Smooth Operators


“Power wears out those who don’t have it”. With these words, one of Michael Corleone’s faithful messengers delivers a death sentence to a criminal rival in The Godfather Part III (1990), the finale of Francis Ford Coppola’s series. Through these words, and the assassination that accompanies them, Michael Corleone declares to his enemies that it is he who holds power, that no one can take it away from him. Yet, in the increasingly fatalistic course of the film, the proverb comes to take on a darker meaning, showing Corleone, as in a mirror, the impossibility of his own position. In the end, power wears out every gangster, for none of them truly ever possess power for more than a fleeting, illusory moment.


For the great gangster heroes of the cinema, it has always been the same story. Both Paul Muni and Al Pacino, playing “Scarface” at opposite historic ends of the gangster genre (in, respectively, 1932 and 1983), gaze proudly, at the height of their illustrious careers in crime, at a sign reassuring them: “The World is Yours”. But as they lie dead in the final frames – these great men who vowed they could never be killed – the irony of history ensures that this same sign will simply smile upon the next Mr Big in line.


Coppola impatiently told reporters on the set of this third Godfather film, “I really am not interested in gangsters”. And he has a point. His series of films, like Mario Puzo’s novel, offers an account of the rise and fall of the Corleone family is sociological to a fault. It’s a veritable treatise on the place of the Mafia in American society and history – and thus a supposedly realistic gangster movie, the complete antithesis (it would seem) to the outré comic-strip imaginings of, say, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990).


Coppola’s deepest artistic aspiration is to make a “revisionist” crime movie, revising (or re-visioning!) it so as to replace the fantastic icons and myths of Hollywood’s gangster genre with a cold, hard realism. And yet I’d argue the Godfather films do indeed share in the trembling, mythic centre of the gangster genre. It’s not as obviously stylised as the Coen brothers’ impressive Miller’s Crossing (1990) – a film which inhabits its own imaginary world, pieced together from old movies and Dashiell Hammett novels, more than it inhabits the real one – but, like Martin Scorsese’s similarly gritty Goodfellas (1990), The Godfather Part III can’t help but touch the deepest phantasm or fantasy image of the gangster genre.


On screen, the classic, mythic gangster is the living dream of the all-powerful individual. All gangster movies conjure the extraordinarily potent fantasy of an individual who is accountable to no one, whose every action counts and impacts upon the world.  ”As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster”: that’s the first line of Goodfellas, and those words propel the hero (Ray Liotta as Henry Hill) into a world of glamour, privilege, the wild freedom of unrestricted movement, with no laws or limits to check his speed. Like Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia) in The Godfather Part III, he aspires to be, and then magically becomes, the smooth operator so beloved of gangster mythology.


Even in reality, the history of gangsterism has often involved this love of an image, and the wish to become that image: Al Capone, for instance, loved watching the classic gangster performances of George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Make no mistake, the gangster, no matter how horrible or animal his actions, remains for us a figure of glamour, an attractive identification figure or role model in some imaginary way – and in the original The Godfather (1972), what fantastic male actors are on hand to embody this dark glamour, Pacino and Brando and James Caan and Robert Duvall.


Fantastic images of invincibility, of apparent physical imperishability, fill gangster movies. Think of Al Pacino as Scarface, seemingly unstoppable even as he is being riddled with a thousand bullets. Or think of Albert Finney as Leo O’Bannon, calmly advancing down the street with his tommy gun ablaze, and the strains of “Danny Boy” behind him, in Miller’s Crossing. The gangster hero also excels himself as someone who has complete command of the co-ordinates of time and space; he can reach out and kill anyone, anywhere. This is the kind of magical murdering power which Michael Corleone demonstrates in The Godfather Part III as he sits in his opera seat, smiling upon his son on stage, while at strategic points around the country his enemies are disposed of, brutally and efficiently.


Yet gangster movies are also about an intense fear that accompanies or arises from the daily exercise of this power and invincibility and control. It’s a fear that the magic circle of power will suddenly collapse, that all the tables will suddenly be turned – that the gangster will suddenly find himself vulnerable, ‘touchable’ as the killers say in another De Palma film, The Untouchables (1987). The moment when a gangster suddenly becomes open to attack is acutely rendered in the first Godfather film in the fantastic sequence devoted to Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) lying sick in a hospital bed, all guards removed – and Michael has to physically wheel him to some other room in case he’s instantly whacked by some sinister operative who can easily penetrate the building.


The smooth operator is a performer; he dazzles both his allies and enemies with his cool, brilliant image. After his work on Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty began the process of lending his aging good looks to a role on the other side of the law – the real-life gangster Bugsy Siegel, portrayed (according to Beatty’s semi-biographer David Thomson) as a “dashing hood-killer-loudmouth-fucker” in Bugsy (1991). In the history of the gangster genre, this theme reached its apotheosis in 1960 in Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond – a film that quite literally makes its hero (played by a dashingly cool Ray Danton) into a prize-winning dancer, as well as a slick dandy. (Logically enough, it even later inspired a musical remake – Peter Allen’s extravagant Broadway flop, Legs Diamond [1988].) Legs’ greatest asset is his power of seduction, a web he spins around both women and men. And, indeed, seduction is crucial to the mythic gangster hero. His Machiavellian strategy is to know everyone else’s weak spot – what they most desire, or most fear. This weak spot he manipulates mercilessly in order to maintain his crucial edge over people, and the system.


In The Godfather Part III, Corleone’s ex-wife (Diane Keaton) bitterly sums up his modus operandi: it’s “reason, backed up by murder”. Rationality is the essential prerequisite for being a gangster – supreme self-control. Governing a criminal empire means, for a great deal of the time, managing to keep the resident hot-heads in one’s service or territory – Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) in Miller’s Crossing, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas, “Juan the Bullet” (Angel David) in Paul Morrissey’s Mixed Blood (1985) – in check, keeping their explosive fury marshalled to a higher strategic purpose. Michael offers a running lesson to Vincent (Andy Garcia) in The Godfather Part III about the means and ends of gangster rationality: never show your hatred to your enemy, don’t let on to anyone the identity of your loved ones … For to publicise such emotions and attachments risks creating, for a gangster, a weak spot that will eventually be exploited just as ruthlessly as he has always exploited such weaknesses in others.


Ah, but there’s the rub. To dream of being a gangster is to dream of a world in which all desires will be satisfied: sex, money, material possessions, the whim to go anywhere or do anything without a moment’s notice. But staying a gangster, remaining within that image, means renouncing all love, all desire (just like those sanitized ‘good guys’ of the police force do, those self-sacrificing family-man like Elliot Ness and untemptable Dick Tracy). This is the tragic paradox that undoes many a gangster hero. Warnings – like that given to the drug-dealing Tony Montana in Scarface, “Don’t get high on your own supply” – these warnings are invariably ignored, with virtually suicidal consequences.


Through trying to pull a few too many scams “on the side” in Goodfellas, Henry plummets from his magic moment of gangster omnipotence to a state of all-pervasive paranoia – his sense of self completely scattered, uncontrollably, everywhere. The mighty gangster, at the height of his power, rules the world – but it is a world in which he had better remain still, hidden, uninvolved, if he wants to stay on top. The merest public appearance, the slightest display of the gangster’s personal life, and all is lost – the moment Corleone pauses, forgetful of his destiny, on the front steps of the opera house in The Godfather Part III, he loses his beloved daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola).


In short, it is hard for a gangster hero to remain human. William Routt wrote a terrific essay on the gangster genre and its veritable philosophy for the magazine Art & Text in 1989. Routt reminds us of something obvious but easily forgotten: to be a gangster (as the very word implies) is to be a part of a gang, or a brotherhood, or a family – always some kind of binding community, with its rituals and contracts of adhesion, its rules and loyalties and obligations. And yet the gangster is also meant to be, simultaneously, a furious individualist, a law only unto himself. The gangster may sometimes be a populist hero, a kind of Robin Hood benefactor, but he is not really “of the people”, a creature of the mass or the crowd. In fact, he is likely to abhor any resemblance on his part to the average person in the mass or crowd. (And that crowd, in turn, can easily come to resent the distinctive specialness that raises him above them.) That’s a theme that emerges intensely from Abel Ferrara’s fascinating modern gangster film King of New York (1990), and also from Goodfellas, where resident anti-hero Henry keeps proclaiming how he never wants to be like the ordinary schmoos and schmucks of suburbia.


We often hear talk of the struggle between “the individual and society”, but the gangster’s unique problem is to have that struggle situated or defined inside himself, inside his own being. Gangsters in movies tend to live out this paradox or contradiction rather badly, in a troubled and pretty suicidal fashion. The Godfather movies, with their particular fix on the family and family ties explore this tension in a very intense way – particularly whenever Michael has to start bumping off first close friends of the family, and then his actual family members.


Routt reminds us of a key, enigmatic moment in one of the earliest gangster classics, The Public Enemy (1931). About to take fierce revenge on the gang responsible for killing his best friend, Tom Powers (James Cagney) pauses and, as he does so, a close-up records his strange, disturbing smile. What does this smile say to us? On the one hand, it signals the cold, inhuman self-possession of the lone gangster hero – his hatred of all society, all community, which is merely the territory for his merrily destructive rampages. And yet, on the other hand, this smile, like any smile in real life, invites some kind of sympathetic or complicit response from a fellow human being, an acknowldgement from a lover, friend or sibling?


A gangster risks any kind of fond human relation at his direst peril. In The Godfather Part III, Michael tells Vincent: “When they come, they come for those you love”. Michael is in an impossible bind here: it is his sense of loyalty toward “the family”, in all its extensions, which drives him back into gangsterism, but it is his own immediate family which inexorably suffers. The price to be paid for his power and position can never be settled or put to rest. Legs Diamond is caught in a similar bind – the terms of which he is pitifully unaware. His power depends absolutely on the emotional hold he has over others; as his wife Alice (Karen Steel) remarks, “That was the magic – as long as someone loved you, you were OK”. Yet the moment he neglects his community, his “people”, and instead gets high on the idea that that he is wholly self-sufficient and invincible, he leaves himself wide open to be toppled from his throne, and ultimately killed. The moment in Miller’s Crossing when Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) most openly performs an act of “heart” – when he spares the life of Bernie (John Turturro) deep in the woods – is the moment that plunges his life as a gangster into a ceaseless, labyrinthine catastrophe.


There is no safe group of friends or functionaries that a gangster can ever hope to gather around himself for good. The anti-heroes who connive their way up the gangster hierarchy, befriend Mr Big, and then promptly betray him in order to take his place, forget that their logical destiny is also to be betrayed by their most loyal accomplice. There is no guarantee that the bodyguards who faithfully shadow your every move for years on end will not, one day, suddenly surround you and gun you down, at some higher criminal bidding. GoodFellas demonstrates how Henry can ultimately trust neither the cool neighbourhood gangster he worshipped as a child nor the best friend he grows up with in the business – for, indeed, he is busy betraying both of them himself.


The gangster movie revels in the myth of the all-powerful individual, a Creature of the Id who lives only for worldly excess. But it also regularly explodes that myth – reminding us that anyone who thinks himself somehow untouchable will be someday, somewhere, somehow touchable. The fall of the classic gangster hero is sad and often gruesome, but it is also strangely reassuring. For how could the gangster ever resist ultimately revealing his weakness, his fatal dependence on others – how could be keep from betraying his own heart? The last line of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond says of its hero: “He never loved anybody, that’s why he’s dead”. But maybe the problem (and the pathos) of most screen gangsters is that, in one way or another, love is what does them in, love is their reckless moment of fatal vulnerability. In one way or another, they love too fiercely, and too much.


Among the major images of masculine pathos used brilliantly by Coppola in the Godfather movies is that his depicted gangsters like ambiguous child figures: we know them mostly as precocious, destructive, demanding, out-of-control children, creatures from the Id, seeming victims of a viciously arrested personal development. Yet they can also be childlike in a suddenly innocent, purified way – innocent when they dream, as the Tom Waits song says.


In The Godfather, Marlon Brando’s death scene as Vito Corleone turns into one of his greatest screen moments. Just before collapsing and shuffling off this mortal coil, he plays, frolics with a child – and, in that play, he becomes a child, a senile old gangster falling weightlessly into his second childhood. What is it that is so moving about such images of evil men in the movies? I think of Don Corleone, of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven  (1992), of Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950), of Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), of Tom Blair in The Bed You Sleep In (1993) – men who are, or could well be murderers, psychological torturers, rapists, wife bashers, child abusers; men tainted through and through with a kind of male original sin, an impulsive, “toxic” propensity towards the most horrendous violence inflicted on those close to them. In the movies dedicated to their descent into oblivion or death, all these men are given strange, beautiful moments of grace, forgiving moments almost, where we see them just as simple human beings, washing their face in a stream or playing with a child or enjoying breakfast in the morning – and we are torn between the touching evidence of those moments, and the wrenching memory of every evil thing that they have ever done.


This essay summarises and updates ideas first explored in my long 1987 essay “Mr Big: Gangsters and Power”, which now appears in my collection Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018).



© Adrian Martin 1991 / 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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