Genre evolution – the American gangster movie

By Thursday, August 6, 2015 No tags 0
The 'Godfather' movies are significant in the history of the gangster film in that unlike their antecedents from the 1930's they differ in that they don't provide the same strength of narrative closure with a clear moral compass, often these classic gangster films masqueraded as morality tales where criminals would invariably would get their just deserts. This was partially as a conseqience of the introduction of the Hays code. However, the details of the gangsters' sticky ends are interesting 

Before the introduction of the production code they were little more than exploitation films offering a voyeuristic pleasure in to imagined glamourous lives of plenty, and freedom for their largely economically downtrodden 1930's working class audiences, this despite the claims in their opening title cards which claimed to reveal crime as a social problem requiring urgent action from the authorities (but offering no solutions). 

The two most memorable examples were  Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy 1931 US) and The public enemy (William Wellman 1931 US). In both these films, gangster are represented as outsiders from civil society. Even their demise remained remote from the authority of the law; at the hands of other gangsters, thus offering little by way of a moral compass for audiences. In many respects they are far more revealing of their time than gangster films made after the introduction of the production code in 1933 (these films were partially responsible for its introduction). This could be seen in the glamourising of the gangster, as succeeding in a distorted version of the American dream (exploitation and violent replacing enterprise and hard work). Where enterprise and hard work failed in the economic crash of 1929.

After the introduction of the production code gangster films, for example Michael Curtiz's 'Angels With Dirty Faces' (1938), which adopts the conventional narrative and ideological conventions that mis-guided youth in immigrant communities are too easily fated to become gangsters, if not set straight. In this case it uses the narrative device of a crucial choice made at a single point in youth, where the life of crime or religious vocation seemed determined. The twist which arrives with the gangster facing a choice between reclaiming his ill-gotten games, and seeking to reintegrate himsef into his community but no having the moral compass to do so. The tension arises in his ingrained corruption overseeing the path towards criminality of a group of underprivileged youths (the dead end kids). The moral counter to this narrative force is the representative of the other choice made earlier by his childhood friend Jerry Connolly, who has become a Catholic priest, locating the story within the conventional immigrant community. Compared to the Godfather, these films offered a pretty simplistic impression of the structural infiltration of criminal organisation into all aspects of American life. 

The gangster film in the late forties and fifties appear to shift the narrative perspective towards innocents who fall into the path of sinister and shadowy criminal organisations (in film noir), which are perhaps mirrors of existential angst and are opaque, extensions of principals' paranoia, shrouded in mystery with an almost metaphysical existence. Metaphors for the threat of mutually assured destruction. One exception would be White heat (Raoul Walsh 1949 US)in which James Cagney returns to the genre as Cody Jarrett, whose oedipal psychosis is explored.

The gangster movie went into decline in the late fifties and sixties, to be revived, by the end of the production code and by the interest of some film makers of the nouvelle vague, whose influence was significant on the film school graduate in the 1960's Coppola's Godfather films on the other hand adopt a view of criminal organisations within an idiom of late twentieth century corporate America, where
sometimes murder is seen as merely as an alternative business strategy.
For example referring to threats and coercion as 'making an offer they
can't refuse' (a line used early in the Godfather film).  
Coppola offers us a far more episodic closure suggesting that the narrative is on going even
though the movie has finished.  This serves a kind of symbolic
representation of the permanent and central role of the 'family' in
American society.  This has implications for my main point that Coppola's
godfather Films are indices of their age and also part of a tradition where
the gangster movie forms Hollywood's central narrative of the twentieth
century.

The Godfather was an adaptation of the novel by Mario Puzo.  The producer
was Albert Ruddy, The screenplay was Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford
Coppola.  Coppola also directed the movie.  The Godfather Part II and III
were also co-written by Coppola and Puzo, but Coppola both produced and
directed these films.  This essay attempts to examine how much these movies
are indices of the time they were made.
Coppola plays a very important role in these films and therefore his
preoccupations affect the underlying concepts on which the films are
constructed.

The film was made in 1972 .In the film there was an outstanding performance
by Al Pacino and strong characterisation by Marlon Brando in the title
role; The Godfather (Don Corleone). The film displays excellent production
values, is peppered with flashes of excitement and has a well picked cast.
It won best picture, best actor (Marlon Brando), and best adapted
screenplay at the 1972 Oscars.

In the Godfather, five 'families', one, the central focus of the narrative,
is headed by The Don Corleone (Brando). This is a world where emotional
ties are strong, loyalties are somewhat more flexible, and tempers run
short.  Brando as Don Corleone does an admirable job, portraying him as the
lord of his domain. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, the youngest of the
Don's sons, is seen initially as the one whom the Don places his hopes for
the future (wanting him to go more or less straight), but under the trauma
of an assassination attempt on Brando, the murder of his Sicilian bride and
a series of other personal readjustments, Michael matures and  eventually
we find him as king of his own mob.

The key to my argument is located in the final scene of the first movie,
here the camera adopting the point of view of Michael Corleone's second
wife pans back from Michael discussing business with other members of the
'family', this is viewed through a doorway, which is firmly closed as the
film concludes.
Coppola here has made direct reference to the last scene of John Ford's
'The Searchers', but has inverted the meaning.  Ford's movie positions the
audience as included within the space of the 'family' where Ethan (John
Wayne), the chief dramatic force of the film, is excluded.  In many of
Ford's movies the 'family' is used as a metaphor for the nation.
In 'The Godfather' the audience is positioned with Michael's wife, outside
the room and is excluded from the 'family' business.
In doing this, Coppola makes a number of points; firstly, he highlights the
paradox and irony  of Michael's 'family', his loyalties to the 'business'
are stronger than to any conventional family.  The second and perhaps most
important point Michael, and his co-conspirators are viewed in a room
through a doorway, they, therefore, by  making direct references to Ford's
intention, are the 'included' group, 'the family of the nation', something
that we, the audience are excluded from.  This is also the case of most of
the mechanisms of corporate America.
This idea is supported throughout the film.  It opens with a large set
piece family event, a wedding celebration.  Here members of other criminal
families pay tribute, they are received by Don Corleone as a kind of feudal
lord. Implied in this is that there is a peace between the families, but
that this peace is fragile imposed by the forces of self-interest against
mutually assured destruction, a kind of 'cold war'.

The wedding celebration is interrupted by an undertaker who seeks a favour
of justice from Don Corleone.  The undertaker's daughter had been raped and
the perpetrators had been acquitted on the technicality that she was too
frightened to testify.  Don Corleone assures the undertaker that his
request will be attended to, but that he will owe the 'family' a favour.
This hints at a darker side of the sympathetic character of Don Corleone.
He appears here to be serving the function of the state, or perhaps he may
be seen as a metaphor of the state, receiving tribute and dispensing
justice.  Early in the film an explanation is offered of the Don's title
'The Godfather'.  He explains that many people ask him to be godfather to
their children, he seems to feel that this is a natural state of affairs as
he is powerful, and as such should look after the interests of the less
powerful. This could be seen as a type of public service within the
community and seems to be expressed as a paternal responsibility which
could perhaps be paralleled to that of 'Uncle Sam'.  The audience are
positioned so that Don Corleone is seen favourably throughout the film,
this may also be the case with the mythical 'Uncle Sam' At that time.

The 'Cold war' rivalry breaks out into open conflict with the attempted
murder of Don Corleone; one of the earliest acts of violence in the film.
There is some irony where Michael's elder brothers express some unease at
Michael's resolve to undertake the revenge (given his later actions) a
double murder on corrupt cop Stirling Hayden and rival gangster Al Letteri.
Michael takes refuge in Sicily.  Counter-revenge is inflicted on him when
his new Sicilian wife is killed in a car bomb.
This event changes Michael, and unleashes dark forces within him, which
were until now contained. On his return to the States he plans and
initiates a series of clinically executed, brutal murders. These are
ostensibly justified by the Corleone's family's interest in moving into
more legitimate businesses. However from this time we see a blurring of the
distinction between murder as a business strategy and what appears to be a
personal agenda.

This war of revenge occurs when the power in the 'family' has largely
passed to Michael, the aging Don having withdrawn from the 'family
business'. Here we might draw some historical parallels, firstly; the
change in the 'family's' criminal activities during the late forties and
fifties to more efficiently organised legitimate businesses could parallel
the growth of national chains; supermarkets, etc., large impersonal
organisations pervading the life of the nation rather than the sometimes
haphazard ways that local and even regional concerns operate. Secondly;
Michael's succession could be seen to parallel that of Johnson's to
Kennedy's incomplete presidency.

Michael's distorted family loyalties are forced in sharp relief when he
assumes the role of Don (out of succession, he is the youngest son), and It
is at this time that we see the first glimpses of his psychoses (themes
developed in the second film).
These glimpses into Michael's motivation could extend the Johnson/Kennedy
analogy further, from the 'cold' war observed at the wedding early in the
film,  a parallel to the uneasy peace and superficial optimism of Kennedy's
'Camelot' presidency, to the open hostilities which the United States
undertook in Vietnam under Johnson (Coppola's fascination with this
conflict which became evident later, supports the argument to some degree).
The Godfather part II , far from being a spin off from the 1972 Oscar
winner is an excellent epilogue drama in its own right, indeed the film won
five Oscars in 1974 in its own right, including best picture and best
director. This film's production costs were about two and a half times the
original at $15 million.  The scenes in this movie alternate between
Pacino's gambling rackets in Nevada , and the young Vito Corleone's (Robert
De Niro) early life in Sicily and New York. Al Pacino is again outstanding
as Michael Corleone, his performance, if anything, is equalled by de
Niro's.  A natural break occurs in the movie when we are required to
readjust when the young Vito Corleone (De Niro), who until now has only
been involved with petty crime, brutally assassinates Gaston Moschin, the
neighbourhood crime boss without a shred of conscience.

In this movie Michael Corleone, as the result of an attempted
assassination, becomes more and more paranoid. We witness the break down of
the 'family' - He separates from his wife and finally, orders the murder of
his elder brother Fredo (implicated in the assassination attempt). As
Michael's isolation and paranoia increase so too does his 'family's'
violence, we witness the 'family' carrying out acts of revenge with
disproportionate brutality, further blurring the distinction between
violence as 'business' and Michael's more personal agendas.

We might find a number of historical parallels in his character's
development. The first point is that the origins of and increasing
involvement of the United States in the Vietnam war were a product of
cold-war anti-communist paranoia. The second point is that America's
involvement avoided the statutory need to receive the approval of Congress
being more or less entirely the decision of one man, the president.
It is the second of these historical analogies which I wish to pay
attention to first.
'The Godfather Part II' was being shot and edited throughout the period
doubt over the honesty of the Nixon Presidency, and it became clear that
Nixon himself was becoming more and more isolated, and as each of his
co-conspirators testified at the senate hearings, it has been stated that
the Whitehouse developed a 'siege mentality' not dissimilar to paranoia. At
the same time the brutality in Vietnam continued, in particular the
expansion of the conflict in the secret bombing of Cambodia.

One further series of events might be worth investigating. When The
Godfather Part II was being made, levels of paranoia among the American
troops were so great that they behaved in more and more psychotic ways,
performing acts of unnecessary violence on innocent civilians and even
opening fire on their own side (points which form the central narrative of
Coppola's later 'Apocalypse Now').
In the light of this a metaphor we could apply to Michael is that of
American youth, drafted into Vietnam, he didn't really want to become part
of the 'family', but once his loyalties were mobilised, dark forces were
released.. Al Pacino said of Michael:
"I always felt that Michael had a kind of disdain for gangsters and always
wanted to turn it all back to before he got into trouble"
The American troops in Vietnam were there largely against their will, and
those which had volunteered returned with a different perception of 'Uncle
Sam'.

A number of points carried over from the first film should be dealt with in
the light of the above. Firstly; Michael's role, on inheriting the
leadership of the family (at Vito Corleone's death), he adopts the metaphor
of 'Uncle Sam', but his uncle Sam is apparently far more dangerous less
benign than Vito's.  Much of the belief in the benign nature of 'Uncle Sam'
was lost with the demise of the Nixon presidency, and the conduct of the
Troops in Vietnam. Our parallel here might be the break up of the Corleone
family with the realisation that the American 'family was more truly made
up of many conflicting groups and interests, made a single coherent body
bythe power of the Presidency,  in the case of the Nixon presidency a head
which was clearly sick, the undermoning of the naivete implicit in John
Ford's mythical 'family of the nation'.
Secondly, by allowing us to witness Vito Corleone's brutal rise to
prominence, Coppola seems to invite us to reassess American History. How
benign, if at all is 'Uncle Sam', after all, how did he get to be so
powerful.
In The Godfather part III different forces applied. This films $55 million
production costs exceeds both its preceding movies.  The Hollywood studios
had changed beyond all recognition by the time Coppola came to make his
final film in the trilogy. They had become run by corporate executives more
familiar with balance sheets than with narrative techniques, and, as a
consequence of both this ,and perhaps his commercially disappointing
productions of the years directly preceding the making of it, Coppola was
under pressure to make a film which would appeal to the most profitable
audience, who had been brought up on a diet of low grade horror movies such
as Nightmare on Elm Street. This quite naturally limited the potential
scope of the film which ended up largely as a repeat of the first movie,
though naturally it lacked its predecessors in narrative intensity and epic
scope, it still managing to attain a degree of the cinematic beauty seen in
the earlier films.

Like the original part three opens with a large set piece celebration, this
is interrupted by back room dealings. Michael Corleone, like his father
before him receives tributes though ironically this time a Corleone is
being honoured by the Catholic church; for his abundant charitable
activities.

Michael hopes to bring his family closer together, he dotes on his daughter
(Sofia Coppola), and becomes disturbed by her affair with her cousin
Vincent (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate Son of Michael's late brother
Sonny.
Vincent is impulsive and prone to violence. He has been working unhappily
for Joey Zasa, an old style thug who had taken on some of Michael's less
savoury holdings. The Bad blood between the ruthless Zasa, and the Corleone
family mounts immediately after Michael attempts to buy a controlling
interest in a European conglomerate, 'immobiliare', would cement Michael's
business legitimacy and financial future (may be Coppola is hinting at the
stasis/stability which Michael seeks in this name).

The narrative is uneven and, in places, incoherent, halfway through the
film the action switches to Italy, where Pacino and Eli Wallach's old Don
can't help scheming against one another. Even Coppola's masterly staging of
several murders to the backdrop Michael's son performing Cavalleria
Rusticana on his opening night fails to lift what is an otherwise
disappointing and limited conclusion to works which at time are so
multilayered in their potential meanings as to truly deserve the label as
great art.

In the 1990 Oscars The Godfather part three was nominated for best picture.

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