Reflections on the Golden Screen

The Silver Screen

Gangster movies have always held a fascination for primarily the male population of movie goers although they also have many women fans  -  ladies love outlaws ?  It's difficult to ascertain why gangster films are so compulsively watchable  because they are all the things that most of us would never aspire to be and the situations they live on a daily basis who scare the life out of most of us.  If you read the following lines it's clear that even the police are unsure of "the reasons why."

"These guys have a mindset that is completely foreign to anything that we would consider normal.  Our mindset is completely foreign to anything they would consider normal because we get up every morning and we go to work and we put in our forty hours a week and some overtime and we make our payments and all of that.  They look at us as complete victims, trapped in a terrible existence.  Their whole thing is, you don’t get up early, you drive a big car, you don’t have to answer to anybody who’s punching a clock or riding you for a performance, but that you’re out there hustling all the time.  I bet that John Gotti is sitting in the basement of Marion Prison right now, in solitary confinement.  If we went to him and said" : 
 “ Listen,you went to jail before you were fifty, for the rest of your life.  Was it worth it to live as a wiseguy and be the boss for seven years in the largest crime family ?” I am dead positive that he would say ; “ It was worth every minute of it”.

                                                                   John Miller
                                                                    Deputy Commissioner for Public Relations

                                                                    New York City Police Department    1995

 
 The first immigrants to the United States began to arrive after the War between North and South and grew to a flood in the latter part of the last Century.  The complex of buildings on Ellis Island were purpose built to try to control that tide of humanity and from the time of its first immigrants to the time of its closure over twelve million souls had been processed within those walls. When the immigrants finally reached the Promised Land, many found that their circumstances were little different to the places they had left and they gathered together for mutual comfort and protection.   Far from being The Great Melting Pot, at that time enclaves of Poles and Irish and Italians fought between themselves and struggled to make a place for themselves in their new world.  The greater part of them eventually made it through hard work and imagination and a very few turned to crime as the way forward.
The old adage that The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions   was never more true in the case of the Volstead Act when the prohibition of liquor led to the greatest crime-wave that America had ever seen, welded the crime-families together and George Raft, James Cagney, Paul Muni and Edward. G. Robinson were inspired to begin a spate of crime movies which has increased yearly to date.  At the time, gangsters were seen as glamorous figures not doing any real harm in supplying liquor and there were many instances where film stars and gangsters
mixed socially -- until things got nasty.


The earliest gangster films of any note were synonymous with both immigrant populations and prohibition, and commemorating  those cataclysmic events, flourished from the 30’s onward.  James Cagney, born in The Lower East Side of New York in 1899 of Irish, immigrant parentage, was familiar with both of these things and having been brought up on the streets of New York then had every attribute necessary to play gangster roles.
Although he made many more varied films throughout his long career and despite the fact that most of them were made in his early days of film-making, James Cagney will forever be associated with gangster movies.  If the staccato delivery and the dialogue now seem a little quaint to modern ears it must be remembered that it is all of 80 odd years ago that these films were made but there is no doubt that it is the authentic argot of the times.


 
""Public Enemy { 1931 } 
Directed by William Wellman, was Cagney’s first starring role and his rapid-fire delivery and nervous energy captivated cinema audiences watching on-screen what they had been reading in the newspapers and was still going on around them. Directors were not slow to film re-enactments of actual events and cobble them into the tale they were telling and they had few qualms about distorting reality to suit their own purposes.  The infamous grapefruit scene when Cagney smashed a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clarke was copied from an incident involving Hymie Weiss.  However, Cagney said he later copied it from an incident involving the notorious Dion O'Bannion and other versions have since arisen.   The scene has become legendary in movie folklore and several versions are extant - Mae Clarke stated that Cagney was a true professional and made it appear that the grapefruit hit her while another version has it that Cagney hit her so unexpectedly and painfully that her surprise and shock were not feigned.  So. you pays your money as the saying goes.  Whatever the truth of the matter, Cagney had become the archetypal film gangster in his first film.
Little Caesar  { 1931 }  came out the same year with Edward.G.Robinson in the starring role.  Supposedly based on the life of Al.Capone, it had more in common with the life of Johnny Torrio who was Capone’s mentor.  Edward.G. played the part as a career  criminal who was vicious, unremorseful and deadly, with not one redeeming feature in his whole make-up.  The famous last lines as Edward. G falls to the floor riddled with bullets have gone down in movie history and say it all about the character he plays.
" Mother of Mercy, Is this the end for Rico ?"

 
Scarface   { 1932 }  By this time gangster movies were big business at the box office and everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, prompting a flurry of good ,bad or indifferent films of the genre.  Scarface produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Howard Hawks starred Paul Muni in the title role and could hardly deny that it was based on the Al Capone story.  Legend has it that there were several visits from Capone’s henchmen to ensure that their boss had a fair deal and the rushes were shown to Capone himself for his approval.
Although the media may have had good reason to
call Capone the fearsome “ Scarface” his close
associates had nicknamed him “ Snorky” but
were careful not to use it in his presence
--on the face of it a piece of trivial information
but it does graphically illustrate just how influential
and manipulative the media can be. understand…as if you were talking to your customer
G-Men {1935}  
Up to this point, crime movies had depicted the lurid side of gangsterism mainly just to draw in the crowds but as the same plots came to be rehashed time and time again screenwriters realised that audiences would soon tire of the  same worn clichés. In G-Men, William Keighley had the best of both worlds when he directed James Cagney firstly in his usual bad-guy role and then in a poacher-turned-gamekeeper scenario had him as a fledgling F.B.I. agent.
This was a smart move on the director's part because J.Edgar.Hoover had by this time made himself into the scourge of criminals throughout America and the well- publicised exploits of his agents had turned them into national heroes. The legend had been further enhanced from an unusual source ---- Machine Gun Kelly had been cornered by F.B.I. agents and throwing down his gun he had yelled " Don't shoot G-Man !" The name stuck and agents were ever after known as G-Men [ government men}.
Yet again, famous events were incorporated into a fictional story. This time, Keighley depicted the famous shoot-out at Bohemia Lodge when John Dillinger, Babyface Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd and others were surrounded and in the middle of the night the F.B.I. managed to allow every single one of them to escape. But Keighley's G-Men were far more astute and shot the lot of them.

  Angels With Dirty Faces {1938 } by Michael Curtiz, is arguably Cagney's most memorable film in the gangster genre  possibly because it was the first appearance of The Dead End Kids who became instantly popular and later metamorphosed into the Bowery Boys. The story is transparently the struggle between Good as represented by Pat O'Brien as the parish priest and Evil as portrayed by James Cagney in the role of Rocky Sullivan. The neighbourhood kids idolise Rocky for his toughness and resilience even if he is drawn to a life of crime. Although the boys respect the priest they are resistant to his attempts to get them away from Rockie's pervasive influence {shades of a Bronx Tale here }.
The struggle reaches a climax when Rocky is sentenced to the electric chair and in a climactic epiphany and persuaded by the Priest
he goes to his death, kicking and screaming. It is of course all an act and his selfless performance shatters completely all the romantic illusions the boys had about his way of life.  Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall {Bowery Boys} were both brought up in the parts of New York portrayed in the film and in interviews, both stated that the film was an accurate portrayal of life on the streets. They said that squalor was commonplace in the slums and rickets and tuberculosis were endemic. As a result,it was common for boys to admire hoodlums for pulling themselves out of such poverty and they took every
chance they could to emulate their heroes.  The Bowery Boys themselves became heroes to the kids who
attended the legendary saturday Matinees in Liverpool during the 1940's and 1950' when life was hardly luxurious and in their own way the kids identified with the Bowery Boys and their way of life.
The turn of the century picture of Mulberry Street, New York, (see left) at the turn of the century is just one of the bustling streets that went to make up the city at that time.  Mulberry Street was one of the streets which went to make up the 5 Points, a mainly Italian neighbourhood notorious for its poverty
and  gangsters such as Lucky Luciano, Al Capone and JohnnyTorrio.  Streets in Little Italy are not so crowded now but they remain redolent of an Italianate atmosphere and with a little imagination its easy to envisage life as it was in days gone by.  When the gang called the Dead Rabbits met a gang called the Bowery Boys in 1857 over 800 gang members took part in a battle which escalated into looting and rioting; the vicious Bowery Boys then were a far-cry from their boisterous descendants of the 1930's.  The Feast of San Gennaro has been a regular celebration in the area since 1926 and the streets are stil bedecked with flags today as the crowds wend their way along behind the statue of the saint held aloft.
. The Roaring Twenties {1939 } It was almost obligatory to have plenty of gun-play in a gangster film and Raoul Walsh made sure that this film wasn't lacking in that department but at the same time he provided a thoughtful and complex plot. With Cagney and Bogart playing opposite each other there was little chance of a flop and neither disappointed. Friends and comrades in arms during the First World War the plot has the pair returning to civilian  life where far from being lionised as heroes the world has passed them by. Bootlegging becomes an appealing option and the two friends embark on a life of crime. The differences between the pair become apparent as the film goes on with the major schism being that Cagney is breaking the law reluctantly and of necessity while Bogart relishes the life and all that goes with it. Walsh makes sure there's a love interest and the evolution of the gangster film can be seen clearly.
They Drive By Night (1940) directed by Raoul Walsh, brought together Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Ida Lupino and Ann Sheridan, a cast which guaranteed success at the box-office but never lived up to its lurid title in a complicated plot.
Gangster films were money-spinners and numbers of them were churned out in the wake of the success of the first ones made. Many of them were B pictures with little known actors and forgettable plots while others might have had poor storylines but starring the likes of Bogart enhanced them accordingly. Bogart was joined by others such as George Raft whose performances could never be lacking in authenticity due to his well- known connections to the underworld; Raft was never allowed into Britain because of his underworld dealings  - the picture on the left shows him with Bugsy Siegel.  Occasionally, the studios would hedge their bets and throw a whole host of stars into a movie automatically guaranteeing success.
The Twenties and Thirties in America were two decades of laissez-faire which with a little imagination could be compared to the Belle-Epoque in Paris. If nothing else, both eras hold a certain warm feeling of nostalgia even for those who were born decades afterwards.  Part of the nostalgia is of course the black and white movies and not least the gangster films but gradually the era began to pass into history. The number of crime movies never stopped completely but slowed down accordingly and there were more though
tful plots.
 
High Sierra { 1941 }
Raoul Walsh directed a screenplay by John Huston in which Humphrey Bogart played " Roy " Mad Dog" Earle. Personally, I was never enamoured of this film and yet another examination of the psyche of a gunman is a film too many but many people see it as one of Bogie's best.

White Heat { 1949} was again directed by Raoul Walsh with James Cagney playing Cody Jarrett, a mother-fixated psychopath. By this time, Walsh had moved so far into the world of criminal psychology that if there were any Oscars up for grabs then they would have been awarded by Social Services. Between blazing machine- guns at one end of the spectrum and neurotic criminals at the other gangster films were becoming a little wearying.  
 
There was one thing which made the last two films different - the two anti-heroes were not gangsters in the true senseof the word but lone bandits.  The 1930's brought about a whole host of  bandits mostly from the mid-west during the dust-bowl era when the soil on the vast prairies of America turned to dust .  The dust bowl was a phenomenon which brought grinding poverty to hundreds of thousands of farmers causing them to migrate to the often worse poverty of fruit-picking in California, commit suicide or turn to crime.  The dust-bowl era criminals thrived in a vast countryside which they knew like the back of their hands and sheltered by their relatives they were often thought of as modern-day Robin Hoods than criminals - there was a romanticism about the devil-may-care desperadoes of the dust-bowl days but the truth was vastly different.
 
 
 
 
 
Bonn ie and Clyde  { 1967 }
They're young --- they're in love ----and they kill people.
When Faye Dunaway as Bonnie and Warren Beatty as Clyde are blown away in a hail of bullets in the finale to Bonnie and Clyde, it also blew away the stylised violence common throughout the 30's, 40's and 50's movies as delineated by the Hayes  Code. From then onward, very few crime films were without a serving of blood-letting of one sort or another and successive films vied with each other to produce higher quotas of violence, some gratuitous and some not.  Bonnie and Clyde also spawned any number of copycat films, from the 19
50' Gun Crazy- to Natural Born Killers.
Although they were active in the same era as Capone, the homicidal pair were never gangsters in the accepted sense of the word. But just as City gangsters reacted as they did to their environment, Bonnie and Clyde reacted in a similar way to theirs. Both were brought up during the Depression era in Texas but while Bonnie's family were relatively comfortable, Clyde was brought up in abject poverty. Married at 16,  Bonnie's feckless husband left 3 years later and shortly afterwards she met Clyde. Bonnie was devoted to her first husband and when he left she transferred that devotion to Clyde and as she proved many times would do anything in his cause. Her first dip into the murky waters of law-breaking came when Clyde was jailed and she smuggled a gun into him in jail to further an escape attempt. The gun was never used, as a short time afterwards Clyde was released on parole but she had proven her devotion which Clyde was never slow to exploit from then onwards.
Bonnie was extremely intelligent and literate and wrote poetry throughout her short life. She was also the antithesis of a liberated woman in that her dog-like devotion to her men knew no bounds but as fate would have it that attraction was reserved for criminals.  When she met up with a career criminal who had no compunction about killing and placed little value on human life she fell into that way of life just as readily as she would have followed the path of any man she fell for.
One of her poems, written early in her life with Clyde, gives a very clear insight into how she romanticized about herself and their life together. Entitled Suicide Sal, it is an entertaining ballad of a young girl who loves her man through thick and thin. The man in the poem is not named but is obviously Clyde and Sal paints a picture of someone trying to escape his poverty-stricken roots but being stopped at every turn by injustice and prejudice. Sal finds the only way to defend her man is to stand at his side, gun in hand. The poem is eerily prophetic and explains Bonnie's view of the world with great clarity. 
Their life of crime together began with robberies which quickly escalated to killings.  One shooting was as good as another and twelve people ended up being gunned down as the lives of the deadly couple spiralled out of control.  Most of their crimes were carried out in the Depression era mid-west and to the dirt-poor farming folk they were the embodiment of Jesse James or Robin Hood striking back at a heartless establishment. Their crimes were only a generation away from Butch Cassidy and Co and it was easy for the myth to arise that they were robbing the rich, feeding the poor and fighting oppression.  Several films have been made of the Bonnie and Clyde story most of which never mention them by name but take elements of the story and tack them onto other tales. Dorothy Provine was the first to overtly play the part of Bonnie in The Bonnie Parker Story but the film departs so much from the truth as to be virtually worthless as a biography.
Given that in real life, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow lived lives of such incident, there is very little reason or opportunity to embellish the true story of Bonnie and Clyde but it took until 1967 to make a reasonably fair version of the story when Arthur Penn brought it to the screen.
From the moment when Clyde produces his pistol and Bonnie strokes it lovingly { it would be superfluous to elaborate upon the phallic symbolism } the stage is set for Clyde's crazy escapades to be accompanied by an adoring Bonnie. There's little doubt that Bonnie was bored with her life as a waitress and she sees Clyde not just as an escape from her ennui but as a romantic, devil-may-care adventurer which also strongly attracts her sexually. For her, Clyde is invested in an aura of glamour and she becomes strongly attached to him from the start.
Clyde initiates Bonnie into the art of bank-robbing and they set off in a stolen car on the madcap, helter-skelter ride to their brave new world to the background of Flatt and Scruggs' "Rocky Mountain Breakdown".
Inordinately proud of his prowess as a bank-robber it slowly becomes clear that Clyde is totally unsuited to his chosen career and the more he works at it the less they seem to accrue. Not only that, his inadequacies and lack of any cohesive plans lead to unnecessary shoot-outs with both civilians and lawmen and their lives become a nomadic flight from the law and a fruitless search for an elusive pot of gold. Bonnie becomes more disillusioned by the day but true to form remains constant in her devotion to Clyde.
Her devotion is tested to the limit when Clyde is found to be less than a great lover and several disastrous encounters leave her chewing the pillows in frustration. After one failed attempt at lovemaking she rounds on Clyde and comments acidly ;
                                         " Your advertising is just dandy. Folk'd just never guess that you don't have a thing to sell"

 All this seems a little ironic being directed at Warren Beatty of all people and he must have smiled wryly to himself.
The film makes a great deal of Clyde's apparent lack of libido but it has no basis in fact and despite everything they remained devoted to each other throughout. It is possible that the story came about due to Clyde's preoccupation with guns and cars or it may have emanated from the then new sport of analysing criminal behaviour in which it was proclaimed that a psychopathic personality was less highly sexed or it may just have been that Arthur Penn thought it made the film more interesting.
Michael. J.Pollard joins in the fun as the gang's mechanic. His character C. W. Moss never existed in real life but in the film is an amalgam of three of Clyde's criminal associates. Perhaps Penn thought that another three gang members wouldn't fit in the car or maybe he was just trying to save money but whichever is the case, M.J. Pollard's simplistic, come-day-go-day character fits in perfectly.
Gene Hackman as Clyde's brother Buck and Estelle Parsons as his neurotic wife join the ever-growing circus and with those two additions Bonnie's disillusionment reaches nadir. Buck's wife has pretensions of being a middle-class housewife and finds herself in a car with four spoiled children in the bodies of adults.

Her feeble attempts to bring some sanity to the proceedings are met with the same response that any brat would make ---- she's spoiling the fun !  As time goes by the gang's exploits hit the headlines which naturally embellish their exploits, and a key to Bonnie and Clyde's psychopathic behaviour is their perceived celebrity status as they gleefully scan the papers.  Even when Buck is gunned down and Blanche is captured, Bonnie and Clyde carry on with no perception of the repercussions of their homicidal acts and a child-like belief that all will be well around the next corner.  Clyde's incompetence as a bank robber is staggering and is only matched by the incompetence of the lawmen trying to catch them. This and Clyde's expert driving  in real life, Clyde's favourite car was the Ford V8 and he wrote to Ford to tell them so } along back roads he knows like the back of his hand, combine to keep the pair enjoying further exploits. But after two years of mayhem the end was drawing near.
Even now, the ambush at the end has the power to shock as for long minutes high-powered bullets slam into the two outlaws, their bodies jerking and twitching obscenely like two marionettes.  The re-enactment of this scene is true to what really happened and the ambush smacks of Revenge and Retribution with Justice a long way to the rear.
Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde omits many details of the story for reasons of film space but he has picked out the most important events and directed them with obvious care and a regard to the truth. Much of the dialogue is authentic and although on the surface Bonnie and Clyde may appear as romanticized outlaws and the gun-fights are exciting it is a fact that they were both homicidal killers and Penn has subtly and skillfully shown their lives to be empty and wasted.Bonnie was 24 years of age when she died and Clyde was 25. 
People in the Texas area still recall them with affection and as defenders of the oppressed. Bonnie's gravestone reads ;
 As the flowers are made sweeter
By the sunshine and the dew
 So this world is made brighter
By the likes of folk like you
Dillinger     { 1972 }
Director : John Milius
With that devil-may-care smile and hint of underlying menace Warren Oates makes a perfect Dillinger, the atmospheric settings evoke the era perfectly and all the ingredients are in place to make a great film but Dillinger just does not sparkle in the way that Bonnie and Clyde did.  John Dillinger himself was a far more charismatic character than Clyde and his lifetime of crime contained far more incident and adventure than Bonnie and Clyde's ever did. There was a touch of the Douglas Fairbanks and a dab of Errol Flynn about Dillinger but the film has failed to capture the mercurial and elusive quality of the man. There was also an aura of farce and black comedy surrounding many events in his life --- the bank robbery when the gang took so many hostages that the car would only travel at a crawl and they ended up dropping them off near to each passenger's home is just one.  Dillinger thought that bank robbery was the highest position a man could aspire to and despite being around psychopaths like Baby face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd and carrying arsenals of weapons he only ever killed one man, a bank guard which he regretted and excused as self-defence.  In many ways, the penal system of the time made Dillinger into the career criminal that he became by sending him down for an incredible 10 to 20 years for a bungled teenage robbery. There he met career bank robbers who tutored him in the ways of robbing banks and he idolised criminals such as Pierpont and van Meter so much that on his release Dillinger set about robbing banks to fund their escape. John Milius has completely omitted any reference to Dillinger's upbringing and begins with The Kansas City Massacre in which Pretty Boy Floyd and others attempting to rescue "Jelly Nash" slay several Police officers, killing Nash in the process.  Dillinger played no part in the incident but the film implies that he did.

 
There is little continuity in the film and it jumps from incident to incident in the life of Dillinger making the picture as a whole seem disjointed and confusing which would be excusable if the facts were presented logically and honestly but Milius has taken too many liberties with the truth for his film biography to be taken seriously.  The famous Crown Point incident when Dillinger escapes jail with a wooden gun is directed quite well but Milius has failed to realise that the "wooden gun" was a fiction designed to hide the fact that Dillinger had been smuggled a real gun. Prior to Dillinger's escape there was a famous incident where the gangster entered the jail as a celebrity on a par with film stars. Milius has copied the famous picture of Dillinger leaning on the shoulder of the Public Prosecutor but there is no mention whatsoever of the scandal that ensued and the careers that were damaged in the aftermath of this gaffe.
 Little Bohemia was and is a country lodge on the Canadian border where Dillinger and his gang hid out when things became too hot. When the gang were betrayed the F.B.I. had the perfect opportunity to capture the whole gang and their girl-friends in one fell swoop but despite the lodge being surrounded on three sides the whole gang slipped away along the lake to the rear of the building. In reality the incident was a dêbacle and an embarrassment to the F.B.I. but Milius could not resist the opportunity to present the event as a massive gun battle { in which Pretty Boy Floyd takes part although he was never present---neither was Youngblood } culminating in a running battle along country roads.  Pierpont is shot down on a bridge and tumbles into the river but this is fictional and in real life he ended up in the electric chair.
Although some of the character parts are excellent such as Harry Dean Stanton as HomerVan Meter and Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd , Richard Dreyfuss as the vicious and unpredictable Baby Face Nelson just does not come off while Geoffrey Lewis as Harry Pierpont is hardly noticeable when in fact he was a major player in the life of Dillinger.  The biggest disappointment of all is the casting of Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis and this is the only film I can recall that I have not enjoyed watching this actor. Johnson's Purvis is so infuriatingly smug and self-satisfied that Dillinger and his pals come over as self-effacing. Not only that, according to Milius, Purvis shot down single-handed every single criminal on the files of the F.B.I. while the rest of the G-Men were just on hand to light his cigars. There are many good things to like about this film but the portrayal of Purvis is not one of them.
[The Biograph Cinema Chicago remains exactly the same today as it did in 1934 when Dillinger was shot. Just around the corner on North State St was the St.Valentine's Day Massacre and bizarrely the home of L.Frank Baum the author of The Wizard of Oz]
Overall, John Milius's Dillinger is enjoyable and exciting but falls far short of being great. It is a shame really but for every historically accurate portrayal of events there follows some fictional incident such as the death of Van Meter who was shot down but not by vigilantes as in the film. If you don't know the true story then perhaps it doesn't matter or on the other hand perhaps it matters even more but the fact remains that just like the F.B.I. Director John Milius was never quite able to  capture Dillinger.
The finale when Dillinger is shot down outside the Biograph cinema is well done even mentioning that Manhattan Melodrama was showing and the little touch where a lady dips her skirt in Dillingers blood is true. This scene shows clearly that exciting and authentic can get along quite well.

 
Public Enemies (2009) Directed by Michael Mann
" My name is John Dillinger - I rob banks."
Although Public Enemies purports to tell the stories of the numerous outlaws and robbers menacing middle America during the Depression era of the 1930s, most of them are peripheral to the central character Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and John Dillinger(Johhny Depp)  with Dillinger's romance with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) taking up much of the story.  In this version of the story, Melvin Purvis is portrayed as a driven character, seemingly emotionless, and very much similar to Javert from Les Miserables - strangely enough the fictional Javert killed himself at the end of Hugo's great novel and in 1960 Purvis also committed suicide. 
All the major incidents in Dillinger's life of crime are in the film but even in this more enlightened age it appears that Hollywood biographers can never resist embellishing the facts and altering them to suit their own purpose and when respected Directors such as Michael Mann do it then it only serves to diiminish their work.  In an early part of  the film Melvin Purvis played by Christian Bale is made to look heroic by shooting down Pretty Boy Floyd in a firefight but like so many incidents in American history the truth is hard to come by.  What is certain is that Floyd was shot by F.B.I agents and not Purvis.  There's also a persistent story that Floyd was killed while lying wounded on the ground - possibly on  the orders of Purvis who was present.
The famous incident at Crown Point Jail, Indiana, when Dillinger leans on the Public Prosecutors's shoulder is well done and the Director emphasises the major influence of his lawyer in the escape.
The incident at Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin , when in April ,1934, Dillinger and his gang are surrounded by G. Men begins well enough with the F.B.I agents shooting 3 innocent men emerging from the lodge and sparking a firefight with the gang inside the Lodge.  But Mann has embellished the action to make it appear that Dillinger and his gang narrowly escaped with several hoodlums shot down as they ran but the F.B.I. have long since published a fact-sheet of the incident in which they admit the whole affair was a debacle.  Worse still, the Director has concentrated on a dramatic escape by Baby Face Nelson , played by Liverpudlian, Stephen Graham, in which his escape car races along and riddled with bullets by F.B.I agents, overturns killing Nelson and his friends when in fact Nelson escaped like all the others.   In reality, the homicidal Nelson, who was more Hard-Faced than Baby-Faced, killed an agent at Little Bohemia (which was screened), wounded another and also a police officer and remained free until November, 1934, when he was shot down in a gun battle at a place called Barrington outside Chicago.
There were plenty more fictional additions to the film, in particular when Purvis heroically carries Billie Frechette down a corridor rescuing her from a sadistic F.B.I. agent and worst of all, Dillinger's last words which were allegedly to "Tell Billie, Bye, Bye, Blackbird" - after the hail of bullets  which were aimed at him, the bandit was in no shape to speak to anyone.
Although John Dillinger claimed that his upbringing and his excessive 9 year sentence for a minor crime were to blame for his life of crime, there's little doubt that he would have turned to crime in any circumstance.  What makes Dillinger so different from his contemporaries  is that his charismatic nature makes him difficult to dislike - in fact, I always find myself cheering him on in daring escapades which seem hardly credible at times.  Dillinger loved the celebrity and fame his robberies brought him,  with his trademark leap over bank counters posing with a machine-gun just one of his many foibles.  You do get the impression with Dillinger that the money from the robberies became secondary to the notoriety it brought but there remains a lingering feeling that he deserved better than being shot down in the alley next to the Biograph and there is every reason to think that the F.B.I agents were following orders.  More sophisticated than Warren Oates' Dillinger, somehow or other, this version falls flat and the definite Dillinger film awaits screening.
 
The Godfather { 1972 }
Director : Francis Ford Coppola - after the novel by Mario Puzo
" I'm Gonna Make Him an Offer He Can't Refuse."
It's difficult to believe that it is all of 43 years since The Godfather  was released and immediately entered into the pantheon of the greatest movies of all time. It was inspired by Mario Puzo's novel of which he never again wrote anything which came close to the quality of that first book but it was enough for Francis Ford Coppola to direct a cinematic masterpiece.
There are not enough superlatives to describe the excellence of this film - it is a feast of great acting and superb storytelling brought together with the subtle and delicate touch of a great director. Add to this the haunting theme music which is consistent with every mood throughout the film and lingers for a very long time afterwards, and you have quite simply the finest film of its kind.
The story of life, love and death among the Italian crime families is one that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche and a vital part in the great immigration saga. Stripped of all other elements, it is at the core the story of Sicilian clans transposed to the New World bringing with them all the customs and mores of their 2000 year history and having no compunction whatsoever to compromise or adapt to their new surroundings
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The Corleone family business is crime and Michael Corleone { Al Pacino } plays little part in those activities until his father Vito { Marlon Brando } is gunned down. His honour forces him to seek revenge and when he delivers retribution with the slaying of his father's enemies then he is at once forced to take the first steps upon the long, lonely road that his father trod a generation previously. It is a road which will ultimately but reluctantly lead him to be his father's successor as The Godfather. Michael accepts the inevitability of his fate in the belief that he can be the protector of his family.
James Caan has never been better as Sonny Corleone and Robert Duvall is superlative as Tom Hagen, the family consigliere while Sterling Hayden is brilliant as the corrupt and sadistic Police Captain McCluskey.   It is a tribute to Coppola as the Director that actor after actor proceeds to outplay anything they have ever done before with Richard Conte unrecognisable as Barzini, Diane Keaton great as Kay, John Cazale, Talia Shire and all of the cast make the film unforgettable.
 
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 The Godfather 2   Director :Francis Ford Coppola
Made in 1974 this film is for many people even better than its predecessor but it could never be that despite being an excellent film in its own right.
As Michael lives out his tenure as Godfather the film takes in many of the major crime incidents of the era ---- the Nevada casinos, the Havana episode, the gang wars, the Kefauver Committee ---and parodies many of the crime lords who are easily recognisable. But Michael finds that the passing of the years have made his position more precarious than his father's ever was ---it would have been unthinkable for Vito's wife to have had an abortion with or without his consent and even more unthinkable for her to think of leaving.  Michael's whole raison d'être and the reason that he reluctantly shouldered his onerous responsibilities were for the well-being of his family and Kay's abortion and desertion are a knife in the heart. Fredo's betrayal leads him to the ultimate irony of ordering the murder of his brother and as Michael is forced into a ruthlessness he never wanted so his bitterness increases proportionately.
While Michael is hoeing a very hard row, the story is interspersed with flashbacks to the early life of the young Vito {Robert de Niro} and how he came to rule the Corleone family. The immigration scenes as the ship moves past The Statue of Liberty and onto Ellis Island are particularly evocative and we are so drawn into Vito's life story that it comes
as a shock to suddenly return to Michael's problems. And then he reverse is true and each story of father and son becomes something of a cliffhanger in a film which is a worthy successor to one of the all-time greats.
 
The Godfather 3 : Director Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola waited until 1990 to direct the final film in the trilogy and Michael has grown into a complete facsimile of his father --- an ageing Don deeply immersed in a life of crime and intrigue that he tried so hard to avoid. His attempts to legitimise his " business" and turn his family from the illegalities of the past have failed. Following Kay's desertion and Fredo's betrayal, further Mafia wars have caused the death of his daughter in the crossfire, underlining further his impotence and inability to keep them from harm.
It has to be said that Godfather3 does not have the cachet of the first two films but taken as a whole the Trilogy is a brilliant chronicle of a Darwinian struggle for survival in the urban jungle and the tragedy of a man thrust into a role he never wanted and unable to prevent the destruction of all those he ever loved.  The three films are undoubtedly the zenith of Coppola's glittering career.
The patriarch Vito, long-suffering Michael, tempestuous Sonny and weak Fredo, aided by the consiglieri and scandalised by the amoral Connie make up the Corleone family.  The cadaverous Tessio, Clemenza who hid the gun and the not too bright Luca Brazzi { but don't say I said so } faced off with bad-cop Captain McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo not to mention Barzini and the devious Hyman Roth and finally poor Kay who never knew what she was getting into. I got to know them all quite well in the hours that I spent in their company.
Once Upon a Time in America  { 1984 }
Director  : Sergio Leone
The opening 20 minutes of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America asks some intriguing questions 
-- who are a gang of hoodlums hunting so relentlessly and why and what is the mystery of the safety deposit box ?  As " Noodles" Aaronsen {Robert de Niro} falls into an opium-induced dream it is a further four hours before we find out.
Noodles' dream takes us back to the turn of the century where we first become acquainted with the
Jewish gangsters who dominate the film as they are growing up together on the streets of New York.  The long sequence is arguably the best part of the film as Leone takes us back to a sepia-coloured New York of Jewish immigrant youths struggling to survive in the mean streets and the seething tenements.  
Up to this point the film is easy to follow but as the transition is made from the young boys into adults, the many flashbacks which are a feature of the film begin, and as they become more frequent the continuity is completely lost in a confusing welter of time lapses from the 20's to the 30's and on to the 60's and back again in no particular order.
Leone has always has a penchant for making his characters interesting but rarely loveable and as we get to know the gang more intimately it's evident that his likeable, street-wise urchins have grown into a thoroughly unpleasant and unscrupulous gang of villains who would have been quite at home in a spaghetti western.  James Woods as Max Bercovicz vies with Noodles for the leadership of the gang and in a particularly harrowing scene tacitly encourages the rape of his future girl-friend Carol, played by Tuesday Weld, during a bank heist of all things.  If there remains a lingering nostalgia for their sepia boyhood days it is completely dispelled in this one scene which is a totally superfluous addition to the screenplay and is as unnecessary as it is unpleasant and as such can only be described as gratuitous. The scenes where the gang swap the babies around in the hospital is also shocking and made more distasteful by Leone's attempt to inject some black humour into the event. 

Ennio Morricone's background music, called Deborah's Theme is at times overly sentimental and slushy and more in keeping with some romantic weepie than a gangster movie and is played in the background during Noodle's romance with Deborah .  Noodles has hired an orchestra and a restaurant for his assignation with the delicious Deborah who he has loved since childhood and you could be excused for thinking we had stepped into a Fred Astaire movie as they waltz to the strings and canoodle in soft-focus candlelight.  As Noodles takes her home in the early hours he suddenly and unexpectedly brutally rapes her in the back of the chauffeur-driven car.  The scene is long and graphic and in this instance can be construed as necessary to the plot and a pivotal part of their relationship but again there remains a suggestion that it could have been gratuitous and hardly endears us to Noodles.
The epic eventually draws to its conclusion which is as confusing as the rest of the film and you can either accept Max's version of events or that of Noodles--- I'm not quite sure who I believe.  But Leone is not content to leave things there and in a surreal scene he implies that Max commits suicide by jumping into a garbage-grinder.
Taken as a whole, the film is overlong, confusing and enigmatic -never more so than the final scene when Noodles puffs on an opium-pipe and grins into the camera suggesting that the whole thing was a dream ?  In the final analysis,  Sergio Leone's rambling story is never less than compelling but is too self-indulgent and confusing to be the masterpiece that he envisaged.  I must confess that I am one of the few people who disliked
Once Upon A Time In The West which was the boring zenith of the spaghetti western era but I was prepared to watch Once Upon a Time in America with an open mind; the conclusion is that if Leone had retained the evocative atmosphere of the early hour or so, he could have produced a masterpiece but the film fell apart in each succeeding reel - it is however, far and away better than his spaghette westerns.
Goodfellas { 1990 }
Director : Martin Scorsese - from a book by Nicholas Pileggi andHenry Hill
 Based on a true story, Goodfellas chronicles the life of crime of Henry Hill as told in the conversational voice-over by Ray Liotta throughout the film. Usually, just a directing device, in this instance the chatty voice-over turns out to be essential in translating the arcane mores governing the actions of many of the characters and at the same time intimating that Henry is telling his tale to us the audience directly.  For once, the story has the ring of truth throughout and each character is believable.  In fact the fledgling hoodlums of Martin Scorsese's semi-autobiographical Mean Streets could very well have grown into the gangsters depicted in Goodfellas and Scorsese would have quite easily identified with the teenage Henry Hill.  Henry's teenage adulation of the gang across the street is understandable given the normal teenager's obsession with needing to belong but in this case it leads him down a road from which there is no return. Not that Henry would have cared ---- at the time the allure of the gangsters was overwhelming.
Starting as a youthful errand boy, as the years go by Henry becomes an integral part of the crime-family with theft and random violence an accepted part of his chosen vocation. The film clearly illustrates the almost monastic affinity of a Mafia family and its complete disregard and disdain of anything or anyone outside the brotherhood. The whole extended family is a secret society, a closed order with its own customs and practices and devoted only to the well-being of its members.
Henry has grown up alongside Tommy De Vito, played by Joe Pesci. Tommy has taken "vicious" and "sadistic" to be complimentary and provoked by the least little thing or the most innocuous remark, throughout the film his volatile and erratic nature inevitably leads to butchery and bloodshed, savage beyond all reason.  Forever holding court of the "laugh when I laugh" kind and always surrounded by a sycophantic audience, on one occasion Tommy is recounting one of his sadistic tales of black humour when Henry laughs too loud and too long. You can hear a pin-drop when Tommy asks him " What's so funny ?" and "Are you laughing at me ? " You think I'm a funny guy"? As Tommy pursues his interrogation Henry becomes more and more alarmed and as the tension is stretched to breaking point Tommy breaks the spell inferring that it was a wind-up all the time. The relief around the table and in particular by Henry is palpable. The film is worth seeing for this scene alone and when I first saw it I knew right away it would be an immediate entry into my notebook of great screen moments to be re-enacted over again after a few with pints.
While Joe Pesci's Tommy has a great time interpreting how Caligula would have turned out if he had been born in the Bronx, Robert de Niro's Jimmy Conway is nowhere near as malevolent. But beneath his urbane persona lurks a manipulative and ambitious spirit and he is no less murderous than Tommy whenever the need arises. Paul Sorvino's Paulie the benign head of the family, exemplifies an old-school capo devoted to making money and keeping a low profile. His inability to control his violent underlings is eventually a major factor in the downfall of them all.
Tommy, Jimmy and Henry along with the whole of their Mafia family enjoy a film star celebrity and are fêted and fussed over wherever they go, never knowing or caring that their celebrity is in truth notoriety and their fame is really fear.
As far as the women associated with the gangsters are concerned- from Tommy's doting mother to Henry's hysterical wife and on to the mink-clad and foul-mouthed harpies believing themselves to be supportive wives and mothers to the hoodlums - Scorsese damns them all.  In the male-dominated society that they are part of, the women play out their roles of true domesticates while indulging themselves in orgies of kitsch and bad taste with their men's ill-gotten gains.
At the high point of Henry Hill's career in crime, given his celebrity status, the tacit approval of the police and the illusion of domestic bliss there is a sense that what the gangsters are doing is not criminal at all. They have almost come to believe that their activities are not only acceptable but even laudable and such is the strength of the family that they are immune from any outside influences.
There is some truth in their arrogance because their house of cards falls down not by police investigations but by their own greed and paranoia as they turn on each other in a frenzy of killing following the infamous Lufthansa Heist at Kennedy airport in 1978.  Henry Hill and his fellow mafioso were too clever to carry out the heist themselves and employed a number of henchmen whose "collective intelligence equated to a flickering lightbulb" according to Hill's co-author.  Nevertheless, when Hill discovered he was soon to be assassinated by his fellow mobsters he testified against the Goodfellas he had known for years and entered the witness protection programme.  Even after such traumatic events,  Hill never relinquished his life of crime and was constantly arrested for extortion, drunk-driving and drugs charges, with his final years spent in a drug-addled haze.

Goodfellas is one of the finest gangster movies ever made and contrary to glorifying crime it is in its way a damning indictment of a self-serving and nihilistic way of life.  The portrayal of the Byzantine workings of a crime family is explicit and we are only left to wonder why Henry Hill ever wanted to join such a dysfunctional family at all.

 
 Casino { 1995 }     Director : Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese has taken so many elements from Goodfellas and grafted them onto Casino that if you had not seen the film you would be excused for believing that it would be another version of Goodfellas in a different guise. Firstly, there is the voice-over commentary which in this case has a variation in that several of the characters relate their versions of the true story. There is Joe Pesci reprising his role in Goodfellas as the even more sadistic Nicky Santino. Sometimes in uncontrollable rages, and occasionally chillingly cheerful, Nicky will indulge in the most horrific torture and then return home to dote on his family as if it were just another day at the office. There is even the doting Jewish mother, clicking and tutting as her loving son rages and curses against his enemies. This theme of days of gangsterdom and evenings of what is perceived to be domestic bliss run through all of Scorsese's films. There are many other similarities but the most compelling is the enduring morality tale of gangsters rising to the peak of their profession and the inevitability of being brought down by their own greed.
Despite all these things or perhaps because of them
Casino rivals Goodfellas as one of the great gangster movies and it is difficult to choose between them. Robert de Niro's Sam "Ace" Rothstein is basically a weak character who would never have been nothing but a petty crook if it were not for his exceptional talents in any matters pertaining to gambling. Manipulated by the mob, Ace is quite happy in his role as the manager of the Las Vegas Tangiers, as he quietly stashes away his share of the spoils and perhaps his idyll would have continued ad infinitum if not for three things: firstly, his relationship with Nicky who sees himself as his minder and friend which is akin to living with a rabid pit-bull, secondly his deplorable management skills and not least his dog-like devotion to the stunningly beautiful Ginger {Sharon Stone in her finest role}. Ace is fully aware of Ginger's track record as a hustler and hooker and foolishly believes that he can convert her into a domestic goddess. Unfortunately for Ace, Ginger's finger is never far from the self-destruct button as in the midst of wealth and luxury she pines for her erstwhile pimp {James Woods} and her life slowly disintegrates. In the meanwhile, Nicky, by now completely out of control, is carrying out a reign of terror on everyone within reach. All this combined with several appalling managerial decisions brings Ace's world crashing down and just like Henry Hill he finds not only his lifestyle at an end but possibly his life also.
Another among many of Martin Scorsese's enduring and endearing themes throughout his mob movies is that all of his gangsters have their heyday but inevitably come to violent ends and
Casino remains true to the format. Neither does Scorsese ever give in to the temptation to glorify his gangsters and he never deviates from highlighting their sole motivation of accruing riches as the very thing that brings them to their knees.
In
Goodfellas and Casino we have two of the finest mob movies ever made by a director at the top of his game and if at times the violence is excessive and we feel slightly voyeuristic for watching there is always the consolation that evil will reap its reward.
 
A Bronx Tale   {1993 ] Directed by : Robert de Niro
Unlike many plays which somehow just don't make the transition from theatre to cinema, A Bronx Tale translates seamlessly onto the big screen with Robert de Niro both directing his first film and playing the part of Lorenzo Anello. Proud of his Sicilian heritage, Lorenzo is a hard-working and honest bus driver trying to maintain a family in a tough neighbourhood while resisting the temptations of easy money. His life becomes proportionately more difficult when Calogero ( Francis Capra his son aged 9 at the time, witnesses a shooting and refuses to divulge to the police who did it. Sonny {Chazz Palminteri } is the man who did the shooting and he is a Mafioso who has his headquarters in the bar down the street. Sonny takes Calogero under his wing and Calogero in his turn, idolises the charismatic gangster. As Calogero grows into a young man his life is characterised by the constant struggle for his soul between his father and Sonny with both men having an immense influence over him.
Chazz Palminteri is credited with writing the original theatre play and Robert de Niro has turned it into a superbly observed movie which brings alive the mean streets of the Bronx during the 50s and 60s's to a background of some great music. Characterisation is minutely studied and it's easy to identify with the denizens of the neighbourhood as they live their lives amidst racism, violence and gangsterism. As Lorenzo tries to steer his son away from the siren sound of Sonny's way of life his twin themes throughout are that :
Lorenzo as a father loves and is loved while Sonny is feared and he hammers home the mantra that "the saddest thing in life is to waste your talent."  However, i
n the final analysis it is Sonny himself who saves Calogero and pushes him away from a life of crime, knowing full well he is feared but not loved.

Great film with a cast who look like they lived on the same streets all their lives which is hardly surprising as many of the players were recruited from the streets where the filming took place.  There's a surprise visit by Joe Pesci in a cameo at the end illustrating once again his ability to create characters who appear affable on the surface but belie their ruthlessness beneath the urbane veneer.

 
There's one thing that is recurrent throughout the gangster movies and that is that throughout most of the films either the director or the actors or both have actually lived in and among the locations depicted and as such they are in effect valuable historical documents of not only events but streets and areas of places they have lived.  Chazz Palminteri actually witnessed a shooting when he was a child.  Later in life he made the incident into a monologue which evolved into a play and then into A Bronx Tale.  I suspect that many mob movies have had the same sort of beginnings adding an authenticity which cannot be matched by the many fictional  gangster films.  
Donnie Brasco (1997) Director: Mike Newell
In common with several other fine films, Donnie Brasco suffers from its uninspiring title which masks yet another intelligent mob movie.  Based upon a true story, circa 1978, Donnie Brasco, played by Johnny Depp, is the pseudonym of Joseph Pistone who as an F.B.I agent infiltrated the New York Mafia and now lives at a secret address with a Mafia contract hanging over him.  Donnie insinuates himself into the mob via Lefty Ruggiero played by Al Pacino, a long-standing Mafioso who boasts of having carried out 26 killings but has the air of a disgruntled employee always passed over for promotion - he is for all the world like a criminal version of Columbo.  Nevertheless, Donnie and Lefty form a strange bond and beneath the curses and rough language they become genuinely fond of each other.  The gang they are involved with are noticeably unintelligent to say the least and like malevolent children they are led by a sadistic Sonny (Michael Madsen)  -the wisdom and subtlety of the Godfather have long vanished into the past.  It comes as no surprise that at some stage Donnie will be faced with killing one of the gang's enemies thus earning the accolade of a "made-man" and there is one gory scene when the gang kill a rival faction and Donnie is forced to help to cut up their bodies, but the main thread throughout the film is the constant tension of living a double-life; indeed. it goes without saying that Donnie's work has a devastating effect on his family and it is never explained why he chose to enter into such a dangerous arena.  As his fact-finding comes to a conclusion and he must soon return to a normal life, Donnie is faced with one final dilemma - he knows that Lefty will be assassinated when the gang realize that Donnie is an F.B.I. agent.  Al Pacino stands out as always and so does Johnny Depp  although it has to be said that his impossibly handsome good-looks and boyish demeanour are a positive handicap to the part he plays.