Mob Love: The Classic Toughs of the Silver Screen Are the Ultimate Individualists. These Are Guys Who Know No Boundaries When It Comes to Fulfilling Their Ambitions. for Americans, It's a Formula Impossible to Resist

By Beales, Lewis | The Saturday Evening Post, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

Mob Love: The Classic Toughs of the Silver Screen Are the Ultimate Individualists. These Are Guys Who Know No Boundaries When It Comes to Fulfilling Their Ambitions. for Americans, It's a Formula Impossible to Resist


Beales, Lewis, The Saturday Evening Post


IMAGINE

Mickey Cohen. West Coast gangster kingpin, 1940s and '50s. Gambler. Tax cheat. Mob enforcer. Major racketeer, with hands in prostitution and dope. Volcanic temper. Not the kind of guy you'd want to chat with over the backyard fence.

And nasty as all get out is how Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen in Gangster Squad, opening in January, about Los Angeles police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) and his elite squad (including Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin) whose mission is to keep the West Coast mob, as represented by Cohen and his minions, out of the city. It's a standard plotline--cops vs. hoods--but the release of the movie is just the latest proof that when it comes to screen portrayals of mobsters, real or imagined, Americans enjoy wallowing in all that anti-social behavior. Gangsters are individualists on steroids, and we can't get enough of them.

"There's something enticing about the world [gangsters] live in," says Gangster Squad director Ruben Fleischer. "It's this forbidden existence; they live life on their own terms. Gangster films make the bad guys the good guys."

"We like people who have more power, more id, less super ego," adds Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. "There's a bit of a gangster in all of us. We can vicariously identify [with them], live out our fantasies."

Guess what? It didn't take filmmakers very long to recognize this. As early as 1912, D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley showed a fascination with organized crime on New York's Lower East Side, and allegedly used real street gang members as extras. But it was the Great Depression, and the gangster films of that era, which really jump-started the genre: Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. James Cagney in The Public Enemy. Paul Muni as Scarface and Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. Snarling nasty guys with their guns, molls, Prohibition-era chicanery, and personal charisma. All of which came out of a specific cultural and political context. Desperate times created desperate characters, and the collapse of the worldwide economic system caused many people to question the viability of the capitalist system--and their place in it.

"The early gangster films reflected the crisis of individualism in the Depression," says film critic Dave Kehr of davekehr.com. "If you wanted to rise above, you had to go outside the law. Gangster films parody capitalism, they highlight class distinctions. It's the anti-American dream."

"If you go back to the 1930s, America was becoming more urban, there was the Great Depression, and Americans felt the economic system had failed them, so people like John Dillinger became folk heroes," adds Glen Macnow, co-author of The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.

"The film audience was ethnic and urban," he adds, "so Warner Brothers started the genre by giving the urban immigrants something they liked, with pictures featuring urban ethnic criminals like Scarface and Little Caesar. You had this perfect formula for success."

And that's pretty much how the gangster film played out over the next few decades. The bad boys remained individualists involved in all sorts of rackets, and as the Depression waned, the genre shifted into the bleak moral atmosphere of film noir, where, says Macnow, "the gangsters are less gunmen than businessmen running corrupt businesses." Every once in a while there'd be a psychological take on the genre--James Cagney's psychopathic mama's boy in 1949's White Heat-or, in the case of 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, a film that startled with its violence and sociological insight.

"You got into the psychology of those people," says Fischoff of Bonnie and Clyde. He explains how this particular twist on the gangster flick delved with Freudian insight into the roots of the characters' pathology. The message was that "people weren't born villains."

Then came one of those great breaks from the past, as significant in cinematic terms as when dinosaurs seemed to disappear from the planet almost overnight. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Mob Love: The Classic Toughs of the Silver Screen Are the Ultimate Individualists. These Are Guys Who Know No Boundaries When It Comes to Fulfilling Their Ambitions. for Americans, It's a Formula Impossible to Resist
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.