THE RETURN OF HOLLYWOOD'S MOST WANTED

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We're being taken for a ride again. We've been made an offer we can't refuse. Mother of God, is this the beginning of a cycle?

Yes, it is. In one of its periodic, perhaps whimsical, shifts in subject matter, the American film industry has reinvented a hallowed figure from its own storied past, the gangster.

Right now, in a limited fall film market, at least three gangster movies are in release: "GoodFellas," Martin Scorsese's vivid look at a tribe of low-ranking Long Island mafiosi; "State of Grace," about the Westies, an Irish thug subset that tried to strike an accord with the Italians on New York's West Side in the mid-'70s; and, less seriously, "Marked for Death," in which martial arts star Steven Seagal is matched against highly organized Jamaican drug posses in the suburbs of Chicago.

This Friday, the classic gangster film from the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, "Miller's Crossing," goes national after getting mostly superb reviews from its release in New York and a few other big towns; in November, a British variant, "The Krays," arrives, as it examines the flashy career of two sociopathic twins, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who ran the London underworld in the '60s. And finally, the Godfather of them all, "The Godfather III," arrives at Christmas.

Certainly, some of this is fortuitous. The Coens, for example, have had thismovie in mind since their initial breakthrough in "Blood Simple" in 1984; it took this long to get the movie together. And "Godfather III" has been an off and on project at Paramount for years (much like "The Two Jakes"), a film that was certainly inevitable but which depended entirely upon the serendipities of director-auteur Francis Coppola, who wouldn't make it until he found a script that spoke to him. He ended up, or so reports insist, writing most of it himself in his trailer every night during the shooting. That the two films happen to land in theaters in the same season is more coincidence than conspiracy.

But it does speak to a certain reality -- that the gangster is a figure of perpetual fascination and dramatic potential and that with a regularity that has to be more than pure chance he always returns. The current cycle, in fact, is the fourth such in American movies, following on the early '30s, the early '50s and the mid-'70s, when the original "Godfathers" released a spate of mob clones.

The neat two decades that separates each may mean less than it seems; but, in each reincarnation, the gangster is subtly different from the one before.

The original gangster movies were primarily dramas of the city, and the city was an important visual motif. Such films as "The Roaring Twenties" or "Public Enemy" usually tracked the rise of an ambitious young urban thug, a Horatio Alger with a roscoe under his armpit. Jimmy Cagney, of course, is the prototypical gangster figure from the '30s: cocky, arrogant, the city's harsh music in his voice and the city's rhythms in his body language -- he's a young man in a hurry and when someone, a babe, say, disappoints him, he'll deal with the situation immediately, by crushing a grapefruit into her face.

It's no anomaly that the great studio of the gangster picture in the '30s was Warner Bros., because Warner's was very much the "urban" studio, also specializing in newspaper stories, boxing stories, the Dead End Kids (the Our Gang of the city's mean streets) and other variants on the Hell's Kitchen theme. And the stars it created were primarily urban creatures, too -- no one could mistake Cagney, the great Humphrey Bogart, Pat O'Brien, the great Edward G. Robinson, the not-so-great George Raft for country bumpkins. They all had the city cat's feral gleam in their eyes, his ability to figure the angles as learned in a dozen smoky pool halls, and above all his familiarity and ease with the dark meshes of streets and alleys that were his natural milieu.

Of course World War II all but knocked the gangster out of the theaters, though there were two "gangsters at war" hybrids, with Bogart and Alan Ladd as tough guys who ran up against not other mob members but Nazis.

By the '50s, the milieu wasn't quite so important or so vivid. This was the brief era in crime movie history when film noir, a stylistic school that used shadowy compositions, intersected with -- and in a certain fashion, co-opted -- the gangster movie. Not all films noirs were gangster movies and not all gangster movies were films noirs, but when they overlapped -- as in 1949's "White Heat" or 1954's "The Big Heat" or 1952's "The Big Combo" -- the results were stunning.

The landscape of the noir is only nominally the landscape of the city; it's far more the landscape of the mind. That's why classic gangster noir of the '50s has the weird sensation of taking place nowhere and everywhere at once -- so intense are the mind states that the backgrounds tend to become either abstracted or generic.

"White Heat," for example, Jimmy Cagney's great turn as wacko mobster Cody Jarrett, is set entirely in a nondescript zone that's not quite city and not quite suburb; even its workup of so vivid a milieu as prison is abstract, like a low-budget, detail-less TV series. What this reflects in larger terms is confusion; crime is no longer strictly a city phenomeon, and it can no longer be affiliated with a particular venue. In an almost abstract, dreamlike sense it's everywhere.

But the gangster pulled another fade in the '60s, perhaps because the youth culture overtook the movies in a big way as the demographic hump of the baby boom reached the age to demand reflections of itself in the theaters and not reflections of its father's world.

"The Godfathers (I and II)," in the '70s, might be called the transitional movies -- and great movies, too, of course. But they insisted upon reinventing the mythic figures all over again, finding a new image. Derived from Mario Puzo's best-selling potboilers, they began with the assumption that organized crime and organized big business were very much the same phenomenon and for that reason had almost no "streety" feel. The city was nowhere to be seen, except out of windows far below. We were in a richer, more neurotic atmosphere than the jangled mob movies of the '30s but somehow in a less abstract place than the noir gangsters. There were no showy noir perspectives; the visuals were richly naturalistic, largely interior in Gordon Willis' muted, painterly cinematography. We were indoors; we were, largely, in board rooms.

In a certain limited sense, both "Godfather" movies were about meetings. Planning for meetings, preparing for meetings, finding out where meetings were taking place, discussing meetings after the fact, figuring out when the next meeting would be. Other groupings are just as important -- meals are significant, and often double for meetings; each movie begins with large family gatherings.

The course of the movies was almost like a profile of a business or an industry. It showed how the rude entrepreneurs of the '20s yielded to the slicker operators of subsequent generations and how what was banditry and extortion became muted and institutionalized; it valued the man of vision over the man of action. The overall suggestion was that mob life had acquired a corporate structure and the trappings of petty bureaucracy.

Emphasis was placed on hierarchy, which was specified to a degree completely new to the gangster film. At every moment in the drama we knew where the characters stood in relationship to each other not only by blood, but more important by organizational relationship. The Godfather was chief executive officer; he was wounded and his son Sonny became chief executive officer while the old man became Chairman of the Board. Michael, hitherto the only member of the family not in the business, nevertheless displays great talent and insight in it; and when Sonny is killed, he ascends to chief executive officer and began (in Part II) a set of sophisticated manuevers with other corporate institutions in order to guarantee his own position and to preclude the possibility of hostile takeover.

The boardroom was an apt locale, because the movies were situated at the top of the heap, in, essentially, the boardroom.

The new gangster movies of the '90s, however, are no longer interested in the noblemen. If "The Godfather" was a kind of "Hamlet," set among the royal family, the best of the new movies, "GoodFellas," is a sort of "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," or at least, "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Have Moved to the 'Burbs."

For "GoodFellas" and "Marked for Death" are both new twists on the old theme: suburban gangster pictures. And "State of Grace" at least touches on the death of the neighborhood as a metaphor for the death of the city as a theme. "State of Grace" recounts the attempts of some beleaguered petty hoods in what was once the area known as Hell's Kitchen to keep their place in the scheme of things. But in a sense they are like game animals whose numbers are declining not because of law enforcement predation but because their habitat is being gobbled up by developers. The chunk of real estate from which they extorted their living is just getting smaller and smaller; what's the point of being king of the forest if the forest is only one block long?

And ironically, one of them has already made the flight to the suburbs. Ed Harris, who plays the story's villain, is Frankie Flannery, who has already fled the dying city; he lives in New Jersey in a house no different from yours or mine.

Far more resonant, however, is the use of the suburbs in "GoodFellas" and "Marked for Death." The later, a fairly mundane vigilante melodrama with Steven Seagal, does a great deal with the contrast between city and suburb. Seagal plays a jaded DEA agent who finally decides to quit his dangerous undercover work and return to his suburban Chicago hometown and enjoy the good life. No such luck; by now the 'burbs are just as infected with dope and crime as the downtowns, and the movie's most outrageous stroke turns the custodians of the suburban drug trade into AK-47 toting Rastafarians, meant to play on all sorts of subliminal suburban fears in the malls where the movie is doing mop-up business -- business far in excess of Seagal's previous two films. It's a potent if essentially reprehensible motif.

"GoodFellas," a far more respectable movie, is a mock documentary but more to our point, a visual astonishment; the city is nowhere to be glimpsed. There's no sense of it as background, just as there's no sense of the higher echelons of mob life. Rather, it plays out its ambling soldier-level tale of capers and betrayals, hits and heists against Long Island's sprawl. The city is a memory, or their father's neighborhood. These mobsters all live on quiet, tree-lined streets; they shop in malls, they hang out in diners, not nightclubs. When they do go into the city, they go like suburbanites, for a night out on the town, for a sense of "specialness." When Ray Liotta, as Henry Hill, takes his best girl (and later wife) to the Copacabana, Scorsese shoots it as if an entry into a special world, following the couple's torturous way through the back door and the kitchen until they reach the main room which is huge and dramatic. It's a wonderfully vivid shot that makes the point of the exoticism of the city.

The one quasi-violation of this tendency toward the suburbanization of crime is contained in this Friday's "Miller's Crossing." But it's already an anomaly. It's really not about crime as crime but crime as gangster movies; the Coen brothers, students of cinema, have basically put it in the movie past rather than the American past. In the first place, it's a period piece, being set somewhere in the '20s in an unnamed and rarely seen mid-sized American city, but definitely not New York. Like "The Godfather," it's primarily an interior film, with much time and plot energy invested in tracking complicated mob politics, as an Irish gang boss tries to hold his place against an ambitious Italian, and his own No. 1 guy and adviser seems to go over to the other side.

Essentially, it's a pastiche of gangster movie themes, because it also boasts gangster-noir's generic settings and intense psychological states. It also has a weird bit of the greenery that is more a part of the suburban gangster movie, in that the mob's dumping ground isn't a junkyard or a Jersey marsh; rather it's a patch of forest.

Perhaps all this tells us something about ourselves, and perhaps it does not. It certainly tells us how we're thinking about the problem of crime and violence and the spread of anxiety throughout our society. The gangster movie traces the larger pattern of growth in America and the transformation of our society from urban to suburban.

The message is ominous; the boy next door may be a GoodFella.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
72°