VIDEO ESSAY: Gangster Culture in the Movies

VIDEO ESSAY: Gangster Culture in the Movies

"He used to be a big shot." That's how a gangster's girlfriend describes him as she cradles his corpse at the end of The Roaring Twenties. But the line could be plugged into any gangster film that ends with a tough-talking, two-fisted, hot-tempered alpha male cooling his heels in prison, frying in an electric chair or bleeding out in an alley. In these films, death comes to kingpins and flunkies alike. If you're part of the underworld, you have to accept this as a given: one minute you're swaggering down the street with a curvy dame on your arm, thinking about your next big score and tipping bartenders $100 just for keeping the ice cubes cold, and the next minute you're being led into a room you thought would contain an open bar and a card game, only to find it empty save for two big guys with handcuffs and a couple of crowbars.

nullBut isn't it always thus, even for yeggs what's been to college? Death falls on the just and the unjust alike, on big shots and little fish. No genre save horror is as comfortable with the possibility, nay, certainty, of sudden, horrendously violent extinction. Gangster pictures are populated almost exclusively by characters who've made peace with that scary reality; deep down, everyone knows life could end at any moment, but the gangster feels it more acutely, living like there's no tomorrow because as far as he knows, there isn't one. What's the threat of prison to somebody whose line of work guarantees they might get plugged, stuck, beaten to a bloody pulp or run over with a shiny new car for the sin of being on the wrong side of the law, or a turf war, or history? And who wouldn't find a character like that appealing, especially if the story ends, as it invariably does, with the gangster getting ventilated like a Cagney character, checkmated into witness protection a la GoodFellas's Henry Hill, or pinched for tax evasion like Capone in The Untouchables? When we watch gangster films, we get to indulge the fantasy of living life without rules, plus a reminder of why people shouldn't do that: party on Saturday, church on Sunday, with a bit of the old ultraviolence tossed into the mix. No genre balances attraction and repulsion more deftly, or manages to be so immoral, amoral, and moralistic all at once. 

The gangster picture is as ritualized as the Western, and is in some ways the pessimistic antithesis of the western, a genre that was all about the future, about possibilities, about the likelihood of exerting will on the universe and remaking your life so that it resembles your fantasies. There's a reason why critics keep quoting Robert Warshow's piece "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" in essays like this one: because he sensed this link and elucidated it so beautifully. "Those European moviegoers who think there is a gangster on every corner in New York are certainly deceived," he wrote, "but defenders of the 'positive' side of American culture are equally deceived if they think it relevant to point out that most Americans have never seen a gangster. What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans. There is almost nothing we understand better or react to more readily or with quicker intelligence. The Western film, though it seems never to diminish in popularity, is for most of us no more than the folklore of the past, familiar and understandable only because it has been repeated so often. The gangster film comes much closer. In ways that we do not easily or willingly define, the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects 'Americanism' itself." Or as Henry Hill puts it, "To us, those goody-goody people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls." Henry, sweetheart, half-Mick, half-Guinea: wherever you are, on behalf of the silent majority of ball-less suckers who'll be queuing up for Gangster Squad this weekend no matter what the critics say, I salute you.–Matt Zoller Seitz

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."
You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.



The trailer for Gangster Squad isn't selling nostalgia so much as retrograde, standard-issue images of masculinity. An account of the L.A. Police Department's fight against the East Coast mob in the '40s and '50s, the film, directed by Zombieland helmer Ruben Fleischer, is pitched as one manly affair, but unfortunately courts its target bros with a lot of tired bromides. Testosterone is front and center as soon as the preview starts, with ugly-mugged mafioso Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) pounding away at a punching bag and dining with a loaded pistol by his side. Cut to Nick Nolte, another gruff actor with sandpaper features, playing a department head who tells Josh Brolin's squared-jawed cop that “Los Angeles is a damsel in distress” and needs to be saved. It's offered as a quaint proposal for chivalrous heroism, but it really just reminds us, with a sexist air to boot, that tough guys are running the show. “I'll need men,” Brolin's squad chief replies. Naturally.

There's nothing wrong with having a core audience, but with this first clip, Gangster Squad doesn't give much credit to the smarts of its would-be ticket buyers, who've surely heard better speeches about whores and dope than the one Penn's character caps off with an Emeril-like, “Bam!”  (“Overcooked” might be the right word for this umpteenth riff on the Scarface power pledge.) And while the rat-a-tat-tat of tommy guns, like mid-century L.A., will never go out of style in the movies, the same can't be said for a showy montage of bad-cop brutality, or grab-bag catchphrases like “We're going to war” and “There's no going back.”

Ironically enough, the trailer's most interesting element is markedly un-masculine: the squeaky, near-flamboyant voice adopted by Ryan Gosling. A leading man with unlikely character-actor gifts, Gosling gives his womanizing officer a memorable wrinkle of interest, and looks to continue his captivating string of ace performances. He still utters the same Will Beall-penned platitudes delivered by his rather typecast co-stars, but he registers as a fresh gem amid stale goods.

With its basic story seen before in everything from The Untouchables to American Gangster to Public Enemies, Gangster Squad would have done well to differentiate itself, beginning, of course, with this first look. Judging from what's presented, though, journalist Paul Lieberman's source material, a series of articles dubbed “Tales from the Gangster Squad,” has inspired a boilerplate, shoot-'em-up, cat-and-mouse popcorn flick, with a low opinion of its demographic to boot. In one final effort to present a certain hipness, the preview ends with a track from Jay-Z, whose all-too-relevant lyrics about “the American Dream” accompany an admittedly nifty image of cops shooting through a movie screen (take that, 3D!). But in this age of rappers linked to, and long inspired by, unlawful lifestyles, the music cue is just another cliché, and yet more bait for dudes who aren't as dumb as the trailer thinks they are.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.