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VIDEO ESSAY: Gangster Culture in the Movies

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by Nelson Carvajal and Matt Zoller Seitz
January 9, 2013 12:38 AM
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"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.

De Niro Capone Untouchables

But isn't it always thus, even for yeggs what's been to college? Death falls on the just and the unjust alike, on big shots and little fish. No genre save horror is as comfortable with the possibility, nay, certainty, of sudden, horrendously violent extinction. Gangster pictures are populated almost exclusively by characters who've made peace with that scary reality; deep down, everyone knows life could end at any moment, but the gangster feels it more acutely, living like there's no tomorrow because as far as he knows, there isn't one. What's the threat of prison to somebody whose line of work guarantees they might get plugged, stuck, beaten to a bloody pulp or run over with a shiny new car for the sin of being on the wrong side of the law, or a turf war, or history? And who wouldn't find a character like that appealing, especially if the story ends, as it invariably does, with the gangster getting ventilated like a Cagney character, checkmated into witness protection a la GoodFellas's Henry Hill, or pinched for tax evasion like Capone in The Untouchables? When we watch gangster films, we get to indulge the fantasy of living life without rules, plus a reminder of why people shouldn't do that: party on Saturday, church on Sunday, with a bit of the old ultraviolence tossed into the mix. No genre balances attraction and repulsion more deftly, or manages to be so immoral, amoral, and moralistic all at once. 

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.

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