The Gangster Film and the American Dream

Following the killing of John Dillinger after his ill-fated date with a gangster movie and a woman dressed in red, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America instituted a ban on gangster films. Supposedly, this ban was put in place in order to stop the youth of America from identifying with the romantic portrayal of the gangster life that was being shown on the silver screen. A more likely explanation is that gangster movies like the original Scarface, Little Caesar and Public Enemy all made a subtle but undeniable connection between success as a gangster and success in the business world of mainstream America. The idea was to highlight the distinction between the behavior of businessmen and criminals and marginalize the gangster from his reflection as a perfect representative of free market pursuit of the capitalist ideal.

The movie gangster was never fully detached from his romantic roots, but in 1967 he made a conspicuous return to his earlier form; a return that appears to be permanent. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde was feverishly pro-gangster, featuring two very striking young actors as the notorious bank robbers. There can be no doubt as to who are the heroes of this film. In fact, they are so unquestionably heroic that they aren’t even deserving of the term anti-hero. The filmmakers clearly weren’t as concerned with historical accuracy as they were thematic coherence. In fact, the makers of this movie stated that their intention was to craft a story about anti-establishment heroes bucking the system instead of knuckling under it. Their intention seemed to be accepted as fact by both those who admired the movie and those who were appalled by it. If one looks closer at the film, however, it is possible to accurate read this version of the story of Bonnie & Clyde as a gleeful acceptance of the establishment, rather than a subversive undermining of it.

The movie argues that bank robbers and gangsters of the 30’s were no different from the corporate criminals from whom they are robbing. If this is so–and it undoubtedly is–then Bonnie & Clyde aren’t bucking the system, they are merely engaging an alternative method whereby to take advantage of the system. The appearance of Bonnie & Clyde in movie theaters coincided with the tremendous social upheaval taking place in America and the rest of the world in sixties, but looking at it now, objectively and out of the context of its times, it’s clear the message of the movie is decidedly conservative. What do Bonnie and Clyde want? Money. Why do they want money? To better a enjoy life. Change the question to what business want and the answers remain the same.

The comparison of the gangster to the successful mainstream American businessman becomes even more obvious in the films following Bonnie & Clyde. And if that movie reintroduced the romantic vision of gangsters, The Godfather forever cemented it. Francis Coppola’s gangster epic sits atop the IMDB’s member rating list of favorite movies. Why would a movie about cutthroat criminals that features horrifically violent murder after horrifically violent murder top the list of most highly rated movies of all time? Why is a movie that ends with a cold-blooded killer getting away with it consistently appear at or nor the top of list of best movies of all time from both critics and audiences? In fact, not only does Michael Corleone get away with it, but he consolidates his power and grows stronger.

It is The Godfather, more than any other gangster film ever made, that portrays its gangsters in not only an unambiguously positive light, but also a light making obvious the connection between outlaw activity and the business world. Organized crime in this movie is rendered as nothing more than another business that is subject to profit and loss, risk and calculation, promotion and firing. One of the most overlooked sequences in the Godfather Part II occurs as both the gangsters and mainstream business world loses its cash cow in Cuba to Castro and his Communist revolutionaries. Following the overthrow of Batista – another in the long line of despotic leaders that the US government conveniently overlooked because they were allied with us – both the Mafia and corporate America lost the Holy Grail of capitalism, a consumer base not subject to governmental regulation or FBI investigations. Goodfellas also views crime from a business point of view, but brings the business down to the nuts and bolts, blue-collar day-to-day workings of this business known as organized crime. The real differences between the two movies is that Scorsese’s gangsters are workers while the Corleone family are the owners and, therefore, nowhere near as romantic. The gangsters in Goodfellas are not subject to the same kind of emulation as the members of the Corleone family.

In the original Godfather film, the only member of the Corleone family to die a violent gangster death is Sonny, but his murder is staged so dramatically that despite the blood and bullets and ultimate humiliation, there is still something romantic about it. Michael, on the other hand, gets to bed down two attractive women and then whack all his enemies. For crying out loud, Vito Corleone gets to die of natural causes, something almost unheard-of in the annals of both real and movie gangsters! What’s not to admire about being a gangster in the saga of the Corleone family?

One of the most interesting things about gangster films since The Godfather is how often the viewer is treated to a decidedly capitalistic ideology behind this whole business of crime. At long last the filmmakers could work without the choking grip of the Hays Code to present the connection between the criminal route to success and the mainstream route. What had been implicit became explicit. The classic gangster story had followed a somewhat predictable formula showing the rise through enterprise that ended in the failure through violent death. Modern day gangsters have the luxury of much happier endings to their tales. And those who don’t experience the unqualified happy endings that are experienced by Michael Corleone and Keyser Soze at least get to live in the suburbs rather than die.

The gangster is no longer merely a character in cautionary tales about how pursuing illegal avenues to the American Dream. Although he had been there all along, after The Godfather the gangster finally was allowed to become an official part of the process. The S&L scandal of the 1980’s, and the corporate scandals of recent years such as the collapse of Enron have firmly established the line between the tactics of gangsters and those who have achieved the American dream through the accepted means is very thin indeed. Each new business scandal serves to further dissolve all lines of separation between criminals and big businessmen.

Why is the gangster the perfect movie metaphor for achieving the American Dream? Why is the gangster not outside the mainstream of the American success story? It cannot be because gangsters break the law just like big business; it is also not because organized crime has a chain of command similar to corporations. What makes the gangster so perfect as the truest movie icon representing America is that the gangster pursues exactly the same thing as the businessman, as the owner, as the lowest level employee: the ability to buy happiness. Clyde Barrow Vito Corleone, Kenneth Lay, Henry Hill and every other film gangster and real gangster, and every other big business owner all engaged in their respective business practices not to change the world, or to help people better their lives.

Gangsters both real and fictional, and big businessmen real and fictional all go about their business for the reason that it earns them money which they can then use to purchase items with the intent of extending their happiness. The American Dream is expressed in the acquisition not of wealth, but of things. Like the bumper sticker says “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Gangsters on film and in real life typically die dramatically and with great excitement and almost always before they accumulate the most toys. Big businessmen in real life usually die quietly and without much fanfare.

All while struggling right up to their last breath to accumulate more toys.

The gangsters portrayed in the films since the 60’s have been more explicitly presented as heroes than the gangsters in the classics of the genre produced during the 30’s. Typically, the gangsters of today’s movies meet their deaths in highly stylized, very entertaining bloodbaths, but before getting their comeuppance they are consistently shown to be rich, sexy and cool. What is perhaps less known about the earliest gangsters in cinematic history is that many of them actually began life on paper as much more attractive individuals themselves.

The original version of Scarface faced delays in release while director Howard Hakws had to edit and reshoot certain scenes in order to make sure his gangster “hero’ Tony Camonte was dealt a more sufficient payback for his criminal success. Although it would certainly be interesting to see what the original cut looked like, the truth is that even with the editing Paul Muni’s performance rises to the same delirious heights of enthusiastic glee over amoral behavior that made Al Pacino’s character in the remake of this movie an icon for disaffected black youth today. The intention of the call for cuts may have been to make him less attractive in the eyes of the public, but that intention was quite obviously not met.

The Public Enemy was another gangster movie that featured a disclaimer. This time the message sent to moviegoers stated the intention baldly. The film had no desire to glorify the gangster, but rather was only interested in depicting the environment which gives rise to gangsterism. This depiction of a specific locus of American society was not merely metaphoric: the camera literally crosses over railroad tracks to the wrong side of those tracks. More so than another gangster film of its time, The Public Enemy questions the entire concept of The American Dream; that notion that everybody in America has access to becoming successful, regardless of which part of the strata of America society into which they were born. The movie does much than just hint that there might not really be that much of a distinction existing between acquisition of wealth by rich capitalists and acquisition of wealth through crime.

The great James Cagney plays the title character and he is clearly delineated as the Other; apart from yet somehow integral to the American system. Underlining his Otherness as the Public Enemy are his unpatriotic derision of enlisting to fight for America in WWI and his utter contempt for the educational ambitions of his brother. Cagney’s character Tommy stands in direct opposition to all that is perceived as admirable about America. In fact, Tommy is set up in such a way as to personify one of the problems facing American society. Suspecting that the American Dream can be unraveled to be revealed as a web of lies, Tommy rejects every aspect of it.

Tommy did grow up on the wrong side of the tracks, but even still he has enough street smarts and innate intelligence to comprehend that all the patriotism, education and hard work in the world won’t result in respect, dames, mansions and penthouses. Contrary to its disclaimer, this story isn’t being offered merely as a depiction of an environment; it is being told to provide necessary insight into what awaits those who choose this life: Refusal to comply with all aspects of the American ideology results in finding oneself on the road to ruin where not even the police can save you.

The tough, gritty and admirable performances of actors like Cagney, Muni and Edgar G. Robinson were one thing that could not be controlled through the use of disclaimers or judicious editing, and their kinetic acting styles may have done much to undermine the good intentions of those disclaimers and edits. Something else needed to be done to ensure that an American public becoming increasingly and dangerously enthralled by the exploits of real-life gangsters like Capone, Bonnie & Clyde, and John Dillinger was suitably restrained within the darkened movie palaces of the 30s. Although gangster movies were exciting enough by themselves to virtually assure the genre would have been a success regardless, it certainly did not hurt that their introduction coincided with the Great Depression and the emergence of legendary gangsters and bank robbers that the media turned into modern day folk heroes ala Robin Hood. Although it is questionable whether Ma Barker or Machine Gun Kelly ever actually gave money to the poor, there is no question that in the much of the public’s mind the money they were stealing from banks definitely belonged to the rich. After all, the poor had no money in the banks during the Depression.

At least, that’s how it seemed. Dillinger especially, even more so than Capone, captured a hold on the public’s fascination. (Dillinger’s legendary status is all the more surprising considering that his crime spree lasted just slightly more than one year!) Dillinger’s exploits and personality so captured the public’s fancy that shortly after his violent shooting death outside a cinema-ironically after watching a film about gangsters-Will Hays, the head of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, instituted a ban on gangster films. The moratorium was put in place due to fears about romanticizing gangsters. At least that was the official story, but there may be another, less obvious, reason for the ban; the concern that the genuinely exciting characters being portrayed in gangster films had engendered within the members of certain American subcultures a willingness to take a chance on an early and violent death in exchange for an authentic possibility of tasting the sweet wine of American success.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s didn’t just help cement the popularity of the gangster genre, it also revealed to many that soft underbelly of the American Dream that Tom Powers saw through in Public Enemy. If it was difficult for the son of a poor kid-especially an inner city son of a European immigrant-to work his way up the ladder to success during the roaring twenties, then it was all but impossible to do by the time Dillinger went to a Clark Gable movie with a woman who liked to be noticed for her apparel. Powers turned his back on all the lessons being force-fed him about making it in America and ended up dead. But at least he had a good time before then. All that America had to offer during the Depression was hope; criminal activity put food on the plate and clothes on your back. Certainly, the moratorium and crackdown was intended to halt the romantic view of mobsters built up by the combination of dashing real-life figures and even more exhilarating big-screen counterparts, but was James Cagney’s performance in Public Enemy so overwhelming that it undercut the message of the film?


Apparently so, because as part of the moratorium both that movie and Little Caesar were banned from public view. In fact, neither film would be exhibited again until the 1950’s. And while one may have little trouble making the argument that Cagney’s Tom Powers was the stuff of emulation, Edward G. Robinson’s Rico Bandello poses a problem. James Cagney is good-looking, if in a tough kind of way; Robinson was never a matinee idol. Tom Powers is a rebel whose insistence on going his own way has undeniably admirable qualities; Rico Bandello is nothing but an ugly thug. The public enemy beds Mae Clark and Jean Harlow; Little Caesar seems vaguely homosexual. Both films were banned under the moratorium with the implicit reasoning that they romanticized the gangster. While both actors certainly burn indelibly on the screen, only James Cagney succeeds in making the life of gangster seem romantic. To make a modern comparison, Cagney’s Tom Powers is a romantic vision of a gangster like Brando’s Vito Corleone, while Robinson’s Rico Bandello is a more realistic vision of a gangster along the lines of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. The difference? After watching Public Enemy or The Godfather it would not be surprising to walk out of the theater wanting to be like them; after watching Little Caesar or Goodfellas it would be difficult to justify wanting to live those lives. For the remainder of the Depression, the FBI would continue its crackdown on the real gangsters while all romantic and exciting portrayals of gangsters by big stars on the silver screen practically disappeared.