Lives of the Gangsters

A while back I wrote about the “outlaw romanzas” that were common in the 1940s following the success of the 1939 film “Jesse James.” Now I would like to discuss what was, in a sense, their follow-up, the series of gangster biographies that sprung up in the closing years of the 1950s and persisted into the early part of the 1960s. In a way the cycles have a chiral relationship. Coming out of the Depression years, and in the wake of a Production Code that banned the glorification of criminals, the outlaw films made Jesse James, Billy the Kid and others palatable by presenting them as basically good people who had been abused by a corrupt system and so took to crime in response to their plight. Just as it had put to stop to films like “Little Caesar” and “Scarface,” the Code had pretty much put films about real-life gangsters off-limits to filmmakers. Thus the two trail-blazers of the 1940s, Robert Florey’s “Roger Touhy, Gangster” (1944) and Max Nosseck’s “Dillinger” (1945) managed to see the light of day only because they were so far removed from the truth that they hardly counted as “bio-pics” at all.

When Don Siegel directed “Baby Face Nelson” from a script by crime novelist Daniel Mainwaring in 1957, the challenge was to “sort-of” tell Nelson’s story–but not in terms so laudatory or inflammatory that the Production Code, aging but still with some teeth, might be forced to intervene. What Siegel and Mainwaring wrought would set the pattern for many of the films to follow. Richard Wilson’s “Al Capone,” Budd Boetticher’s “The Rise and Fall of ‘Legs’ Diamond” would offer broad outlines of their subject’s careers. Others like Roger Corman’s “Machine Gun Kelly” and Burt Balaban’s “Mad Dog Coll” would stray farther from the facts in the service of good yarn. The gangster sagas were mostly about a single warped personality and the havoc he creates before being brought down. (In “Portrait of a Mobster,” Vic Morrow’s Dutch Schultz is liked to a human buzz-saw.) In certain films of the cycle a mythic good cop character would be created to oppose the gangster and preside over his final demise, while in other films of the cycle the gangster proves to be his own worst enemy by either going so far that he repels even his fellow hoods, or simply by falling to adjust to changing times, generally the end of Prohibition but, in some cases, the rise of a nation-wide crime syndicate with little use for “independents.”

The gangster bios offered juicy opportunities for up-and-coming actors, some of whom would become stars, while others would age into seasoned character-actors. Rod Steiger (Capone), Charles Bronson (Kelly) and Peter Falk (Abe “Kid Twist” Reles in “Murder, Inc.”) clearly used these roles as stepping-stones, while others, Vic Morrow (Schultz), and David Janssen (Arnold Rothstein in “King of the Roaring Twenties”) found success in television.

An adjunct to the gangster-bios was a sub-set of films that were best described as “organizational exposes.” Thus Richard Wilson’s “Pay or Die” detailed the activities of New York City’s “Black Hand” while Frank McDonald’s “The Purple Gang” dealt with a notorious Detroit-based crime ring and Stuart Rosenberg and Burt Balaban told the story of the most outrageous organization of all in “Murder, Inc.” Because these films were not about “one man with a plan,” they tended to lack the drive of the full-blown “bio” films with their emphasis on character–Ray Danton’s narcissistic “Legs” who believes that no bullet can kill him or John Davis Chandler’s kill-crazy Vince Coll, billed as a “maniac with a machine gun.”

Just as the “outlaw romanzas” gave way to the Revisionist westerns that depicted the Jesses and the Billys as being far from wronged innocents, so after Nick Adams’ turn as “Young Dillinger” the gangster-bios would morph into the more complex depictions offered by “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” and the John Milius “Dillinger.” But because the Western was the American Yea, revisionist westerns with their darker takes on outlaws and lawmen alike struck closer to the bone. “Bonnie and Clyde,” appearing a scant two years after “Young Dillinger” seemed to suggest that revisionist gangster bios would upend the western model by presenting their subjects in a more flattering light. But because the crime film has always been the American Nay, the revisionist gangster gangster bio, with a few exceptions (Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Clyde Ware’s “The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd”) tended to leave the black sheep black, opting instead to up the allowable quota of violence and, in some cases, sex. Thus Baby Face Nelson remained as much a mouthy psychotic in John Milius’ “Dillinger” and the Coen Brothers “O Brother Where Art Thou” as he had been Don Siegel’s original depiction of him.

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