PRINT January 1991


Gangster Flicks

WHETHER OR NOT The Godfather Part III arrives as promised on December 25, America’s Christmas present to itself, the past few months brought a well-remarked-upon season of gangster flicks, with no less than seven examples of the genre opening in New York—Dick Tracy, The Freshman, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, King of New York, State of Grace, and The Krays—as well as the promise of more, including a portrait of Bugsy Siegel and an adaptation of the E. L. Doctorow best-seller Billy Bathgate. Do we have to ponder the source of the appeal? Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and Peter Medak’s The Krays, the current cycle’s two most factual (being based on real stories) and “naturalistic” examples, are careful to exploit the affinity between mobsters and film stars. In The Krays, a British film and hence only tangentially concerned with American mythology, the eponymous brothers are dismissed as “movie gangsters”; the main protagonist of GoodFellas—by far the most substantial of the films at hand—uses the same trope as a compliment. Referring to the gangsters he admired as “movie stars with muscle,” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) conflates the two dominant masculine images of the past decade.

A movie star with muscle—it makes me think of those 1985 pinup posters that superimposed the smiling face of Ronald Reagan on the Uzi-wielding torso of Rambo Stallone. As Roland Barthes observed in a meditation on “Power and ‘Cool,’” the gangster’s realm is “the last universe of fantasy.” It is “above all a world of sang-froid [where] two fingers snapped, and at the other end of our field of vision a man falls down in the same convention of movement.” Barthes links gangster cool to the “distanced death” produced by firearms, but it seems no less connected to the spectacularly “distanced death” made possible by movies—celluloid gangsterism as a form of vicarious megalomania. The 1930 Little Caesar, with Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rico, canonized the gangster as public figure. Indeed, as one of America’s reigning icons, Al Capone—the inspiration for both Little Caesar and the original 1932 Scarface—enjoyed more extensive media coverage than President Hoover. Now, of course, the president is our Godfather.

Typically set in New York or Chicago, the gangster movie is intrinsically nonwestern, except when it shifts to Las Vegas (that gaudy materialization of the gangster libido). It is the story of 20th-century pioneers, and ethnicity is crucial (as well as an extra kick in this period of new tribalization). Thus State of Grace pits courtly Italians against slob Irish, while Miller’s Crossing reverses the equation, with cultivated Irish fending off grotesque “guineas” and “sheenies.” The equally stylized but more contempo King of New York has one Frank White [sic] return from prison as the Caucasian leader of a black and Hispanic gang—less like Tarzan than like RFK back from the grave. White’s rivals are Irish cops, Italian mafiosi, Chinese drug lords, Colombian smugglers; the movie offers a disquietingly nocturnal vision of post-WASP New York, as well as a pulp post-Modern gloss on Scarface. (Where the ’30s gangster is perforated by police bullets in the baleful light of a neon sign proclaiming “The World Is Yours,” Frank White expires in a cab caught in Times Square traffic under a billboard advising him to “Enjoy Coca-Cola.”) GoodFellas is at least as ethnographic as it is ethnic. A virtuoso slob of life, the movie reeks of Outer Borough folkways. It’s filled with doo-wop, shtick, and outraged expletives like “a Jew broad prejudiced against Italians!?!” This adoringly appalled representation of middle-level gangsters is something like Scorsese’s Flaming Creatures. You know everything you need to about the antihero’s fate when he tells us, in voice-over, that the pasta in the government’s witness protection program is “egg noodles and catsup.”

Of course, as entertaining as it is, ethnicity is also the genre’s fig leaf. Without it, the gangster film becomes a naked attack on (or uninhibited celebration of) the free-market economy, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the rule of corporate capitalism, as in Samuel Fuller’s 1961 Underworld U.S.A. (where the mob is staffed by ambitious junior executives looking for a solid future and a bit of security) or, in another way, by the massive merchandizing of Dick Tracy. In a world where money is the ultimate value, tribal identification is the cheapest emotion. Turf wars can be presented as a sentimental affection for one’s old neighborhood, rather than an economic battle over market share. Similarly, the emphasis on gangster codes of loyalty to friends or family is an inoculation against the realization that, out in the marketplace, the only valid ideology is a paranoid loyalty to the self.

Given this grim subtext, it’s striking that the last wave of gangster films, presaged by Brian De Palma’s Wise Guys and including The Freshman, were comedies—Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob, David Mamet’s Things Change, Paul Morrissey’s Spike of Bensonhurst. The latter, being the most extreme and nihilistic, went so far as to make out the Mafia as the embodiment of traditional values, the representative of law and order. It had been, after all, a decade and a half since The Godfather Part II, and the Cosa Nostra was camp. Today, it’s something worse. As the New York Times reported in a front-page story last October: “A BATTERED AND AILING MAFIA IS LOSING ITS GRIP ON AMERICA.” (Citing the impact of aggressive investigators and incompetent leadership, the Times revealed that traditional Mafia families remained viable only in New York City and the Chicago suburbs; “In Los Angeles, investigators speak of the ‘Mickey Mouse Mafia,’ saying the mob is so enfeebled that illegal bookmakers refuse to pay it for the right to operate.”) Dick Tracy, The Freshman, and Miller’s Crossing are all openly nostalgic, while GoodFellas derives much of its brilliance from Scorsese’s knowingly impacted view of America from the go-go early ’60s to the exhausted end of the ’70s.

The fact is: the Mafia R Us. (It’s a recurring sci-fi trope that organized crime simply makes America its “ultimate racket.”) The land of opportunity, where “there’s a sucker born every minute,” the United States has always been a haven for entrepreneurial crime—witness the success with which gangsters from Hong Kong, Odessa, and Havana have been able to reconfigure their operations here. John Hancock, who signed the Declaration of Independence and left his name as a synonym for life insurance, was something of a wise guy himself—making his reputation (and fortune) as a heroic smuggler. Broken treaties settled the American West. Robber barons like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller served as models for immigrant street kids like Capone. Fraud, coercion, and freedom from regulation are so integral an aspect of American public life that the moral outrage that, however perfunctory, underscored the gangster movie up until The Godfather now seems as quaint as the campaign against demon rum.

“Gangster” was once the ultimate epithet, used to explain the rise of dictator-thugs like Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini. But that was before Lucky Luciano was drafted to help us win World War II, JFK went to bed with Mafia molls, and the CIA got involved in dealing drugs. Given that the U.S. is currently reduced to running a protection racket, it’s awkward for us to gangsterize Saddam Hussein, even when he tips his hand by revealing that his favorite film, like ours, is The Godfather. Who wants that creep muscling in on our fantasy as well as on our action?

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum. He writes film criticism for The Village Voice, New York.