"He used to be a big shot." That's how a gangster's girlfriend describes him as she cradles his corpse at the end of The Roaring Twenties. But the line could be plugged into any gangster film that ends with a tough-talking, two-fisted, hot-tempered alpha male cooling his heels in prison, frying in an electric chair or bleeding out in an alley. In these films, death comes to kingpins and flunkies alike. If you're part of the underworld, you have to accept this as a given: one minute you're swaggering down the street with a curvy dame on your arm, thinking about your next big score and tipping bartenders $100 just for keeping the ice cubes cold, and the next minute you're being led into a room you thought would contain an open bar and a card game, only to find it empty save for two big guys with handcuffs and a couple of crowbars.
The gangster picture is as ritualized as the Western, and is in some ways the pessimistic antithesis of the western, a genre that was all about the future, about possibilities, about the likelihood of exerting will on the universe and remaking your life so that it resembles your fantasies. There's a reason why critics keep quoting Robert Warshow's piece "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" in essays like this one: because he sensed this link and elucidated it so beautifully. "Those European moviegoers who think there is a gangster on every corner in New York are certainly deceived," he wrote, "but defenders of the 'positive' side of American culture are equally deceived if they think it relevant to point out that most Americans have never seen a gangster. What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans. There is almost nothing we understand better or react to more readily or with quicker intelligence. The Western film, though it seems never to diminish in popularity, is for most of us no more than the folklore of the past, familiar and understandable only because it has been repeated so often. The gangster film comes much closer. In ways that we do not easily or willingly define, the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects 'Americanism' itself." Or as Henry Hill puts it, "To us, those goody-goody people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls." Henry, sweetheart, half-Mick, half-Guinea: wherever you are, on behalf of the silent majority of ball-less suckers who'll be queuing up for Gangster Squad this weekend no matter what the critics say, I salute you.--Matt Zoller Seitz
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."
You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.