Notes From the Margins…


  • January 29, 2013
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A couple of weeks ago we went to see Gangster Squad on a cinematic family outing.   It was predictable fare, but stylish and enjoyable enough for those of us who like that sort of thing – and I am one those who do.

Sean Penn was particularly good as snarling mobster Mickey Cohen – following in the seemingly obligatory rite of passage undertaken by many Hollywood male leads from pin-up boy to gangster-monster ( eg. Al Pacino in Scarface, Robert de Niro as Al Capone in The Untouchables, Denzil Washington in American Gangster, to name but a few).

I’ve always had a penchant for gangster movies, ever since I saw James Cagney’s compellingly over-the-top performance in White Heat in my youth.     Now my 17-year-old daughter has begun to develop similar tastes, and we’ve been revisiting some classics of the genre.   In the last fortnight we’ve watched The Godfather, The Untouchables, and there are others waiting in the pipeline as we continue our journey   down gangster memory lane.

Watching these movies again I was struck by an essential contradiction in their perennial appeal: most of us – myself included – who watch these movies do not like or admire ‘real’ gangsters,   yet their cinematic counterparts retain an enduring fascination.

Pondering this appeal, I re-read Robert Warshow’s classic 1948 essay The Gangster as Tragic Hero .   In it, he argued that gangster movies reflected a cultural need in ‘modern egalitarian societies’ l whose governments ‘ always base themselves on the claim that they are making life happier.’

In such societies, Warshow argued, ‘happiness thus becomes the chief political issue…if an American or a Russian is unhappy, it implies a certain reprobation of his society, and therefore, by a logic of which we can all recognize the necessity, it becomes an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful.’


‘every production of mass culture is a public act and must conform with accepted notions of the public good… At a time when the normal condition of the citizen is a state of anxiety, euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of an idiot.’

At the same time, Warshow argued ‘ Even within the area of mass culture, there always exists a current of opposition, seeking to express by whatever means are available to it that sense of desperation and inevitable failure which optimism itself helps to create.’

In Warshow’s view, the gangster film expresses this   ‘sense of desperation and inevitable failure’ and provides audiences with a ‘ consistent and astonishingly complete presentation of the modern sense of tragedy.’

This ‘sense of tragedy’ is embedded in the essential template that has underpinned so many gangster films of ‘ a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall’.   For Warshow, the cinematic gangster is ‘ the man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club.’     This habitat, however, is ‘ not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world.’

In this ‘imaginary city’, the gangster ‘ is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become’.     Violence is the tool that he uses to climb higher, and yet the higher he climbs the more likely he is to fall, thus providing the audience with ‘the double satisfaction of participating vicariously in the gangster’s sadism and then seeing it turned against the gangster himself.’

More than half a century later, some of this rings true.   On one hand gangster films reflect the same fascination with transgression and deviant behaviour that explains the constant demand for crime films and crime novels in general.     They take their audiences into an exciting, amoral world that appears to be different from their own, and which most of us would not dare enter if we ever had the opportunity.

But this cinematic world also mirrors the ‘real’ world that we inhabit.     Cinematic gangsters often behave like states or ‘legitimate’ business operations.     They acquire and control territories and communities for profit.   They seek monopolies to sell prohibited commodities and/or facilitate activities like gambling and prostitution that conventional society frowns upon yet still engages in.       They often use the logic of business and statecraft to justify what they do.

They use terror and violence to control territory and intimidate their opponents or impose obedience.     Like the Corleone family, they invoke the principle ‘nothing personal, just business’ as a justification for whatever homicidal activities are required to achieve specific ends.       They often want to be regarded as ‘businessmen’ – a category that they seem to believe automatically elevates their activities to a new level of morality and respectability.

If they pursue power with the raw tenacity of Shakespeare’s Richard III, they are ultimately rather banal anti-heroes, who aspire, like Al Pacino’s Scarface, to the same lifestyle of wealth and conspicuous consumption that is routinely promoted in capitalist society as the pinnacle of success.

If their methods and activities are prohibited by the law,   these gangsters are often connected to respectable society.     They share in its corruption and make use of it for themselves, by bribing politicians, judges and policemen.     Like the Camorra mafiosi in Gomorrah, they may be   connected to the ‘legal’ economy, whether through money-laundering, providing sweatshop labour for Milan fashion brands, or dumping toxic waste for legitimate companies to avoid environmental restrictions.

Gomorrah  is a departure from the typical gangster film identified by Warshow.   It has no tragic heroes or any heroes at all.   Its ‘characters’ operate in an anthill of criminality, ruled by predatory and parasitical Camorristi, who feed off impoverished and neglected communities from which the state is absent.

In effect Gomorrah is a departure from Warshow’s template, that presents the mafia fiefdoms of Naples as a collective rather than an individual tragedy, in which the legal and the illegal seamlessly overlap.

This situation is not unique to Italy.   In his ground-breaking analysis of the relationship between organized crime in the United States and globalization,   Gangster Capitalism, Michael Woodiwiss argued that   Americans were more at risk from ‘legal’ forms of economic activity than illegal ones, since

‘Gangsters have only ever been continuously replaceable players in a much bigger game.     In the US, many more people are damaged by the organized criminal activity of professionals such as doctors and corporate officials than they are by gangsters.   Professional and corporate fraud has affected the health and financial security of millions of Americans, while gangster rip-offs affect few.’

Woodiwiss claimed that this ‘culture of corporate criminality’ and ‘ kleptocrat plunder and corporate fraud’ was fuelled driven by a deregulated global economy that ‘has contributed to making the world we live in less equal, with millions mired in poverty and many of those desperate to flee towards a better life.’

In this situation

‘ Drug traffickers, arms traffickers, corporate fraudsters, kleptocrats, people traffickers, sweatshop operators and a host of other networked criminals have all profited by changes that accompanied globalization.     They have been allowed to do so because national and international organized-crime-control policies are woefully inadequate and the rights of people to be protected from crime have been subordinated to the rights of property.’

Those words were written in 2005.   Since then, banks and financial institutions have wrecked economy after economy, while growing richer and richer, and for the most part they have gotten away with it.     And all this without a tommy gun, spats or a Gucci suit in sight.

Now someone should make a film about that, and when they do I will watch it.   But until they do, I’ve got The Godfather Part 2 coming in the post.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

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  1. Richard Carter

    2nd Feb 2013 - 1:09 pm

    I saw Gangster Squad yesterday, as it happens, and can’t agree with your characterisation of it as “stylish and enjoyable enough for those of us who like that sort of thing.” Well, I do like that sort of thing generally (love a bit of mindless violence, me) but this film was fascistic mindless violence of the most repulsive kind, with the message that you have to go outside the law in order to maintain it. Somewhere in the middle of it, one of the Squad asks another (and I paraphrase), “Doesn’t this put us on the same level as the real gangsters?” Interestingly, no one provides an answer, except that at one point (the same discussion? I can’t remember due to failing concentration on this sh*te) words to the effect that “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” A fair point, except that it’s uttered as if the utterer had just thought of it himself, rather than as a quote by Edmund Burke. But most likely, the witless moron who wrote the script probably had never heard of Edmund Burke – but had watched The Untouchables as his inspiration (at least that had a bit of wit in it, as well as the expected nauseating sentimentality: every time I watch it I despair that Ness’s glutinous wife escapes scot free).

    All told, an extremely nasty, as well as totally improbable film: how is it in this sort of thing that the dark side have ten times as many men and weapons but still manage to die in industrial quantities whilst the “heroes” survive except for the one token death and a few minor injuries? In this case, the Doc Holliday substitute, but he was old so apparently it didn’t matter.

    • Matt

      2nd Feb 2013 - 2:54 pm

      Richard, I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said about Gangster Squad, and I wasn’t really trying to recommend it. I suppose I’m so used to these kind of ‘tough guys go outside the law to get the bad guys’ messages in Hollywood films, that I wasn’t remotely surprised by it. And you’re right about the sentimentality of The Untouchables too.

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I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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