Overcoats and fedoras, Tommy guns and gats, mugs and molls. Names such as Baby Face and Pretty Boy. Bulls and G-men. Speakeasies and hideouts. The Big House and “The Big Sleep.”
Director Michael Mann’s new film about Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, “Public Enemies,” opens Wednesday, reminding us that while certain expressions may have gone on the lam, the genre of the gangster film is in the pink. Images of darkly ambitious men in snazzy suits performing antisocial acts have been popular for almost as long as it has been possible to capture them on film, through good times and bad. But especially bad.
“I think a tremendous amount of frustration builds up in society when people are hurting and out of work and they’re wondering where their next meal is coming from,” said Richard Jewell, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts who has taught classes about gangster film. “The thing that is particularly fascinating about gangsters at that point in time is that (they bulldoze) through the laws and the impediments to enjoy life and get the most out of life.”
Dillinger and his pals emptied banks throughout the Midwest in the early 1930s. Before the FBI filled him with lead outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934, at the age of 31, Dillinger had become somewhat of a populist hero among America’s downtrodden, thanks to sensational newspaper accounts of his brazen exploits and his penchant — perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not — of punishing the big bully financial institutions but leaving the little guy alone.
Today, in the midst of a deep recession, with banks getting bailouts, executives getting bonuses and average investors getting the shaft, there may not be a more ideal time to live vicariously through outlaws with a taste for cabbage and a contempt for authority.
“When you are oppressed by government, when most people go into court knowing they’re going to get screwed, when a rich person has a lot of lawyers against you and you know they’re going to bury you, you don’t have a shot,” said Nicholas Pileggi, author and screenwriter who penned the script for director Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
“That is what angers people in contemporary society. It’s like that scene in ‘The Godfather’ when the undertaker wants to get even for what happened to his daughter. Most audiences wouldn’t do anything like that. But it’s a very pleasurable experience in the viewing of a movie.”
Evolution of the gangster flickPileggi started out as a reporter in New York City covering the police beat for 20 years. Dealing with myriad crime-stoppers and lawbreakers eventually led to Pileggi writing “Wise Guys,” the book upon which “Goodfellas” was based. All of that experience provided him with a unique perspective on the evolution of the gangster film in American life.
He said the American fascination began with cowboy movies, with white hats and black hats and wide-open spaces and life told in big, bold strokes. “The minute that the automobile became popular,” he said, “Jesse James became John Dillinger. They used cars instead of horses.”
Pileggi also noted that when Prohibition came about, citizens became more rebellious of authority while getting cozier with the gangsters who provided booze. “A guy once told me that he worked in a speakeasy and used to give a cop $5 a night. If there was a brawl, then take the guy out,” he said. “The cop acted like a bouncer.
“When you do that, when you give a cop $5 a night, years later that cop could become an inspector. That kind of systemic corruption began a modern era. You see it in (Capt.) McCluskey in ‘The Godfather.’ There was an unbelievable amount of corruption that was allowed to exist, that was created by Prohibition. It was institutionalized by Prohibition.
“That’s when the gangster movie really began to flourish. And it was the swan song for the cowboy movie.”
‘The genre is here to stay’The pantheon is crowded. One might even say “mobbed.” It includes, but certainly is not limited to, “The Public Enemy” (starring James Cagney) and “Little Caesar” (Edward G. Robinson), both in 1931; the original “Scarface” (Paul Muni) in 1932, as well as the 1983 cocaine-laden remake with Al Pacino; “White Heat” in 1949 (also Cagney); “The Godfather” in 1972 (Pacino, Marlon Brando) and “The Godfather, Part II” in ‘74; “Once Upon A Time in America” in 1984 (Robert De Niro) and “Goodfellas” in 1990.
The HBO television series “The Sopranos,” which ran for six seasons from 1999 to 2007, belongs in a special wing because of its consistent high quality and the impact it had on the culture. It also spawned speculation that the show’s success would put cement shoes on the genre of the gangster film, because it was believed nothing could top it, and also that the public had gotten its fill of wise guys.
Not so, said Frank Vincent, and he should know. Not only did the New Jersey native play the role of ruthless henchman-turned-mob-boss Phil Leotardo in “The Sopranos,” but he also submitted memorable turns as Billy (“Go home and get your shine box!”) Batts in “Goodfellas” as well as supporting roles in Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and “Casino.”
Vincent is eminently qualified to opine because before he began acting, he spent years during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s as a drummer working in clubs in the New Jersey area, which were often frequented, managed and/or owned by pinkie-ring enthusiasts. In fact, he and Joe Pesci once had a comedy act that they performed in bars and clubs up and down the East Coast.
“Gangster films have been popular for years and years,” he said. “Gangsters are people that the general public doesn’t know anything about. Their way of life is different. They lead a fast life, a glamorous life, all the girls go for them, they have flashy cars, they dress up good.
“I think the genre is here to stay. It’ll never go away. Women love the bad boys. It’s the same thing with rock stars, women love them. It’s part of the culture. It’s something that people fantasize about.”
Beat the systemSometimes that line between movie fantasy and reality becomes blurred. Vincent recalled one run-in with a fan who didn’t know there was a line at all.
“I had a schoolteacher make a reference to the scene in ‘Goodfellas’ where Billy Batts is in the trunk of the car and Joe (Pesci) goes inside to his mother’s house and there’s a thumping coming from the trunk,” he said. “She said to me, ‘When they were inside the house eating, how could you breathe in that trunk?’
“This is an educated person. This is how much reality they think of it as.”
There may also be confusion over what is real and what isn’t because so much pent-up anger and frustration exists over the current economic conditions, much like it was during the Depression. It suggests that whenever there are hard times, people might be receptive to a new reality — even if it’s only in their minds — that will provide some measure of relief and satisfaction.
“There is a lot of rage against the economic system, against our system of government,” noted George De Stefano, a journalist and critic who wrote the book “An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America.” “I think the gangster film taps into that anger and resentment in the sense that gangsters, even though they are inevitably punished for their transgressions, represent the dreams of filmgoers to beat the system, to wage war on respectable society.
“It’s interesting now to see more films of this genre during a time of economic distress, when people are at the mercy of large structural forces they don’t understand, involving banks and financial institutions.
“The time is right for the return of the genre.”