Gangster films present a genuine problem for moralists. On the one hand, they inevitably include violence and usually sex, the possession of women being an aspect of power and prestige. But on the other hand, most of them show that crime does not pay. Such ethical endings did not deter the reformers of the New Deal era from enforcing the Production Code, written earlier but kept on the books, shocked as they were by the Depression-inspired cycles of gangster and fallen women movies.
These reforms, begun in 1934 momentarily transformed Jimmy Cagney, the Public Enemy of 1932 into the G-Man of 1935, but did not stop gangster films altogether. Instead they interjected comic elements into the underworld as in The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) in which Edward G. Robinson, who played Little Caesar in 1931 plays a mild newspaper man who’s the lookalike of the city’s chief mobster, also played by Robinson. Cagney again played a gangster in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), but now, under the influence of the Code, he follows the advice of his priest friend Pat O’Brien and goes to the chair pretending he is yellow so as to act as a warning to the Dead End Kids. Or the criminal became a victim of an oppressive society, as did Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937). So for a while the plots became moralized, and no longer needed a tacked on opening statement that gangsters were a menace and that the film was made to alert the public to the danger.
World War II made the ban on violence almost impossible to enforce. A number of gangsters went to war to fight the real gangsters, the Nazis, while at home the gloom of the period crept into a new type of crime film now known as film noirs which if they featured a gangster at all tended to explore his dark Freudian past and twisted psyche. Then the demise of the Production Code altogether in 1967 reopened the gates for The Godfather, sensationalistic violence, and semi-pornographic sex, where gangster films have remained ever since, though recently, The Sopranos have moved the setting to the suburbs.
Of the two great and defining American genres of cinema, the western and the gangster, both of them exploring the relationship between civilization and violence, the gangster bad guy, not the cowboy good guy, has proven to be the hardiest, the fittest, the one with the most continuous record of survival, perhaps because he dwells in the urban present and not in the guilt-ridden past.
In the 1940s Robert Warshow, the brilliant Partisan Review critic, attempted to explain both the appeal of the gangster film and its cultural significance. In “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” he pointed out how the gangster film achieved a modern version of Aristotle’s catharsis. Like some parody of the Horatio Alger success story, it showed how some self-reliant but ruthless young man empowered himself and gained all the “goods” that the material and capitalistic world had to offer: expensive women, penthouses, big cars, silk shirts, and, always, tuxedos.
But then as the mob abandons him and he is left alone, he loses everything, including his life, thereby purging all these dangerous ambitions and libidinous desires onto the gangster as a tragic scapegoat. He dies for us, making it easier to conform and play it safe. Such at least were the classic gangster films of the early 1930s, Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface, which still, despite post-Code sensationalism, define the genre.
Now American Gangster, a big, long A film directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, The Gladiator), written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, turns its attention to a black gangster and a real-life story. Like a John Ford western, the film, while remaining faithful to the genre, deepens its meaning.
Black criminals are common in crime films, usually on the receiving end of some Dirty Harry’s magnum force. A few films have featured them as rogue cops, such as Training Day (2001), which won Washington his best actor Oscar. But here a black gangster, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is the center of the film, and like his white predecessors, we witness his rise to dominance not only in Harlem but over the Italian Mafia. The title reminds us that the blacks were here from the beginning. The Italians are the newcomers.
But it does more than that. Lucas succeeds not just by rubbing out the opposition, in the manner of Scarface, but by better business practices. He shares his profits with his subordinates, most of them his relatives. More important, he travels to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War to obtain a better product, purer heroin, which after importing in the coffins of dead GIs, he sells on the street at a lower price. He triumphs by means of free enterprise, which makes him more than ever an American. Like other corporations, he profits from the war. And he is a model of family values, devoted to his mother (Ruby Dee), loyal to his wife. The film does not play up these ironies for laughs, but it certainly offers an implicitly satiric perspective on the American system.
When we consider Lucas’s nemesis, the detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the film almost becomes a black comedy. Roberts is an honest cop in the midst of a very corrupt police force, represented by the thuggish Josh Brolin. Inconceivably Roberts recovers a million dollars in unmarked drug money and does not stoop to remove a dollar for himself. If his partner errs, Roberts will turn him in, breaking the blue code of loyalty.
But here’s the twist. Unlike Lucas and his family values, Roberts is a very defective husband and father, primarily because of his womanizing. So the two principles act as broken halves of a traditional hero, all of which gives their conflict an all-too-human interest. The film might have given another twist to the story by including the fact that the real Roberts is Jewish, a new American versus an old one, but that might have overcomplicated an already complex story.
American Gangster is really a good movie, featuring as it does two of the greatest actors of our day, rich in social texture, beautiful to watch, and intelligently written. Potential viewers, however, should be warned. This is an R-rated film. It contains many nude scenes and one gross sex scene. Hollywood filmmakers justify such scenes on the grounds of “realism,” when in fact they are but conventions of our own sensationalistic era. In Scott’s defense, the sex scene dramatizes the private immorality of Roberts, and the nude scenes, primarily the naked Asian girls who process the drugs in Lucas’s state of the art factory, naked so that they cannot steal the “product,” contribute to the satire of free enterprise. They also underscore the disparity between Lucas’s genteel private life and his sordid public one.
To this reviewer, the film’s main flaw is a typical but emotionally necessary one for gangster films, for otherwise we could not relate to the story. It makes the gangster too sympathetic. As the real Richie Roberts said about Lucas, as quoted in the New York Times, he “has probably destroyed more black lives than the KKK could ever dream of.” But he is played with the charisma that Washington brings to all his roles, a charisma possessed, evidently, by the real Lucas. Nevertheless, he is caught and stripped of all his wealth, so the film, while making fun of the American Way, can still purge us of dangerous dreams and claim the morality of the cautionary tale. If you like gangster films, this is the real thing.
William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of “Hollywood: An Epic Production”, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.