Little White Lies, Gomorrah Issue
In the famous climax to Edwin S. Porter’s //The Great Train Robbery//, a cowboy stands framed from the chest up and fires a shot straight at the audience. That shot announced the arrival of narrative cinema as something confrontational and dark. No longer would audiences jump from their seats at the sight of a train entering a station, from that moment on cinema would hit its audience point blank, implicate them in the action, and leave them for dead. It was the coming of the criminal and the crime genre. It was the coming of the gangster.
By the late 1920s Warner Bros were looking to exploit sound’s potential with more than just Al Jolson singing //Toot Toot Tootsie//. When the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre launched Al Capone as the first mob-megastar, First National Pictures released //Little Caesar//, Edward G. Robinson’s quick, clipped, nasal delivery laying the mark for mobster method. Warners responded with //The Public Enemy//, James Cagney’s beguiling cruelty making him a star.
Sound cinema scared the bejeesus out of a nervous America, feeling its way out of economic bankrupty and social collapse. The Hays code, drafted by a Jesuit Priest, entreated that: ‘the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin’. When moralising epilogues no longer sufficed, gangsters were reduced to whimpering cowards. In //Angels with Dirty Faces// Cagney cries like a baby on the way to the chair but his whimpering inspires more sympathy than contempt.
In a time of crisis, Gangsters offered a lucid response to the failures of Capitalism, recognising the true, contradictory, nature of the system – that while it’s sold as a route to liberation, for every winner, some sucker’s got to lose. Every victory is someone’s tragedy, and ultimately tragedy engulfes us all. The Gangster is our inner child, bawling out for recognition in a bitter world. //I ain’t so tough// says Cagney in //The Public Enemy//, surprised and pained, before dieing face down in the rain.
In 1933, the Production Code authority banned films on bank-robber John Dillinger and by extension Gangsters as a whole. By 1934 most Gangsters, Dillinger included, were dead. When Cagney met Bogey in //The Roaring Twenties//, cinema turned its attention to the cops, and started its fade to black. Noir portrayed the law as dirty, violent, amoral. Cagney as Gangster in //The Public Enemy// became a Fed in //G Men// without so much as changing his hat. A new nightmare of neuroses absorbed cinema – and while the product of Hays - it was more febrile, sexualised and intoxicating than anything the brief golden era of Gangster had produced.
Thirty years later a new generation of French and Italians, raised on the Gangster film’s vision of America as dark and smart, tired of literary conventions and inspired by the possibilities, and latterly constraints, of De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic – turned the Gangster into hypertextual warrior, subverting narrative and genre and staking a claim for the auteur. Godard’s //Breathless//, Melville’s //Bob Le Flambeur//, Renoir’s //Les Basfonds// were playful, ironic, teasing at convention with a mixture of ridicule and reverence. In //Tirez Sur Le Pianiste// Gangsters named Chico and Fido chat about scarves made of Japanese metal. The films flaunt the chic sensualism of French liberality, and the wise-ass confidence of American pop. Never in cinema has there been such a harmonious, bewitching, marriage of styles that would otherwise seem poles apart.
America’s crisis of conscience in the late 60s and early 70s, led it to reclaim the Gangster film, revived perhaps by the new artistic legitimacy and seriousness but replacing the spirit of optimism and youth that the New Wave found with something truer to its genesis as tragedy. The 70s saw a burst of American homage to the golden-era Gangster: //The Untouchables//, //Bonnie and Clyde//, //Chinatown//, producing perhaps the three greatest mob films of all time – //The Godfather//, //The Godfather Part 2//, and //Bugsy Malone//. //Bonnie and Clyde// best embodied the full circle of the Gangster films genealogy. Faye Dunaway’s depression-era chic captured Bonnie Parker’s Parisian style via Brigitte Bardot. The film’s stylised, comical violence – it’s dreamlike surrealism, drew from the wistfulness of the Nouvelle Vague but harshly juxtaposed it with American realism and ultra-violence. Director Arthur Penn had said ‘We’re in the Vietamese War. This film cannot be immaculate and sanitised bang-bang....it’s fucking bloody’.
//The Godfather//, portrayed the anxieties of America faced with challenges to its self-image Catholicism and the family both as alternative, and orthodoxy. Both a threat to, and the very embodiment of, the American Dream. Vito and Michael Corleone’s failures to achieve peace and honour, mirror the failure of America to live up to its aspirations, to act as a bridgehead against the amoral chaos that threatens it. While containing the generic staples of moral ambiguity and corrupt law-enforcement, //The Godfather// can be seen as one of the most conservative films ever made - light-years from the 30s Gangster who emobodies the individual fighting to survive in the moral vacuum of promisory capitalism, necessarily but fatally alone.
In //The Godfather//, the Gangster is protected by a system of justice and honour, and has learnt to play the system to his benefit. He has won, in short, and America has provided. The mob offered a clear moral nexus, a system of justice, and clear rewards. This was cathechism and commandment versus the convenient vagaries of the secular as espoused by lapsed Quaker Nixon, who pronounced: “when the president does it that means it is not illegal”.
Pacino’s inner struggle as Michael Corleone, was given stark counterpoint by his role as Tony Montana – the nemesis of the old school Sicilian mafia, ruthless, drug-fuelled, and excessive in everything. De Palma’s //Scarface// with its synth-soundtrack and nylon suits bears little in relation to Hawks’s, which avoids the depiction of violence, except in taking **’s amorality and ambition to extremes. Montana is Reagonomics with a Colombian accent and a ‘little friend’. But in spirit it is a return to the 30s, from The Godfather, in depicting the triumph and defeat of the individual. ‘The World is Yours’ announces the neon sign in Hawks’ Scarface as ** lies dieing. In De Palma’s the legend is spelled in ** as Montana sits, surrounded by Cocaine.
In Britain, //The Long Good Friday//, concerned with class, decline, and ‘business’ – the films embody a sort of entreprenurial aspiration that foreshadows Thatcherism, most notably Bob Hoskins as Harold, under seige from yanks and provos and trying to keep the ship afloat. As Thatcher announced the end of society, Brit Gangster films filled the void with what has been called the ‘homosocial economy’, the mutually supportive structure of men. Just as molls and femme fatales threatened the ordered universe of the 30s gangster, here women threatened the male ‘family’ with their demands. In /The Krays// the nurturing, mythical mother is indirectly implicated in, and protected by and screened from the real violence while a Victorian, and disturbing, matriarchy is reinforced class is sublimated to the entrepreneur.
The parochial concerns of British film – the concerns of class, post-imperial decline, and the individual were taken by Guy Ritchie, and turned into shit. If the 90s can be dismissed as a triumph of style over substance, of postmodernism and reinterpreation - of the Britpop generation – driven by a desire for a real political change, yet unbound by the ideological lines of what theat change might actually entaiil, rediscovering the 60s and 70s in an attempt to add cultural weight to a time of where an era was evidently changing, but which yet was strangely weightlessness: Self preservation society, //Italian Job//, /Snatch/, //Gangster No 1//, //51stState/, //The Limey//,
It is this very lightness that makes Lock Stock, such a derisory film.. Acclaimed as the embodiment of the Loaded generations uncoscius cool - - sexism and violence - in Oswald Boateng suits and a soundtrack by Ocean Colour Scene. In fact, for its mockney rendering of Caine straight from //Get Carter// – and its knowing use of class and crime.
It took Tarantino to make something meaningful of all this anchorless irony, turning Bonnie and Clyde into Micky and Mallory, naming his production company after Godard’s Gangster-chic //Band A Part//, and turning the ironic, wise-cracks dialogue back on the French: //A Royale with cheese?//.
The gangster film lives on, reinterpreted and redefined particularly in the new Asian cinema of Hong Kong and South Korea where the self-destructive loser has accentuated meaning in ultra-modern societies with new conformist pressures. But the gangster film’s apogee came with the poetic symmetry of Scorcese’s tribute to //The Great Train Robbery’s// point-blank gun blast, in 1990’s //Goodfellas//. Much has changed since that first fatal shot, and yet we all still want to be wiseguys.