The Chicago Syndicate: The Sopranos Transformed the Gangster Movie Genre
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Sopranos Transformed the Gangster Movie Genre

And so it ends.

No more weekly ride with Tony Soprano from the Lincoln Tunnel past smoke-belching factories to his McMansion in suburban New Jersey.

No more Bada Bing Club. No more sit-downs. No more visits from the feds. No more revelations in Dr. Melfi’s office. No more fights with Carmela or worries about AJ and Meadow.

No more heartache, no more guilt.

No more beatings. No more shootings. No more dismemberments.

No more struggle for Tony, a crime boss trapped in an old-school gang, to find a place in the 21st century.

The HBO broadcast of the final episode of “The Sopranos” will mark the end of an era. The weekly Mafia soap opera with R-rated sex, grotesque violence and an indie-film sensibility became a true showbiz phenomenon after its premiere in 1999.

The reason seems clear enough now: Nobody had ever seen gangsters depicted this way — as complicated people with quirky (if monstrous) personalities who found modern life as baffling as the rest of us.

“The Sopranos” occupies a unique place in gangster cinema. Just as specific eras were dominated by individual stars and directors, the gold standard today is James Gandolfini, his co-stars and writer-director-creator David Chase. Gandolfini’s complex performance as a mobster who sees a shrink has defined the Italian-American mobster in popular imagination for the foreseeable future. But the history of gangster movies shows us another reason for the popularity of “The Sopranos”: an unabated public fascination with the underworld.

Specific films in the 1930s stunned audiences with their cruelty and characters who were as charismatic as they were horrifying — James Cagney in “The Public Enemy,” Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesa,” Paul Muni in “Scarface (Universal Cinema Classics).”

Those films set the tone for more than three decades. As late as the mid-’60s the majority of gangster movies were shot in black-and-white.

Robinson would age well, demonstrating a skill for playing sociopaths well into middle age. So would his contemporary Humphrey Bogart. These films, shot at traditional studios, placed the audience at a comfortable distance from the blood-curdling events on screen with their carefully crafted artificiality.

City streets clearly were on back lots or soundstages. Gangsters talked tough but kept it clean for the censors. There was plenty of shooting but hardly a trace of blood.

These same values fueled “The Untouchables,” a 1959-63 TV series set in Chicago in the ’20s. The success of “The Untouchables,” in turn, inspired Roger Corman’s “The St. Valentine's Day Massacre,” a floodlit, back-lot feature memorable for its good cast, lurid violence and color photography.

Corman didn’t know it, but his film, released in the summer of 1967, would be the last of its kind.

Barely six weeks later a very different kind of crime movie, “Bonnie and Clyde,” hit American screens.

“Bonnie and Clyde” set a new standard for realism. Director Arthur Penn shot on Texas locations. Only a handful of shots used soundstages. The dialogue had an improvised feel. He used non-actors in small roles.

He shot through filters that gave the movie a vivid, dust-blown quality, as if we were peering through a window into the past. And the sickening violence culminated with the famous slow-motion ballet of death as Bonnie and Clyde are ambushed by a posse on a dusty back road.

There was no going back.

Five years later came the “Gone With the Wind” of gangster films — “The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece that attracted a mass audience like no gangster movie ever had.

Committing to the new realism, Coppola employed an almost sociological approach to Italian-American rituals. The festivals, weddings, family dinners and crowded streets had a lived-in feel. The violence seemed spontaneous and un-choreographed.

He got a defining performance from Marlon Brando, who was willing to transform himself utterly to play Don Corleone. Brando became the gangster of the ’70s.

More than that, “The Godfather” gave us an epic, multigenerational view of the Mafia. It was a grand family saga that allowed us to sympathize with people willing to use violence to accrue power. Michael Corleone’s dilemma, one we see echoed in “The Sopranos,” was whether to resist joining the “family business” and become a respectable member of the upper middle class or to surrender to family ties too strong to break.

“The Sopranos” shows the influence of Martin Scorsese’s gangster films — “Mean Streets,” “GoodFellas,” “Casino” — but we can trace its lineage directly to “The Godfather.” Just as the first and second “Godfather” films created a collective tragedy — Michael Corleone, the initially reluctant don, becomes so dehumanized that he ultimately orders the murder of his own brother — Tony Soprano is a man who cannot afford to acknowledge his sins.

Indeed, much of the show’s tension and humor stem from its depiction of mobsters trying to emulate middle-class normalcy. They shop at Home Depot. They see therapists. They cruise eBay. They watch cable television. They have traditional Sunday family dinners and try to get their kids into good schools. But no matter how hard they try, they can’t make the clothes fit.

In one episode this season, Tony tells Dr. Melfi that he sees himself as a “good guy,” but by any objective standard he’s really a thug who can knock your teeth out on impulse.

And we should recognize the show’s dramatic roots. It juxtaposes comedy and horror. It gives us a central character struggling with his conscience and haunted by unsettling dreams. It shows us people unable to escape their fate. And it specializes in irony-drenched plotting. All of that adds up to one word: Shakespearean.

But ultimately, what sustains our eagerness for “The Sopranos” is Tony. It’s his unique combination of neuroses, denial and capacity for violence that keeps us glued. James Gandolfini has given us a performance for the ages.

And in Tony we find a cautionary tale. A compartmentalized life can take you only so far. Create a web of secrets so intricate that nobody — your wife, your kids, your friends, your shrink — knows who you really are, and you’re unlikely to meet a tidy end.

Thanks to Robert Trussell

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