Gangster Cinema: The Last Best Male Space

A few years ago I was watching a European gangster film (can’t remember the name of it).  The film contained the standard array of beatings, shootings, and other mayhem – all that plus subtitles!  The audience sat unmoved for about two hours of this bludgeoning, bloodletting and body-stacking.  Then towards the end of the movie, a mobster’s girlfriend mouthed off to him so he slapped her.  The audience gave up an audible gasp.

This is a classic example of the more times change, the more they stay the same.  Slapping around an uppity dame is nothing new in gangster movies, but the contemporary audience reaction is.  Considering the graphic violence directed towards men in these movies, a woman getting slapped doesn’t even registers as a microaggression.  But the violence-against-women lobby is shocked.  Waste all the men you want but lay a hand on a woman – how dare you!

One of the most iconic of such moments occurred in an early example of the gangster genre.  In Public Enemy (1931) James Cagney shoved half a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s kisser.  It probably didn’t hurt her (unless she got citric acid in her eyes) but Depression-era audiences were shocked, not so much by the waste of precious food but by the affront to female dignity!  FUN FACT NO. 1: In Cagney’s autobiography he related that Monte Brice, the ex-husband of the actress (Mae Clarke) playing Cagney’s girlfriend, had timed the movie so he could return to the theater, enjoy the grapefruit scene, and leave…only to return again and again.  Too bad he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the convenience of home video.

Granted, there are worse weapons than grapefruit.  Consider Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (1953).  First he puts out his cigarette in Carolyn Jones’s hand, then he hurls a pot of hot coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face.  How about a trigger warning, cinema majors?  No, not for violence against women but for the cigarette scene.  Cigarette-smoking was ubiquitous during the 50’s but now it’s considered repulsive.

Both Public Enemy and The Big Heat have been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.  I don’t know whether or not this status is subject to cancellation by a Twitter mob.

In years past I used to watch gangster movies and thought that most of what I saw was the product of a scriptwriter’s imagination.  Remember Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in formal attire beating up a couple of double-crossers with a baseball bat at a banquet in The Untouchables (1987)?  An unforgettable scene…but it also appears in biographies of Capone.

Of course, sometimes poetic license is employed.  For example, in the aforementioned Public Enemy, the grapefruit scene was based on a real incident involving a Chicago mobster by the name of Hymie Weiss – but he used an omelet instead of a grapefruit.  Obviously, the logistics of retakes favored grapefruit.

Then there is the hapless hood whose head is squeezed in a vise in Casino (1995).  When his eyeball pops out of his head, you may think it was just gratuitous gore.  Turns out it really happened, albeit to a Chicago goombah in the 1960’s.

Gangster film atrocities are truly multicultural.  Every society has its criminal class, so palefaces have no monopoly on the genre.  Film fans can take their pick of black, Asian, or Hispanic gangster movies.  The genre, however, is ill-suited for women because women are ill-suited for criminal gangs.  When women are in charge, they seek consensus.  This approach is totally incompatible with gangsterism.  “This is why women have no place in society,” observes an idiosyncratic hit man (Robert Keith) babysitting a weeping woman hostage in The Lineup (1958).  “Women are weak.  Crime is aggressive and so is the law.”

It would be a waste of time to point out toxic masculinity in gangster films.  Without toxic masculinity, there is no gangster genre.  Examples of same would surely provide ample fodder for any number of doctoral dissertations in film history or women’s studies.

Is gender equity possible in the gangster genre?  Well, the distaff reboots of Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 11 didn’t wow moviegoers, and 355, an attempt at an all-female high-tech spy movie, also failed to perform.  An out-and-out gangster film would be even less successful – which doesn’t mean some woke bank won’t be willing to flush its money down a toilet by financing such a questionable project.

Consider an all-female take on Reservoir Dogs (1992).  A femme flip on this movie would be a heavy-duty makeover because: FUN FACT NO. 2:  Reservoir Dogs has zero speaking parts for women!  Under the diversity guidelines now in place for Oscar consideration, it would not qualify for any nominations.

While there have been any number of voices demanding more female input in the film industry, the gangster film appears to be bulletproof.  This is a good thing.  When we see how feminism has ruined other genres and franchises, we realize that nothing good could arise from their involvement.

There is perhaps another reason for feminists’ reluctance to tinker with the gangster genre.  Could it be that women secretly admire the gangster?

We have long heard that male confidence is a chick magnet.  Ever see a successful movie gangster who doesn’t ooze confidence?  If you do, he probably won’t be around by the end of the movie.  Think Elisha Cook, Jr., the definitive fall guy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Killing (1956), and many others.

The gangster kingpin lords it over his men, but sometimes he turns to silly putty when dealing with women.  Exhibit A is Humphrey Bogart as bank robber “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra (1941).  After enduring a long stretch in prison he sets up another heist as soon as he gets out, but he falls for a teenage girl with a clubfoot.  After financing her operation with his ill-gotten loot, she gives him the gate.  He meets his fate when he is shot down emerging from his hiding place while trying to protect a small dog he has adopted.  FUN FACT NO. 3: the dog was played by Bogart’s real-life pet.  Oh, sure, the story tends to humanize the protagonist…but a lot of good it does him!  It is permissible for a movie mobster to get whacked because he was too ambitious or he disobeyed his superiors.  Any self-respecting gangster, however, should know better than to white knight for cripples and terriers.

While sentimentality has no place in gangster movies, some films offer a lefthanded salute to motherhood.  J. Edgar Hoover characterized Ma Barker as “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.”  The fact is, Ma Barker was no mastermind; she was more of an accomplice, sort of a cheerleader for her sons.  According to Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who accompanied her sons on their misdeeds, “The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang … She wasn’t a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself.”  So if you remember Shelley Winters as a pistol-packin’ mama in Bloody Mama (1970), remember: “Based on a true story” is a license to fabricate.

Another gangster film with a maternal theme is White Heat (1949), wherein James Cagney’s mother (Margaret Wycherley) is his biggest fan, urging him onward and upward in his criminal career.  Famously, Cagney’s last words before his self-immolation are “Made it, ma!  Top of the world!”

How about Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver)  in Animal Kingdom (2010), the Australian counterpart of Ma Barker?  And let’s not forget The Krays (1990), a British film about mobster twins who maintained an unusually close relationship with their mother (Billie Whitelaw).  Perhaps as a result of this relationship, one of the twins was a homosexual – now there’s a real rarity in gangster films.

Perhaps as renowned as Ma Barker was Bonnie Parker.  For all the romance surrounding her hard-ass image, she was hardly a hardened criminal.  Today we might classify her as a publicity hound or an attention whore.  Standing all of 4’10”, she was hardly a likely candidate to effectively wield a Thompson submachine gun, which weighed ten pounds unloaded.   In truth, there is no record of her killing anyone.  And she looked nothing like Faye Dunaway or Dorothy Provine, who portrayed her in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), respectively.

Women are largely extraneous in gangster films because a fundamental theme of the genre is the male group and its dynamics, more specifically, how the alpha male manages his subalterns (or liquidates them if it comes to that) in achieving their illicit goals.  Unlike women, gangsters don’t call 911 at the first sign of trouble; they take care of business themselves, or it takes care of them.  You might say it’s nature red in tooth and claw, or just the trash taking itself out.  Either way, it’s a harsh unforgiving world out there.  The strong don’t always survive but they last longer than the weak.  More to the point, strength is admired, weakness is not.

In the early days of sound movies, however, handwringers and bluenoses dictated that gangster films had to be framed as cautionary “crime doesn’t’ pay” tales.  The original Scarface (1932) was subtitled “The Shame of a Nation” and opened with a preface saying “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and liberty.  Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: “What are you going to do about it?”  The government is your government.  What are YOU going to do about it?”

Well, a half century can make a difference.  There was no such preamble for the 1983 version of Scarface.  It was OK for viewers to revel in the decadence and depredations of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), and “Say hello to my little friend” remains a beloved movie line after all these years.

While we’re at it, let’s say hello to some of the positive features of gangster movies:

There is no virtue signaling.  A good gangster film is a crash course in realpolitik and Machiavellian maneuvering.  The bottom line – getting results – is what matters.  Occasionally scriptwriters offer us a feisty priest, such as Karl Malden in On the Waterfront (1954) or Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), but they are just foils for the protagonists.  Audiences don’t root for them.  Female finger-waggers are also rare.

There is no psychobabble.  Gangsters do not read self-help books.  Gangsters do not consult relationship experts.  Gangsters do not rely on support groups.  The Sopranos notwithstanding, gangsters do not undergo psychoanalysis – particularly with a female psychiatrist.   Remember: The Sopranos is not a movie, it is television, therefore automatically suspect.  In other words, fuhgeddaboutit.

There are no optics.  Aside from dressing well, gangsters don’t worry about their image.  Public relations is not a motivation.  Indeed, the worse a gangster behaves the more his legend grows.  Leaving a trail of dead bodies is no more a problem for gangsters than it is for the Clintons.

There is no affirmative action.  If you’re not the right ethnicity, you won’t move up in the organization.  This is true of the traditional Mafia, the Jewish mafia, the Irish mafia, the Russian mafia, or any other mafia.  If you want to be a yakuza, you’d better be Japanese.  An outsider might be employed as a low-level flunkey or gofer, but upward mobility is severely limited.

There is no digital currency.  While the global solons are pushing for a cashless society and cryptocurrency gains more and more fans, the gangster revels in hard cash and expects payment in kind.  If you owe him money and don’t pay up, he doesn’t send you a text or an email.  He won’t employ snail mail to send a second notice, a letter from his law firm, or a form letter telling you your case has been referred to a collection agency.  This leads directly to the next category…

There is no filing for bankruptcy.  If you borrow money from gangsters to go to college, rest assured your student loans will not be forgiven.  Hire the best bankruptcy attorney you can, and it won’t make any difference.  Which leads us to…

There are no Atticus Finch type lawyers.  This is not to say gangsters never employ lawyers.  Their attitude towards the legal profession is eminently realistic, however.  When a gangster hires a lawyer, he doesn’t do so to get justice; he hires a lawyer to get results.  This, of course, is why people have always hired lawyers, but one cannot admit to it in polite society.

There is no intersectionality.  To be sure, gangster films have victims – lots of them.  They are not stunning and amazing, however, just kneecapped or dead.  The gangster film is no place for sissies.  If you are a victim and you survive, you have to turn it around and victimize your victimizer to get any street cred.

Given the fact that gangster films violate numerous contemporary taboos, they cater to wishful thinking.  A well-done gangster film is a good workout for the id.  It’s about men behaving badly and don’t you wish you were one of them!  In that respect, a gangster film is like a fantasy film.  Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) sums it up perfectly in the final scene of Goodfellas (1990):

I never voted.  I never paid taxes.  My birth certificate and my arrest sheet…that’s all you’d ever have to know I was alive.

Ghosting, anyone?  Unfortunately, after he enters the witness protection program, he laments:

Today everything is different.  There’s no action.  I have to wait around like everyone else…I’m an average nobody.  Get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.

In other words, just like all you beta males out there in Schnookville.  You know who you are…all you guys stymied by morality, karma, the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the categorical imperative, or what will the neighbors think.

Fear not, fellow schnooks, for sooner or later another gangster film will be released to temporarily bust you out of your prison without bars.  You can sit in the dark and fantasize about how wonderful it would be if you could dispatch your enemies as bluntly and decisively as the average movie gangster takes care of business.  For two hours you can rise above schnookdom and get in touch with your inner ubermensch.

Nietzsche would likely approve…but it would take another article to explain why.