From Caution to Anti-hero

One of my favorite lines from any movie is in the opening scene of Goodfellas. Ray Liotta’s character, Henry, slams the trunk on a body that his two “wiseguy” friends had just shot and stabbed dozens of times. It freeze frames on a look of pure complicity. The voice-over kicks in. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”

The gangster genre is hands down my most beloved movie genre. I took the time to watch both The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) as a sample of the “classical” period and even developmental stage of the genre. And then watched again all three Godfather films, On the Waterfront, Pulp Fiction, and, as I write, I’ve got Goodfellas going in the background.

As much as I could ramble about my love for this particular style of anti-hero, I know the purpose of a genre study is to understand that particular genre’s development. To understand what defines it, what makes it work, why it has lasted, who likes it and most of all what it means. So I will try not to be melodramatic.

The gangster genre is an old genre. However, it didn’t have distinctness until the introduction of sound. Criminal based films of the silent era couldn’t personalize the crooks enough for us to like them. It was simply too difficult to get an audience behind a “bad” character as the hero of the story without being able to hear that persons voice. But once our gangsters could talk they proved to be the most charming baddies imaginable.

This is something that is very characteristic of the genre, even from the ‘30s. Dialogue. Gangster films are characterized by their language. Gangsters, at least the cool ones we all like, are often (but not always) flippant, over-confident, hot-heads. They say things that sound really fun to say. Like: “Say, hello to my lil’ friend!” (Scarface 1983) or “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” (The Godfather 1972) or “Hamburgers. The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast,” (Pulp Fiction 1994). Without this dialogue Gangster films wouldn’t be what they are. The language is vital. Which is why I disagree with the Langford’s argument that silent era films “used a different, rather than simply an inadequate, ‘language’ to articulate the experience of urban modernity.” (Langford 2005, pg. 137) I would agree you could call The Great Train Robbery (1903) a crime film, but it certainly is not a gangster film!

The language (and even the sounds of inner-cities and guns firing) helps to set up this world of the gangster. I do appreciate how Langford begins his approach to the genre by explaining that we as film-goers have been trained to know when we see “gangster shit,” (term courtesy of Quentin Tarantino). We learned how to recognize the rules to the gangster’s world.

We understand that police and the judicial system are incompetent or nonexistent. We don’t expect consequences from outside the mob or mafia. We recognize, without being told, that we will have to adopt certain slang to understand the characters’ speech. We tolerate that they have sick senses of humor, and if all of these things work the right way, we even participate.

Both The Public Enemy and Scarface (’31/’32) begin with an indictment to the audience. It is an explanation, and sort of a roundabout way of saying “don’t buy into it.” The messages from the studios say things like: “this is not meant to glorify crime, but to depict it accurately and condemn it.” Glorify crime? It seems so backward. How could crime accidentally be glorified?

Langford wrote something that struck me personally. He wrote: “…the genre has influentially been read as an allegory of both the allure and the potentially catastrophic consequences of untrammeled individualism.” Wow. I felt like he was pointing a finger. As a young man who watches many movies (probably too many) I found myself taken aback, that I had missed this ruse.

Because when I read it, I instantly recognized it as truth. All of my favorite gangsters Henry from Goodfellas or Michael from The Godfather or even Tony from Scarface are all perfect examples. As Warshow’s argument (1975) states: “to the American audience the gangster is an exemplary and admonitory figure of fatally overreaching ambition.” But I had missed it.

I understand now that in their pursuit of power and control they lose everything. But how misleading that exciting journey could be I never quite pinned down. I find it strangely amusing that Hollywood went from caution to apology but then back straight to anti-hero. In the early stages of the genre we were warned about and even detested the characters and their crimes. But the detestable characters still had fans.

The lifestyle appeal of this extreme individualism is what has kept it alive through every phase of economic and social change in the US. Everyone in our country has bought into the idea that things can get better for them if they… You fill in the blank. It’s the American dream to be successful and powerful. But as I said the gangsters were presented as cautionary figures.

Quickly, to be ethical we almost entirely stopped making gangster films in the late thirties after their great success. What did we do instead? We made them undercover police, spies, double-agents, tough-guy detectives. They did all the same things except we labeled it as “good”. Movies like G-Men (1935) or Bullets or Ballots (1936).

But that was short lived. And soon we turned back to gangsters with a stronger emphasis on the mob, beginning in the late ‘40s–the more organized the better.

Movies like On the Waterfront combined that sense of lavished individualism with the surrounding organized crime necessities. Creating an irony that is what our greatest gangster film, The Godfather, explains beautifully. Langford says it well: “Typically, the gang itself is both indispensible and a burden, even a threat, to the gangster: he needs the support of his soldiers, and it is by his ascent from the ranks that his self-assertion is measured; yet the gangster knows only too well how dangerous it is to rely on any ties, even those of blood.” And later: “The gangster film implicitly ironises its subject inasmuch as it stresses the self-sufficient individual the gangster desires to be and insists he is, yet—precisely because he is a gangster—he can never become.” (Langford 2005, pg. 142)

Langford calls film gangsters a “contradiction of radical autonomy and dependency.” I’d like to use the metaphor of a peacock here. Don’t laugh yet, hear me out. Peacocks are the only loose animal (bird or otherwise) in the zoo. But they are still in the zoo. They have this incredible freedom that the other animals don’t have to walk around where they please. Yet they are completely dependent on the system for protection from those other animals and people.

Gangsters are like this. They believe in this fake autonomy, this false sense of power and control which will ultimately betray even the greatest and most powerful gangsters. Even Don Michael Corleone is fooled by this. So why does Hollywood love so much this disillusionment of the American dream?

Gangster movies are often retro-fitted. They’re set decades before they are made. They talk about “the good old days,” the days when getting away with crime was easy. I think of last years’ Public Enemies (2009) with Johnny Depp. I don’t remember the exact line, but it was something like: “That’s why they won’t catch me. They have to be at every bank at all times, I can be at any bank, at any time, and anywhere.” And that’s the same fraud of omnipotence and omniscience that tricks all our anti-hero gangster favorites. It’s the ease of becoming a criminal and doing it successfully that generates the appeal for such a wicked route to the American dream’s fulfillment.

The moral value in early gangster films was that eventually these full-steam ahead bad guys, would be convicted and change. That first started with The Public Enemy character Tom Powers who nears redemption at the end of the film, continuing in movies like The Godfather: Part II and III, and Blow (2001) also Johnny Depp. But more often than not, our gangsters die alone, powerless, and as violently as their vicious rise to power often deserved. For every one redeemed character there are dozens of examples of to-the-teeth gangsters who go down blazing.

Gangster films are precious to me. They are some of the most intricate and most stylized films ever made. I have grown accustomed to the dark humor, the language (both verbal and metaphorical) of the environments these people dwell, and have been both shocked by their audacity and moved by their weaknesses. And I occasionally see in myself and in many of my friends that enjoy similar films and characters, many of the same habits of individualism and self-centeredness that the gangsters unwittingly and foolishly pride themselves on.

Thankfully the police in my neighborhood are very good at their job. I only kid, but the fast-talking, quick-way-up fast-way-out lifestyle is what I believe makes the genre so watchable. It’s what makes the characters so lovable, when they don’t deserve it all. It’s like Langford said: “It’s the only genre that’s named after its protagonist.”

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