Scorsese in Context: Crime pays. A Brief history oF the gangster movies



Recently the director Martin Scorsese was critical of Marvel (comic book action) movies, and in turn, he was criticised for his views. But if you look at the generation of movies that surround Scorsese’s beginnings you will see that the crime/gangster/detective movie, which was part of his own oeuvre, was a popular genre back then, in relative terms about as popular as comic book action films are today. In addition, if you look more closely, after the near collapse of Hollywood in the mid-sixties followed by tax deferalls on film investment, there was more scope for experimental movie styles, and avant-garde independents came to be much more accepted.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, gangsters and detectives have been a major part of American folklore. What really drew them to attention was the Jazz Age, the roaring twenties. This was the post-World War I era of cars, flappers and prohibition (1920-1933).

At the turn of the 20th century the East Coast immigrants in America were considered morally destitute peasants with the sinful vices of drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. Among them were the small-time bootleggers who were driven by poverty, as well as organised gangsters who could take control of these matters. Once the sale of alcohol became prohibited all of them were having a field day. National prohibition caused an explosion of speakeasies on an unprecedented scale. Some estimates put the number of speakeasies between Chicago and New York at more than 100,000. The gangsters and the bootleggers were suddenly in the money. Where once they were marginalized low-lifes, now, because of the demand, they were suddenly hob-knobbing with people from all walks of life, including the well heeled and the famous. In the process, they were becoming a part of the American social fabric.

The first movie to successfully exploit this era’s gangster phenomenon was Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 silent film Underworld. As one of the first movies in the genre, Underworld probably set the tone for the movies that followed. The kingpin in Underworld is Bull Weed, who is played as a boisterous gangster. In the movies that followed during the 1930s, the lead gangster is always a boisterous character, a stereotype, epitomised by great actors like Edward G Robinson in Little Caesar (1931) and James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931). Both Robinson and Cagney went on to play gangsters and tough guys several times and Cagney became known as a King of Gangsters, but both men were much more versatile as was shown in many of their other roles.

Meanwhile, another character emerged as the gangster’s antithesis. The other side of the coin from the gangster was the detective, a more nuanced character than the gangster. The detective, sometimes a policeman and sometimes a private eye, looked at crime from all the angles. Influenced by the writing of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the detective was dispassionate, tough, usually fair, and, cool but not entirely cold -sometimes referred to as ‘hardboiled’ because of his toughness. The detective was classically established in the movies by Humphrey Bogart, who managed to play both Hammett’s ‘Sam Spade’ and Chandler’s ‘Phillip Marlowe’.

As far as books and movies were concerned, the detective was a night owl who sat alone in his office drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes. He prowled the dark streets at night in a trench coat, looking for his mark. The detective in the night was an essential aspect to the film noir.

The film noir period lasted from the 1920s to the mid-1950s but after that, things started to change. For most of that time the American gangster movie took a moralist view; mostly the bad guys were Angels with Dirty Faces whose souls might one day be saved. Blast of Silence (1961) bridged the gap between the noir and the modern. Featuring Allen Baron, who also wrote and directed the film, Blast of Silence tells the story of an isolated hit man in New York. Its existential take on the lonely hit man makes it an early forerunner to Taxi Driver. Allen Baron makes a brave effort with this film, but had he managed to secure a well-known lead actor, it is likely this film would be far better known today.

In 1962 under a new guise, in a British movie called “Dr No”, a daylight operator named James Bond came into effect. James Bond was a new type of detective; he was British for one thing. He was an agent, a spy, one who monitored large crime syndicates or corrupt governments and exposed them for what they were. But unlike his city-bound noir counterparts, he travelled the world openly in broad daylight. He even appeared on the beach in a bathing suit. He was the spy who came out from the cold to enter into the Cold War. And even though he was licensed to kill, Bond did so in a cool and pragmatic manner, almost with a sense of humour or irony.

James Bond made a lasting impression and the day-lit espionage agent genre became a class of its own, but the American gangster and detective weren’t finished yet. In fact, they were in for a great and unexpected revival.

1967 saw movie releases that changed the direction of American cinema. Among them Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, which was modelled loosely on the real lives of reknown bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrows.

Bonnie and Clyde set a precedent with numerous features that would be taken up across the future of American film making. These included historically accurate fashions, an air of sexual liberation, including a woman with strong sexual urges, and a graphic level of violence that used blood-bursting squibs for the very first time. The subtleties and oblique messages that were present in earlier movies, which had been suppressed by the Production Code, were gone; replaced by a more adult, explicit and gritty honesty.

The new wave heralded by Bonnie and Clyde lit the path for an explosion of revivalist gangster movies a few years later. These were movies that were drenched in the historically accurate -and therefore considered sophisticated- clothing, sets and cars. Both the passage of time from the 1920s, '30s and '40s, and the modern film-makers’ abilities to recreate them, appeared to ripen these movies into feasts for the eyes. Amongst them were, The Godfather (1972), Dillinger (1973), The Sting (1973), Chinatown (1974), Thieves Like Us (1974), Hard Times (1975), and not to mention a couple of movies with less violence but wider appeal, like Paper Moon (1973) and The Great Gatsby (1974).

1967 may have been a turning point for the future of crime and detective movies. The very same month Bonnie and Clyde appeared, August 1967, so did Point Blank (1967), directed by John Boorman and featuring Lee Marvin. Although Point Blank featured a contemporary mainstream gangster, it has aspects that set it apart from other movies of the time. A stylistic revenge thriller, Point Blank’s main character, Walker (Marvin), is mysterious and utterly ruthless. Sex scenes are daring, and sets are colour-themed. Its structure is avant-garde, moving from scenes of austerity to others filled with tremendous colour and noise, making it one of the stand-out movies of the period. In the same year, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, starring Clint Eastwood, also receive their American release. Although they were westerns, Clint Eastwood’s no-name character in A Fistful of Dollars (1967 USA), changes the dynamic of the action protagonist forever. Eastwood went on to play the tough, no-nonsense detective, Harry Callahan, in the 1970s Dirty Harry series of movies.

Now there was no going back. After Point Blank, the modern detective was shown the way by Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968), whose car chase set a standard that was something to beat. Then came Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971), directed by William Freidkin. Based on the true story of a New York cop whose dedication and persistence breaks a major French drug cartel, not only was The French Connection a great movie that still holds up today, it was the most popular movie of the year and it swept the Oscars, including Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Actor (Gene Hackman), and more. And even though it followed after Bullitt, the car chase in The French Connection is one of the best-ever filmed. One other significant change happened in 1971: the movie Shaft had an African American playing the detective role, a role that until then had been exclusively reserved for the white male.

Almost ten years after Bonnie and Clyde, a new film hits the circuits and ratchets the level of violence up quite a few notches. The film is Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert DeNiro. Both were about to become household names. Taxi Driver was not a gangster movie per se; it was a narrative on city-based anomie and how destructive that becomes for lonely men, especially post-war veterans suffering PTSD. But Scorsese went on to direct some of cinemas better known mobster/gangster movies including Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and Gangs of New York (2002).

Martin Scorsese wasn’t the only director who could turn his hand to a great gangster movie. Brian DePalma’s Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987) and Carlito’s Way (1993) are slick, tense and utterly engaging cinema. Then there is Sergio Leone who had made the spaghetti westerns, but when he made a gangster movie, the result, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), was considered a masterpiece -masterpiece that failed on its original release due to studio cuts (from a potential six hours down to 139 minutes).

The problem we have as a viewing audience from Bonnie and Clyde onwards, is this: the gangsters and we know and love are either psychopaths or severely damaged people who hurt innocent others, and yet we are asked to sympathise with them, view them heroically, or find them endearing. And we do. People loved the Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino, no matter how brutal, disgusting and heinous the crimes. But perhaps that is part of the mettle of gangster movies: like horror movies, we revel in their gruesomeness and hope that it will never be a part of our real lives.

The classic retro takes on the gangsters of the early 20th century may have had their heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, but the gangster movie lives on. Recent examples include John Wick 3 (2019), Motherless Brooklyn (2019) (a noir type detective story set in the 1950s) and, possibly, Scorsese’s final mobster film, The Irishman (2019).

When Scorsese criticised Marvel movies, he was criticising action movies. But perhaps Scorsese has forgotten something. The frame of reference for action movies in the 1970s was Bruce Lee and Kung Fu, and those films were drawing kids back to cinema in big audiences before he was. And whilst ‘art-house’ movies in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were having their best time and some were making money, they weren’t all drawing the big audiences.

Scorsese likened Marvel movies to a fairground ride, but as stated earlier gangster movies are like horror movies; we revel in their gruesomeness, but hope that it will never be a part of our lives, thus the fairground ride similarities are there. And few of us are, in reality, willing to fight like Bruce Lee in The Big Boss, Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Bruce Willis in Die Hard and Robert Downey Jnr in Avengers End Game. So, the idea of movies as fairground fantasy runs the gamut. And, because we don’t really want to be shot or blown up in real life, it’s a level of degree.

On the other hand, Scorsese is right. In an age of streaming and profit motivated formulae, the independents and creatives who wish to give a voice to their stories, need to be provided with the means to do so, otherwise we risk losing cinema as a variable means of expressive art. Try to imagine a world without some of the artistic works we’ve seen in the past: perhaps Stalker, Derzu Ursula, or more prominent artistic works like Orlando or Mulholland Drive. Let us hope movies continue to entertain as a broad class, across the board, from action to art-house, which is what I believe Scorsese is driving at.

Stephen Vega. December 2019

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