Gangsters from Little Caesar to The Godfather by John Gabree is a breezy overview of the gangster movie genre, a fast tour that makes interesting stops when the guide ranks his favourite directors, lists the genre’s defining elements and traces them through to 1973 (when the book was published).
Gabree begins by outlining the gangster genre’s early shape as the picture of immigrants making “good,” as a snapshot of underworld activities created by Prohibition, as a subject made more exciting by the coming of sound. These first films already have what Gabree lists as his essential elements of the genre: clothing, cars, guns, phones, the city, sex, the players and the roles. Those first four material items listed are tools, markers and rewards of the gangster’s social standing, signs of his power and control. The phone is an essential part of empire management, the device by which to get information and issue orders. (When Gabree talked about the phones in Scarface I wondered what he’d think of that phone ringing in Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America.) The city is the gangster’s kingdom. The people and their relationships wrap up his list, with criminals that go from rags to riches to (usually) death, whose women signify and accompany their rise and fall, whose loving mothers accept their sons and whose stern or absent fathers represent authority. For the rest of this book Gabree uses these genre conventions to follow the genre and how it records changing values and attitudes.
In his discussion of 1930s movies, Gabree goes through all the Capone-inspired pictures, which were less glamorized, in his view, than the Bonnie and Clyde or Dillinger-inspired ones. It’s worth mentioning that Gabree picks High Sierra (1941) as best Dillinger variation, with Dillinger (1973) being most ambitious. The Hays Code soon put an end to the movies’ appealing gangsters, disrespect for authority and potentially instructional looks at theft, bootlegging and murder. The focus from 1934 on was the crime fighter, who Gabree says assumed some gangster traits by being tough and scrappy, trigger happy, street smart and avenging, and still distinguishable from the bumbling police.
By the end of the 30s gangster films had more comedy or went toward social study and exploration of the gangster’s motives and background. Hard boiled fiction was also paving the way toward the 40s, where the genre would return to realism with an added darkness. The pleasant puzzle-solving detective would morph into the weary gumshoe with a talent for self-preservation and survival. Gabree traces this character all the way to The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Shamus (1973), Pulp (1972) and Gumshoe (1971).
Post-WW2, Gabree’s focus continues to be on the change in depiction and type of criminal. He talks about the pessimistic mood, the increasing misogyny, the advent of stories of the syndicate, wide conspiracy, corrupt law and institutions, organized crime and the depiction of the distinct traditions, secret rules and rituals (if not folklore) of transplanted immigrants. Criminals are more complex, eccentric, civilized or psycho (like Kiss of Death’s Tommy Udo) and can make moral choices that their “fated” predecessors from the 30s films couldn’t. Gabree also discusses the emergence of the police documentary style film starting with 1945’s The House on 92nd Street.
When Gabree gets to the 1950-60s gangster movies he spends a hefty section naming and describing his most important directors. To sum up here with some key words on each:
- Robert Aldrich, extremes, anxiety, grim, graphic.
- Budd Boetticher, realism.
- Roger Corman, painterly visuals, ambitious.
- Jules Dassin, not a good director so much as one who made influential movies. Lacking personal style but must be credited for establishing the iconography of the modern gangster movie with Naked City, and the caper with Rififi.
- Fritz Lang, a genius, (and from an earlier chapter) a master of intensity, of creating pessimistic games and puzzles and inescapable traps, and being preoccupied with the process of detection and conviction and the responsibility therein.
- Sam Fuller, raw power but few original ideas.
- Phil Karlson, moral ambiguity and social criticism.
- Elia Kazan, focusing on actors, steadying influence on his stylistically extreme contemporaries.
- Joseph H. Lewis, complex visuals, neurotic sexuality, provocative.
- Anthony Mann, gritty realism.
- Nicholas Ray, outcasts, distorted psyches, making the audience feel turmoil and violence, best sense of mise en scene.
- Don Siegel, strong editor, master of pacing, loner heroes adjusting to the world.
- Robert Siodmak, expertly orchestrated action.
Overall Gabree points to the 50s and 60s as a period that saw directors like these use the genre’s brutality and mayhem to depict America as increasingly violent and corrupt.
Gabree finishes up the book by looking at the blaxploitation genre and spending many pages analysing two then-recent sensations, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). He calls Bonnie and Clyde a flawed and inconsistent, but good example of the poetic tradition that glamorizes the lead losers. Though he thinks it thrilling, he points to Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970) as being just as lively and visceral, and likes the way that film doesn’t shy away from showing its losers for what they are. The Godfather he describes as the gangster trail ending in grim sensationalism, exploitative violence, poor writing and directing, pale colours and iconography presented as a storeroom window. The movie’s redeeming quality for Gabree is its string of memorable visuals, but he has no love for Brando’s underwritten part or the overall pretension of the film. He holds up Martin Ritt’s The Brotherhood (1968) as a better example of the family gangster tale, and Kirk Douglas’ mafia boss performance as far more complex and powerful than Brando’s.
Since this book came out in 1973 it’s understandable that he’d spend so much time on these recent hits and try to predict which would be seen as “great” years later. It’s also amusing to see him end the book by dreaming of the day movies would be available on cassette for closer study, a time when he says it’ll be easier to focus on individual great films and the patterns and aesthetic of the genre, instead of on auteurism. It’s an interesting time capsule, generously illustrated and containing unique opinions and still-relevant crime genre definitions.
This review is part of the SUMMER READING CLASSIC FILM BOOK CHALLENGE hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past