“Everyone loves gangster movies.” This sentence, written by former FBI agent Joseph Pistone, leads off the forward to The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies, a 2011 guide by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Pistone himself was the focus of the 1997 movie Donnie Brasco, based on his work as an undercover agent infiltrating the Mob in New York City. Johnny Depp played the Pistone character.
Judging by the current crop of gangster movies and television shows that recently aired or are in production, the public’s longtime obsession with the underworld is not letting up. Many of the gangster movies in the film guide deal with organized crime, as does this current influx.
According to actor Garry Pastore, this continued fascination might be related to our interest in the dark side. Pastore portrays mobster Mathew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello in HBO’s crime drama The Deuce. The second season aired last year.
“People in general crave the dark underbelly secrets of society and most often root for the bad guy,” Pastore said in an e-mail.
Over the past several months, The Deuce, focusing on Mob control of vice rackets in 1970s Manhattan, and Clint Eastwood’s film The Mule, dramatizing the true account of an elderly man who transported illegal narcotics in the U.S. for Mexican drug cartels, are just two examples of organized crime productions that received a lot of fanfare. The Deuce is set for a third season on HBO this year, according to news accounts.
And more is on the way.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, about a Mafia hit man who claimed to have killed national labor leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, is scheduled to be released this fall, clouded by controversy over who really did the killing.
Also, The Many Saints of Newark, a movie prequel to The Sopranos, the hit HBO television series from 1999 to 2007, has begun filming in New York, generating a flurry of comments on social media sites dedicated to Mob movies. This film stars Michael Gandolfini as a younger Tony Soprano, the fictional New Jersey Mafia character popularized by his now-deceased father, James Gandolfini. The film is set to be released on September 25, 2020.
Other Mob movie projects making news include one on the November 1957 Mafia summit in Apalachin, New York, which went awry, leading to arrests and bad publicity for major underworld figures. In the upcoming independent film, titled Apalachin, Pastore plays Mafia heavyweight Albert Anastasia, whose assassination at a Manhattan barbershop was one reason for the summit — to sort out leadership roles after his death.
Another project generating news is The Legitimate Wiseguy, to be directed by Roland Joffé, exploring mobster Anthony Spilotro’s help in guiding an acting career for Nicholas Celozzi, the grand nephew of former Chicago Outfit head Sam Giancana, according to the industry website Deadline Hollywood.
This is not the first Hollywood take on Spilotro’s criminal life. In the 1995 film Casino, veteran actor Joe Pesci played a character based on Spilotro, the Chicago Outfit’s overseer in Las Vegas during the 1970s and early ’80s.
The list of upcoming projects does not end there. For instance, in mid-April, the Cannes Film Festival released its 2019 competition lineup, which includes The Traitor, a movie about Tommaso Buscetta, described by the New York Times as “the first important Italian Mob leader to break the Mafia oath of silence.”
Gangster movies were around decades before The Godfather reignited the public’s interest in the Mafia when, in 1972, the first of three films about the fictional Corleone family came out to record ticket sales.
Michael Maffucci, an actor and co-host of a Mob podcast on the Uncle Frank’s Place website, said this continued interest might have to do with the need some people feel to strike back at whatever they believe is holding them down. Maffucci had a role in the independent Mob movie Me Familia and acted in a scene slated for The Irishman as a guest at a banquet for Hoffa in the early 1970s.
“My feeling is that a lot of people are in jobs that they don’t like or are struggling to make ends meet or are just feeling like they are being taken advantage of in some way, and then they see the guys on the screen who don’t care about rules and do whatever they want and walk around with rolls of cash,” Maffucci said in an email.
He said people buying into that version of reality could be in for a shock, especially considering the dire consequences associated with felony crime and incarceration. “Goodfellas made jail look great, like a vacation,” he said.
Jeanine Basinger, author of 11 books on movie history, including A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960, said great storytelling and excitement contribute to the public’s fascination with gangster movies. Danger and violence have always been a part of the mix, she said.
“I like action movies where something happens,” Basinger said in a telephone interview.
While some critics contend productions such as The Godfather romanticize murderous hoodlums, Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, said the release of The Godfather in 1972 marked a turning point in how wiseguys are portrayed in motion pictures, showing them as real family people, not “mobsters who are monsters.”
“We see them as human beings,” she said.
Because viewers find the day-to-day details of characters’ lives so realistic in The Godfather trilogy — Corleone family weddings, meals at the dinner table — the violence, including a severed horse head placed in a bed, is more believable, Basinger said.
“It’s grounded in things we know are true and possible,” she said of these horrors.
Maffucci said that after those three Godfather movies, there would be no turning back to the way gangster crime films used to be.
“There have been gangster movies going back decades with actors such as George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and others,” he said in the email, “very good movies, but The Godfather changed the game.”
He noted that, unlike earlier gangster movies, The Godfather was a big-budget production that drew viewers into the characters’ lives.
“Forgetting the Mob stuff, the Corleones could have been any Italian-American family,” he said. “This all being said, the subsequent Mob movies could not go back to the old style. They had to ramp up their game with either realism or action or both.”
Some note that the same humanizing trend has carried over into the depiction of underworld figures in television shows, which, while violent and lurid, offer plenty of character development and family issues. These factors give this genre its staying power, according to that line of thinking.
“Interestingly, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire did for television what The Godfather did for the movies,” Pastore said.
This sense of family connection, whether on the big screen or television, is underscored in the final scene of Donnie Brasco, when Pistone’s wife, played by Anne Heche, tells her FBI-agent husband, after he emerges from his dangerous undercover assignment and the marital strife it caused, “Joe, it’s over. Come on, honey, come home.”
Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. Henry taught journalism at Haas Hall Academy in Bentonville, Arkansas, and now is the headmaster at the school’s campus in Rogers, Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.