Television

'The Sopranos': Mythologizing the Gangster Genre

Carl Wilson
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), trapped by the gangster mythology.

From The Public Enemy through to Scorsese, the Sopranos family knows how to pick a bad example to follow.

In a 1933 publicity piece for the film Blondie Johnson, Warner Brothers declared that, "The value of [gangster] films now is entertainment. Their priceless ingredients for future historians is their truth" (Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918-1934, Ruth, 1996: 5). Yet, as optimistically profound and as cognitively dissonant as this promotional spiel appears to be, "truth" can easily be as fluid and as readily interchangeable a concept as "entertainment" when considering the role of fictional gangsters and their effect on society and culture.

For example, when Howard Hawks was directing Scarface (1932), he was allegedly approached by "gangland emissaries" from Al Capone who wished to ensure that the film didn’t blemish his reputation. One might understand any reluctance on Hawks' part to continue, but the completed film still incorporated contemporary attitudes or truths that differed from those that the crime boss might want to have perpetuated; as the Police Chief states:

This fella Camonte [Scarface], he’s a colorful character? What color is a crawling louse? That’s the attitude of too many morons in this country, they think these big hoodlums are some kind of demi-gods. What do they do about a man like Camonte? They sentimentalize them, romance them, make jokes about them.

Irrespective of whether the events in the film were, to borrow a line from the preface to the film, "a reproduction of an actual occurrence" or not, the classic gangster, as he’s depicted within gangster movies of the '30s, such as Scarface, Little Caesar (1931), and The Public Enemy (1931), in which he’s both culturally fascinating and repugnant is a fundamental part of the gangster archetype.

The gangster genre, however, didn't just appear from some suitably dramatic, foggy back-street in Chicago. After all, Sherlock Holmes was fighting evildoers in celluloid as far back as 1900 (in the 45-second-long crime film Sherlock Holmes Baffled, released in 1903). To understand how this dynamic between history and fictional forms operates, it may prove useful to consider the following quote from semiotic theorist Roland Barthes:

The mythical signification […] is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy. [….] Motivation is unavoidable. It is none the less very fragmentary. To start with, it is not 'natural': it is history which supplies its analogies to the form. Then the analogy between the meaning and the concept is never anything but partial (Mythologies, Barthes, 1957. translated 1984).

History and its textual "analogies" can be seen influencing Scarface, as screenwriter Ben Hecht was a Daily News columnist, and other city papers, such as the New York Times, were keen to run articles or "stories" on the actual glamorous transgressors. For those films and television shows that followed, the accrued litany of fictional gangster stories themselves started to play an ever increasing part in their own production and orientation.

First airing in 1999 on HBO, David Chase's fictional drama The Sopranos (1999-2007) focuses on the New Jersey lives of the titular biological family and their other family of gangsters. As much as Capone allegedly found himself threatened by fictional portrayals of the mobster type, by the fin de siècle, these modern (and occasionally post-modern) gangsters had several decades of genre motifs to liberally beg, borrow, or -- more likely -- steal from.

The worlds of the Soprano families are significant then, in that the fictional crooks and bystanders that populate the show aren't only aware of their progenitors in a way that’s much more reflexively sustained than before, but also, through behaving in ways that are both motivated by the diegetic confines of their genre and as a simulacrum for reality, they respond and react to these same cultural influences in a fascinating, thrilling, and (on more than one occasion) idiotic combination of ways. With this article, I'd like to briefly examine this reflexive arrangement in closer detail, to consider how the myth of the gangster both informs the development of the genre, but also acts as an enabler or barrier for the protagonists themselves.

I should point out that discussion of the intertextual character par excellence (Christopher Moltisanti [Michael Imperioli]) will be limited in this article mainly because in an essay entitled "'I let you be a part of my movie': Christopher Moltisanti and the Development of the Gangster Genre", I've already taken the liberty of comprehensively discussing Christopher's numerous flirtations with the image of the Scorsese brand of gangster. As such, the focus of this piece will be more on the older generations within The Sopranos, and their own obsessions with the classic and modern gangster archetypes.

As a point of interest, most of the examples in this article shall be drawn from season one of the show. This is because the frequency of intertextual references to the classic and modern gangsters tends to be higher in the earlier episodes across the six seasons (with Chris' film choices coming more into play within later seasons); it's as though it takes the New Jersey crew a while to work out who they are, before fully committing to their flawed roles within the narrative.

This task is all the more useful, perhaps, when we consider how much the gangster myth, which is both tried out and tested within The Sopranos, collides, echoes, mirrors, and merges with the realities of the "true" gangster. In 1969, for example, FBI surveillance tapes of the New Jersey family, the Decavalcantes, revealed nothing but "petty complaints about money, avowals of abject poverty, and all sorts of middle management disputes" ("The Sopranos: The Gangster Redux", Auster, 2002: 10).

The Soprano crew also emulates this apparent difference in expectations of glamour. They frequently believe their own image -- being extravagant and ambitious in their aims, such as buying large houses and trying to rise in society -- but they're always reminded that the reality of their situation is that they need money to pay for parents to be put in a home and children to go to college. Seemingly, more effort is always expended in trying to appease family conflicts than in building an empire for them to share. Indeed, this oscillating influence is reinforced by David Remnick's report in 1999 of a wiretapped conversation in which a capo, also called Anthony, and an agent "commented on the similarities between local mobsters and Tony's gang" ("Mobbed up: The Sopranos and the Modern Gangster Film", Pattie, 2002: 135).

Of course, not everybody within the gangster sphere is happy or content with the stereotypical image(s) of the mobster gangster figure. Echoing the Police Chief in Scarface, in The Godfather Part II (1974), Senator Weekler (Roger Corman) announces that "Italian-Americans are the hardest working, most law abiding patriotic Americans of our country. It is a shame and a pity that a few rotten apples give them a bad name." Naturally, the Godfather of America Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), also decides to hide behind this damaging nationalistic façade, declaring that "being called before this committee an act of prejudice to all Americans of Italian extraction".

The hypocrisy and equally overgenerous blanket generalizations are also found in The Sopranos. In one scene, Richard La Penna (Richard Romanus) -- Dr. Melfi's [Lorraine Bracco] ex-husband -- is moaning to his family that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is "the reason Italian-Americans have such a bad image"; however, his more liberal thinking son Jason (Will McCormack) proposes two counterarguments that shrivel his father’s stance. First, "in our cultural history, mob movies are classic American cinema. Like westerns", and so aren't to be entirely confused with reality, and after all, "wasn’t that Italian anti-def dealie started by Joe Columbo? A mobster?" ("The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti").

The "mob movie" is blamed for defaming Italian-Americans, yet the films aren't tantamount to reality; a reality, it's insinuated, that could probably do with a little closer cross-examination itself once the fiction has been stripped from it. For example, at a dinner party held by Dr. Cusamano (Robert LuPone) in "A Hit is a Hit", one guest announces: "some of the shit I see in the boardroom, I don’t know if I'd make a distinction", to which Cusamano adds, "Bugging? Bribes? I don't know. Sometimes I think the only thing separating American business from the Mob is fucking 'whacking' somebody!"

Life may imitate fiction, as the Soprano clan might think they're doing; fiction may imitate fiction and reality as The Sopranos is doing; and reality may occasionally imitate fiction imitating reality (or fiction!), as Robert Iler, the actor who plays A.J. Soprano proved in 2001 when he was arrested for stealing from two teenagers. Yet, while somebody such as "The real Donnie Brasco […] praises the authenticity of The Sopranos" ("'Coming Heavy': The Significance of The Sopranos", Lavery, 2002: xii), the conventions within the series exist primarily because they're familiar to people as conventions of the gangster genre, and it's this reflexive metatextual game, which consciously draws on past associations and foregrounds them for the viewer, that sets the tone for the show.

Yet, even within the diegesis of the The Sopranos, it must be noted, it's impossible to fully solidify the primacy or legitimacy of one sub-type of gangster genre over another and how people may perceive them. A perfect example of this would be the comic incident between Tony and a therapist in the episode "Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist's Office”. When the doctor asserts, "I watch the news like everyone else. I know who you are, and I saw Analyse This. I don’t need the ramifications", Tony angrily appeals with "Analyse This? Come on, it's a fucking comedy!"

Even Tony gets ensnared by the faulty logic of thinking that his world view is entirely real (although that is also because he's as self-deluded as any fictional gangster on their finest ego-trip). For him, "Outside it may be the 1990s, but in this house it’s 1954" ("Nobody Knows Anything"). Yet, Tony is disingenuous; as Ellen Willis comments, "It's wishful thinking, and Tony knows it. What 1950s gangster would take Prozac and make weekly visits to a shrink?" ("Our Mobsters, Ourselves", Willis, 2002: 3). Ironically, as Tony is idealizing the moral family ethics of a past era because he’s under stress from the possibility that his other family will "rat" on him, the notable 1954 gangster film On the Waterfront, is equally underscored with "the embarrassed special pleading on behalf of informers, deriving presumably from the fact that Kazan and Schulberg [the director and scriptwriter] named names during the McCarthy witch-hunts." Tony is unaware that the gangster films prior to The Sopranos were motivated by history, just as his situation (the concern with indictments, for example) is also partially framed by both real life contemporaries and an evolving mythology that he can’t properly control.

Therefore, looking backward again to the classic gangster movies of Scarface and The Public Enemy also reveals some of the differences that have developed since the '30s. Georgie (Frank Santorelli), the slightly simplistic bartender of the Bada Bing nightclub in The Sopranos, is involved in a scene that specifically replicates Scarface when he’s unable to operate the phone just like "Mr Camonte’s secretary [sic.]" ("46 Long"). Tony Soprano, too, is unable to behave like his namesake Tony Camonte. Camonte, with great amusement, recognizes his assistant as a comedy character amidst the bleak gangster world and is quite forgiving, whereas Soprano is less amused, proceeding to pick up the telephone receiver and bash the unwitting fool about the head. Although this scene in itself is comedic, the comedy seems to derive from its origins in Joe Pesci's psychopathic Nicky from Casino, who twice impulsively beats people severely on the head with a telephone when they fail to comply with his demands.

Given that it's natural for the gangster to want what he doesn’t possess, it's unsurprising that he also has a history of going after things that he believes he can control. One illustration would be Nature, in the form of the horse. In The Public Enemy, a figure is horse riding before he is "thrown off in the park. Kicked in the head" and dies. Consequently, Powers tries to control nature by buying the horse for $1,000 and then shooting it. In The Godfather the detached head of a thoroughbred race-horse is famously used to scare its owner, current bedfellow and film studio producer, into accepting an offer he can't refuse.


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Throughout the first four seasons of The Sopranos, Hesch's stud farm is seen as an idyllic retreat from the city -- until the mobsters' activities render it into kindling. The horse Pie-O-My is a point of antagonism between the Boss and one of his Capos, where the horse represents a displaced power struggle between the two men. The Capo, Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano), tries to alter the nature of the gangster hierarchy by confronting Tony, but he does so by burning down the stables, killing the horse Tony loves. Returning the favour, Tony kills Ralphie, thereby once more demonstrating that the world is both beautiful and deadly in itself, but in the partially pliable hands of the gangster, it’s almost always destroyed by the violent impulses of man.

Appropriating past scenes and motifs, whether consciously or not, are a way of trying to reconfigure past assemblages to new ends. In "Boca", Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) replicates the infamous grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy, rubbing lemon meringue pie into partner Roberta's (Robyn Peterson) face. For gangster Tom Powers (James Cagney), the gesture is a response to domesticity and a brusque solution to his sexual dissatisfaction and newly owned marital limitations. Junior possesses a comparable sentiment, but with a significant twist: his social dissatisfaction stems from the crew knowing how well (and through which culturally distasteful methods) he sexually satisfies his long-time companion.

When looking at Junior's relationship with The Public Enemy, there's also the issue of clothing. Clothing is a façade that countless gangsters use as props to mythologize themselves into something they're not. In The Public Enemy, Powers is seen standing on a small pedestal being fitted for an expensive suit, yet he is still wearing his labourer's cap, presenting an external appearance that’s as fractured as the schism within his own character: a man who aspires to be reformed but has to depend upon his underworld tactics, creating a bi-polar identity that resonates with tensions until it fragments later in the story.

Uncle Junior, on the other hand, is fractured in another way. He believes he's become the new boss of the New Jersey crime family and, in a scene very closely echoing that of Powers, is being dressed for the occasion. Junior, however, isn't the actual Boss; his nephew Tony is still controlling actions behind the scenes. Like Powers, who seems to be reprimanded for trying to be that which he’s not, at the end of the first series of The Sopranos we find Junior being used as a "lightning conductor" ("Pax Soprana"); he's arrested for being the Boss of the organization purely because his appearance suggests that he is.

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