From the timeless Scarface (1983) to Ben Affleck’s recent, albeit less memorable, Live by Night (2016), cinema’s obsession with gangsters has endured almost as long as the medium itself. Many movies of the genre have become staples of popular culture, with some breaking box-office records and winning multiple Academy Awards. But how concerned should we be about the ways in which these lifestyles are portrayed in films? Especially since these movies glorify the lives of those who, in other circumstances, we would wholly condemn.
To properly understand this issue, I think it is necessary to think about why this genre is so popular. Being an enormous fan of movies like The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990), I would say a large part of the love I have for these films comes from the freedom of the protagonists. In most of these movies, characters partake in brilliant acts of vengeance, while the audience wishes that they could do the same to those that wrong them. Consequences that occur in our world seem to evade our on-screen anti-heroes.
characters face similar challenges to us but they approach them in a consequence-free manner that we cannot
Of course, this is not a theme exclusive to the gangster genre. Sci-Fi and Westerns often present audiences with maverick characters. But, in my opinion, the special appeal of gangster flicks is that we see these people in environments so familiar to our own. In these movies, characters face similar challenges to us but they approach them in a consequence-free manner that we cannot.
And this leads to the main reason why these fantastic films can often be problematic. Even in the world of ‘Michael Corleone’ and ‘Tony Montana’, actions have unintended consequences. We so rarely get to see the lives ruined by the reckless decisions made by our protagonist.
As an example, one of the first major crimes shown in Goodfellas involves the extortion of a restauranteur named ‘Sonny’. The result of which, is the burning of his property. However, we are never told what happens to Sonny after this and never shown the misery that must have ensued for him. One could argue that it is dangerous that most movies with similar plotlines fail to show the aftermath for men like Sonny.
On the flipside, some of the most shocking scenes from these films that stay with you longest are those that show the action colliding with the real world. Staying with Goodfellas, there is a scene just past the halfway mark in the movie that will stay with me forever. ‘Tommy’ (played by the Academy Award winning Joe Pesci), one of the lovable anti-heroes in the film, overreacts during a card game and brutally murders a young, innocent barman. Interestingly, Warner Bros wanted the scene omitted as they believed it would make Tommy too unlikable, which only emphasises both the problem with gangster movies and the way that they can be brilliant.
the most revered gangster films are those which manage to balance the seduction of the lifestyle with the harsh, brutal reality of the consequences
Obviously, some movies fail in this respect, but the most revered gangster films are those which manage to balance the seduction of the lifestyle with the harsh, brutal reality of the consequences. Demonstrating both points equally is necessary as it is the only way in which we can truly relate to the experiences of the characters. After all, this fascination is what we all love about cinema: finding a way of relating to people who we would usually see as morally repugnant, and getting some insight into a world which remains so alien to most of us.