On this week’s post, we’re going to cover some gangster films, first one of the earliest and best, and then one of the greatest of all-time. This week’s films are:
William A Wellman – The Public Enemy (1931)
Martin Scorsese – Goodfellas (1990)
I’ve never covered Scorsese before, which seems odd, but there it is. We’re covering him now. The era of gangster films in the 30s were inspired by the real-life gang violence that resulted from prohibition. I think the public fascination with gangsters and crime film never really changed. Crime films aren’t as huge or renowned as they used to be, but they’re still viable in contemporary times. Baby Driver for example, was a big movie last year, so the genre certainly hasn’t gone away.
But the gangster film is a specific sub-genre of the crime film focused on organized crime. In a gangster film, it’s just as much about the camaraderie of criminals as it is about the crimes themselves. The gangster film is often times a strange sort of family film. Not for families, but about families.
Let’s get into it.
The Public Enemy (1931)
In this film we meet Tom Powers, a young gangster on his way up the ladder, helped along by the advent of prohibition. We follow him from childhood, to a young hoodlum, to a major crime figure. He’s got a brother Mike, who disapproves of his activities, and a partner Matt, who does every crime with him. Will he get to the top of the crime world, or get taken down?
The film is directed by William A Wellman, a name that probably isn’t well known, but he directed some of the greatest films of the silent and early sound eras, like Wings, and A Star is Born. The film stars James Cagney, legend of the gangster film as Tom Powers. Cagney was incredibly famous in his era, and he did several of these gangster films, including Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. But this was the first one he did, early in his career. In fact, according to his IMDb page, this was his 4th credited film. It certainly made him a star at the time. A lot of people remember Cagney for these gangster films, but he was also a pretty talented song and dance man, with a film like Yankee Doodle Dandy.
This film was part of a series of films Warner Bros put out in the 30s and 40s focused on crime and gangsters. It was a big part of their early success. There’s a great series of DVD’s of these films that have lots of history of the films included. I’m not sure if they’re still in print, but if they are, it’s a great set to have.
The film starts out with Tom and Matt in childhood, carrying buckets of beer to workmen for their lunches in the early 20th century. The film claims it’s based on a true story, and it’s never said who it is, but I do know that this was a job a young Al Capone performed. The young Tom is always trying to get little scams off with the help of his friend Matt. His brother, Mike is a complete straight arrow, and aware of Tom’s activities. He constantly hassles him about it, and tries to stop him whenever he can.
As Tom grows up, he starts doing more sophisticated crimes, and dealing with a fence named Putty Nose. The scenes of Tom’s childhood are contained in the first 10-15 minutes of the film, and serve as a way to both humanize him and set the scene. When you have a character like Tom, who is in many ways irredeemably evil, who revels in how much pain and suffering he can cause, it can ruin the movie, especially when that character is supposed to be the hero. So the filmmakers give Tom a few characteristics that we can relate to. For instance, he loves his mother, and takes care of her. And by seeing him as a child, we can see some of the youthful innocence that might take the edge off.
It doesn’t work too well in this film, because Tom is so loathsome, and the film is so short. It doesn’t really have time to humanize Tom effectively. And Tom is an incredibly loathsome character. He is completely selfish, caring only about himself, brazen in his crimes, and abusive to the people around him. The only redeeming feature is that he loves his mother. But considering how much he hates his brother, it’s not an incredibly convincing character trait.
The film tries to get around this by putting a disclaimer at the front, claiming that they aren’t glorifying violence or the gangster lifestyle, but are trying to create some kind of docudrama to show how dangerous this is. But of course, this is silly. They are inviting audiences into the thrilling life of the gangster, and then doing a handwave at “oh, but this is bad, too.” We rarely see the victims of their crimes, or the damage they’re causing. We see them lose their lives, but we see a lot more of them buying fancy cars and attending expensive dinners than the downfall.
Things start to get really serious for Tom and Matt when they go on a job for Putty Nose, which they screw up, and end up killing a police officer. Putty Nose hangs them out to dry. They don’t get caught, but they hold a grudge for the rest of the film. This again reveals the lack of sympathy the film has for the victims. We see some of the funeral of their partner who was killed in the botched robbery, but we hear very little of the police officer that died.
Another interesting thing about this film is that it was shot during prohibition, about the prohibition era. We see a contemporary view of prohibition from people who were living it. In a lot of films, when we see stories about the start of prohibition, they’re from the law enforcement side of things. Noble police and agents raiding warehouses, and breaking barrels open to pour them down the drain. But in this film, we see the desperate stores trying to get rid of their inventory on the eve of prohibition. Shoppers buying up booze at a discounted frenzy, using whatever container they have to load up. We see people pushing baby carriages filled with liquor, and a flower shop truck being emptied unceremoniously onto the street to make room for bottles.
Cagney is amazing in this film. His performance has a physicality to it, that wasn’t common from actors at the time. Everyone else in the film plays it fairly straight, but Cagney is constantly fidgeting when others are stock still, leaning against something when others are standing up straight. The effect is he jumps off the screen. You always know exactly where he is in any moment on camera, no matter how many others are in the shot.
Cagney also had one of the greatest faces in cinema history. His face was so expressive and he really knew how to play it up in a role like this. The only contemporary actor I can think of with expressions like that is perhaps Jack Nicholson. Cagney uses them to full effect in this film. When he smiles, there’s a cruel undertone to it. His anger is always there, right under the surface. It’s no surprise he became a big star.
This film also has one of the most famous and shocking moments of all time. At breakfast with his girlfriend, she makes a snide comment, and in response, he shoves a grapefruit in her face, rubbing it in. It’s so unexpected and kind of brutal, but it does fit the character. It became one of those moments that you just can’t forget once you see it.
But of course, all this bad behavior couldn’t go unpunished. As the film progresses, Tom and Matt join the gang of Paddy, who works with another major criminal, Nails to take over the local illegal alcohol trade. This starts a gang war, and Matt is killed. Tom goes to get revenge, and gets shot. While in the hospital he is kidnapped. The rival gang tells Paddy that they will return him if he leaves the business.
Mike, Tom’s brother, who has spent the film angry at Tom and conflicting with him, tries desperately to get his brother back. But what’s finally delivered is a dead body, wrapped up on the doorstep in the final shocking moment of the film.
Knowing how epic gangster movies have become, this one feels very short. The scenes are snappy, we jump from moment to moment quickly, and the character development is mostly in shorthand. But these movies weren’t the big budget all-star casts that we would expect today. These were movies made on the cheap. They were content, not art. So it’s impressive that any of them could be remembered into the modern era. But even though a film like this were designed essentially for exploitation, they still have that human element that rings true. Filmmakers of the era were able to put together really impressive films, even before people really knew what they were doing. I think it speaks to the fact that art and filmmaking are just part of the natural human condition. We understand how to tell our stories to others.
Is this the greatest gangster film of all time? I don’t think so. But Cagney puts one of the greatest gangster characters ever on film. Later films would work harder to humanize their protagonists, but they all have to retain that hard edge, thanks to this performance. Definitely one to see.
This film tells the story of Henry Hill, a prominent New York gangster in the 60s and 70s. We follow his story from childhood as he lives the life of a gangster, working with his friends Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito, getting involved in some of the major crimes of the era. But what will Henry do when it all comes crashing down?
The film is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Ray Liotta as Henry, Robert DeNiro as Jimmy, and Joe Pesci as Tommy. The cast is filled with well-known and brilliant actors like Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, and others. It was nominated for a lot of Academy Awards, but somehow only won Best Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci. It lost Best Picture to Dances with Wolves, which is just one a long string of mistakes the Academy has made over the years.
The film starts with Henry as a child, just like The Public Enemy. The story is told mostly via voiceover from Henry, explaining everything that’s happening. In a lot of films, I’d probably look at this as a crutch, a way to get around filming expensive scenes, or really digging into the characters, but here it works. Without Henry’s inner monologue, explaining what’s happening, we just wouldn’t get the whole story. There’s just too much happening for us to catch it all. Instead of getting around going deeper, the voice over is what allows us to get deeper. This also really helps when Lorraine Bracco’s character takes over the VO, so we can get a different perspective on the events.
What the VO does for us is it let’s us know that Henry is also somehow horrified by the actions he’s taking. This doesn’t necessarily absolve him, but it does humanize him much more effectively than we see in a film like The Public Enemy. We understand Henry’s motivations so much better. It also draws a sharp contrast between Henry, Jimmy and Tommy. While Henry is sensitive, quiet, and even seems to feel remorse sometimes, Tommy especially, seem only to care about living the gangster life. He and Jimmy don’t care who they hurt, killing is second nature to them.
Tommy is portrayed as a loose cannon, a hot head, dangerous and unpredictable. He might kill anyone at anytime. This is told to us in several scenes in the movie, first of all at the famous “How am I funny?” scene, in which Tommy takes offense to a comment Henry made. Rather than ribbing him further, the group around them becomes dead silent. They are terrified of this man. They really believe he might do anything. Later, an old superior of Tommy who has just gotten out of prison named Billy Batts insults him over his old role as his shoe shine boy. Tommy takes offense, and while he leaves the bar at first, he later comes back to kill Billy. Finally, there’s another famous scene where Tommy kills a young bartender for talking back to him. In these scenes, Scorsese is telling us everything we need to know about Tommy. Expect that he will break the rules and do whatever he has to do.
Jimmy is portrayed as quietly dangerous. It’s clear he’s in control in every situation. The other gangsters defer to him. Henry refers to him as ‘a legend’. He knows how to do things properly, and he expects everyone to follow his lead. In a scene later in the movie, a major heist has just been pulled, and Jimmy has told everyone not to spend money right away. At a party, though, he discovers that his crew has been buying expensive cars and furs. We can see how much this bothers him, both from the performance, and from Henry’s VO. And we also see how he responds, having the entire crew killed.
Henry on the other hand is portrayed as a supporting character. He follows the lead of Jimmy and Tommy. He’s respected, but mainly because he’s known for getting things done, not because he’s a major force in the organization. When the three of them have to dig up a dead body and move it, Jimmy and Tommy are unaffected, but Henry is throwing up in the bushes. He’s different.
We see Henry’s darker side mainly through Karen, his girlfriend, and then wife. When they first meet, it is on a setup. He’s reluctant to date her, until he stands her up for the second date and she comes to find him, screaming at him on the street. Finally, he falls for her. His skills at deception come into play early, as he has to pretend to be half-Jewish to satisfy her mother.
Karen is an interesting character, especially in the VO, because while we feel that Henry is being honest in the VO, I don’t believe that Karen is being completely honest. She pretends sometimes to be a victim of Henry, but it’s very clear in the film that she’s complicit in many of his actions. She chooses to stick around after knowing exactly what Henry is doing, and later in the film, when Henry begins dealing cocaine, she’s an active participant. The VO gives us a window into how she justifies things, but the film seems to suggest that she likes the gangster life as much as Henry.
And Henry’s entire motivation is the love the gangster life. We hear it from the first VO line, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” This is what the entire film is about. Henry brings it up constantly, and we can see it in the scenes. He feels constant joy when he’s living the gangster life. Anything related to the real world pulls him out of this joy. Being at home, dealing with things normal people deal with, like in-laws, the day to day grind of life, this is his hell.
The film isn’t necessarily structured as a single story with a single throughline. It’s more a series of vignettes, with Henry walking us through experiences he had as a gangster. Some filmmakers I’m sure wouldn’t be able to pull this off and make it all seem like a single film, but Scorsese is up to the task. Again the VO ties everything together. It gets us from one scene to the next, and ensures we know where we’re at in the story and how things relate to each other.
The film is full of impressive scenes and moments, but for me, the most impressive scene is at the climax when Henry spends the day running errands. Doesn’t sound like much of a moment, but Scorsese and Liotta turn it into something magical. In this sequence, Henry is high on cocaine, and is increasingly paranoid and erratic. He doesn’t tell us this in the VO, we see it entirely in the performance and the direction. Scorsese doesn’t just show us this, he puts us in Henry’s shoes. The editing is fast and frenetic. And Liotta’s acting and VO completes the picture. Rather than just witness his paranoia, we start experiencing it. That’s a trick not many filmmakers can pull.
The film ends with Henry arrested for his drug dealing, and forced to turn state’s witness to save himself. He is put in witness protection, and taken away from the gangster lifestyle.
This is one of the greatest films of all time, and a personal favorite of mine. I strongly believe it’s Scorsese’s masterpiece. He’s made a lot of great films, but this is head and shoulders above the rest. The way Scorsese puts us in the shoes of Henry Hill and creates his entire world is brilliant. Even as we’re repulsed by the actions he takes, we’re leaning forward, trying to understand this man and the people he’s surrounded by.
Likewise, the supporting characters are equally fascinating and flawed. This is an amazing film. Enough said.
The Double Feature
It was interesting to me that both of these films have essentially the same structure. They both start in the major characters childhood, then go through a series of scenes portraying the rise and fall of these characters. Tom ends up dead, while Henry has a kind of death, the death of his life as a gangster, which for him is as much of a death as any.
Both films also focus on how the people outside the life around these men are affected by their actions. The Public Enemy doesn’t focus on the victims much, but with Goodfellas, we really get the sense of how brutal these men are, and how much they can hurt people.
It’s getting to the end of the semester, and I’ve still got some writing projects hanging around. One is due next week, while the other is a bit more flexible. However, in order to finish in time, I think I need to take a couple weeks off from the blog. These posts are 3-4000 words and if I can add that to my writing tally each week on my writing projects, those will wrap up with no problem.
So, I will definitely be taking next week off, and possible the week after. We’ll have to see. But I will for sure be back in May. So go back and read some old posts you’ve missed out on and I’ll see you soon.