In an age when gangsters have given way to gangstas, it’s refreshing to find a book that takes the older breed seriously — the guys (and sometimes gals) who shot, stole, and swaggered their way through high-octane Hollywood movies from the silent-film era through such recent offerings as The Sopranos and Martin Scorsese’s baroque crime-family sagas. Gangstas make a couple of appearances in Gangster Film Reader, but editors Alain Silver and James Ursini focus primarily on the tried-and-true Americana linked to infamous motion-picture outlaws like Rico Bandello of Little Caesar in the 1930s, Cody Jarrett of White Heat in the 1940s, and Don Vito Corleone of The Godfather in the 1970s. They’re a compelling lot, and this is a compelling collection.
In his brief but engaging introduction to the book, Silver invites the reader to ponder the downfall of George “Machine Gun” Kelly as it occurred in real life and as it reoccurred in the movies. In the actual event, FBI agents and police officers (or, as Silver tells it, one policeman with a sawed-off shotgun) snuck up on Kelly at the Memphis, Tennessee, house where he and his wife were hiding; according to contemporary accounts, Kelly dropped a pistol from his hand and said, “I’ve been waiting for you all night.” That’s cool. Yet in The FBI Story, released in 1959, Kelly throws up his hands and howls, “Don’t shoot, G-Men, don’t shoot!” That’s not cool — but it’s exactly what 1950s audiences would have expected, since decades earlier the film industry’s self-censorship code had laid down sweeping rules to keep on-screen crime and criminals in check.
Bowdlerization by the Code Office and its more powerful successor, the Production Code Administration, figures often in this book’s many essays about crime films produced before the 1960s, when the censorship system finally broke down. Hollywood defined the gangster genre with three melodramas — The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface — released in the early 1930s. Although this trio flourished at the box office, they raised a ruckus among public-interest groups and state censorship boards. So in September 1931 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association leapt into action with a resolution forbidding the production of any more gangster films.
The ban wasn’t as effective as outraged citizens hoped, and some of its provisos were truly bizarre; at one point there was even an edict specifically banishing John Dillinger from the list of permissible subjects! Still, it caused studios to start modifying the content of their crime pictures. Scarface irked censors by failing to punish its eponymous antihero with sufficient severity, so the filmmakers shot a whole new ending, complete with trial by jury and death by hanging; only when the censors remained unappeased did producer-director Howard Hawks go back to his original cut — albeit with a new title (Scarface: Shame of a Nation) offering a sop to the straitlaced. Hawks wouldn’t have gotten away with this two years later, since in 1934 the studios granted much stronger powers to the code administrators, resulting in a long string of comparatively tame gangster films.
Gangster Film Reader covers the genre’s early decades most thoroughly in its first section, “Seminal Work,” which includes Robert Warshow’s hugely influential 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” and Andrew Sarris’s useful 1977 article “Big Funerals: The Hollywood Gangster, 1927-1933.” Among other insightful points, Sarris draws an interesting distinction between two words generally taken as synonyms: George Bancroft, he writes, was “preceded in movie crime by Lon Chaney earlier in the ’20s, but Chaney was more the crook than the criminal in that he was not blessed with Bancroft’s bravado, but afflicted instead with self-pity for his physical and spiritual deformities.” You needn’t agree with Sarris’s judgment to value his differentiation between the common crook and the audacious, self-assured criminal. Other standouts in this part of the book are an examination of Scarface by Robin Wood, excerpted from his 1968 book on Hawks, and a look at the Godfather films by Carlos Clarens, taken from his 1980 study of crime pictures.
The book’s middle section, “Case Studies,” deals with movies ranging from The Grissom Gang, a quasi-gangster film by Robert Aldrich, to Prizzi’s Honor, seen as a hybrid of gangster movie, film noir, and screwball comedy that reflects anxiety about strong women in the culturally conservative 1980s. I was particularly pleased with Glenn Erickson’s aptly titled “White Heat: I Am Cody Jarrett, Destroyer of Worlds,” since Raoul Walsh’s scorching 1949 classic is one of my favorite movies. Ronald Bogue’s take on “De Palma’s Postmodern Scarface and the Simulacrum of Class” begins with a breathlessly quick précis of postmodernism à la Jean-François Lyotard’s philosophizing, Jean Beaudrillard’s cultural analysis, and Frederic Jameson’s aesthetic approach, and then adduces Brian De Palma’s movie to support the contention that as different as these views of the postmodern are, they are better set into “differential resonance” than deployed in isolation from one another. Bogue accomplishes all this in about ten pages — quite a feat, and persuasive almost all the way.
The essays in part three, “Contemporary Views,” broaden the collection’s purview by considering trends and tendencies in movies from various countries as well as decades, going beyond the two essays on Japanese films (by Ursini and Paul Schrader) in the book’s preceding sections. Tony Williams brings his usual attention to detail, and his usual determination to cram in as much information as humanly possible, to his treatments of British and Hong Kong gangster movies. Catherine Don Diego considers the overlaps between gangster and horror-film conventions. And some essays tease out linkages between gangster films that seem quite different at first glance. Joaquín da Silva pairs two movies made in 1973 by Kinji Fukasaku and Martin Scorsese, while Ingrid Walker finds commonalities in the family melodrama of The Sopranos and the street-warrior romance of Jim Jarmusch’s genre-bending Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, both about outlaws who embrace an idealized code. Along the way she presents the book’s fullest consideration of gangsta culture.
As with any collection, the essays in Gangster Film Reader vary in quality, and they aren’t always consistent with regard to analytic points; film noir is sometimes (incorrectly) treated as a genre, for instance, and sometimes (correctly) treated as a cycle that easily crosses generic boundaries. There are too many typos for comfort, and an index would have facilitated the book’s utility as a reference tool. Still, the collection’s overall level is high, reflecting the longtime commitment of Silver and Ursini — whose collaborations include books on horror films, vampire films, and (most extensively) film noir — to serious-minded genre study. It’s a tome gangster-movie aficionados will surely want to own.