08 September 2010
The Appeal of the Gangster Film, and My Ten Favorites
From the beginnings of cinema until the present day some of the greatest films ever made have been about gangsters. In this totally pixilated place called "real life" we (unless absent any sense at all) hate criminal gangs. Yet on film we root 'em on like they were the dear old home team. Anyone knuckle-headed enough to cheer on the cops in a gangster film has no sense of fun or imagination.
So what's the appeal of the genre, I ask myself in order to continue with the essay. There are several things at work. One is that gangsters are not bound by laws or any other strictures of society. While us law abiding types are confined by criminal codes, ethics, morals, rules and restrictions, gangsters do whatever the hell they want. That's the way to live! And we thus live vicariously through these gun toting mobsters. Yet a mobster does answer to certain set of codes, but principally within the gang itself and to his brother criminal. We can all get behind such latter day chivalry.
So there's that but there's also the violence. If neither over done nor gratuitous (the two go hand in hand), cinematic violence is compelling theater, so to speak. Films in general make use of violence as a story telling tool because it is so vivid and visceral. (And I for one do not for a second cotton to the notion that on screen violence plays any role in creating "real life" violence. Violent criminal gang activity was rampant in urban America throughout the latter half of the 19th century and cinema was not yet part of popular culture.) In some respects, the enjoyment or at least acceptance of screen violence in gangster films relates to my previous point about living vicariously. Many of us, as peace loving as we may be, have had deep seated fantasies about socking someone in the jaw, opening fire on our enemies or intimidating foe and bystander alike with the threat of injury or death. Gangsters on film can satisfy these primal urges for us.
A third and often overlooked appeal of the gangster genre is its appeal to our natural instincts as tribal animals. Humans, like dogs and unlike cats, are pack animals. We like to be a part of. Be it athletic teams, clubs, families, religious groups, armies, unions, fraternal organizations, most people long to be among like minded fellow humans, usually with a unifying purpose. Gangster films are all about male bonding. Sometimes in organized gangs, sometimes in crime families and usually in a combination thereof. We enjoy watching people work cooperatively toward a common goal, sharing hopes fears and dreams. Never mind that these groups are sometimes comprised largely of psychopaths. Related to this is an aspect common to virtually every family, gang or other organization: the boss. Most of us like a good leader, be this the head of the family, the coach, the pastor, the general, the president or the chief. There's nothing more satisfying then being led by and feeling watched over by a good leader. Unless its perhaps actually being that leader.
I now offer to you a list of ten American gangster films. All of which meet the following criteria: they're great films; they feature a family, organized gang or both; include violence but are never gratuitous; and have a leader or leaders. On the one hand coming up with ten was easy, on the other, confining it to ten, not so easy. You may feel compelled to rant and rave about the glaring omission of a favorite gangster film, but remember that this list, like any such endeavor, is bound to reflect the biases and tastes of the author.
Family Affair The Godfather (1972). People love this film, nobody more than I do. Like all great films of the genre it's about much more than crimes and criminals. The Godfather is about family and the transformation of one young man. The violence, particularly at the end of the film, is mostly operatic and not meant to convey the reality of dying by the gun, but to represent the means by which individuals can sacrifice their own decency to achieve their ends. First Marlon Brando as Vito, then Al Pacino as Michael, serve as the head of the Corleone family, the titular Godfather of a criminal enterprise. We see one established in his role, beloved and feared, and watch how another grows into it. From director Francis Ford Coppola.
What Price Anarchy? Goodfellas (1990). This Martin Scorsese film is rich with energy and verve, simultaneously romanticizing and demystifying the life of gangsters. From the narration of Ray Liotta as the real life Henry Hill we hear of the allure of the gangster life, how the rest of us are suckers in our nine to five jobs while gangsters boldly take what they want. But we also see the terrible price paid for choosing such a path. We revel with gangsters in the close bonds they form with one another, while then watching the cost of a single misstep. There is violence aplenty as there needs to be in telling such a story.
Family Ties The Godfather Part II. This necessary follow up to the original, continues the story while also providing the amazing backstory. We see how Vito started his rise and the terrible consequences of such a life to Michael as even fratricide becomes a viable option. Like the first film, Part 2 is about much more than breaking the law. Relationships are part and parcel to most films and they're dealt with in all their complexity and in various forms in this epic. Brothers. Husbands and wives. Business associates. Rivals. All of these and more. Of course brutal violence is often what's used to settle differences. There's no sentimentalizing in Godfather Part 2, indeed there are no trite nor obvious solutions offered. Just cause they're gangsters doesn't mean they can't make you think.
Not Your Typical Mama's Boy White Heat (1949). This is a James Cagney show through and through. He's the not all together popular leader of a gang. There's one of the proverbial rubs of gang life. You may be sitting in the catbird seat as the leader but its always possible someone wants your spot. Cagney's Cody Jarrett has to deal with this, along with the law and those fiercesome headaches. This is one nuanced character, especially for gangster film, for Cody's gang includes his dear ole ma who he's quite attached to. Like all the other films on this list, and many other good gangster films, White Heat is wildly entertaining and features a grand performance by its star. In fact, Cagney as Jarrett is as good a cinematic portrayal as you'll see of gangster.
The Penitent Man Mean Streets (1973). Harvey Keitel's Charlie is a good Catholic, or at least as good as you can be when you're consorting with and abetting lawbreakers. Oh yes and participating too. The film's tagline is: "You don't make up for your sins in church, you do it in the streets." Clearly we have a man with a conscience. Yes, clearly some crooks have one. In addition to Charlie there is the goofy and dangerous Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) who errs badly in not playing by the rules. That is those rules by which gangs govern themselves. Want to break society's laws? Knock yourself out. But within the criminal family you better walk the line. Mean Streets does not romanticize violence or "the life." Even the drunkenness is reeling, staggering and dizzy. So here again we see the wages of sin, whether you've been going to church or not.
Like a Candle in a Hurricane The Public Enemy (1931). Cagney again, this time as Tom Powers a young man who rises from being a two bit crook to running his own show. You can guess how this is going end up for our protagonist. Hollywood tends to want its criminals to get what's coming to them. Powers is a force of nature, as were many a Cagney character. His physicality has never been more impressive than in this mannered and interesting young man. Whether plugging an old enemy or stuffing a grapefruit in a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend's puss. This is the classic charismatic gang boss and a movie that greatly influenced the genre. It's use of off camera violence by director William Wellman is especially effective.
Very Radical Couples Therapy Bonnie and Clyde (1967). One of the most influential films ever made in part for the manner in which it introduced more realistic violence to cinema. Contrary to Public Enemy the violence was in your face. Different strokes for different movies. Here we have a totally compelling re-imagining of the true life escapades of the real life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who along with Clyde's brother and sister-in-law became bank robbing folk heroes during the Great Depression. It is virtuoso story telling of the first order from director Arthur Penn, effectively employing music, humor and an innovative camera.
The Classic Rise and Fall The Roaring Twenties (1939). It shouldn't be a surprise that Cagney appears on this list three times. He appeared in a lot of gangster films and was personally responsible for their success. This is a classic rags-to-riches gangster story with Cagney as Eddie Bartlett. He's the type of crook whose fallen into his line of work by circumstances, then makes the most of it. Humphrey Bogart is an associate who turns on our hero. Like many a gangster we feel for Eddie, certainly next to Bogie's character he's the lesser of two evils We ache as the girl of his dreams (Priscilla Lane) finds love in another's arms. Gangsters can buy a lot with their ill gotten gain, but even they are incapable of purchasing love.
I Smell a Rat Donnie Brasco (1997). Johnny Depp is the title character in the amazing story of a cop who goes under very deep cover and infiltrates the mob. He even gets to see a mob victim sliced up for easy disposal and difficult detection. But most of all this is a look at the totally unglamorous working class mobster who has to hustle for every dime with death an every present danger. Al Pacino gives one of the best performances of his remarkable career as a sort of middle class mobster. Michael Madsen is at once alluring and terrifying as the boss. But it is through Depp that we see the seamy underbelly of the underside of the underworld. We are not underwhelmed.
Johnny Rocco's a Skunk Key Largo (1948). Edward G Robinson played some pretty rotten eggs but perhaps none were worse than Johnny Rocco. What awful things is he whispering into his lovely hostage's (Lauren Bacall) ear? Makes your skin crawl to think of it. I included Key Largo because in addition to being such a wonderful film, Robinson plays Rocco like the dirty stinking rat that arguably all gangsters should be shown to be. He's also the classic gangster in that he's fully in charge and rightly feared, unwavering in his commitment to do whatever is needed for his own survival and success. Bogie shows up here too, this time as a good guy out to foil Rocco's evil doings.
Others to consider: Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932), Brother Orchid (1940), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Johnny Eager (1941), Gangs of New York (2002).