Watch: The Gangster Face in 50 Movies: A Compilation

Watch: The Gangster Face in 50 Movies: A Compilation

What is it about the gangster face? Not so long ago, we ran an excellent video essay by Nelson Carvajal that celebrated the brash, tough, hypnotic, quintessentially macho quality of "gangster culture" in film. Now, Jorge Luengo has posted a piece digging into similar territory but with a narrower focus: the face. The alternately calm and monstrous face of Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables. Or his affable but menacing face as James Conway in Goodfellas. Or… the grizzled visage of Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello in The Departed. Or the near-theatrically sad, almost noble face of Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Or Al Pacino’s twitching, ever-animate countenance as Tony Montana in Scarface. Or, reaching back a little, Warren Beatty’s handsome Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Or James Cagney’s craggy Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces. Strung together with the ubiquitous "Little Green Bag" song from Reservoir Dogs, this piece truly makes one reflect on the face of the gangster, in every sense of that phrase. So what is it, I ask again, that’s so fascinating here? Is it the fact that we can’t be entirely certain what lies beneath that face? Or is it that the gangster isn’t sure either?

Rehabbing Tonto: THE LONE RANGER as Picaresque Tale

Rehabbing Tonto: THE LONE RANGER as Picaresque Tale


As The Lone Ranger
shifts from the point of view of its hero, John Reid (Armie Hammer), to the
first-person narrative of his Indian sidekick Tonto (Johnny Depp), the tired
pulp story becomes a postmodern picaresque. A type of story with a long
literary tradition but seldom seen on film, a picaresque is usually episodic in
nature, a fact that contributes to what many perceive is the messiness of The Lone Ranger. Tonto exemplifies the
typical picaresque hero (or picaro), noble in intentions but misguided and
perhaps even unreliable in his perception of the events in which he is usually at
the center. Like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, this film begins with a
rather decrepit Indian as a dubious storyteller, spinning a yarn full of
non-sequiturs and magical realism that both uncomfortably overlap with heinous
atrocities in order to subvert the typical white victor’s perspective of the
American western. The first appearance of Depp, made up to look a hundred-odd years
old, is itself a metatextual reference to Little
Big Man
’s protagonist, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). Crabb is a white man
raised by the Cheyenne who encounters famous figures like Wild Bill Hickok and
George Armstrong Custer (who, in The Lone
, finds his own visual parallel in a cavalry officer played by Barry
Pepper), just before their grand, untimely ends. 

Tonto’s pseudo-mysticism is one exaggeration highlighted in his narration,
later revealed to Reid by his sidekick’s own people as the mad ravings of a
fool. But Tonto’s skewed imaginings serve to leaven the social commentary with
humor as is typical in other picaresques like Don Quixote. A dark flashback showing the extermination of Tonto’s
tribe by plundering strip-miners backs up against a hallucinatory image of the
Lone Ranger’s horse Silver standing comfortably at the tip of a branch of a
tall tree. “There’s something very wrong with that horse,” says Tonto, an odd
laugh line at that point of his story. But isn’t it also a bit of humor meant
to both mitigate the horror that precedes it as well as heighten it in sharp
relief? It certainly inspires Reid to take the role Tonto has bestowed on him
more seriously than he does initially, if for no other reason than he fears the
crackpot may not be up to the task.

Still, Reid is more of a milquetoast here than in any previous iteration of
the Lone Ranger character. Consequently, Tonto becomes a tragic hero looking
for redemption. He is indirectly responsible for the genocide of his own
people, but he strives to make amends by stymieing the advance of the railroad
(and attendant whites) into Indian lands, ultimately with no success. This the
film makes clear even before the story proper starts. Our introduction to the
wizened, old Tonto is in a travelling circus sideshow display behind a racially
charged nameplate that reads “The Noble Savage.” Even Tonto’s name,
as alluded to when Reid asks him if he knows what it means in Spanish, befits
that of the typical picaro. “Tonto” is Spanish for “idiot,” an
apt description for other picaresque heroes such as Redmond Barry Lyndon or
Forrest Gump.

Much of the gleeful critical piling-on directed at The Lone Ranger is
conflated with politically correct hand-wringing, involving Hollywood’s
depiction of Indians and the casting of Depp to play the Masked Man’s Indian
sidekick, Tonto. One camp is offended by the very existence of Tonto, a
mishmash of Hollywood’s stereotypes of indigenous people. Of Depp’s
performance, Mark Dujsik
says, “…speaking in broken English and gratuitously mugging for the
camera—perhaps it’s for the best that a Native American actor has been spared
the indignity of the role…” Another sillier group’s outrage seems to stem from
nostalgia for the television Tonto they grew up with. Badass
’s Devin Faraci says “… The Lone Ranger is a movie that seems
to be embarrassed of its own source material…. Unwilling to just degrade The Lone
Ranger himself by making him a buffoon, the movie also makes Tonto a gibbering

Critics are insulted that Depp, whose claims of Indian ancestry are remote
if not entirely questionable, was cast as a quite evidently made-up Indian icon.
However, before the previous 1981 disaster, only one Indian actor had ever played Tonto, TV’s Jay Silverheels (a Canadian
Mohawk whose real name was Harold J. Smith). Silverheels did his best to imbue
a character that was basically an expository soundboard with elements of his
own heritage in order to position the character as a hero his people could look
up to. But at his foundation, Tonto is still a thin character. Being upset that
the mutable Depp is playing Tonto is like feeling insulted that British
chameleon Peter Sellers played the faux-French Inspector Clouseau.

Depp’s performance as Tonto is a memorable tragicomic creation, made
perfectly viable by the framing device utilized by director Gore Verbinski to
tell the movie’s story. Indeed, when seen as a picaresque told by an
anti-establishment fool, it becomes clearer that Depp and Verbinski are not only
not denigrating the Indians; by
rehabilitating the subservient character of Tonto, they are elevating the
Indian people to their rightful place as the central figures of the story of
the American West. As if to bear out this idea, Verbinski offers us, as the
final credits roll, an elegiac, silent crane shot of Depp’s aged Tonto
shuffling off into the sunset, not in his stereotypical buckskin but his titular
partner’s now-threadbare black outfit. He has become the hero of his own tale.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and
television for his blog,
Cinema Viewfinder. His criticism has also been
featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog,
Wide Screen, Opposing
Views and Follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY: Depp Shadows: Tim Burton’s Cinema

VIDEO ESSAY: Depp Shadows: Tim Burton’s Cinema

“Basically Johnny Depp is playing Tim Burton in all his movies.” – Scott Rudin (Producer of Sleepy Hollow)

This ubiquitous quote by Rudin is often the throwaway summation found in most writings on, and dissections of, the cinematic works of Tim Burton with Johnny Depp. Which is a shame, really. The quote is not only too broad—it’s blazingly deceptive. Unlike other repeated director-actor pairings (from Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro to Pedro Almodovar-Penelope Cruz), each succeeding film in the Burton-Depp canon actually becomes less about “digging” into an unknown abyss (e.g. as Scorsese faced male insecurity in Raging Bull and Almodovar celebrated female power over male dominance in Volver) than about the overall art direction of each film. Even though Burton’s prolific filmography boasts its share of critically (Big Fish) and financial successful (Planet of the Apes) non-Depp-starring movies, it’s worth studying the pattern behind those eight Burton-Depp projects. All together, those eight films have broken numerous box office records and have catapulted Burton into a tier of top-dollar directors. Currently, Burton is one of the few directors who could harness a towering financial investment from a studio in order to bring to any stylized, eye-pleasing idea he has to life.  In fact, if one were to examine the Burton-Depp filmography from top to bottom, it’s quite easy to see the shift from the personal to the pizzazz-filled.

Burton’s first two films with Depp are still his strongest and best works because each film subtly emoted shades of its creator: the shy, social outcast in Edward Scissorhands and the ambitious young filmmaker in Ed Wood. Even with impressive set pieces and dazzling costume design, both films were dominated by Johnny Depp’s carefully nuanced performances. It was the perfect marriage between Burton’s striking, visual storytelling and Depp’s risk-taking performance-art-style acting. Even though most films employ such marriages of talents, Scissorhands and Wood are unique in that they operate on two levels: the surface level looks and sounds like big budget Hollywood but (after repeated viewings) the pulse and internal workings of those films speak to more personal truths (i.e. the anxieties of the outcast), largely because Depp and Burton channeled one another’s sensibilities toward the material, thus giving those films a palpable vitality.

But then something happened. On their third collaboration, Sleepy Hollow, signs of a new Burton cinema began to emerge. This new Tim Burton cinema canon was more concerned with pushing the boundaries of its production design. In Sleepy Hollow, Depp’s (oft-underappreciated) turn as a morbidly grossed-out Ichabod Crane takes a backseat to the moody set pieces and strong work by the FX team. Gone were the quirky tableside manners of Scissorhands or cross-dressing revelations of Wood; in their place were the technically accomplished renderings of ghouls and the gothic. And Burton’s next two live-action films, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd (both remakes), pushed the eye-candy envelope even further. Chocolate Factory basically forced Depp to become a peripheral player in the Burton blueprint of euphoric, candy-centric visualizations. Although Depp scored a Best Actor nomination for Sweeney Todd, his performance—which largely depended on Depp’s ability to always look sullen—is hardly a return to his intimate, versatile turns in Burton’s earlier works. Todd was based on a revered musical, and Depp rose to the occasion with singing chops; Burton turned in some strong visionary work once again (the bloody and bestial barbershop is a beaut), winning Burton the Best Director prize from the National Board of Review. So there’s that.

The real abomination came after the pair’s animated stint in Corpse Bride (which rehashed the stop-motion gothic fare of the Burton-produced Nightmare Before Christmas) and ironically enough became their biggest commercial success: Alice In Wonderland. A mammoth at the box office but overall critical dud, what Wonderland proved was that the new Burton-Depp formula had reached an apex. Early Burton films like Scissorhands had embedded themselves in pop culture to the point where audiences were simply content with knowing that Johnny Depp would be playing an unusual Burton-esque character in an unusual Burton-esque universe (a world somewhere between a Halloween-themed prom and alternate dimension “Saturn” from Beetlejuice). And it’s not that Burton doesn’t know how to make a surefire blockbuster that is also his own singular work of art (see Batman). In the end, the massively financially successful groove that Burton and Depp are in is probably the natural progression that some artists can make after churning out those intimate stories about dying (Beetlejuice), isolation (Edward Scissorhands) and finding your bicycle (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure). So if the latest Burton-Depp vehicle, Dark Shadows, is not a return to earlier form for the pair, at least it will deliver unmatched art direction and unrivaled commercial success. And if that’s the case, maybe Depp really is playing Burton in all of his movies; only now Burton isn’t the isolated, hungry filmmaker he once was.

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."




[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]

nullThe trailer for Rango made the movie look unappealing, and I didn't have high hopes when I threw it in the DVD player. Oops: it's awesome.

Rango himself (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a pet chameleon with writer/director aspirations who finds himself marooned in the Mojave. Thirsty, hot, lectured by other fauna and preyed on by a hawk, Rango gets a ride from a petit-mal-prone lizard named Beans, into a town called Dirt; after a chase/misunderstanding involving vending-machine licorice (…I know!), he's made Dirt's sheriff by the Mayor (Ned Beatty), a turtle who has secret plans to annex all the local natural resources, by whatever means necessary.

In addition to that commentary on the haves and have-nots of the global fresh-water supply, Rango also furnishes a nod to Depp's role as Hunter S. Thompson; a send-up of acting workshops in the opening sequence; several stunning animated chases, beautiful nighttime scenes, and a gift for capturing textures, liquids, and light on glass; and verbal and visual gags for kids of all ages. The bird with the prosthetic limb made of a wiffleball is one of my favorites, as well as the fly backstroking in the cactus juice, but I rewound the cemetery sequence three times just to catch all the headstones. (Sheriffs in Dirt, you see, don't tend to live very long. "Sheriff Jurgen / 'OOPS.'" "Sheriff Tucker / Hold My Beer And Watch This." "Sheriff Amos / Thurs – Sat RIP." And towards the back of the graveyard, one reading, "He's Dead Jim." Love it.)

nullThe voice acting is great across the board — Depp's plaintive "T.O., T.O., just a sec" prior to a duel is a highlight — and the hat-tips to other works cracked me up too. The Greek-chorus mariachi birds reminded me of the orchestra bus in Mel Brooks's High Anxiety, and the soundtrack repeatedly refers to Carter Burwell's yodeling runs on Raising Arizona's.

Characters announce, "We're experiencing a paradigm shift!"; minutes later, hundreds of beetles gather to carry an exhausted Rango, Godspell-style. It's funny and pretty and there's something going on in every frame. The last half hour is perhaps too contemplative and atmospheric, but it's nice to look at and I didn't mind.

I liked A Cat in Paris a lot and I wouldn't mind it winning, but Rango is firing on all six cylinders, and should win Best Animated Feature.

Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine,, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.comFor more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.