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Feature Articles


February 2015
CINEMATIC MOBSTERS

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     Serious critics who critique mob films give a certain slant to the content of such fare that becomes more than simply entertainment for its own sake. How do such films help us understand ourselves? The answer is that they show us a face that is a mirror looking back at us. Some mob flicks are well produced; most are trashy and overblown. Yet in both cases the message contained, awkward as it might be, remains the same: it plays to male fantasies and critiques American capitalism in all its ruthless impulse, including acquisitiveness, competitiveness and indifference to others. They demonstrate the pathology of power, which invites narcissism and rank materialism. The Godfather, the paragon of the Hollywood industry, is the obvious example of thoughtful mob film production. It develops its theme on an epic scale of history and culture, a tale of immigrants leaving the Old World to come to the New World, eager to seize the opportunities that are there for the taking in the Land of the Dollar. Because they meet head-on native resistance and prejudice, material success and respectability can only be achieved through the mechanism of criminal activity. The favorite cinematic mobster is the Italoamerican, or some resemblance to what Hollywood takes as the stereotypical mobster profile. If Sicily had not existed as background it would have been invented. Its turbulent history and a culture stuck in the medieval period is the perfect backdrop. The necessary exotic ingredients include secret blood rites, vendetta, villages stuck in a time warp, resistant to change, each lorded over by a strong man to whom all must pay homage, and the classic and supreme centerpiece, which appeals to Americans with weak family ties. La famiglia: The perceived strength of the Italian family system as compared to the dysfunctions of the American. Mix the ingredients thoroughly, add a pinch of menace, bring the brew up to a boiling point and the wishful thinking of the moviegoers will do the rest. The Godfather defines the mob genre by presenting the mythology of the Italoamerican mobster as the quintessence of the species, who in truth is more American than Italian, a creation of American popular culture. “Don’t forget the cannoli!”

     Such films create and influence perceptions of the dimensions of organized crime. They can feed and give rise to the worst of instincts. Mob speak has long been a part of colloquial English. The mob mystic portrayed on the silver screen is taken as reality. That “reality” results in reinforcing mainstream male natural predispositions and prejudices. The critics of the cinematic mobsters go beyond the superficiality of the movie plot and dig deep into the abstract aspects of the phenomenon. What is going on here? Mob tales are well-entrenched male fantasies in the context of the pull of American capitalism. When such films are deconstructed they reveal ideal masculinity that is springing free from the social restraints imposed on everyday behavior. “Thou shall not steal” becomes “Thou shall steal”: feel free to fleece the suckers (it is almost a commandment), to form your own system of justice, to pursue an unfettered and selfish life style, to plan “a piece of business,” to create and sustain an underworld where the basest motives prevail. The citizen, Everyman, is pathetic. He is nothing more than grist for the mill. Who would voluntarily wish upon himself such a mundane lifestyle? Racketeering is the ultimate wet dream. That is what mob flicks teach us.

     Mob myths are lessons for wannabes. The cool mobster makes a lasting impression in whatever room he enters; he gives off a relaxed air of supreme confidence, a model of manhood. Having chosen a free-floating value system, he is without a conscience and seeks only to impress. He expects and gets first-class service and his tips are more than generous, Frank Sinatra style, like a Hollywood star with an adoring entourage. Such is the cinematic gangster persona. To identify with him is easy. When it comes to cops and robbers, it is the latter that we support. Then comes the vengeance-is-mine scene. Who amongst us did not experience a shiver effect, a rush of forbidden pleasure, in The Godfather when that self-righteous mogul awakens from a deep sleep to discover his favorite racehorse’s bloody head sharing his bed. He who would dare ignore the long reach of Mob justice will get his comeuppance. Didn’t he?


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