Total Recall

Total Recall: American Gangster‘s Paradise

Re-discovering the cinema of organized crime.

by | October 31, 2007 | Comments

This week,
Ridley Scott‘s
American Gangster
starring
Russell Crowe and
Denzel Washington hits theaters. With its story of a drug
kingpin and the cop who’s trying to take him down, we at Rotten Tomatoes thought
it would be a good time to delve into some flicks about organized crime you may
have missed.

Organized crime figures have long been some of cinema’s
greatest antiheros. Since the earliest days of sound, gangsters have appealed to
the dark side of audiences, especially since the bad guys are more colorful,
witty, and beholden to codes of honor than the milquetoast “good guys.” Some
films (most notably The Godfather, 100 percent on the Tomatometer) have
had a profound influence on the public’s ideas of the mafia (and mobsters
themselves).

From the 1910s to the 1920s, "swiped from the
headlines" crime dramas were huge. Scandalous to audiences and censors, these
salacious two and three reel films exposed the plight of pushers, bootleggers
and sex slaves without the banner of the "newsreel" to redeem them. By the sound
era, crime dramas didn’t rely as extensively on the framework of "true stories"
but did sometimes justify their graphic content with socially cautious
introductions. William Wellman’s 1931 masterpiece
The Public Enemy

(100 percent)
introduces its story with outright public service. How better to validate the
sex, bootlegging and gun fighting than to root it in immigration stress and
social woe and then ask the audience, "What will you do about it?"

The Public Enemy balances indignities (remember the
famous grapefruit smashing?) with the ‘business’ of tommy gun stand offs and
even sprinkles the occasional bit of humor into the violence to muddy the moral
waters (amidst gunfire: "I can’t hear you, can you speak-a up?"). Wellman’s
creative use of sound heightens the effects of off-screen sex and violence
(listen for the giggling in the bedroom when Tom Powers [James Cagney] tells his
live-in girlfriend "I wish you was a wishing well ") and the use of screams and
gunfire in Power’s famous retribution scene. The Public Enemy is one of
the best displays of heartbreaking violence you’ll find, so much so that the
censors were stoking coals when this film came out. Though it made overtures
toward a socially redeeming message, the graphic brutality and overt sexual
charge of The Public Enemy would be one of many factors in the
establishment of the1934 Production Code. "James Cagney’s portrayal of a
bootlegging runt is truly electrifying, and Jean Harlow makes the tartiest tart
imaginable," wrote Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader.

As the decades progressed, the French also carved out their niche in the genre. Director
Jules Dassin was one of the hundreds of named
names during the Hollywood blacklist. Dassin — who had directed classic noirs
like The Naked City
(92 percent) and Brute Force
(80 percent) by time he was routed — was only briefly a
member of the Communist Party, but enough to send him into French exile. But you
know how international directors usually do their worst work when they start working in Hollywood?  Reversing the formula also seems to work: like
Woody Allen, Dassin’s permanent foreign vacation got him to produce one of his best features.
1955’s Rififi
(92 percent), about a newly released jailbird who re-enters the crime world to
pull of a jewel heist, is a crackerjack thriller. Elegantly shot in black
and white and with compelling performances, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles
Times
calls Rififi, "[o]ne of the great crime thrillers, the benchmark all
succeeding heist films have been measured against."

And now, a moment of silence. Or several hundred moments of
silence. The legendary centerpiece of Rififi is the jewel heist segment, a completely
wordless, music-free caper that ingeniously turns ordinary objects into tools of
the criminal trade. It’s one of the most nail-biting 30 minutes captured on film.
With action segments now largely driven by stylish edits and speaker-blowing
sound effects and music, Rififi‘s intensely intimate silence speaks
volumes.

As the times change, so do crime movies. It’s now
commonplace to find crime dramas with hip hop soundtracks, but when
New Jack
City
(79 percent) was first released in 1991, such cross-promotion was
nothing short of revelatory. It didn’t hurt that the movie itself was a sharp
neo-noir packed with grit and electricity. In his feature directorial debut,
Mario Van Peebles simultaneously borrowed from such gangster touchstones as Scarface
and The Godfather while updating the streetwise blaxploitation classics
of the 1970s (Shaft,
Superfly
, his father’s
Sweet Sweetback
)
and adding a dash of quasi-history to the mix as well. Drug lord Nino Brown
(Wesley Snipes) is loosely based upon Nicky Barnes (the subject of the recent
doc Mr. Untouchable, 63 percent); he runs New York’s most dominant drug
organization, converting an apartment complex into a thriving crackhouse. The
police make it a priority to infiltrate Nino’s organization, with an undercover
cop (Ice-T) and a reformed drug addict (Chris Rock) enlisted for the task.

New Jack City has a few problems, most notably its
ludicrous ending. But the film boasts a number of excellent performances: Snipes
is malevolently effective as the brilliant but amoral Nino;
Ice-T and
Judd
Nelson
smartly transcend cliché as cops who don’t like each other but share a
level of mutual respect; and Rock, in a rare dramatic role, is spellbinding as a
recovering crackhead, full of desperate energy and gallows humor. “The
performances are stoked with hyperbolic verve,” wrote Hal Hinson in the Washington
Post
. “The actors all seem to have hooked into the pure, concentrated heart
of their characters, and while their emotions are big, there’s no empty
strutting in them — they’re street-operatic.”

There are a multitude of cinematic roads to Gangland; films
as varied as Little Caesar (84 percent),
Bob Le Flambeur
(96
percent), Deep Cover (84 percent),
Donnie Brasco
(85 percent), and
City of God (92 percent) have allowed audience to infiltrate organized
crime, and reap illicit thrills in the process.

Authors: Sara Schieron, Alex Vo, and Tim Ryan.

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