If the Hollywood western set out an American foundation myth for the first fifty years of popular cinema, then the Mafia movie took over with a darker vision for the past forty. Western heroes were all Anglo-Saxon individualists, steeped in rugged Protestant decency, striving for the rights of the ‘little man’ against supposedly uncivilised hordes of pagan aboriginals, superstitious Catholic Mexicans, or the twisted mirror-image of themselves (outlaws, corporate-minded Easterners, corrupt sheriffs, etc.) Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) acknowledged for the first time that not all US citizens were descended from north Europeans, that American individualism was all about free enterprise in business, and that those two facts had created a far more complex and less innocent basis for the society in which most of his countrymen lived. The racism which had excluded Italian immigrants from the Anglo establishment gave rise to alternative social structures, based on ethnic clan loyalties; the free enterprise principle that profit should be made by whatever means could be got away with involved the bypassing and manipulation of that establishment’s rules. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra portrayed in the first two Godfather movies (Part II in 1974) is criminal and violent, but also social and, within its own terms of reference, recognisably moral. That’s what makes these a new kind of film about US social history, as well as compelling stories. Brian de Palma did the same kind of thing for the Hispanic criminal underworld with Scarface (1983), Sergio Leone for Jewish gangsters in Once Upon a Time in America (1984.)
Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar)
By the time the Coen Brothers made Miller’s Crossing (1990) the struggle between Italians, Jews, Anglos, Hispanics, Irish, and, to a lesser extent, African-Americans, for dollars and the nation’s soul (which may or may not be the same thing) was an established cinematic paradigm. Being the Coens, though, this was never going to be a simple genre piece. On one level, the film is a blackly comic pastiche of everybody else’s gangster movie. It opens with an outraged Sicilian mobster (Johnny Caspar) decrying to an Irish gang boss (Leo O’Bannion) the dubious ethics of a renegade Jewish grifter (Bernie Birnbaum) who has shortened the odds on a fixed boxing-match, thus diminishing his gambling profits. It involves a ménage à trois between Bannion, his ‘moll’ Verna – a cynic from Central Casting and Birnbaum’s sister to boot – and his lieutenant, Tom Reagan, who gives every indication of not caring a damn about her. In the course of the action, Reagan is subjected to a series of savage beatings which in the real world would have killed or incapacitated him, sustaining no more injury than a cut lip. In several early scenes, O’Bannion is shown dictating to the Mayor and Police Chief as though they were underlings; in a later one, the now-dominant Caspar does the same thing. There are crosses and double-crosses galore.
L-R: Albert Finney (Leo O'Bannion), Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna Birnbaum)
So far, so parodic. But just as Coppola and Leone, inter alia, demonstrate the workings of politics and the wider mechanisms of business in the activities of organised crime, so the Coens introduce the cock-up theory of history into the mix. Reagan, now apparently working for Johnny Caspar (keep up !) takes pity on Birnbaum, whom he has been instructed to murder, and allows him to escape on condition he leave town without trace. Whereupon he reappears in Reagan’s own apartment to manipulate the situation to his own reckless financial advantage. The gang war prompted by his chiselling fizzles out. Caspar himself is murdered by Reagan, who also (finally) takes out Birnbaum. O’Bannion is restored, diminished, to top-dog status, with Verna agreeing to marry him but Reagan refusing his offer of re-employment. The solidarity within all camps – Sicilian, Irish and Jewish – is fatally compromised. Reagan is the last man left standing, largely because his ruthlessness, cynicism and ability to take a beating exceed those of any of the other players, but it is a moot point how long this is likely to last. He might be killed next week, or he might go on to found his own mob and be brought down years later in a replay of the kind of machinations in which he has just played a part. His bloody-mindedness and individualism, like a perverted version of that of the cowboy-heroes cited earlier, have allowed him to outwit the collectivities and corporations among which he moves, but the price is solitude and unknowability, and we're all aware they will not protect him indefinitely. He is as blank as Melville’s Samouraï, and as doomed.
John Turturro (Bernie Birnbaum)