The local library has the classic gangster flick Casino on sale for a dollar. It’s a copy on VHS, not DVD, which means there are two video cassettes containing the whole of the movie, and the library doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to providing movies that haven’t been destroyed by some sort of weirdly misguided misusage. Still, Casino for a buck is Casino for a buck. Although the movie is fundamentally flawed in a few key areas, it’s also one of the best guy movies to show up from the Scorsese oeuvre, and it stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci at the peak of their Mafia games, at the tail end of a four-decade span when Mafia movies meant something.
As I sat down and gleefully cackled through one of Pesci’s umpteen f-bomb-laden tirades, I couldn’t help but reminisce back to high school, the time I started watching gangster movies. Peer pressure had pressed my curiosity button (which is one of those big red ones). Those were the days of gangster movies, rap stars, and basketball players being our heroes. (The first two more than the third in my case, because I didn’t start watching basketball until college.) Goodfellas and Casino topped many students’ favorite movie lists, and to us the gangsters were ultracool iconoclasts. They were dispensers of Sun-Tzu-like wisdom about survival and necessity, and cool, clear-headed, efficient businessmen who achieved wealth beyond out wildest dreams. The gangster characters owned the coolest things, drove the best cars, and were respected.
There was a strong connection between rap music and gangster movies in the 90’s. Rap in the mid-to-late 90’s had turned into exhibitionist posturing. The industry – not the music, but the entire INDUSTRY – had turned into a giant soap opera stumbling its way down to a materialist nadir. Gangsters were commonly used as imagery, deferred to in songs, and videos usually contained a handful of references to one of the more revered gangster movies. (The videos directed by Hype Williams were exceptions; ironically, Williams moved into movies himself when he directed Belly, a gangster movie which picked up a large cult following in my high school’s halls.) There was even a rapper called Scarface who reached the mainstream through a duet called “Smile” which he performed with a posthumous Tupac. To paraphrase Tupac and Snoop Dogg in their song “2 of America’s Most Watned,” it wasn’t nothin’ but a gangsta party.
A kind of sobering disappointment hit me when I matured, and I eventually realized that this music which I had once loved and used to scare and shock my folks was created and marketed to people like me specifically for that purpose. Glancing a critical eye toward the scenario now, I can’t help but wonder why gangster characters were the ones we glorified the most back in those days. Maybe we were all caught up in the materialist trappings of the lifestyle we saw these characters living, or maybe it was the respect they had from even their worst enemies, or maybe we saw them as examples of scrappers who rose to the top of the world and didn’t have any problems. But looking back on it now, it’s easy to see that despite being some of Hollywood’s best entertainment, the point of these gangster movies was always flying over our heads. Usually the point was that getting involved in crime, no matter how well-planned, rich, or elaborate, wasn’t going to pay off well in the end.
In 1967, director Arthur Penn revolutionized the idea of the gangster movies and turned maybe the two most dangerous real-life bank robbers in history into heroes of the depression-era downtrodden when he released Bonnie and Clyde, with Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Gene Hackman. The telling scene:
Clyde: “You! Is that your money or the bank’s?”
Patron: “It’s my money.”
Clyde: “Alright, you keep it then.”
The floodgates burst, and what followed was a 40-year period during which gangster movies poured out and hit steady and hard. In 1972, The Godfather spiffed up the image of the gangster so much that it not only had an influence on the way regular people looked at gangsters, but the way the real Mafia looked at themselves. A year later, Martin Scorsese got himself onto Hollywood’s map by releasing Mean Streets, a portrayal of small-time trench gangsters influenced by the real wiseguys Scorsese knew while growing up in New York City. In 1974, the sequel to The Godfather was released, setting the all-time bar for the whole film medium.
Since then, gangster movies have trickled into the theaters: Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables (a very mediocre movie, in my own opinion, but a friend of mine was an extra in the courtroom scene), The Godfather Part III (unfairly maligned), Goodfellas (maybe the greatest movie ever made, at least to me), Mobsters (rightfully forgotten), King of New York, Bugsy (also underrated and forgotten, probably because it starred Warren Beatty instead of a traditional gangster actor) Reservoir Dogs (woefully overrated), Carlito’s Way (underrated as hell), Pulp Fiction, Casino, Donnie Brasco, Jackie Brown (wildly underrated; it’s a mystery to me why Tarantino fans have fawned over Reservoir Dogs and forgotten this soulful indie), Belly, Hoodlum, The Boondock Saints (I don’t get it – really, was this thing made by twelve-year-old boys?), The Departed, Public Enemies, and American Gangster only scratch the surface. The movies that seem to get the most attention from the working class and poor are the Godfather movies, Scarface, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Casino, Donnie Brasco, and most recently, The Boondock Saints.
It’s one thing to keep these movies around as entertainment, but teenagers of the working class and the poor have taken to gleaning “wisdom” from these movies which they believe can be applied to the real world. Rappers have emulated them in countless ways. These movies, however, were never meant to show us an American Dream-like rise to the top of the world or give us the prevailing wisdom of reality. I’ll grant that Vito Corleone from the first Godfather movie has his moments, but he also didn’t want his kids to take after him. These movies are very elaborate plays on morality. Think of what they’re REALLY about (Martin Scorsese, a devout Catholic, says pride is a big theme of his because it leads to every other sin). In The Godfather, we think of Michael Corleone taking the reins of the Corleone family business after killing Sollozzo and McCluskey and establishing himself as the most powerful Mafia Don in the country. What gets ignored is that final image of Michael in the second Godfather movie, sitting sunken-eyed after methodically alienating everyone who meant anything to him. In the third movie, as if the second lesson didn’t sink in, the end shows Michael sitting on the opera house stairs, clutching his dead daughter in frozen-faced terror before letting out one of the ghastliest anguish screams in movies. We see Tony Montana from Scarface and his fancy suits, gorgeous wife, big house, all the trappings of wealth and power. But Montana got them all by essentially selling his soul and becoming a swaggering example of a moral compass pointed south. The iconic scene from the movie is a coked-up Tony Montana standing at the top of his lobby with a gun almost his own size, screaming defiantly while warding off his attackers in a haze of movie star invincibility. Does anyone remember the preceding scene, where Tony kills his sister in a cocaine haze? Or the fact that Sosa was taking Tony out because of the split-second where Tony somehow found a conscience again? Or that Tony’s moment of movie star invincibility is quickly followed up by the end shot of him lying facedown in his lobby’s reflecting pool, dead, as the camera pans upward to a statue with the inscription “The World is Yours?” Bugsy Siegel is shot trying to go legit, and Carlito Brigante is killed by a small-time gangster he himself spared earlier. Reservoir Dogs ends with a Mexican standoff in which EVERYONE is killed.
Even a lot of the best-scenario outcomes don’t bode well for the characters. Henry Hill from Goodfellas has his whole life swept from under him like a carpet. In Casino, Sam Rothstein is lucky to escape a car bomb. His best friend, Nicky Santoro, basically turned against him, and the bosses in Kansas City see Nicky as a liability and have him and his brother killed in one of the most brutal manners imaginable. Joe from Donnie Brasco is an undercover cop who starts feeling too much pressure, has his life as himself almost break down, and almost has to commit a crime himself when the FBI finally terminates his project. The Boondock Saints get off free, but then again, they weren’t bad guys; they were just unorthodox vigilantes. Jules from Pulp Fiction is left to whatever fate was meant for him, but his partner was killed, and he decides to change his ways after experiencing what he believes is divine intervention.
Yeah, gangster movies are not a genre which is known to end well for the main characters. Lots of fans give very common and generic statements about codes of conduct, business, and loyalty they got from gangster movies, but the movies themselves suggest those codes only existed verbally. The gangsters themselves appear to cherry-pick the ones they like the best, and even then they only do it by ear. A lot of the characters who supposedly live by these codes of honor are also in the habit of killing people, which makes me wonder if they have their honor priorities straight, because there are other ways they could have disposed of troublesome Mafiosi without actually killing them, and in some cases they’ve gone out of their way to track down and kill Mafiosi who were already laying low and in hiding for fear of their lives.
The coolness factor is a powerful thing here, and a lot of the characters from gangster movies do carry themselves with a certain degree of panache and swagger you and me can only dream of, probably because the law doesn’t really apply to them. Still though, there aren’t any lessons or codes to be taken away from these characters. There’s nothing to admire about them. They’d all slit your throat for pennies, and Omerta doesn’t apply to anyone, not even real-life gangsters. Gangster movies should be taken as entertainment, not people to emulate. To take a line from the epilogue of the original Scarface movie from the 1930’s, what to you plan to do about it?