The Return Of Hollywood's Most Wanted

October 14, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

We're being taken for a ride again. We've been made an offer we can't refuse. Mother of God, is this the beginning of a cycle?

Yes, it is. In one of its periodic, perhaps whimsical, shifts in subject matter, the American film industry has reinvented a hallowed figure from its own storied past, the gangster.

Right now, in a limited fall film market, at least three gangster movies are in release: "GoodFellas," Martin Scorsese's vivid look at a tribe of low-ranking Long Island mafiosi; "State of Grace," about the Westies, an Irish thug subset that tried to strike an accord with the Italians on New York's West Side in the mid-'70s; and, less seriously, "Marked for Death," in which martial arts star Steven Seagal is matched against highly organized Jamaican drug posses in the suburbs of Chicago.

This Friday, the classic gangster film from the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, "Miller's Crossing," goes national after getting mostly superb reviews from its release in New York and a few other big towns; in November, a British variant, "The Krays," arrives, as it examines the flashy career of two sociopathic twins, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who ran the London underworld in the '60s. And finally, the Godfather of them all, "The Godfather III," arrives at Christmas.

Certainly, some of this is fortuitous. The Coens, for example, have had thismovie in mind since their initial breakthrough in "Blood Simple" in 1984; it took this long to get the movie together. And "Godfather III" has been an off and on project at Paramount for years (much like "The Two Jakes"), a film that was certainly inevitable but which depended entirely upon the serendipities of director-auteur Francis Coppola, who wouldn't make it until he found a script that spoke to him. He ended up, or so reports insist, writing most of it himself in his trailer every night during the shooting. That the two films happen to land in theaters in the same season is more coincidence than conspiracy.

But it does speak to a certain reality -- that the gangster is a figure of perpetual fascination and dramatic potential and that with a regularity that has to be more than pure chance he always returns. The current cycle, in fact, is the fourth such in American movies, following on the early '30s, the early '50s and the mid-'70s, when the original "Godfathers" released a spate of mob clones.

The neat two decades that separates each may mean less than it seems; but, in each reincarnation, the gangster is subtly different from the one before.

The original gangster movies were primarily dramas of the city, and the city was an important visual motif. Such films as "The Roaring Twenties" or "Public Enemy" usually tracked the rise of an ambitious young urban thug, a Horatio Alger with a roscoe under his armpit. Jimmy Cagney, of course, is the prototypical gangster figure from the '30s: cocky, arrogant, the city's harsh music in his voice and the city's rhythms in his body language -- he's a young man in a hurry and when someone, a babe, say, disappoints him, he'll deal with the situation immediately, by crushing a grapefruit into her face.

It's no anomaly that the great studio of the gangster picture in the '30s was Warner Bros., because Warner's was very much the "urban" studio, also specializing in newspaper stories, boxing stories, the Dead End Kids (the Our Gang of the city's mean streets) and other variants on the Hell's Kitchen theme. And the stars it created were primarily urban creatures, too -- no one could mistake Cagney, the great Humphrey Bogart, Pat O'Brien, the great Edward G. Robinson, the not-so-great George Raft for country bumpkins. They all had the city cat's feral gleam in their eyes, his ability to figure the angles as learned in a dozen smoky pool halls, and above all his familiarity and ease with the dark meshes of streets and alleys that were his natural milieu.

Of course World War II all but knocked the gangster out of the theaters, though there were two "gangsters at war" hybrids, with Bogart and Alan Ladd as tough guys who ran up against not other mob members but Nazis.

By the '50s, the milieu wasn't quite so important or so vivid. This was the brief era in crime movie history when film noir, a stylistic school that used shadowy compositions, intersected with -- and in a certain fashion, co-opted -- the gangster movie. Not all films noirs were gangster movies and not all gangster movies were films noirs, but when they overlapped -- as in 1949's "White Heat" or 1954's "The Big Heat" or 1952's "The Big Combo" -- the results were stunning.

The landscape of the noir is only nominally the landscape of the city; it's far more the landscape of the mind. That's why classic gangster noir of the '50s has the weird sensation of taking place nowhere and everywhere at once -- so intense are the mind states that the backgrounds tend to become either abstracted or generic.

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