American Gangster Movie Censorship Essay

Crime and Gangster Filmsare developed around the sinister actions of criminals or gangsters, particularly bankrobbers, underworld figures, or ruthless hoodlums who operate outside the law, stealing and violently murdering their way through life. In the 1940s, a new type of crime thriller emerged, more dark and cynical - see the section on film-noir for further examples of crime films.Criminal and gangster films are often categorized as post-war film noir or detective-mystery films - because of underlying similarities between these cinematic forms. Crime films encompass or cross over many levels, and may include at least these different types of films: the gangster film, the detective (or who-dun-it) film, the crime comedy, the suspense-thriller, and the police (procedural) film.

See also AFI's 10 Top 10 - The Top 10 Gangster Films

Crime stories in this genre often highlight the life of a crime figure or a crime's victim(s). Or they glorify the rise and fall of a particular criminal(s), gang, bank robber, murderer or lawbreakers in personal power struggles or conflict with law and order figures, an underling or competitive colleague, or a rival gang. Headline-grabbing situations, real-life gangsters, or crime reports have often been used in crime films. Gangster/crime films are usually set in large, crowded cities, to provide a view of the secret world of the criminal: dark nightclubs or streets with lurid neon signs, fast cars, piles of cash, sleazy bars, contraband, seedy living quarters or rooming houses. Exotic locales for crimes often add an element of adventure and wealth. Writers dreamed up appropriate gangland jargon for the tales, such as "tommy guns" or "molls."

Film gangsters are usually materialistic, street-smart, immoral, meglo-maniacal, and self-destructive. Rivalry with other criminals in gangster warfare is often a significant plot characteristic. Crime plots also include questions such as how the criminal will be apprehended by police, private eyes, special agents or lawful authorities, or mysteries such as who stole the valued object. They rise to power with a tough cruel facade while showing an ambitious desire for success and recognition, but underneath they can express sensitivity and gentleness.

Gangster films are often morality tales: Horatio Alger or 'pursuit of the American Dream' success stories turned upside down in which criminals live in an inverted dream world of success and wealth. Often from poor immigrant families, gangster characters often fall prey to crime in the pursuit of wealth, status, and material possessions (clothes and cars), because all other "normal" avenues to the top are unavailable to them. Although they are doomed to failure and inevitable death (usually violent), criminals are sometimes portrayed as the victims of circumstance, because the stories are told from their point of view.

Early Crime-Gangster Films Until the Dawn of the Talkies:

Criminal/gangster films are one of the most enduring and popular film genres. They date back to the early days of film during the silent era. In fact, even Edwin S. Porter's silent short western The Great Train Robbery (1903) has often considered a classic hold-up story and chase film - a movie about crime.

Perhaps the earliest 'crime' film was Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), a 45 seconds long short (released in 1903) that was shown one-person at a time in hand-cranked Mutoscope machines or nickelodeons in amusement arcades. It was also the earliest known film featuring Sherlock Holmes. The plot was about how the famed Arthur Conan Doyle detective, a cigar-smoking gentleman, was 'baffled' when a black-clothed thief magically disappeared (through trick-photography) with a sack of stolen goods. Also, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1905), released by Vitagraph (although now a lost film) has been considered the first Sherlock Holmes film since it was created for a theatrical audience rather than as a one-person Mutoscope production.

One of the first films to officially mark the start of the gangster/crime genre was D. W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) about organized crime. It wasn't the first gangster movie ever made, but it was the first significant gangster film that has survived. Outdoor scenes were shot in the gangland territory of NYC's Lower East Side with its slum tenements, and cast members included possible gang members. The story was about a poor, virtuous, and vulnerable Little Lady (Lillian Gish) who was threatened, victimized and terrorized by Snapper Kid (Elmer Booth) - the gangster leader of a gang known as the Musketeers.

[Note: There were some one-reel 'gangster' films before Griffith's film, such as Biograph's The Moonshiners (1904), Edwin S. Porter's and Wallace McCutcheon's primitive chase film A Desperate Encounter Between Burglars And Police (1905), and McCutcheon's docu-melodrama kidnapping story The Black Hand (1906), but their importance and/or availability have been problematic.]

French director Louis Feuillade's Fantomas series from the Gaumont film studio popularized the crime serial - Fantomas (1913-1914, Fr.) featured the character of supercriminal Fantomas (René Navarre). Based on the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantomas was released as five separate films, running roughly an hour each. Other characters included police inspector Juve (Edmund Breon) and newspaper journalist Fandor (Georges Melchior), who worked to bring down the arch-villain-thief (a master of disguises), who also committed identity theft and murder. The five episodes were:

  • Fantômas - À L'Ombre de la Guillotine (1913, Fr.) (aka In the Shadow of the Guillotine)
  • Juve Against Fantomas (1913, Fr.) (aka Juve versus Fantomas)
  • The Dead Man Who Killed (1913, Fr.) (aka The Murderous Corpse)
  • Fantomas Against Fantomas (1914, Fr.) (aka Fantomas versus Fantomas)
  • Le Faux Magistrat (1914, Fr.) (aka The False Magistrate)

Feuillade's later Judex (1916, Fr.), another popular film serial, featured a female criminal.

Traffic in Souls (1913) (aka While New York Sleeps), a six-reel melodrama, was a "photo-drama" expose of white slavery (entrapment of young women into prostitution) at the turn of the century in NYC, although the film exploitatively promised steamy sex in its advertisements. Mutual released The Gangsters and the Girl (1914), a short starring Charles Ray as undercover Detective John Stone investigating neighborhood urban gangs and a wrongly-condemned slum girl.

Raoul Walsh's first feature film, the silent crime drama The Regeneration (1915) has been regarded as the first feature-length gangster film, with presumably the first complex characterization of a criminal anti-hero. It showcased violent lawlessness on the streets of New York (it was shot on location in NYC's Bowery District on the Lower East Side), and the rise of an orphaned Irish-American slum boy named Owen Conway (Rockliffe Fellowes as a 25 year-old adult). He grew up to become a drunken gangster (prone to gambling) due to repressive social conditions in his environment. However, he was 'regenerated' (saved from a life of crime) after falling in love with do-gooder social worker Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson).

The upcoming 1920s decade was a perfect era for the blossoming of the crime genre. It was the period of Prohibition, grimy and overpopulated cities with the lawless spread of speakeasies, corruption, and moonshiners, and the flourishing rise of organized gangster crime.

Josef von Sternberg's gangland melodrama Underworld (1927) with George Bancroft and Clive Brook, reflected the 1920s. It has often been considered the first modern gangster film, with many standard conventions of the crime film - and it was shot from the gangster's point of view. It won the Best Original Story Award for Ben Hecht - the first Oscar ever awarded for an original screenplay, and the first of Hecht's two Oscar wins (among six writing nominations during his career). [The first 'gangster' pulp had the same title, Underworld, a breeding ground for many crime thriller plots.] And Lewis Milestone's The Racket (1928), a Howard Hughes-produced film, concentrated on big-city corruption and a municipality controlled by the mob, and was banned in Chicago because of its negative depiction of the police.

Expressionistic German Crime Films:

Three German directors contributed a number of expressionistic black and white crime films, noted for chiaroscoro lighting, sharp-angled shots, and monstrous characters (i.e., insane scientists or doctors, or crazed individuals):

  • Robert Wiene
  • F.W. Murnau
  • Fritz Lang

Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919/1920, Germ.) (aka Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari) told about a ghost-like hypnotist-therapist in a fairground-carnival named Dr. Caligari (Werner Kraus). He used his power of hypnotism to commit crimes, through his performing somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The influential film featured the shadowy, disturbing, distorted, and dream-nightmarish quality of the macabre and stylistic 'Caligari,' with twisted alleyways, lopsided doors, cramped rooms, crooked and overhanging buildings, and skewed cityscapes.

F.W. Murnau's silent classic Sunrise (1927), was about a country village farmer (George O'Brien) who fell for the allure of a sophisticated, vampish seductress/temptress (Margaret Livingston) from the City. She tempted him under the moonlight in a swamp, persuading him to devise a murderous plan to kill his pure, innocent wife (Janet Gaynor) - by drowning her during a trip to the City.

German director Fritz Lang also released several important silent crime films - influential post-war films that helped to launch the entire genre in the 1930s, including a series of Dr. Mabuse films about a mastermind character:

  • Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (Parts I and II) (1922-1923) - a two-part silent crime melodrama about an evil, criminal boss capable of disguise, conspiracy, and tremendous hypnotic powers.
  • The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) (aka Das Testament das Dr. Mabuse), a crime thriller and Lang's second sound feature, resurrected the ruthless genius (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) running a crime ring while imprisoned, and a tenacious Scotland Yard detective (Otto Wernicke) in pursuit. The film was noted for a spectacular car chase scene, explosions, and murders. The government interpreted the film as subversive and having anti-Nazi sentiments - causing Lang to hurriedly leave Germany (he soon relocated in the US and ended up directing in Hollywood by 1936). [Note: Ironically, the legendary director's swan-song film (his first film made in Germany since 1933), The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), spotlighted the same arch-criminal character.]

Lang's most seminal film was M (1931, Germ.) - his first sound feature (bridging the gap between silents and talkies). It was an expressionistic psychological thriller about a child molester serial killer. The pedophile-psychopath was identified as Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) - his coat back was marked in chalk with the letter "M." He was caught hiding in an attic, and taken to a large abandoned brewery building to stand trial, where he was questioned by a panel of underworld boss-leaders.

The Gangster Film in the Era of the "Talking Picture":

It wasn't until the sound era and the 1930s that gangster films truly became an entertaining, popular way to attract viewers to the theatres, who were interested in the lawlessness and violence on-screen. The events of the Prohibition Era (until 1933) such as bootlegging and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929, the existence of real-life gangsters (e.g., Al Capone, John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, "Baby Face" Nelson) and the rise of contemporary organized crime and escalation of urban violence helped to encourage this genre. On the other side were law-enforcing "G-Men" (or "government men") led by the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover.

Many of the sensationalist plots of the early gangster films were taken from the day's newspaper headlines, encouraging the public appetite for crime films. The allied rackets of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution brought these mobsters to folk hero status, and audiences during that time vicariously participated in the gangster's rise to power and wealth - on the big screen. They vicariously experienced the gangster's satisfaction with flaunting the system and feeling the thrill of violence. Movies flaunted the archetypal exploits of swaggering, cruel, wily, tough, and law-defying bootleggers and urban gangsters.

The talkies era accounted for the rise of crime films, because these films couldn't come to life without sound (machine gun fire, screeching brakes, screams, chases through city streets and squealing car tires). The perfection of sound technology and mobile cameras also aided their spread. The first "100% all-talking" picture and, of course, the first sound gangster film was The Lights of New York (1928) - it enhanced the urban crime dramas of the time with crackling dialogue and exciting sound effects of squealing getaway car tires and gunshots. Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets (1931) from a story penned by Dashiell Hammett was reportedly Al Capone's favorite film, starring Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sydney as two lovers trapped by gangland connections. And Tay Garnett's violent Bad Company (1931) was the first picture to feature the gangland massacre on St. Valentine's Day.

Three Classic Early Gangster Films from Warner Bros:

Warner Bros. was considered the gangster studio par excellence, and the star- triumvirate of Warners' gangster cycle, all actors who established and defined their careers as tough-guys in this genre, included Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart. Others who were early gangster stars included Paul Muni and George Raft.

Three great classic gangster films (among the first of the talkies) marked the genre's popular acceptance and started the wave of gangster films in the 1930s in the sound era. The lead role in each film (a gangster/criminal or bootleg racketeer of the Prohibition Era) was glorified as he rose to the top with infamy and power, but each one ultimately met his doom in the final violent scenes of these films, due to censors' demands that they receive moral retribution for their crimes.

The first two films in the cycle were released almost simultaneously by Warner Bros, setting the pattern for numerous imitators (with tommy guns, fedoras, double-breasted suits, etc.):

(1) Little Caesar (1930), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starred Edward G. Robinson as a gritty, coarse and ruthless, petty Chicago killer named Caesar Enrico (or "Rico") Bandello (a flimsy disguise for a characterization of Al Capone), who experienced a rise to prominence and then a rapid downfall. Robinson was the first great gangster star.

(2) The Public Enemy (1931), directed by William Wellman, starred James Cagney (in his first film and breakout role) as a cocky, fast-talking, nasty, and brutal criminal/bootlegger named Tom Powers - most memorable in a vicious scene at the breakfast table where the snarling gangster assaulted his floozy moll girlfriend (Mae Clarke) by pressing a half grapefruit into her face. [Both were still in their pajamas, indicating that they spent the night together.] The startling finale included the door-to-door delivery of Cagney's mummy-wrapped corpse to his mother's house - the bandaged body fell through the front door. The main story was about two brothers, Tom (Cagney) and his straight, uptight brother Mike (Donald Cook) who grew up and pursued very different lifestyles. The pre-Code film emphasized how the early developmental environment clearly contributed to an evolving life of adult crime - and his inevitable gruesome death.

[Note: The same stars were reunited in another Pre-Code quasi-gangster/comedy film, Lady Killer (1933) with Mae Clarke as Cagney's moll, and Cagney as the head of a New York crime ring who must relocate and hide out in Hollywood.]

(3) Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932), directed by Howard Hawks, a Howard Hughes' produced film from UA, starred Paul Muni as a power-mad, vicious, immature and beastly hood in Prohibition-Era Chicago (the characterization of Tony Camonte was loosely based on the brutal, murderous racketeer Al Capone). Other stars were George Raft (as his coin-flipping emotion-less, right-hand killer) and Ann Dvorak (as Tony's incestuous sister Cesca).

The ultra-violent, raw landmark film in the depiction of Italian-American immigrant gangsters included twenty-eight deaths, and the first use of a machine gun by a gangster. It was brought to the attention of the Hays Code for its unsympathetic portrayal of criminals, and there was an ensuing struggle over its release and content. The disturbing portrayal of irresponsible behavior by the gangsters almost encouraged its attractiveness. [Note: In tribute over fifty years later, Brian de Palma remade the film with Al Pacino in the title role of Scarface (1983). Ironically, this film was also criticized as being too brutal.]

Both The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) tried to deflect criticisms that they were sensationalizing the lifestyle of the hoodlums, with unconvincing prefaces or disclaimers. In particular, Scarface (1932) began with a critical, written statement to indict gangster hoodlumism and the public's and government's indifference. The audience was then blamed for promoting the role of the gangster with its perverse fascination in the phenomenon of mob activity - and then challenged:

  • "It is the ambition of the authors of 'The Public Enemy' to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal."
  • "This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: 'What are you going to do about it?' The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?"

The Influence of the Hays Production Code on Gangster Films:

The coming of the Hays Production Code in the early 1930s spelled the end to glorifying the criminal, and approval of the ruthless methods and accompanying violence of the gangster lifestyle. The censorship codes of the day in the 1930s, notably the Hays Office, forced studios (particularly after 1934) to make moral pronouncements, present criminals as psychopaths, end the depiction of the gangster as a folk or 'tragic hero,' de-glorify crime, and emphasize that crime didn't pay. It also demanded minimal details shown during brutal crimes.

One way the studios quieted some of the protest and uproar over "America's shame" was to shift the emphasis from the criminal to the racket-busting federal agents, private detectives, or "good guys" on the other side of the law. In William Keighley's G-Men (1935), the best example of this new 'gangster-as-cop' sub-genre, screen tough guy James Cagney starred as a ruthless, revenge-seeking, impulsive, violent FBI agent to infiltrate criminal gangs on a crime spree in the Midwest. Although he was on the side of the law working undercover, he was just as cynical, brutal, and arrogant as he had been in his earliest gangster films.

A police detective (Edward G. Robinson in an against-type role) went undercover and joined a NYC racket in Bullets or Ballots (1936), and in Anatole Litvak's The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), Robinson portrayed a brainy crime specialist who joined Rocks Valentine's gang (led by Humphrey Bogart) and soon was masterminding heists. Robinson also starred as a college law professor - and special prosecutor who pursued justice in I Am the Law (1938). Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947) explored the similarities between Treasury Department agents and the counterfeiting criminals they pursued, and emphasized how villains were caught by semi-documentary style crime detection procedures (lineups, fingerprinting analysis, lab work, etc.).

Another developing 'Cain-and-Abel' sub-genre emphasized that crime didn't pay, in films such as Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with childhood friends William Powell and Clark Gable choosing two diametrically opposed lifestyles - prosecuting attorney and gambler/racketeer, and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) with two young slum kids, James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, following two different paths - a criminal lifestyle (that was idolized by the Dead End Kids on New York's lower East Side) and the priesthood. In the electrifying finale, Cagney was taken on a long walk to his execution.

William Wyler's gangster melodrama Dead End (1937) portrayed the efforts of New York slum dweller (Sylvia Sidney) to keep her gang member brother Tommy (Billy Halop, one of the Dead End Kids) from emulating gangster Humphrey Bogart. The adolescent gang actors (veterans of the Broadway version of Dead End) were introduced in this film and later evolved into the East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys.

The Straddler

American Gangster : The Crime You Need When the Mob is Not Enough

by Dan Monaco

American Gangster illuminates in its failure. Earnest and workmanlike in its effort to earn a place among the venerated films in its genre, it does not succeed. A better than average film in terms of the average film—a “B” perhaps; three out of four stars—it is neither of the first two Godfather movies, nor is it the most recent Scarface, nor is it Goodfellas, nor is it any number of other “classic” manifestations of the pathology known as the American gangster film.

American Gangster—its poster and its original-soundtrack cover evocative of De Palma and Pacino's Scarface,[1] its melodic trumpet line in the original score's “Frank Lucas” theme overtly referencing Nino Rota's theme for the Godfather—self-consciously sets about positioning itself as another gangster epic in the grand tradition of gangster epics. But the wheels come off well before the deed is done, and we and it are left wondering what has happened.

Like a new sports stadium that has been sedulously built, with an abundance of cash and the distilled thoughts of focus-group participants, to resemble an old sports stadium, there is a disquieting soullessness to American Gangster. As we watch the film connect its dots, we wonder what it is trying to convince us of. It is not incumbent upon a film to convince an audience of anything, but we cannot help but feel that this movie is trying to convince us of something. But what? The answer comes to us eventually: American Gangster is trying to convince us that it is a great American gangster film.

There are a number of plot points in American Gangster worth mentioning. Denzel Washington plays a black gangster (Frank Lucas) who runs Harlem's early 1970s drug trade by cutting out the middle men and getting his supply straight from the source in Southeast Asia; the supply is brought to America in the coffins of American soldiers killed in Vietnam; Frank Lucas' particular brand of heroin, “Blue Magic,” is “twice as good for half as much” as his competitors'; Lucas' business, operated by his family, whom he has brought up from North Carolina for just that purpose, is “above the mob,” though he eventually has to make peace with the mob by cutting them in on some of his business; Russell Crowe plays an honest cop (Richie Roberts) in a sea of law-enforcement corruption (the most corrupt cop being the slick Trupo, played by Josh Brolin) who eventually brings Frank Lucas down.   

There are interesting elements here that, when abstracted, seem to offer some promise: the title itself, which bends over backwards to suggest that there is something above-all “American” in Lucas' story; a “good” (i.e., both highly profitable and of a high quality) product that kills people and further devastates already destitute neighborhoods; a member of a historically disadvantaged ethnic group rising to the top of the crime world by poisoning other members of his ethnic group; dead American soldiers playing an important role in advancing a profitable enterprise; the relationship between crime and law enforcement; the true nature of “business” in America.

But in American Gangster none of these themes is meaningfully investigated. The promise that is offered by their introduction is never fulfilled. In this, at least, it is a worthy heir to its predecessors.

The most frequent explanations for the success of the American gangster film are that it is (a) wish fulfillment for an audience existing under American capitalism; (b) a critique of that same American capitalism.

In fact, it is more the former than the latter, and to the extent that it can be said to be the latter, it is precisely the opposite of what its apologists (chief among them, its directors and its garland-tossing critics) claim it is: far from being a critique of American capitalism, it is a celebration of American capitalism.

The American gangster movie is both wish fulfillment—who, in his day-to-day life, would not like to be unfettered from the ruthless logic of “legal” American capitalism?—and a celebration of the very system it purports to critique. Added to this mix are violence and the eventual downfall of the criminal. The violence is for your entertainment, of course, but so too is the downfall—it is schadenfreude; you may not be bold enough to risk so much, but look what happens to those who do. In one sense, the American gangster film is a form of capitalist pornography. As wish fulfillment within a system combines with a distorted celebration of that same system, the gangster-porn star lives out the audience's fantasies, and the admiring audience's jealousy has its revenge when the gangster is punished.

On the surface, what distinguishes American Gangster from, say, the Godfather films, or Goodfellas, or any number of mob movies, is the independence of the protagonist. He is not part of a syndicate, to which he must answer; he is his own man. “Nobody owns me,” he tells us. But really, this isn't an innovation. Nor is the ethnicity of the gangster hero particularly novel. That he is black is worth noting, and director Ridley Scott gives some half-awake nods to how Lucas might represent “progress” (although he does nothing with the obvious ironies inhering in this sort of progress), but the rise of a member of a marginalized ethnic group to a position of gangster independence was already clearly charted in De Palma's Scarface, to take only one of the most obvious examples.

The independent gangster is therefore itself a venerated variation offered gangster-film audiences (and it extends at least as far back as Howard Hughes' and Howard Hawks' original Scarface ). The independent business-gangster goes beyond the rules of the syndicate; the syndicate makes its own rules, and privileges its own members, but the independent gangster makes his own rules, privileging only himself. That this independence is fleeting within the conventions of the rise and fall narrative is beside the point. The appeal to gangster-film audiences is obvious. His is the egomaniacal crime you need when the mob is not enough.

Andre Breton, in a piece formulating surrealism's raison d'etre, once wrote:

...our self-allotted task...consists in elaborating a collective myth appropriate to our period in the same way that, whether we like it or not, the gothic genre must be regarded as symptomatic of the great social upheaval that shook Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. [2]

The American gangster film is itself symptomatic of life under American capitalism. The dynamic insecurity that American capitalism produces has a certain excitement about it; but, over the long haul, this excitement really only remains invigorating for the winners, and it is precisely the winners who are most insulated from any real pain that instability produces. [3] The gangster film—with its celebration of extravagant wealth, life outside the law, violence, amoral entrepreneurism, unfettered capitalism writ large, and stock morality in its ninety-nine-cent-store “tragedies”—is a tonic, but a paradoxical one. It is a way to escape by enmeshing yourself further into the very logic that ails you.

We began this review by noting that American Gangster failed to make itself into a “classic” of the genre. Pauline Kael once said, “movies are a popular art form, and they can mean a great deal to us at the time—mean something new—but they get stale very quickly, as what they do is imitated.” [4] The problem with American Gangster is not that it is an imitation (a work in any genre—in any art form—is generally at least a sort of imitation), but that it is a stale imitation; that is its failure—but with further investigation, we find that the genre itself is a sort of failure.

Consider these words of Martin Esslin, writing about drama in the settings of film, television, and theater: “Drama provides some of the principal role models by which individuals form their identity and ideals, sets patterns of communal behavior, forms values and aspirations and has become part of the collective fantasy life of the masses.” [5]

If reports of real-life gangsters' love and emulation of gangster movies are to be believed, Esslin's words not only ring true, but take on a certain comic element. The same is true when one considers two anecdotal reports from an editor at The Straddler: the editor was once at the home of a highly successful Italian-American owner of a real-estate company. When it was time to sit down for dinner, the first tune played for the guests on the stereo system was Rota's “The Godfather Waltz.” On another occasion, this same editor was in the basement recreation room of a successful Jewish accountant. On the walls of the recreation room, close, but not too close, to the television, was a chiaroscuro painting which depicted, on the left side, all of the major characters from The Godfather trilogy, and on the right side, all of the major characters from The Sopranos.

To be playfully dubbed a “gangster” in American society is a term of admiration and respect. If your father knocks ten bucks off of the price of a fifty-dollar Christmas tree, you might compliment him for having “gotten gangster” during the haggling process. The “gangster,” like the real gangster, gets respect. But the outsized respect the “gangster” commands is only momentary because he is, in the end, just one of us. He is not actually a gangster.   It's kind of a joke.   For hip-hop culture, it is a little bit more complicated than that. It is a pose that sometimes has its roots in actual criminal activity. The rapper Jay-Z was so moved by American Gangster that he made a successful album (entitled, of course, American Gangster ) inspired by the film. Before Jay-Z got into the “rap game,” he was a player in the “dope game.” Crack dealing far behind him now, his unparalleled success in hip-hop has allowed him to enter into so many business enterprises that he is presently, according to his own accounts, “moguling.” (Say what you will about Jay-Z's occasionally jejune lyrics; his is one dope flow.) There are also hip-hop figures with names like Scarface and Irv Gotti and Yo Gotti (these latter two names perhaps the more problematic, as they are borrowed from the name of a real-life gangster).

And yet, are all of these identifications—from well-off white businessmen to African-American hip-hop figures to your law-abiding father who dutifully goes to work at a “legit” business everyday—manifestations of anything more than a broad recognition that, under American capitalism, “the lethal pursuit of the American dream,” as Manohla Dargis wrote in her sober New York Times review of American Gangster, “is not restricted to one or two families—the Corleones, say, or the Sopranos—but located in a network of warring tribes that help to obscure the larger war of all against all”? [6]

What is the context in which the gangster film places life under American capitalism? Rather than being profound, liberating, and enriching, the gangster film diminishes and cheapens the lives of its audience.

The system is unfair and often unjust, and the desire to con it extends broadly across American society—not least because the system, as it is set up, and as it functions, is itself a con. The deck is stacked against you and you resent it. It is only natural to want to con the con. But the principles underlying the scam the gangster uses against the larger scam end up being an ethos that is just as traditional and becomes just as hallowed as the one against which he was working in the first place. Consider Frank Lucas' words in American Gangster: “The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family... .” The gangster is not a rebel. He is the outsider as conformist. His acquisitive values are no different than those of the society in which he operates, even though he uses more (obviously) dubious means to pursue his ends. He wants his piece of the pie. As Gore Vidal once said, “in a sanctimonious society of hustlers, which is what the United States has been from the very beginning...the first law is, ‘I won't blow your scam and you don't blow mine.” [7]

There is certainly nothing wrong with watching gangster films. While it is often tedious to endure directors indulging their (and their audience's) penchant for violence, or, what may be worse, taking breaks from their films in order to heavy-handedly essay connections between crime, criminal figures, and “this America,” [8] it's sometimes fun to be on the edge of our seats wondering if Michael Corleone can find the gun behind the toilet (and that mobster and that corrupt cop had it coming anyway, didn't they? Even if what they were trying to do was “just business.”); or watching Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas get a prime table in a crowded club and having his new girlfriend breathlessly ask him, “what do you do ?”; or watching Joe Pesci do his clown routine in the same movie. It's the lessons we deliberately or inadvertently take away from these films that are problematic. It is the way these very popular films “provide[] some of the principal role models by which individuals form their identity and ideals, set[] patterns of communal behavior, form[] values and aspirations and...become part of the collective fantasy life of the masses.”

The gangster film functions as its own form of Blue Magic, and because of the conditions under which we live, we can't necessarily fault ourselves for wanting a dose. But it's the easy way out...because by injecting ourselves in order to get out for a little while, all we really do is ensure that we remain even further in.

American Gangster's failure as a gangster film, then, is perhaps its greatest success.




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