The Gangster Film and the American Dream

Following the killing of John Dillinger after his ill-fated date with a gangster movie and a woman dressed in red, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America instituted a ban on gangster films. Supposedly, this bad was put in place in order to stop the youth of American from identifying with the romantic portrayal of the gangster life that was being shown on the silver screen. A more likely explanation is that gangster movies like the original Scarface, Little Caesar and Public Enemy all made a subtle but undeniable connection between success as a gangster and success in the business world of mainstream America. The idea was to highlight the distinction between the behavior of businessmen and criminals and marginalize the gangster from his reflection as a perfect representative of free market pursuit of the capitalist ideal.

The movie gangster was never fully detached from his romantic roots, but in 1967 he made a conspicuous return to his earlier form; a return that appears to be permanent. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde was feverishly pro-gangster, featuring two very striking young actors as the notorious bank robbers. There can be no doubt as to who are the heroes of this film. In fact, they are so unquestionably heroic that they aren’t even deserving of the term anti-hero. The filmmakers clearly weren’t as concerned with historical accuracy as they were thematic coherence. In fact, the makers of this movie stated that their intention was to craft a story about anti-establishment heroes bucking the system instead of knuckling under it. Their intention seemed to be accepted as fact by both those who admired the movie and those who were appalled by it. If one looks closer at the film, however, it is possible to accurate read this version of the story of Bonnie & Clyde as a gleeful acceptance of the establishment, rather than a subversive undermining of it.

The movie argues that bank robbers and gangsters of the 30s were no different from the corporate criminals from whom they are robbing. If this is so-and it undoubtedly is-then Bonnie & Clyde aren’t bucking the system, they are merely engaging an alternative method whereby to take advantage of the system. The appearance of Bonnie & Clyde in movie theaters coincided with the tremendous social upheaval taking place in America and the rest of the world in sixties, but looking at it now, objectively and out of the context of its times, it’s clear the message of the movie is decidedly conservative. What do Bonnie and Clyde want? Money. Why do they want money? To better a enjoy life. Change the question to what business want and the answers remain the same.

The comparison of the gangster to the successful mainstream American businessman becomes even more obvious in the films following Bonnie & Clyde. And if that movie reintroduced the romantic vision of gangsters, The Godfather forever cemented it. Francis Coppolla’s gangster epic sits atop the IMDB’s member rating list of favorite movies. Why would a movie about cutthroat criminals that features horrifically violent murder after horrifically violent murder top the list of most highly rated movies of all time? Why is a movie that ends with a cold-blooded killer getting away with it consistently appear at or nor the top of list of best movies of all time from both critics and audiences? In fact, not only does Michael Corleone get away with it, but he consolidates his power and grows stronger.

It is The Godfather, more than any other gangster film ever made, that portrays its gangsters in not only an unambiguously positive light, but also a light making obvious the connection between outlaw activity and the business world. Organized crime in this movie is rendered as nothing more than another business that is subject to profit and loss, risk and calculation, promotion and firing. One of the most overlooked sequences in the Godfather Part II occurs as both the gangsters and mainstream business world loses its cash clow in Cuba to Castro and his Communist revolutionaries. Folllwing the overthrow of Batista – another in the long line of despotic leaders that the US government conveniently overlooked because they were allied with us – both the Mafia and corporate America lost the Holy Grail of capitalism, a consumer base not subject to governmental regulation or FBI investigations. Goodfellas also tviews crime from a business point of view, but brings the business down to the nuts and bolts, blue-collar day-to-day workings of this business known as organized crime. The real differences between the two movies is that Scorsese’s gangsters are workers while the Corleone family are the owners and, therefore, nowhere near as romantic. The gangsters in Goodfellas are not subject to the same kind of emulation as the members of the Corleone family.

In the original Godfather film, the only member of the Corleone family to die a violent gangster death is Sonny, but his murder is staged so dramatically that despite the blood and bullets and ultimate humiliation, there is still something romantic about it. Michael, on the other hand, gets to bed down two attractive women and then whack all his enemies. For crying out loud, Vito Corleone gets to die of natural causes, something almost unheard-of in the annals of both real and movie gangsters! What’s not to admire about being a gangster in the saga of the Corleone family?

One of the most interesting things about gangster films since The Godfather is how often the viewer is treated to a decidedly capitalistic ideology behind this whole business of crime. At long last the filmmakers could work without the choking grip of the Hays Code to present the connection between the criminal route to success and the mainstream route. What had been implicit became explicit. The classic gangster story had followed a somewhat predictable formula showing the rise through enterprise that ended in the failure through violent death. Modern day gangsters have the luxury of much happier endings to their tales. And those who don’t experience the unqualified happy endings that are experienced by Michael Corleone and Keyser Soze at least get to live in the suburbs rather than die.

The gangster is no longer merely a character in cautionary tales about how pursuing illegal avenues to the American Dream. Although he had been there all along, after The Godfather the gangster finally was allowed to become an official part of the process. The S&L scandal of the 1980’s, and the corporate scandals of recent years such as the collapse of Enron have firmly established the line between the tactics of gangsters and those who have achieved the American dream through the accepted means is very thin indeed. Each new business scandal serves to further dissolve all lines of separation between criminals and big businessmen.

Why is the gangster the perfect movie metaphor for achieving the American Dream? Why is the gangster not outside the mainstream of the American success story? It cannot be because gangsters break the law just like big business; it is also not because organized crime has a chain of command similar to corporations. What makes the gangster so perfect as the truest movie icon representing America is that the gangster pursues exactly the same thing as the businessman, as the owner, as the lowest level employee: the ability to buy happiness. Clyde Barrow Vito Corleone, Kenneth Lay, Henry Hill and every other film gangster and real gangster, and every other big business owner all engaged in their respective business practices not to change the world, or to help people better their lives.

Gangsters both real and fictional, and big businessmen real and fictional all go about their business for the reason that it earns them money which they can then use to purchase items with the intent of extending their happiness. The American Dream is expressed in the acquisition not of wealth, but of things. Like the bumper sticker says “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Gangsters on film and in real life typically die dramatically and with great excitement and almost always before they accumulate the most toys. Big businessmen in real life usually die quietly and without much fanfare.

All while struggling right up to their last breath to accumulate more toys.

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