|In March 1993, Anthony Summers' book,
Official and Confidential, the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover raised the
spectre of America's top law enforcer having turned a blind eye to the
rise of organised crime in the U.S. He claimed Hoover, maybe because of
blackmail, let them grow from being a ghetto phenomenon in certain cities
to become reputedly party to an officially covered-up murder of a President.
However, the American public would also have been baffled about the nature of organised crime by the way Hollywood introduced it to them. This cinema had at that time just embraced self-censorship. Censors were already in post when the future of law and order was negligently compromised.
Law and order in urban America, cannot be understood without recognising the crucial ethnic interplay. It is popularly recognised since the era of The Godfather (1972), that organised crime grew out of the immigration of southern Italian groups. Initially, it could be said that crime was at its most systematic when it was "wops ripping off other wops". This Italian core only involved itself with a small number of neighbouring ethnic groups in the ghettos. Meyer Lansky was the best instance of the link up with Jews. Today, Hollywood now emphasises the Hispanic basis of street crime and drug importation in America.
MALCOLM X WAS RIGHT
In the 1960s Malcolm X highlighted how America's new urban black ghettos were being corrupted by drugs, alcohol and gambling. His Islamic crusade, and moral and religious campaigns since, such as those of Jesse Jackson; have tried to confront a tragedy where America's monster murder figures are mostly blacks killing blacks. Much of this stems clearly from Mafia mass marketing of narcotics in black ghettos after the war. It is against this background that the most familiar crime has arisen which has frightened the censorship lobby.
How could this cycle of degeneration have been avoided? The obvious and democratic answer would be to have made the American public aware of what was happening in the ghettos in the 1920s. Even this could have come as a democratic justification of special programmes aimed at the Italian communities. Both police action and the nurturing of alternative grassroots social and economic organisations were probably needed. A cinema with its finger really on the pulse of the nation in the 1930s would have usefully contributed to such popular enlightenment. Instead many radical critics and thinkers dreamed of films modelled on Soviet masterpieces.
ROBINSON, BOGART AND CAGNEY
One of Hollywood's clearest such failure was not being able to represent the ethnic diversity of even America's white people. This can best be seen in looking at Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.
Bogart must be the biggest problem. He rose to stardom in the 1930s playing 'gangsters'. However, his screen persona was almost always - White Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. So his incarnation of the organised crime figure thus obscured the ethnic nature of the emerging social problem which he was involved in portraying. In looking down the list of characters Bogart played, there are few Italian names. These Italians were a juryman, sailor in a war film and with George Raft the Fabrini brothers in They Drive By Night (1940).
Edward G. Robinson, by contrast had the potential to open a more effective representation of the problem. He played the original sound gangster in Little Caesar (1931). Robinson, a Russian Jewish immigrant played the role as an Italian immigrant. In retrospect we can see that the author of the play on which the film was based was comparitively unfair when he attacked the film for failing to use Italian actors. Robinson's film was the only one of the classic gangster films to raise the ethnic issue. Although Paul Muni did an Italian impression for Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932), Hawks made twisted sexuality the centre of his representation.
James Cagney creates as many misunderstandings as Bogart. In Public Enemy (1931), Cagney represents the New York Irish ethnicity with which he is associated. His character is involved in a Freudian conflict with his policeman father! This heralded the flaws in his later gangster portraits. The Irish had an ethnic hold on the police forces in many American cities. This tribal problem corrupted local policing which was again illustrated in The Godfather. The Italian groups could buy off the police, and the bribes filtered down the ranks better when there was an ethnic bond. The representation of the basically nice Irish lad gone astray, is at best irrelevant to the U.S. crime problem and at worst misleading.
George Raft is in many ways the lost solution to the problem of ethnic representation. Raft played the Italian sidekick to Paul Muni in Hawks' Scarface. Raft had a German father but looked like his Italian mother. He grew up in the early Italian ghetto in New York. He personally knew the people he was involved in representing. However, Italian men were limited in the roles they could play in the 1920s. Rudolf Valentino was their only real star and only as the 'Latin Lover'. Raft was a friend of Valentino and his most common early roles were exploitations of the image established by his friend.
Later Raft never really got beyond very flat and fleeting representations of the Italian hood. He was still doing this in Some Like It Hot (1959) towards the end of his career. Raft's own career judgement was lacking in as much as he turned down the Bogart roles in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1943), which launched the later on the path to becoming an icon of the era. It is probably only with Roger corman and Francis Ford Coppola since the 1960s that performers of Italian origin made it to the major roles.
The 1930s set the pattern for the two types of gangster films that predominated until very recently. These were the urban and the rural crime/gangster stories.
The early classics which we have already discussed were the mould for the urban film. At least since Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1960) the industry was remaking in colour the already ageing stories with ageing iconography. We see the same game in Brian De Palma's Scarface (1980) and The Untouchables (1987). the same self-censorship and looking to old iconography must be seen in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1959). Much of the other homages to old crime films in the sixties must be seen in the same light (e.g. Fassbinder and Corman). However, it was not until Kirk Douglas and Coppola that anyone used the urban films' potential to expose the ethnic crux.
The rurual film was actually a Polish myth, which the best film makers at least managed to use to show women as dominant partners. The rural gangs were not much bigger than a couple of car loads of people. However, Hoover emphasised them as a threat and hunted down such as Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde vindictively by comparison to the urban organisations. They were the easy target and the stuff of easy public relations exercises.
Fritz Lang made a Bonnie and Clyde film with You Only live Once (1939) and the story has been regularly remade since as They live By Night, Breathless, and Sugarland Express to name but a few. Despite their strong representation of women they still remain a Hoover inspired distraction when it comes to the representation of crime in America. Hoover even helped and encouraged the making of a number of such films as a form of propoganda for his G-men.
AWARDS FOR INFORMING
Kirk Douglas deserves particular credit against this history. His The Brotherhood (1968) was an innovative but still not very successful attempt to present organised crime as rooted in the Italian-American community. Douglas produced the film but probably weakened it by himself playing the Godfather figure. Many of these fresh ingrediants would not work together effectively until Coppola's Italians worked them.
Marlon Brando also stars in an earlier film particularly deserving of praise. On The Waterfront (1954) was one of the few films of the era to show organised crime in its changing form as it took over unions and transport businesses. We were made to recognise gangsterism without the iconographical underlining. It is interesting that Kazan turned to this personal project after he had deserted the left for Hoover-McCarthy's witchhunt. Kazan immediately used his work to point to the real treason. He had even been preparing to do the film with an Italian lead - Frank Sinatra who was brought up on the location - while Brando was boycotting Kazan as a traitor.
CENSORS ON HAND
After surveying such history we can see how the cinema systematically obscured the nature of organised crime and organised criminals. The cinema impaired the operation of U.S. democracy at an important point of vulnerability. This all occurred during, and certainly not despite, the operation of the 'Hayes Code' in Hollywood. This was a self-censorship code drawn-up by the film industry - under pressure from the churches - in an attempt to forestall an imposed censorship.
Among the roles imposed was one insisting that crime should not be seen to pay! The consequence was inevitable, organised crimes was misrepresented as failing. By comparison the crude communist censorship in countries like Poland after the war was less damaging. Filmmakers like Andej Wajda could work their way round it to highlight the current social failings.
CRIME REPRESENTATION TODAY
Today the representation of organised crime has moved on, mainly thanks to the Martial Arts genre. Films have been made in the last decade which repeat the norms and iconography of the thirties gangster films - The Untouchables - but the Martial Arts films have brought great variety to the representation of both the organisation and the criminal.
Since its origins in Hong Kong this genre has represented the 'Triads' and the criminal. More like the 'Western' than the Hollywood crime film, one just has to identify with those who are challenging these organisations. This sort of film is thus very suitable for focussing on the social problem.
The dramatic confrontations are in some ways more violent than when relying on the firearms of the old genre. It is therefore not surprising that the narrow minded censorship lobby should have been so negative towards this 'violent' genre. However, we cannot now go into detail about these and other admirable qualities to be found in many of the films of this genre.
There is no need in conclusion to say
more than...that the conservative lobby are addressing the problem in the
cinema decades after the horse has bolted. Their censorious forebears compounded
the problem, which is probably what they will do if they are allowed to
have their way in the debate which they have now begun.
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