If the mafia doesnt exist. . .
. . . why are there so many films about it?
The gangster film has made a resounding comeback this year with Road to Perdition and Martin Scorsese's long-awaited Gangs of New York. The genre began in the silent era, but it made its first big splash in the early 1930s with the releases of Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface. All three are still highly regarded by film buffs, but they may seem a bit juvenile today--barely more adult than Bugsy Malone. They proved to be so popular with the public, despite the outcry against movie violence, the genre became one of the most durable in American cinema. The big change occurred in 1967, when Bonnie and Clyde shot through Hollywood's wasteland. The film was so potent it, along with a handful of other films, overturned the industry.
Five years later saw the release of the archetypal gangster epic, The Godfather. Now every gangster film must be measured against Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece and its even better sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974). Coppola and Scorsese seemingly now own the genre, but there are many worthy choices from other directors. The Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, for example, is one of the greatest ever made, but it was covered in an earlier column. Here are some other favorites, though one is out of print on video and another is only available on VHS.
Across 110th Street (1972)
Blaxploitation cinema, which is defined as genre movies with primarily black casts, was a short-lived fad in the late 1960s and 1970s. Shaft and Superfly are two of the best remembered. But the real gem is this forgotten thriller about three African-Americans who steal a horde of cash belonging to the mob. Two cops (Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto) try to find the thieves before they become the victims of a Mafia enforcer. Tony Franciosa, a normally bland actor, is quite mesmerizing as the mob killer. The cast is multi-racial, featuring African-Americans on both sides of the law. And it isn't marred by the "get whitey" theme that was prominent in some other films of the genre. The DVD is basic and includes a trailer.
The Sting (1973)
It's hard to imagine how one of the most successful films in history could be forgotten. But public recognition seems to have diminished. That is unfortunate, because this reteaming of Paul Newman and Robert Redford may be the greatest popcorn movie of all. Newman and Redford star as Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker, two con artists who set up an elaborate racetrack scam to fleece a mobster (Robert Shaw). The Sting is such a perfectly constructed piece of entertainment that audiences have little problem following the long and complicated storyline. Director George Roy Hill also guided Newman and Redford in their first pairing, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The DVD is available only in the full frame format, which is baffling since it was available letterboxed on video.
99 and 44/100% Dead (1974)
Here is a true relic of the 1970s. Critics hated this bizarre gangster epic, and it bombed at the box-office. Try to imagine The Godfather shot in the style of the old Batman television series. Richard Harris stars as Harry, a hitman hired by Uncle Frank (Edmond O'Brien) for protection in his gang war with rival Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman). Big Eddie, however, has at his disposal a killer known as Claw (Chuck Connors), who uses various attachments in place of his missing hand. The film resembles a live action comic book, and its title suggests no one was really serious. Sadly, both Harris and the film's director, John Frankenheimer, died this year. This lost film has been out of print on video for years, but a re-release could bring it a well-deserved second life.
Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Paranoia and the importance of trust should be everyday obsessions in a gangster's life. It's no wonder Tony Soprano needs a shrink. These themes are central to Mikey and Nicky, Elaine May's brilliant but overlooked character study of friendship and betrayal. John Cassavetes is Nicky, a loudmouthed thug who has angered the wrong people. Fearing for his life he seeks the help of his best friend, Mikey, played by Cassavetes's real-life buddy Peter Falk. Nicky is such an arrogant lout that even Mikey has difficulty dealing with him. Part of the problem is Nicky is never certain if Mikey is really helping him or setting him up. Elaine May is an underrated filmmaker who may never be allowed to make another film. She also directed A New Leaf and the magnificent The Heartbreak Kid. But her last feature was the legendary bomb, Ishtar. This one is on VHS, but it's not yet available on DVD.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife,
and Her Lover (1989)
Britain has been a good source for many odd and interesting gangster films, but none are more vitriolic than Peter Greenaway's extravaganza of a gangster and his nightly visits to an opulent restaurant with his entourage of thugs and molls. Most of the action takes place in a single location, but Greenaway's constantly mobile camera prevents the film from being stagy. Michael Gambon is overpowering as "the thief" of the title, creating one of the cinema's most colorfully heinous villains with his endless rants at his wife and companions. Greenaway is a unique visionary--something of a British David Lynch--and this film is grand, self-indulgent, and never less than brilliant. Be forewarned: There are some truly shocking images, which caused some critics to label it disgusting and repulsive. A watered-down, R-rated version does exist for the Blockbuster crowd, but be sure to get the uncut version. The DVD is basic, with no extra features.