This Monday, AMC will roll out The Making of the Mob, an eight-part docu-drama on the history of organized crime in America. Aping the style and using the same production company as other History Channel documentaries--The Men Who Built America and The World Wars -- the show interweaves dramatic reenactments with talking-head segments and narration by mob movie icon Ray Liotta (Goodfellas). Following the stories of the rise and fall of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, the show attempts to create a canonical version of events that lead to the modern mob.
As crime rates plummet across the country and the actual mob has become little more than an oddity, it is curious that the nation still clings to these stories as formative. Yet even though HBO’s The Sopranos has faded into the distance and Boardwalk Empire has drawn to a close, and multiple decades have passed since the high-water marks of the Godfather films and Goodfellas, the mob still holds a potent grip on American entertainment.
First, it’s important to clarify the genre we’re talking about here since “mob movie” implies something a little bit more than simply “crime movie.” Nick Pileggi, author of the seminal mob novel Wiseguy (which he turned into the script for Goodfellas) and screenwriter of Casino, believes that if you expand the definition, it can cover almost anything. “Does it have to be about the Mafia, or for instance, can you say that a mob movie is All the President’s Men or Chinatown, where there is organized crime, or are we specifically talking about Italian organized crime?” he asked rhetorically.
At the end of the day, the mob movie really deals with the (predominately white) immigrant experience and the way that certain first-generation Americans in the mid-twentieth century tried to cheat to get ahead. Said Pileggi,“There were people who were raised in that first generation who didn’t want to be on the slow train. They wanted to jump the line. They wanted the house in West Egg, like Gatsby before he’d earned it. And these guys became the guys who, 50years later, lead organized crime. People like Frank Costello or Lucky Luciano or Meyer Lansky. “
The mob movie as a metaphor for both the ups and downs of American capitalism is at least as old as The Godfather. In fact, director Francis Ford Coppola has explicitly stated that that was a subtext of his films.
“I think that’s the great story of America,” Pileggi said, “not only the legitimate people who went on to create the backbone of the country, all of those Jews and Italians and Irishmen, but the aberrational figures who were able to jump the line…. That’s basically what I think of the gangster movie. They show these aberrations and they are fascinating.”
Indeed, it is that metaphor of what a man (almost always a man) must sacrifice to do right by his family, and the way in which those sacrifices alienate the man from the very family he would protect that unites the genre, from The Godfather to The Sopranos to Breaking Bad. In an era where work/life balance is such a concern; where employers ask more and more of their workers’ time (and get it); and where workers watch their children age out of the corner of their eye while selling off so much of their lives to provide for these same children, it’s easy to sympathize with Michael Corleone as he chips away bits of his soul to protect his family and continue the family line.
On a less bleak level, mob movies often celebrate the exceptional individual. The heroes of these movies are rarely successful because of their physical strength but more often because of their wits (Michael Corleone, who is a math teacher at the beginning of the story) or their ruthless will to succeed (Tony Montana). As the law cracked down on “harmless” vices, these clever men found a way around the law to become hometown heroes. Movie gangsters are often populists.
To illustrate that Red State/Blue State problems are hardly new, Prohibition, the law criminalizing alcohol and giving the mob its first chance to dominate, was largely passed by a union of rural fundamentalists and abused wives tired of their drunken husbands. But in the nation’s urban centers, drinking was still (and ever shall be) a popular past time. The mobster simply provided a way for people to ignore a silly law and get their drink on. Of course, the violence was a problem, but it was in part this violence that lead to the end of the law in 1933.
The gangsters then moved on to gambling and the casino, and this is where the mob really got more sophisticated--and found their real pot of gold.
“It was Meyer Lansky who figured out how a casino would work. He was the main architect behind all of Las Vegas and all of Cuba,” Pileggi said. “When they do stories now on the casino industry, you’ve got guys who’ve gone to Harvard or Princeton or Yale and they then go to MIT to learn all about the gambling algorithms all over the world, Macao or whatever. Meyer Lansky had those algorithms in his pocket. And this is a guy who dropped out of 9th grade. So that’s what you had,” he said, “these exceptional guys with a native intelligence, and they rode that all the way... and the movies are able to depict that emergence out of the immigrant experience.”
In celebration of the mob movie, The Fiscal Times takes a look at the 18 (+1) movies that define the genre (with a note of apology to the many great mob films of the Brits, the French and Hong Kong. We’ll catch up with them another time).
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