Who's Your Gangster?: A Quick Evolution of the Gangster Genre

As with life, the movie genre of the gangster film underwent a steady evolution from its beginnings. In many ways, that evolution continues today.
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As with life, the movie genre of the gangster film underwent a steady evolution from its beginnings. In many ways, that evolution continues today.

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 Al Pacino in Scarface

Al Pacino in Scarface

As with life, the movie genre of the gangster film underwent a steady evolution from its beginnings. In many ways, that evolution continues today.

In the final minutes of director Howard Hawks's 1932 masterpiece Scarface, big-shot gangster Tony "Scarface" Camonte (Paul Muni) shamelessly begs the arresting officers blocking the exit before him, "Don't shoot me, please!" The lead cop lowers his gun and takes out the cuffs. Face streaked in tears of terror, Tony runs past those who would bring him to justice, out the building's front door—and headlong into the gunfire of what seems like the whole damn police force. They aren't about to let this yellow-bellied villain get away. Riddled in bullets, Tony plummets dead to the city street gutter.

Flashforward to 1983. Al Pacino plays Tony "Scarface" Montana, who, atop his supremely opulent, garish mansion's staircase takes dozens of various assassins' bullets into his chest. Tony howls madly, "I still standing! I take yo' bullets! I still standing, eh!" Incredibly, all their upfront firepower cannot kill him. Rather, it is a single shotgun blast issued by a lone assassin sneaking up from behind Tony that does our "hero" in. The look of horror and regret mixed with triumph on Tony's death face is soul-searing. Oh, how far the American gangster movie has come.

As per Hollywood "moral codes" of yesteryear, the tough-as-coffin-nails gangster always had to reveal himself to be a repentant, scared little boy when at last faced with the ultimate moment of truth and accountability for his many, bloody crimes. Nowadays, there doesn't seem to be any codes of behavior imposed on character integrity. Our leading men can be as vile creatures as our warped imaginations desire, thank heaven; there is no end to cinema's spectrum of depravity!

Zombified by hyper-capitalism, the gangsters can order their own, beloved brother's murder, but only after their shared mother is in the ground (Pacino's calculating "Michael Corleone" in 1972's The Godfather). They can remain superhuman, glorious, tragic heroes—at least in their own mind—until their final breath (Pacino's Cubano-slurring "Tony Montana" in 1983's Scarface). They can be philandering, coke-addled rats who turn State's evidence on their lifelong surrogate family (Pacino's—whoops, sorry, force of habit—this time it's Ray Liotta's high-strung "Henry Hill' in 1990's Goodfellas). They can be Lee Marvin-loving, country-line-dancing, cowboy-boot-wearing ear-cutters with puppy dog smiles (Michael Madsen's chilling, gleefully bad "Mr. Blonde" in 1992's Reservoir Dogs). Or even be domineering, sadistic, yet lonely bullies who just yearn for a modicum of love from the cruel, cold world (Ben Kingsley's ferocious "Don Logan" in 2000's Sexy Beast).

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In the year 2003, the stratosphere's the limit for the kinds of villains through whom we can vicariously experience the seductive fruits of acting out on our darkest, most forbidden impulses. Cinema's gangsters of the past three decades depict an evolution of character exactly in line with the genre's evolution itself, and perhaps, too, with an American socio-moral decent.

In 1972, Vietnam's stink still hanging thick in the air, audiences first met the Corleone family. Movies have never been the same. Sure, gangster films have been around since after the Prohibition era (Public Enemy, Scarface), but the irrefutable father of the genre's modern era is Francis Ford Coppola's flawless epic about flaws, The Godfather—believed by many to be the best film of all time. Amongst critics and the public alike, The Godfather seems perpetually doomed to battle it out with Citizen Kane for the number one spot—but I dare you, at sunset lock James Caan's "Sonny Corleone" and Orson Welles' "Charlie Foster Kane" in a basement and see which one's breathing come daylight.

In The Godfather, high-minded Coppola, a uniformly stunning cast and a skillful crew came together to illuminate new shadows of the American soul with alternately repulsive, mesmerizing and heart-tugging results. The Godfather is a fundamentally American fairytale, encapsulating every ideal this country's citizens stand for. First, (and in no particular order), sustaining honor and happiness within a tender, devoted family. Secondly, achieving business success over the greatest of adversities wrought by heavy competition, internal disloyalties, changes in management and interference from Uncle Sam. Lastly, raising oneself from the dirt of some other, faraway land to the highest echelons of society in these United States, where any pauper with the right elbow grease can become a king. In doing all this, as Brando/DeNiro's "Vito Corleone" did, your family's future generation's fates are hopefully altered for the better. That is, so long as your kids don't drop the ball (shame, Michael, shame).

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The reason, however, that The Godfather continues to move audiences today is that, like every gangster film, it is a heightened, much more exciting reflection of our own lives. And of how we see ourselves, or would like to imagine ourselves as being—tougher, smarter, richer, handsomer. Say you got a beef with somebody at the office. In the "movie gangster world," you just whack 'em. Ahh, sigh of relief, problem solved, right? It is amoral and illegal, sure, no argument there, but it is everyone's secret desire to, at some point or another, throw all our values that make us civilized out the window and just do for the moment what feels good and righteous. The gangster movie is the fantastical vicar for the comparatively dull life we lead. It's a regular life we can't help but wonder what might have been better if, only once or twice, we gave in to that darker side. Who hasn't at some point wanted to beat the living daylights out of one's brother-in-law (hot-headed Sonny's pummeling wife-beater Carlo)? What family hasn't been smacked with an unforeseen tragedy (patriarch Vito's shooting)? What woman hasn't felt like an alien at her lover's family functions (Kay at Connie's wedding, um—and every day after that)?

Yet as artful and cathartic as The Godfather saga is (noticed the denial of Part III's existence, have we?), it is pure fantasy. Mario Puzo himself said the concept of Godfather being code name for a crime boss was purely the product of his own imagination. Sure, the Mafia exists, but it's nothing like how it seems in those two films. For a little taste of reality, coast on over to Martin Scorsese's 1990 classic Goodfellas, which, unlike The Godfather, is based on a true story.

In a 1990 televised interview conducted by Geraldo Rivera, the real Henry Hill, lifelong gangster turned government stoolie, (portrayed by Ray Liotta in the film) came out of the Witness Protection Program to talk about himself, his life and the movie that immortalized him. Nowhere near as charismatic as Ray Liotta, Hill was a skinny, shrivel-faced man, old and irritable, compulsively tapping his foot. In fact, he looked, acted, and spoke like a strung-out junkie. Hill told an anecdote of he and his buddies (that is, imagine hoods played by Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci) walking out of the theater after seeing The Godfather in '72 and enthusing to each other, "We should be like that! We should act like that!" Apparently, the true professional criminal's lifestyle is nowhere near as glamorous as we were led to believe.

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Master Scorsese's spin on the gangster genre—his mission, if you will—was to demystify the glitz of The Godfather. Gone are antiseptic piano wires as the execution-method of choice; in is the repeated stabbing in the gullet of your archenemy with your mother's cooking knife, and you sneering "Die! Die! Die!" Scorsese's gangsters are messy, foul-mouthed and self-destructive junkies—be it of adrenaline (Pesci's "Tommy DeVito"), coke (Hill), money (DeNiro's "Jimmy the Gent") or power (Paul Sorvino's "Paulie"). There are plenty of laughs, blood and sex, but when the party's over, people are in it for their own asses. There's no honor, no family loyalty anymore (if there ever was to begin with). Everybody ends up "a schnook." That's what choosing to be a crook instead of an average, boring citizen is all about. You can get into it for the glory and the glitz, The Godfather-glam, but overwhelming odds are you'll end up "either dead, or in da can" as HBO's Tony Soprano once put it. Henry Hill winds up "in da can" of banality in some obnoxious, blasè suburb. Crime and punishment, indeed.

The ultraviolence of Scorsese's Goodfellas opened the floodgates for a slew of other 90's crime flicks. Some very good; some very bad. Atrophying of the genre inevitably set in as the reality became increasingly a bother for filmmakers to depict. Instead, the storytellers started ripping off other gangster movies. Derivative dreck is what we get. Really, the only guy any good—nay, great—at being derivative is Quentin Tarantino. Love him or hate him, Tarantino knows at all wacky, decadent times exactly what, from where and from whom he's stealing. Take Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the one-two punch today's 20-somethings invariably reference when asked about "cool, crime pictures." The man has become his own genre, what he calls, "Realer than Real." All elegance of the Corleones has faded away. You're left with ignorant, pop-culture-referencing low-rent hit men: John Travolta as "Vincent Vega" and Samuel L. Jackson as "Jules Winnfield" in dorky T-shirts with their guns stuffed in the crotches of their shorts. Ludicrous, yes, but also deliciously entertaining. As a moviegoing society, we've evolved from daydreaming emulation of Coppola's family-loving rogues to pointing fingers and laughing our kiesters off at what failures of humanity these two-bit, self-serving hoods really are.

Another reason to pinpoint Tarantino as the third great renovator of the gangster genre is that he, unlike Coppola and Scorsese before him, is the first to successfully hijack key stylistic elements from other film genres (French new-wave, samurai, spaghetti Western, ghetto drama and a whole lot of comedy). He then successfully integrates them into his own crime pictures. Basically, Tarantino's head is a blender of world cinema. What he spews out is just so vibrantly muddled and mutated that it feels "so brand-new" as Al Green sings during Pulp's "Let's Stay Together" sequence.

A quick hop, skip and jump over the pond to the British Isles is where our tour of the gangster genre stops, but certainly not ends. Over in England, Guy Ritchie is having a devil's romp bastardizing our Yankee genre with the likes of hyper-kinetic, hallucinatory Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, but what's most noteworthy over here is Jonathan Glazer's 2000 offering, Sexy Beast, for doing with the genre something shockingly novel. He pared the action down to a bare minimum and focused instead on character interaction. Get the five leads in a room at the now-fat, formerly "Gorgeous" Gal's retirement villa in Spain and watch the sparks fly without nary a punch being thrown! It's no surprise that screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto are renowned playwrights. The dialogue for their small confection of social deviants is consistently rich and real, not stylized and cartoonish as Tarantino's frequently can be. The film plays out like a volcano, in which characters' emotions are the lava of entertainment, not their crimes. Ben Kingsley's "Don Logan" is, as Kingsley once romanticized about the role, "the loneliest man in the world!" Not to mention a right, evil wanker. We can't help but relate to him, though, because oftentimes we can't help but feel lonely too—and want to bark venomous bloody hell into everyone's face until they cave in already and "DO THE JOB!"

Simply put, the gangster genre is the best, most entertaining cinematic refraction of our own culture's self-image. Whether you're the high-level executive type/doting family man who sold his soul of Michael Corleone, or the image-and-pleasure-obsessed consumer of Henry Hill, or the "I-don't-get-paid-enough-to-do-this-shit-everyday" contractor of Vincent Vega or Don Logan; every last profession can claim its own patron gangster from somewhere in the twisted annals of cinema. Who's yours?

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