Why we love gangsters: Theyre still the no to the great American yes

CanWest News Service
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In the opening scene of the new crime drama American Gangster, a bloodied man is tied to a chair, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. The man who lights the match is careful to first light his own cigar. Its a shocking image, perhaps more so because the cigar-smoking killer is played by Denzel Washington.

In the opening scene of the new crime drama American Gangster, a bloodied man is tied to a chair, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. The man who lights the match is careful to first light his own cigar. Its a shocking image, perhaps more so because the cigar-smoking killer is played by Denzel Washington.

Its not a persona were comfortable with, even though we have seen Washington before playing less-than-heroic figures (in Training Day, for instance, where hes a corrupt cop.) But he has an attractive screen presence, and throughout American Gangster, his charm helps us develop sympathy for a mob boss who has devised an ingenious method of importing excellent goods that are not only better than what the competition offers, but also come at a lower price. The main problem is that the goods are heroin.

American Gangster works because we like and admire Washingtons character (based on a real-life criminal, Frank Lucas), the family man hoodlum, as much as we respect the cop (played by Russell Crowe) - an honest womanizer - who is chasing him.

Gangsters are the both the heroes and villains of crime stories, and we have a complicated relationship with them. When Ray Liotta, playing real-life gangster Henry Hill in Goodfellas, pistol-whips a smart-ass yuppie who has bothered his girlfriend, we are both horrified at the violence and secretly - or not so secretly - thrilled at the boldness of the transgression. If we were mobsters, we could pistol-whip smart-ass yuppies, too. We could also get the best tables at all the nightclubs. The only downside is the prospect of a lifetime in jail, or a grisly death, or both.

The gangster is the no to the great American yes which is stamped so large over our official culture, Robert Warshow famously wrote in a 1948 essay The Gangster As Tragic Hero. Gangster movies began in the silent era. (D.W. Griffiths 1912 film The Musketeers of Pig Alley is the surviving example, a 15-minute adventure with the best gangster movie title of all time).

But the classics of the genre began in the 1930s, during the Depression, when mobsters and the movies about them represented a challenge to capitalism. They were the dark underbelly, the mirror image, of respectable society.

The gangster film took a turn in the mid-1930s with the rise of the Hays Office, the body that oversaw American films looking to stamp out the glorification of crime, sex, and other all-American activities.

The original Scarface movie - inspired by Al Capone - wasnt released for two years until scenes were added, including an alternative ending in which the gangster, played by Paul Muni, is caught and hanged.

By 1935, even James Cagney - whose gangster career was cemented in his first starring role in Public Enemy in 1931, when he pushed half a grapefruit into the face of his girlfriend, played by Mae Clark - had changed sides. The ads for the movie G-Men trumpeted, Hollywoods most famous gangster now joins The G-Men and halts the march of crime.

But gangsters were far from finished. The postwar film noir genre celebrated private eyes and small-time hoodlums loose in the dark pessimism of treacherous cities. That gave way to new and often ironic celebrations. The great yes that Warshow saw in official American culture has been done away with by history and the programmed shocks of the pop culture of the sixties, writes Carlos Clarens in his history Crime Movies.

Gangsters could become cool guys with the retro attitudes of old noir heroes, like the Jean-Paul Belmondo character in Jean-Luc Godards Breathless (1960), a gangster movie assembled from pieces of gangster movies.

Perhaps the watershed film for the modern era was Francis Ford Coppolas The Godfather (1971), along with its first sequel, which created a violent myth of a mob family as American capitalists with all the same problems, give or take a horses head. From the first scene, in which a man begs Marlon Brando to take revenge for the rape of his daughter, were in a world of fierce and natural justice, a place we recognize as both a horrifying exaggeration of society and a hypnotic subculture where people live by forthright (albeit criminal) codes.

Organizations: Hays Office

Geographic location: Goodfellas

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