The relationship between audience and art is never as complicated and conflicted as when dealing with the figure that is the American gangster. On one hand, the stories of these career criminals tend to be up-by-the-bootstraps tales populated with characters that exhibit imagination, intelligence and mental and physical toughness. Very admirable. On the other hand, they also tend to be tommy- gun-toting psychopaths who build their empires on a foundation of blood. Not so admirable.
Still, the American gangster has remained a cinematic mainstay. From prohibition-era entertainments such as The Public Enemy (1931) to modern stories such as American Gangster , now in theaters, the story of the career criminal remains a well that audiences and filmmakers are willing to return to. Here are a few favorites:
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959): Most gangster films are of a fairly serious sort, but this comedy about a couple of musicians hiding from the mob in drag breaks that rule. Though a comedy, Some Like It Hot never shies from showing the violence that is an essential part of gangster lore. An important sequence actually takes place at the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984): This crime epic was initially released in such a severely truncated form (naughty, naughty studio) that critics roundly and soundly labeled it an incomprehensible cinematic disaster. Thankfully, the film was saved by home video, which showed the director's cut to be a true masterpiece about men who live, and die, by a code of violence learned as children.
SCARFACE (1932): Although much is made of the 1983 remake starring Al Pacino, there's a real movie majesty to the original. Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte, a gangster boss clearly based on the then-topical Al Capone. Marketed as an "anti-gangster" film, it's a surprisingly brutal movie that confronts the violence of the lifestyle head-on.
WHITE HEAT (1949): James Cagney stars as an Oedipal small-time gangster who escapes from prison with an undercover cop in tow. A film as much about the motivations of an unbalanced man as the crimes he commits, White Heat transcends its crime melodrama trappings.
ROAD TO PERDITION (2002): I thought this crime drama was the best movie of 2002. Given how quickly it faded from sight, I was clearly alone in that claim. It's a shame, because there is much to recommend here. Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, in particular, are very fine as men who understand the difference between good and evil but never quite reconcile it with their violent career choices. Future James Bond Daniel Craig is also notable, playing a jealous son who sets murderous events into motion.
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