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

Trailer cartoon italian X-Men scorecard Mindy Kaling superhero facebook GoT CNN james bond Pride Month American Society of Cinematographers Marathons GLAAD IFC dceu crime thriller Animation video kong a nightmare on elm street LGBT mutant Star Trek documentary Mary Tyler Moore Awards DGA nbcuniversal Sony Pictures historical drama Columbia Pictures Certified Fresh zombies Pixar Ovation FX Fox News foreign 71st Emmy Awards doctor who mission: impossible Video Games social media pirates of the caribbean Turner Classic Movies MCU Interview The Walking Dead name the review Extras latino technology The Witch emmy awards cancelled TV series king kong football Set visit TCA 2017 HBO Go blockbuster Alien SXSW true crime sports Reality Sundance TV parents Premiere Dates golden globes Endgame Starz 4/20 Disney Plus halloween TV Land politics Broadway Spike The CW critics Cannes E! Academy Awards Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt AMC Spring TV science fiction tv talk laika Hallmark quibi RT History TCA Awards TNT OWN cults documentaries Writers Guild of America transformers FX on Hulu Music Marvel BET Awards YouTube Premium political drama movie zero dark thirty based on movie Christmas Legendary universal monsters theme song BBC One History Epix Binge Guide green book dark Marvel Television Infographic spanish language rom-coms dragons ratings indiana jones Shudder Hallmark Christmas movies Classic Film prank Apple TV Plus Paramount Plus VOD Disney streaming service cinemax die hard venice dramedy movies Brie Larson jurassic park USA Network serial killer classics video on demand Box Office cancelled television spain Trivia BBC Discovery Channel Reality Competition christmas movies Grammys unscripted Stephen King book Pop biography Musical Funimation Exclusive Video cops period drama war Logo Holidays travel Comedy Central ID Spectrum Originals Pirates comiccon Turner CMT El Rey Ghostbusters twilight Disney+ Disney Plus docudrama 007 game show adaptation TCM revenge strong female leads Peacock 2018 CBS Disney Channel Fox Searchlight HBO A&E worst movies satire E3 Lifetime Christmas movies cars TV remakes Summer Song of Ice and Fire kaiju cooking disaster Drama ghosts Pop TV nature popular crime drama TV One Sneak Peek Freeform Podcast binge Britbox VH1 versus Cosplay miniseries mockumentary japanese Mary poppins Musicals asian-american cats Martial Arts Sundance Now space Mudbound batman First Look 2016 National Geographic DC streaming service CW Seed Amazon Prime Photos Lucasfilm FXX black Amazon Polls and Games casting screenings Year in Review telelvision Showtime Mary Poppins Returns all-time reboot The Walt Disney Company Hulu TCA Winter 2020 Superheroe Comics on TV boxoffice ITV archives Hear Us Out Black Mirror TruTV television aliens hist stand-up comedy Apple Tomatazos franchise anime Baby Yoda news Ellie Kemper directors sequel RT21 superman breaking bad BAFTA witnail streaming Nat Geo MSNBC Lionsgate NYCC Winter TV Lifetime supernatural Calendar Winners talk show sequels PlayStation Oscars Bravo DirecTV The Arrangement Superheroes Comic Book romantic comedy IFC Films Best and Worst Trophy Talk award winner anthology dc The Purge A24 justice league renewed TV shows OneApp Red Carpet comic books scary movies rotten movies we love San Diego Comic-Con docuseries Awards Tour Women's History Month Family Tarantino spinoff Tumblr Dark Horse Comics TCA rt archives Toys Warner Bros. Universal australia festival Chilling Adventures of Sabrina spider-man TIFF Esquire ABC Family slashers best Tubi SundanceTV what to watch spy thriller Amazon Studios Horror MTV teaser chucky Emmys LGBTQ 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards obituary psychological thriller monster movies Elton John Cartoon Network Netflix Christmas movies Walt Disney Pictures ViacomCBS worst Emmy Nominations Valentine's Day festivals Quiz south america Shondaland Fall TV Rom-Com YouTube romance women Crunchyroll ABC Signature Adult Swim Rocketman fast and furious BBC America ABC sitcom Schedule Thanksgiving Television Academy PBS Character Guide Television Critics Association Biopics criterion Comedy trailers Film discovery YA APB Kids & Family werewolf hollywood Country rotten series Heroines 45 The Academy ESPN Masterpiece Star Wars hidden camera 72 Emmy Awards Travel Channel YouTube Red robots USA screen actors guild VICE Arrowverse Disney fresh blockbusters independent police drama hispanic Super Bowl Rocky Fantasy WGN Captain marvel 2021 composers Watching Series french stop motion See It Skip It nfl 21st Century Fox films razzies animated Avengers Syfy Western children's TV spanish golden globe awards Vudu concert 2015 Rock Crackle comedies Food Network boxing BET Teen free movies Nominations dogs TV renewals 99% HBO Max godzilla joker Creative Arts Emmys Sci-Fi SDCC harry potter Apple TV+ halloween tv Pet Sematary canceled TV shows New York Comic Con Sundance Netflix deadpool 24 frames 2017 canceled jamie lee curtis 2020 Mystery DC Universe sag awards DC Comics game of thrones FOX comic NBC adventure TLC reviews natural history Opinion zombie finale diversity WarnerMedia President crime Countdown Marvel Studios Election Amazon Prime Video CBS All Access Chernobyl blaxploitation Film Festival indie psycho 2019 First Reviews vampires cancelled kids richard e. Grant singing competition Anna Paquin GIFs Paramount Paramount Network crossover elevated horror Action 20th Century Fox PaleyFest toy story medical drama comics stoner cancelled TV shows TBS thriller child's play Nickelodeon toronto Holiday Black History Month Acorn TV