On Mob Rule

From “They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres”

Looking for a career instead of just another job? Consider a profession that offers unusual security and advancement. Benefits are impressive, hours flexible, starting salaries high, tax advantages unsurpassed (let’s just say your income would be tax-free). Consider that this business is organized on the principles of brotherhood. Respect for your elders. Tradition. Loyalty. Honor. Consider that this diversified multinational larger than IBM wants you, even though you may lack a high school diploma. Energy and discipline are the only skills required, although knowledge of firearms could be useful. Consider, too, that the syndicate – excuse me, corporation – has an unmatched record in making nobodies into somebodies.

Sound like an offer you can’t refuse? Consider yourself one of the Family.

Moralists say crime doesn’t pay. Well, it does at the box office. Ever since the Snapper Kid strutted through D. W. Griffith’s “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (’12), hassling Lillian Gish while he slipped a wad of bills to a grateful cop, gangsters have made law-abiding citizens look square. Cigarette dangling from his leering lips, hat rakishly tilted, the Snapper Kid (played by Elmer Booth) epitomized the style of the new century: urban, kinetic, slanted. Next to him, languid Gish was a relic from the Victorian age.

Since the Snapper Kid’s day, Hollywood has mythologized three types of heroes: the cowboy, the cop, and the gangster. Guys with guns in a world without women. Most durable is the gangster; without him, the cop has no adversary. And when he’s also a modern cowboy whose frontier is the city – or, as with Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part III,” the world – the gangster gives us hero and villain in the same character. That’s why the taste for gangsters has abated only briefly – during World Wars I and II, when real armed conflicts sated any pangs for reel mob wars.

But at the end of this year, which offered more gangster movies (thirteen) than any since 1931 (when forty were released), you have to ask yourself, do I really like eating lead? Yeah, you do. You’re in favor of gun control, just not on the screen. Movie gangsters evoke your simultaneous desire and fear. You’d love to live like them, but you’re afraid to die like them.

You like it when Chester Morris, as the pirate – a euphemism for bootlegger – in “Corsair” (directed by Roland West, ’31), rationalizes what he does for a living: “It doesn’t matter how you make your money. It’s how much you have when you quit.” You like it when Paul Muni, as Tony Camonte in the 1932 “Scarface” (directed by Howard Hawks), blasts his tommy gun, grinning, “Get outta my way, I’m spittin’.” You like it when Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna in “Prizzi’s Honor” (John Huston, ’85) goes ballistic – in both senses of the expression – in the sack with his hit woman wife, Kathleen Turner.

But it’s not only the fusillade that attracts you. Nor is it the dollars, the defiance, the strategies that would boggle a chessmaster. Nor is it, as essayist Robert Warshow suggested, the double satisfaction of participating vicariously in the gangster’s sadism and then seeing that sadism turned against him. It’s also this: in America, outlaws are tolerated – and celebrated – as long as they keep blazing new frontiers. The history of the gangster film is the history of where the frontier is, both morally and physically. For what is the mob movie but the saga of an enterprising pioneer seeing how far he (yes, it’s almost invariably a he) goes before getting caught? From the Snapper Kid to Michael Corleone, the evolution of the movie gangster is the evolution of America, a nation riddled with bullets and contradictions.

In his earliest screen incarnation, the movie gangster was a social problem to be solved. Mob films such as “Are They Born or Made?” (’14) linked gangsters with corrupt pols. In D. W Griffith’s “Intolerance” (’16), a gangster exerts his political influence to frame the “Boy” (Robert Harron) who tries to go straight. Sometimes the mobsters posed double threats, as in “The Gangsters of New York” (’14), in which the saloon is the capital of machine politics. Get rid of the saloon, the film implied, and good morals and good government will bloom.

Such logic led in 1920 to Prohibition, which, ironically, gave real-life gangsters significant employment opportunities. By 1926 illegal liquor was a $3.6 billion business. That same year, Al Capone made $105 million, which, adjusted for inflation – $650 million in today’s dollars – remains the highest gross income a private citizen (including Michael Milken) has ever enjoyed. Al Capone’s career inspired more films than any other gangster: at least seven features, including “Little Caesar” (Mervyn LeRoy, ’30) and Scarface, which makes him more popular than even Abraham Lincoln. Hollywood’s preference for Dishonest Al over Honest Abe suggests that Capone’s money and his IRS troubles were images every American could aspire to and identify with.

Capone was not heroized by name during his heyday because between 1920 and 1933 very few movies acknowledged bootleggers and rumrunners. The Hays Office, that self-censoring arm of the movie industry, forbade films undermining Prohibition. Nonetheless, “Twelve Miles Out” (’27) – the distance from the coast at which bootleggers loaded their schooners – starred John Gilbert as a dashing rumrunner who, before perishing, earns the devotion of a gaga Joan Crawford. In his jaunty trenchcoat and cap, Gilbert is the gangster as romantic hero, the first of a screen type that would be more popular after Prohibition. (After all, he was just guaranteeing citizens their inalienable right to a snort.)

But the first modern gangster film is generally regarded to be Josef von Sternberg’s moody “Underworld” (also ’27). Working from a screenplay by Chicago crime reporter Ben Hecht, von Sternberg depicted in “Underworld” a mirror image of the upper world. A successful gang boss (lout George Bancroft) hires a failed lawyer, now a skid row drunk (fop Clive Brook), as his henchman. Like Vito Corleone, whose violence and sensitivity are shown in “The Godfather” as he contemplates vengeance while fondling a cat, Bull Weed (Bancroft) in “Underworld” is equally capable of brutal murder and tenderness toward the kitten he adopts. Bull is a stray attracted to other strays, like Feathers (Evelyn Brent), whom he elects queen of what looks like the gangster prom. What’s striking about the film that won an Oscar for first-time screenwriter Hecht is how poetically von Sternberg evoked Bull, his moll, and his henchman as trusting members of a family.

The gangster soon became a two-fisted symbol of American enterprise, proof that even during the Depression upward mobility was still possible. Pug-ugly and pugnacious, Edward G. Robinson interpreted Little Caesar as the nation’s first antihero. Had he lived in the 1870s, Rico Bandello would have underpaid steelworkers while building a legitimate empire, but in 1930 the only way to achieve status was by gunning down the crime commissioner. Once hired-gun Rico becomes top gun, he is swiftly brought low; when shot dead by the cops, he looks like nothing but a bum. While the Hays Office believed “Little Caesar” was moralizing that crime doesn’t pay, what movies like it did was to link success with death, a hopeless message for hopeless times.

“The Public Enemy” (William Wellman, ’31) reinforced this message while making a star of the charismatic James Cagney. His insolent Tommy (as in gun?) Powers possesses a smile like a smirk and a saunter that repels bullets and attracts dames. As a kid, Tommy rejects school as “learning to be poor.” While his brother Mike enlists in World War I, Tommy enlists in the gang wars. When Mike accuses him of being a murderer, Tommy answers: “You didn’t get those medals holding hands with Germans.” Murder is murder. Tommy enjoys the perks of his profession: booze and broads. He gets Mae Clarke and Jean Harlow. Tommy buzzes, full of sting and life. Despite the Hays Office, his inevitable death is preferable to his brother’s half life. At least while Tommy lived, he lived.

Unlike Rico Bandello, who is killed by lawmen, or Tommy Powers, slain by a rival gang, Scarface’s Tony Camonte finds his greatest enemy is himself His lust for his sister (Ann Dvorak) makes him behave recklessly, and his own hubris does him in. He is the first gangster tragic hero, which elevates him above contemporary events in Chicago and links him to the great figures of literature. In the film’s chiaroscuro, he lurks in moral shadow.

The Hays Office was beside itself. The unholy trinity of “Caesar”/”Enemy”/”Scarface” was glorifying violence. So the Office’s guidelines for Hollywood productions became rules: from now on, the gangbuster, not the gangster, would be heroized. Thus, “Public Enemy”
Jimmy Cagney became a Fed in “G-Men” (William Keighley, ’35). And that same year, in John Ford’s charming comedy “The Whole Town’s Talking,” Edward G. Robinson played a dual role as a mild accountant and the ruthless mobster he helps trap. Still, the accountant enjoys being confused for the killer, proving that, as critic Carlos Clarens put it, “in every milquetoast beats the heart of a mobster.”

But censorship had a perverse effect. By banishing the gangster as central character, it pushed him into the world of mythology. “The last great apostle of rugged individualism” – that’s how poet Leslie Howard exalts killer Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) in “The Petrified Forest” (Archie Mayo, ’36). To another character, “He ain’t a gangster, he’s an old-time desperado. Gangsters is foreign. He’s an American” – not a Greek, Irish, Italian, or Jewish immigrant, whom bigots saw as un-American.

The gangster achieved even saintliness in a pair of excellent Raoul Walsh films. “The Roaring Twenties” (’39) depicted bootlegger Jimmy Cagney as a good guy who turned bad because he couldn’t find work after the war. “High Sierra” (’41) starred Humphrey Bogart as Roy Earle, a relic of the Dillinger gang. In both films, gangsterism is as basic to American history as the world wars and the Depression. In both, the gangster seeks redemption. Cagney dies for a noble act on the steps of the church. Bogart finds his last refuge in the Sierra Nevada, where he cleanses his soul of urban squalor. And in both films, each loves the good girl who rejects him (Priscilla Lane, Joan Leslie) and rejects the “bad” girl who loves him (Gladys George, Ida Lupino).

With few exceptions – Lurene Tuttle starring in “Ma Barker’s Killer Brood” (’60), Shelley Winters as Barker in Roger Corman’s “Bloody Mama” (’70) – women are a footnote to the mob movie. One reason the gangster genre is so popular is that it reinforces the impossibility of guys working it out with gals. It also validates the expression of male rage toward females. Violence toward women offers the moments everyone remembers best: Cagney squeezing grapefruit on Mae Clarke’s mug in “The Public Enemy,” Eduardo Ciannelli disfiguring Bette Davis’s face in “Marked Woman” (Lloyd Bacon, ’37), Lee Marvin tossing scalding coffee at Gloria Grahame in “The Big Heat” (Fritz Lang, ’53).

During World War II, the gangster movie again took a powder. Afterward, mobsters got psychoanalyzed, as in “Kiss of Death” (Henry Hathaway, ’47), when mob informer Victor Mature complains to D.A. Brian Donlevy, “Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine.” “With one difference,” returns Donlevy: “We only hurt bad people.” And Richard Widmark bears him out. In “Kiss of Death” Widmark creates the screen’s first psychotic gangster, Tommy Udo, who cheerfully shoves a wheelchair-bound granny down the stairs. Perhaps the most memorable psycho-gangster was the now-jowly Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat” (’49) as Cody Jarrett, whose best friend was his Ma (Margaret Wycherly). This model son likes to sit in Ma’s lap when not pumping his rivals full of bullets. The film’s still-startling coda is a perversion of the American Success story: wounded Cody stands on a flaming oil tank, crowing “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!” Shot by police, the tank explodes into a mushroom cloud. (The link between gangster and Bomb would be made even more explicit in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 “Kiss Me Deadly,” where mobster Albert Dekker traffics in nuclear explosives.)

While Tommy and Cody were characterized as social undesirables, returning gangster Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco in “Key Largo” (John Huston, ’48) was politically undesirable, humiliated at having been deported during the war, “like I was a dirty Red or something.” Rocco presaged the dark symbolism of screen gangsterism in the fifties, when virtually every movie mobster was evil. When communists replace mobsters as public enemies. “The Mob” (Robert Parrish, ’51), “On the Waterfront” (Elia Kazan, ’54) and “The Garment Jungle” (Robert Aldrich and Vincent Sherman, ’57) suggest that gangsters are communists and that they are infiltrating unions. If that weren’t scary enough, “The Big Heat” terrifyingly implies that their next frontier is the American suburb. Fritz Lang’s potent vigilante fantasy stars Glenn Ford as a cop whose loving wife is murdered because he’s too close to cracking a crime ring. When the police force won’t let him use the unorthodox (i.e., illegal) methods he needs to fight gangsters, Ford quits in frustration and enlists disillusioned mob moll Gloria Grahame to exact his revenge.

During the 1950s, the most novel development of the screen gangster was flannel-suited Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) in Joseph H. Lewis’s “The Big Combo” (’55). The mob boss resembles a powerful businessman. He counsels his henchmen to use creative persuasion. “I’m trying to run an impersonal business,” explains the charismatic Mr. Brown. “Killing is very personal.” Mr. Brown’s businesslike facade erases the boundaries between legitimacy and illegitimacy.

During the next decade, Hollywood gangster dramas tended toward nostalgic biographies of past mobsters, as if to say organized crime existed then, not now: “Baby Face Nelson” (Don Siegel, ’57), “Al Capone” (Richard Wilson, ’59), “Pretty Boy Floyd” (Herbert J. Leder, ’60), “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond” (Budd Boetticher, ’60), and “Mad Dog Coll” (Burt Balaban, ’61). Only occasionally was there symbolic evidence that the contemporary gangster like “The Big Combo’s” Mr. Brown, had completely integrated himself into American business. One such case is Sam Fuller’s pulpy “Underworld U.S.A.” (’61). No longer is the American gangster a habitue of urban streets and back alleys. Now he is comfortably housed in a gleaming skyscraper, just like any other American conglomerate CEO. When a freelance hood (Cliff Robertson) hellbent on avenging his criminal father’s murder takes on the syndicate, he is as successful as the grandmother who challenges the electric company.

Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (’72) depicted the transition from the Old Country, honor-bound world of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to the modern impersonal corporation headed by his son Michael (Al Pacino). Coppola conceived it as an epic and photographed it with Old Master lighting. Family rituals such as weddings and baptisms are intercut with ritual murders and baptisms by gunfire, lending a sacramental authority to the carnage.

In “The Godfather” and its equally powerful 1974 sequel, Vito Corleone is a variation on the American success story. He is the immigrant who makes good in the New World, an ethicist and sage who metes out justice and answers to a higher authority than the criminal justice system. Interestingly, in the war-torn America of 1972, Don Corleone is a pacifist who arises from his hospital bed to end a bloody mob conflict by declaring, “The war stops now!” Like any good patriarch, Vito Corleone puts family – and Family – first. The only time we see him kill (in “The Godfather Part II,” played by Robert De Niro), he shoots a Little Italy padrino who threatens his wife and kids, and later dispatches the Sicilian capo who killed his parents. The movie doesn’t specify from where the Corleone income and power derives, but you figure it’s not just olive oil.

His son’s detailed involvement with gambling casinos, prostitution, and other vices makes Michael a less sympathetic character. Michael is a cold-blooded businessman. Where Vito Corleone is a figure who wrests authority away from the Establishment and dispenses justice, Michael strives to legitimize injustice – about as effective a metaphor of American business practices as any gangster movie has ever attempted.

The extraordinary success of the “Godfather” sagas naturally prompted many inferior imitators: “Black Godfather” (’74), another “Capone” (’75), and “Lepke” (’75). But, unlike the films of the 1930s, almost no contemporary movie wanted to evoke the modern mob.

An exception was Brian DePalma’s 1983 “Scarface,” a remake updated to Miami’s Little Havana starring Al Pacino as a Cuban cocaine czar. This Scaiface was a success tragedy about an immigrant smart enough to corner a commodity but dumb enough to get high on his own supply. As written by Oliver Stone, who likewise characterized Chinese-American ganglords in the 1985 “Year of the Dragon” (directed by Michael Cimino), “Scarface” projected movie gangsters from the past into the present rather than imagining an original vision.

Through most of the eighties, Hollywood dealt with the mob by making fun of it. There was John Huston’s dark comedy “Prizzi’s Honor,” in which goddaughter Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston) outwits her paternalistic family, and DePalma’s “Wise Guys” (’86), wherein Joe Piscopo and Danny DeVito play two gangsters so dimwitted that a mob boss (Dan Hedaya) sets them up to kill each other. In 1988, David Mamet’s “Things Change” and Jonathan Demme’s “Married to the Mob” noted similarities between Feds and ganglords. When “Mob” heroine Michelle Pfeiffer complains to FBI chief Trey Wilson, “you guys are just like the mob,” he replies, “The mob is run by murdering, thieving, lying psychopaths. We work for the President of the United States of America!”

The comparison between mobster and president was made more seriously in “GoodFellas,” Martin Scorsese’s vivid case history of Henry Hill, when the mobster-turned-federal-witness (played by Ray Liotta) explains, “As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, it was better than being President of the United States. It meant being somebody in a neighborhood of nobodies.” More effectively than any movie since “The Godfather,” “GoodFellas” rethinks the gangster in symbolic terms. Liotta escorts Lorraine Bracco through the underbelly of the Copacabana, up through the kitchen, and into the dining room, where they are seated at a front-row table. It’s nothing less than the odyssey of the American mobster from underworld to ringside seat.

It’s no coincidence that six decades after the gangsters exploded on the screens in 1931, another explosion occurred in 1990. Both the thirties and nineties followed decades of excess and boom economy. They share a loss of faith in legitimate institutions, a bust economy, diminishing jobs and expectations. Thus, the gangster movie may have reemerged to suggest that the only way to achieve success is by illegitimate means. Andrew Bergman’s comedy “The Freshman” is one of several to say that the mob (as represented by a Vito Corleone look-alike played by Marlon Brando) is more honorable than the FBI. You could argue that that year’s mob movies glamorize the gangster at the expense of the lawman. That the gangster has better clothes, all the fun, and most of the good lines. In Sidney Lumet’s “Q&A,” police officer Nick Nolte is immoral compared to the honorable ganglord Armand Assante. In the Prohibition-era comedy “Dick Tracy” (directed by Warren Beatty), the bent Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) is much more in tune with the times than straight-arrow Tracy (Beatty). Big Boy’s philosophy, which he attributes to Abraham Lincoln: “If you ain’t for the people, you can’t buy the people.”

You could argue that 1990’s mob movies were a condemnation of eighties materialism and corruption, that the mobsters in “Miller’s Crossing” (Joel and Ethan Coen) who buy and sell the mayor and chief of police are not unlike the Charles Keatings who allegedly buy and sell senators. You could argue that that year’s gangster films addressed the meltdown in the American melting pot. The ethnic divisions and divisiveness in “Q&A,” where the police department is run by the Irish, who lord it over their black and Latino lieutenants, where the district attorney’s office is polarized between Italian and Jewish factions, and where the gangs are run by Puerto Ricans, show you how narrow ethnic loyalties obstruct a wider sense of community.

But isn’t it true that whenever we worry about our security, our welfare, even our future, we always conjure images of violence, power, and retribution? When America is afraid of enemies from without, like demon rum or communism, we make the film gangster their symbol, the devil incarnate. When America is afraid of enemies from within, like the failure of its economy or its institutions, we choose the movie mobster for our avenging angel, our desperate grab at hope. This is why once again, in 1990, the commandment was: Honor thy Godfather.