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.

Tag Cloud

VICE cooking boxoffice Nat Geo A24 cops Hallmark Amazon jamie lee curtis fast and furious thriller FX on Hulu First Look quibi children's TV MSNBC nature USA Network period drama 24 frames Toys movie Crunchyroll game show Rock spinoff football NYCC Academy Awards Lionsgate technology TCA Winter 2020 Trailer The CW Pride Month Set visit cancelled Esquire disaster video on demand composers FX DC Universe Sundance DirecTV Fox Searchlight Netflix VOD Best and Worst Extras harry potter E! Disney CBS video dark WGN comedies romance The Witch BBC America cars Sneak Peek screen actors guild rotten movies we love emmy awards Mary Poppins Returns Martial Arts MCU Warner Bros. Pop TV Election YouTube Premium crime based on movie TV renewals CW Seed TCA Awards green book scary movies Mindy Kaling free movies Shondaland cats screenings sag awards classics Oscars true crime 20th Century Fox NBC christmas movies 4/20 Musicals Western Interview See It Skip It Crackle Trivia theme song Classic Film zombies Britbox spider-man Cartoon Network TV comics Tumblr tv talk dogs psycho italian Disney+ Disney Plus Marvel Television docudrama Television Academy indiana jones Spectrum Originals Disney Channel sports WarnerMedia GIFs IFC Apple TV+ crossover SDCC AMC Disney Plus Shudder Infographic universal monsters dceu YA Action spanish Tarantino cancelled TV series USA Super Bowl war Fall TV Character Guide what to watch Bravo National Geographic name the review Turner Classic Movies venice ITV Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Dark Horse Comics biography Year in Review Rocketman Lifetime Christmas movies 99% versus doctor who boxing DC Comics foreign spain Brie Larson Ellie Kemper RT History Country TV Land television Marvel politics deadpool Winter TV Universal Heroines miniseries reviews Superheroes Reality Hear Us Out cancelled television joker worst movies Vudu HBO Go remakes Marvel Studios blaxploitation a nightmare on elm street History nbcuniversal hispanic japanese Family natural history stand-up comedy sitcom PlayStation Star Trek Mary poppins archives Amazon Studios critics Teen New York Comic Con El Rey 21st Century Fox Film Festival batman 45 Sony Pictures GLAAD The Walking Dead stoner french Polls and Games independent Travel Channel Quiz sequels Paramount Network Food Network 2019 films canceled TV shows Summer stop motion TCA Sundance Now james bond witnail Black Mirror adventure Awards Tour richard e. Grant Comedy Cosplay directors Pirates TCA 2017 E3 Holiday Masterpiece HBO Film Peacock anime Rom-Com zero dark thirty SundanceTV obituary comic Fantasy TruTV Disney streaming service mission: impossible Countdown Funimation elevated horror anthology LGBT festivals Marathons renewed TV shows Holidays nfl The Arrangement blockbuster Fox News TLC crime drama Avengers Photos Adult Swim Red Carpet ABC Family Cannes YouTube Logo Writers Guild of America travel zombie kids Acorn TV Ghostbusters SXSW FOX dc Watching Series Columbia Pictures historical drama hist Emmys unscripted Schedule political drama 2018 Grammys Baby Yoda Arrowverse A&E satire Kids & Family Star Wars Turner police drama IFC Films book medical drama American Society of Cinematographers Netflix Christmas movies diversity cartoon chucky comiccon Showtime Podcast ghosts black HBO Max serial killer Superheroe documentaries 71st Emmy Awards spy thriller mockumentary Elton John Box Office San Diego Comic-Con DC streaming service Sci-Fi laika vampires social media finale Rocky asian-american Trophy Talk BET best Mary Tyler Moore australia YouTube Red Lucasfilm TCM Mudbound animated mutant Chernobyl Emmy Nominations superhero binge franchise halloween 2020 romantic comedy Sundance TV Television Critics Association twilight ID Hulu X-Men parents First Reviews Women's History Month DGA cults Walt Disney Pictures hollywood streaming cinemax award winner dramedy OWN 2015 worst supernatural justice league BBC One psychological thriller FXX RT21 Christmas 2017 documentary rt archives Stephen King slashers 2016 Ovation festival series transformers Paramount latino 72 Emmy Awards OneApp Pop Alien Calendar Amazon Prime Video rotten science fiction Musical Tomatazos fresh breaking bad all-time Valentine's Day The Academy Creative Arts Emmys Horror Pet Sematary CNN game of thrones Anna Paquin facebook PaleyFest concert CMT reboot child's play Freeform APB ABC Certified Fresh adaptation sequel Comics on TV Awards Discovery Channel scorecard Amazon Prime PBS BET Awards south america talk show Black History Month movies Spring TV President die hard Pixar news Drama Starz Comedy Central Captain marvel criterion TIFF comic books Lifetime Nickelodeon TNT Opinion casting toronto spanish language BBC Premiere Dates Endgame VH1 GoT halloween tv Biopics aliens discovery teaser LGBTQ Comic Book Nominations CBS All Access revenge MTV Binge Guide 007 Apple ratings Mystery robots BAFTA crime thriller canceled Epix Apple TV Plus Thanksgiving toy story Hallmark Christmas movies Spike Animation dragons Winners werewolf space ESPN Video Games indie Reality Competition golden globes Music Syfy Tubi Chilling Adventures of Sabrina The Purge cancelled TV shows singing competition Song of Ice and Fire TBS strong female leads