocaine operation in Colombia, becoming fabulously wealthy and powerful in the process. In season 2, things begin to go wrong for Escobar, resulting in pitched street battles between his men and the Colombian police. After two of his men betray him, he goes on the run and ends up cornered by the DEA and Colombian military after trying to contact his family. Finally, he gets shot in the ensuing shootout and executed by a Colombian police officer.
    • Mexico covers a similar arc for Félix Gallardo; he starts as a local policeman and minor soldier in another man's drug gang, but manages to become the biggest drug lord in the world by uniting the formerly rivaling regional plazas to start producing and selling marijuana in astronomical quantities. He later moves the new cartel into the far more profitable but riskier cocaine market and gets them into bed with the Colombians, but also increases their exposure by murdering a DEA agent... which he quickly resolves by striking a deal with the CIA and the U.S. State Department. However, he eventually loses his political support at the peak of his power and ends up imprisoned, with his empire split into various factions.
  • Queen of the South opens with Teresa Mendoza, a powerful queenpin in the cocaine business, getting shot dead, and then backtracks, showing how she rose from a simple money-changer in Culiacan to the head of an international cartel. Subverted in the final few episodes; having learned that the CIA is planning to overthrow her with the help of one of her former associates, she chooses to quit the business and live a much simpler life in Costa Rica.
  • The Sopranos: Downplayed with the main character, Tony Soprano, who is already a well-respected captain of the DiMeo family at the beginning of the show. However, the boss of the family dies of cancer only a few episodes later. Tony agrees to his uncle becoming the new boss, but only to prevent a Succession Crisis, and Tony has the most support from the other captains as unofficial leader. When his uncle is indefinitely detained in a psychiatric centre for shooting and nearly killing Tony in a dementia-addled haze, Tony's place as boss becomes official. However, he ends up losing almost everything over the course of the season due to his worsening gambling addiction, fierce temper, selfishness, and moral decay, culminating in a Mob War that leaves him cowering in a safe house for months. Nearly all of his captains are dead, detained, or worse by the end of the series, and his outcome is very grim, with either death or indictment likely following the finale. Although the ending is intentionally ambiguous, no possible future for him is hopeful.

  • This arc appears in many Gangsta Rap songs, usually in the Blue Collar/classical gangsta rap and Mafioso Rap subgenres.
  • Snoop Dogg's "Murder Was The Case" makes this arc a result of a Deal with the Devil (maybe). At the start of the song, Snoop's a minor gangsta who gets gunned down by his rivals - while dying, he prays to see the baby his girlfriend's pregnant with, then hears a mysterious voice that promises him eternal life and a life better than he ever dreamed of. In the next verse, Snoop's a highly successful drug dealer with plenty of weed and cars, but finds himself wanting more. In the final verse, Snoop's caught and sent to prison, surrounded by gang members from the opposite side, hearing inmates filing their toothbrushes into knives.

    Video Games 
  • Grand Theft Auto V does this with all of its three protagonists, to some degree. Franklin plays the story the straightest, as he rises from a quiet suburban life to a life of high-rise crime. Michael returns to a life of crime after his family continuously disrespects him. And Trevor wants to cause destruction and chaos for its own sake, though the extra money certainly doesn't hurt. In two of the ending options, all three of them fall to some degree. Franklin has to kill either Michael or Trevor to cover his own ass, and even the one who survives ends up with virtually nothing to show for it. With the Los Santos PD hot on their trail, all their money effectively worthless since they can't buy their way out of trouble, and a wake of bodies behind them, Franklin laments that the lifestyle of a gangster simply wasn't worth it, one way or another.
  • Mafia series:
    • Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven shows Tommy Angelo's circumstantial start to a life of crime during The Great Depression, then shows his gradual rise within Don Salieri's mob. Only Tommy's own conscience gets the better of him, and by the late 1930's he realizes that Salieri's no better than the late Don Morello by getting into heroin trafficking. He and his buddy Paulie rob a bank without getting Salieri's approval in order to "get out", only for his other friend Sam to betray them both and murder Paulie. It's being forced on the run after killing Sam that causes Tommy to turn state's evidence. He does some prison time, ends up in Witness Protection, and finally is assassinated on Salieri's orders in 1951.
    • Mafia II begins with Vito Scaletta (one of the two men who killed Tommy Angelo) in hard times, with the rest of the game showing his start as a petty thief, before fighting in World War II, getting discharged, rising through Empire Bay's criminal underworld, and finally becoming an official mobster. Unlike Tommy, however, he only briefly gets to enjoy the gangster life, before a handful of bad deals turn his life upside down again. Near the end, he ponders "Was It Really Worth It?"
    • Mafia III sees the player-controlled fall of the Marcano family as Lincoln Clay destroys each of Sal Marcano's holdings in the city. Depending on the ending, if he stays and takes control, he becomes the new kingpin of New Bordeaux, becoming a Villain with Good Publicity or takes off into the night with whichever his three lieutenants has the most power to take over. Thomas Burke, the head of the Irish Mob, gets a liver transplant, going from 6-8 months left to live to getting shot dead in 1985, starting the cycle of violence all over again. Cassandra, head of the Haitian Mob, is even more of a Blood Knight to the point the National Guard has to come in and literally shut down the entire town. The only one who actually has a GOOD ending is Vito Scaletta, who turns New Bordeaux into the Vegas of the South and lives to a ripe old age.

    Web Animation 
  • Zero Punctuation discusses this trope in his review of the aforementioned Mafia II:
    I was able to accurately predict the entire story of Mafia II using only the fact that it's this game about The Mafia. The main character, I foretold with the game's box to my forehead, will start the game licking the mildew off his landlady's crystallized vagina to make rent and will be lured into organized crime by the money, the clothes, the pretty cars, the fast whores, etc., but after a brief heyday will be ordered to kill a friend, or a friend will be ordered to kill them, and they'll realize that CRIME DOES NOT PAY (except for all the money, and the clothes, and the pretty cars, and the fast whores etc.). I have never seen a Mafia story where a bloke joins the Mafia and then everything is lovely forever. Why does society insist on demonising organized crime?

    Western Animation 
  • Parodied in the Rick and Morty episode "Gotron Jerrysis Rickvangelion". Rick's obsessive collection of GoTron ferrets to make ever-larger combining robots is portrayed like a crime drama, complete with Rick making deals with "the heads of the other families" (alternate-universe versions of himself, each representing a different crime boss stereotype), Morty and Summer providing narrative voiceover or the parasites in their heads doing so, anyway, and the various multiversal Sanchez families' lives growing increasingly opulent as the inevitable fall approaches. Things implode violently at the end when Rick unwisely hires on the original GoTron pilots, who are out for revenge and attempt to hijack Rick's ridiculously oversized GoGoGoTron combiner.
  • The South Park episode "South Park S 14 E 3 Medicinal Fried Chicken" parodies Scarface, and as such follows this same story arc, with Cartman taking the role of Tony Montana, just replacing cocaine with the recently-criminalized fried chicken. He manages to survive, though.