Last month saw the release of two equally big, but very different, mob flavoured movies. The first, Killing Them Softly, starred Brad Pitt as a cold and pragmatic fixer sent to tidy up some loose ends in early Obama era New Orleans. The second, Lawless, gives viewers a glitzy glimpse into bootleg heavy Chicago and Virginia during the prohibition period. Both films focus on the banality and brutality of mob life, with each effort pointing towards the fact that gangsters are, in essence, nothing more than businessmen trying to beat the system to make a buck.
This is especially true of Killing Me Softly, where every evil deed and crime is about protecting assets and generating profit for the men at the top. Based on George V. Higgins’ 1970s novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly is an allegorical assessment of modern America. These mobsters aren’t the gleeful psychopaths of Casino and Goodfellas; they’re simply entrepreneurs operating outside the law.
Recession and depression have traditionally been boom times for actual criminal enterprise, and while the film genre has never been out of fashion, real life periods of economic woe also see a serious smattering of gangster films.
Obviously as a form of escapism gangster flicks are up there with the best of them. At times glamorous, and almost always violent, they represent something inaccessible and ultimately far removed from everyday life. But there’s more to it than that; during times of economic hardship they’re also the perfect medium for social commentary.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that many of the gangster epics of the early ‘90s represent a critique of the materialistic and selfish decade which preceded. Likewise, many of the early noughties UK gangland efforts are a thinly veiled swipe at the artificially upwardly mobile New Labour years.
With previous form in mind, it’s hardly a surprise that many of today’s crime dramas are in fact a not-so- thinly veiled swipe at the increasingly cold, corporate climate of modern America.
Naturally these films can be enjoyed without dwelling on their secondary meanings, but the fact these themes exist at all is interesting in itself. While nobody is suggesting that investment bankers order executions, or blue chip CEOs spend their time planning heists, the link between the race for profit and the lengths people will go to for that profit are starkly laid out in films like Lawless and Killing Them Softly.
Brad Pitt’s hardnosed observation that “America isn’t a county, it’s a business,” is particularly poignant when taken in context with both the film and the current economic and political situation over there.
Our endless appetite for gangster movies means that many will go into these films looking purely for entertainment, but will leave with the lingering impression that, guns and drugs aside, these films are more representative of modern life than they perhaps expected. Like their predecessors these films will come to reflect the age in which they were produced; stark, impersonal and at times desperate.
FIVE LESSER KNOWN AMERICAN GANGSTER GREATS
King of New York (1990)
Messy and more than a little bit trashy, this New York based mob movie throws together Christopher Walken with a smorgasbord of crime favourites including Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and David Caruso. Fun, but by no means fantastic, this stylish tale of a gang leader back on the make is far more watchable than many of its peers.
￼This critically acclaimed Ray Liotta comeback teams traditional film noir with a visceral, authentically modern aesthetic. Focussing on a corrupt cop’s dealings with the drugs world, this is a gritty thriller full of desperate characters embroiled in the seedy underbelly of society.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Possibly the Coen Brother’s finest work, this fantastical period gangster drama is chock full of memorable scenes, crazy characters and beautifully austere sets. Gabriel Byrne’s world weary hitman and Tom Finney’s brilliantly OTT mob boss are reason alone for watching this genre classic.
Cop Land (1997)
Sly Stallone’s quiet small town sheriff reluctantly agrees to assist Robert De Niro’s investigator in his quest to bring down a cartel of corrupt cops. While De Niro’s performance is typically solid, it’s Stallone who really steals the show as a mild mannered guy dangerously out of his depth.
Loosely based on the turf wars between black gangsters and their Italian rivals in 1920s Harlem, this action heavy thriller gives us plenty of daft set pieces. A star turn from the never creepier Tim Roth as Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz breathes a little life into the infamous historical figure.