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Hits, whacks, and smokes: The celluloid Gangster as horror icon
Post Script. 21.3 (Summer 2002): p87+. From Literature Resource Center.
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Horror films abound in contemporary cinema, enriching the genre with innumerable hybrids such as science-fiction horror (Aliens, Virus, Pitch Black), paranormal horror (Stir of Echoes, The Sixth Sense), teen horror (The Faculty, I Know What You Did Last Summer), parody of teen horror (Scary Movie), not to mention new renditions of the good, old-fashioned monster movie (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Interview With the Vampire, Bram Stoker's Dracula). Despite their variations, all of these films rely at least in part on what is traditionally believed to be one of the essential ingredients of horror: the supernatural or mystical unknown. But horror cinema has always had its realist contributions, with Fritz Lang's M (1931), Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), and many others--films which lack a paranormal element, yet often get classified as horror due to their terrifying depiction of seriously disturbed human characters.

Many realist horror films (e.g., The Silence of the Lambs [1991], Seven [1995], and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer [1990]; even such "splatter" movies as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974]) often transcend those that fall squarely in the genre due to their supernatural nature, which raises the question whether or not any generic boundaries can be employed to determine if a particular film qualifies as horror. My own view is that some of the most terrifying realist horror offerings in the cinema are better known as gangster movies, and the primary suggestion of this essay is that we include the iconic celluloid gangster in the brotherhood of established American horror icons. A relatively recent and wildly popular example would be Brian DePalma's 1983 version of Scarface, a film which combines elements of suspense, horror, and mayhem far exceeding what many supernaturally-based narratives could offer. This film's distinctive appeal to younger audiences can be traced to its grisly, stark depiction of gang v iolence--unlike the symbolically brutal 1932 original directed by Howard Hawks. However, the horrific elements of gangster films were in place decades before DePalma's remake.


Explicitly stylized scenes of carnage have been essential to this genre since the conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the toll booth scene in The Godfather (1972). Which is not to say that, prior to these films, the gangster genre was without its appalling, frightful sequences, whether overt or implied. An example of implied horror would be the scene from The Public Enemy (1931) in which a middle-aged man sits down at the piano and begins playing a song from his youth. The player laughs nervously as two younger men look on, one of them with a gun aimed at the player's head. In the frame, however, all we see is the second younger man with a countenance of fearful anticipation. The player continues with his song until he falls from a shot fired from the unseen gunman as the younger man looks on in horror. This scene would hardly evoke terror from today's audiences, and its deliberate pacing might even turn off less attentive viewers. But The Public Enemy also features more explicit acts of terror, includi ng ruthless killers pumping metal from tommyguns into victims who refused to obey gang orders.

Ever since the early 19830s gangster cycle--a cycle which includes Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy, and Scarface-- gangsters have been privileged members of Hollywood's human monster club, "real" killers who have frightened and bedazzled audiences with their seemingly omnipotent control over victims and limitless lust for blood. Although organized crime film icons such as Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), and Tom Powers (James Cagney) have captivated audiences for decades, as do their successors in numerous contemporary mob movies, they have not quite been regarded as "horror characters," those whom we generally regard as the genuine players of the genre, ranging from the Wolf Man to Freddy Krueger. But considering the filmic gangster's innate ability to terrorize his onscreen victims and shock his audiences, supernatural origin and powers would be superfluous here, since his breed already encompasses a side of humanity that few would label "normal." Even if a rival gangster whacks him, or if he winds up frying in the chair, there are dozens more ready to take his place. The very word "gangster," implying as it does one out of a possible many, can conjure up the image of an overwhelming number of monsters and an eternity of torture, whereas most ghostly or "undead" monsters (save for the zombie hordes in films such as Night of the Livind Dead [1968]) strike alone and momentarily. Consequently, the supernatural element so crucial to horror films such as Dracula (1931), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Halloween (1978) becomes somewhat redundant when a fully human antagonist leaves his audience with the threat of (re-)incarnation through an upcoming protege in the ranks.

So where does the gangster film stand with respect to the horror genre? Considering the violence inherent in fictional and nonfictional narratives of organized crime activities, the horrific nature of shakedowns, hits, and scare tactics that contribute to the morbid fascination audiences have with these films places many (though not all) of them at least within the periphery of the horror genre. Even at the moral level, gangsters are usually portrayed as subhuman abominations. Referring to the early 30s gangster cycle, Thomas Doherty points out that the three films listed above "... evenhandedly parcel out social pathology and sexual aberration: homosexuality (Little Caesar), misogyny (The Public Enemy), and incest (Scarface)" (146). And there is little mystery why, by this time, gangster films were being systematically banned from theaters across the nation, thanks to "pressure from ministers, women's clubs and civic organizations" (Black 1994: 121). Unlike horror films featuring vampires, zombies, gremlins, space aliens, ghosts, and a whole host of other stock monsters, the supernatural does not figure at all in the gangster film, nor is it an element necessary for terrifying viewers.

The quintessential icon in this case would be Tony Camonte, the avaricious nihilist of Howard Hawke's 1932 Scarface, who terrorizes Chicago not only with his quick-triggered ambition but his alien looks and manners. One cannot underestimate the significance of the immigrant's threat to white, Protestant American culture during the Depression era, when strict anti-immigration laws were checking the successive waves of impoverished southern Italians. Tony Camonte typifies the horror of facing a superflux of alterity in the darker races' immigration into major US cities. In fact, both Scarface and Little Caesar magnify the perceived horror of unrestrained immorality descending upon this country by aliens, i.e., the Southern Italians.

If the supernatural or fantasy worlds of traditional horror cinema rely on the unknown and on the personal fears of individual viewers, the swarthy immigrant gangster by contrast evokes public and societal anxieties. Jonathan Munby argues that with respect to the threats posed by early 20th century immigrants, Prohibition "... was an act born out of anxieties about consumerism's corrosion of the puritan work ethic... [T]his fear cannot be separated from a concomitant fear of the 'new' and hyphenated American" (32). The "cultural Other," as Munby puts it, threatens the social and cultural status quo through his selling of drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, or gambling opportunities, vices that corrode the moral foundation of a community.

Doherty notes that, "Like most organs of American popular culture, Hollywood preferred to portray the gangster as a foreign infestation rather than a homegrown plague. In the city, from immigrant blood, he springs from alien sources and perverse impulses. Though a product of America, the gangster was demonized as a swarthy stranger whose name ended in a vowel" (140). Thus, even the origin of the cinematic gangster is associated with "perverse" and "alien" elements in the popular imagination, and is therefore unnatural and somehow not quite human. There is no mystery or element of the ethereal in this metaphoric plague, unlike the literal plague that strikes a community in The Stand (1994), nor is there an alien invasion as in Independence Day (1996). Gangsters are spawned from the community itself, and subsequently work from the inside. They peddle desired vice to their willing neighbors, which, considered holistically, is a more insidious danger than actual disease. Consequently, their horror is generated fr om moral and cultural fears, relying on the exaggerated imaginations of viewers. One need not "believe in" gangsters as one might consider the possible existence of monsters and space aliens. Gangster films captivate and frighten audiences without that "suspension of disbelief" required when watching a vampire movie. The gangster exists in reality as well as on the screen, whether as part of an organized crime family, neighborhood youth gangs, or the local high school's reprobate crowd. Their sheer numbers serve to magnify the fears of the mainstream.

Creating a moral monster out of a criminal celebrity increases his ability to terrorize not just his victims, but society as a whole. Al Capone is the prototype for Tony in 1932's Scarface and Rico in Little Caesar, but in order to underscore the cultural and moral terror he invoked in people, depicting his criminal behavior was insufficient. In both of these films, Capone's fictional counterparts became unnatural monsters at the level of sexuality. Though Rico's downfall is ultimately precipitated by greed and pride, he seems even more horrifying in scenes that strenuously suggest his homosexual desire for Joe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and his jealousy following Joe's rejection of him for Olga (Glenda Farrell). In one startling scene, Rico at the height of his power declares that he no longer needs Joe, while stretching out on the bed with his soldier crawling next to him.

Rico's homosexual proclivity is noted in Doherty's description of this iconic character: "A diminutive bandit whose single-minded ambition compensates less for his stature than his repressed homosexual desire, Caesar Enrico Bandello is compact, swarthy, and tightly wound; his golden boy pal Joe... is tall, patrician and easy going" (146). To read this film in terms of its subtextual medieval theology, it seems that the main culprit is Rico's monumental pride, since it affects every aspect of his being. Next to Joe, who has the desire to work legitimately (as a night club dancer) and love within the bounds of moral rectitude (his beautiful partner, Olga), Rico's desire is for absolute power, and this means that he stays only with men and insists that they stay with him. He even pursues Joe and urges him to return to the fold; and he perceives Olga as a threat not just to their friendship, but to his business as well. The upshot of Little Caesar's homoerotic slant, then, is Rico's hold on the weak and ambivalen t character who finds himself unable to escape the mob's web. The real horror of this film is not so much the disintegration of social welfare that Rico perpetrates on the city, but his own moral decay and the downfall of those he permeates with his moral poison.

To emphasize the depravity of Rico's wickedness, the supernatural symbolism of hellfire recurs between scenes of his personal and public crimes. In its focus on eschatological concerns, the film mediates elements of what is in effect a morality play. Sin itself is the true monster, and Rico is Everyman caught up in its grasp. The scriptural quote, "Those who live by the sword die by the sword" precedes the narrative, suggesting that the following story should be taken allegorically as well as fictionally. Munby notes that Little Caesar's author, W.R. Burnett, saw the narrative at an abstract or universal level as "allegoriz[ing] the corrosive features of modern capitalist society" (45-46). The sexually decentered representation of the mobster, then, validates the moral protocols of mainstream (i.e., WASP) America. As in medieval theology and fictional narratives starring that original band of moral gangsters, the Seven Deadly Sins, one sin always leads to another, greater sin, or else additional sins are alre ady implicit in the initial act. The sexual depravity of the gangster here verifies his total degeneration and ultimate damnation. Compared to Marlowe's Faust, another willful sinner, Rico spurns last minute reprieves, and his physical death merely precipitates his spiritual damnation. He utters the famous line, "Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Rico?" after realizing what he has lost in his refusal to repent.

If Little Caesar depicts the alien gangster with what is coded as an inherently immoral preference for homosexuality, Hawks' Scarface expresses a similar moral depravity in Tony's obsession for his nubile sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak). His unbridled lust for power leads him to treat his sister as a jealous husband would treat his flirtatious wife. The implied incestuous relationship is iterated in several scenes, and is almost mentioned explicitly when Cesca complains, "You don't treat me like a sister. You treat me like a, a. . . I don't know what...!" Her silence suggests that Tony's sin is too horrifying to utter and, perhaps, that she cannot bring herself to acknowledge that the desire is mutual. In the case of both Rico and Tony, the repulsive nature of their criminal souls intensifies exponentially with the decay of their sexuality, thereby making them monstrous and predatory in the moral sense as well as in the social sense.

Limitless terrorization and lethal consequences have always been essential facets of the gang film's appeal. Audiences are at once repulsed and fascinated by the cold-blooded mob bosses Rico and Tony, and partly in response to their robust attraction for many viewers, the film industry and its censors claimed in 1932 that Scarface would constitute the end rather than the beginning of the gangster film cycle. And just recently, David Remnick has predicted that with the real mob's gradual demise, the filmic mob's demise will soon follow (21). Nevertheless, the proliferation of "true crime" narratives featuring tell-all biographies of ex-mob members has spawned a legion of devoted viewers fascinated by their gruesome escapades, and may be eclipsed in popularity only by biographies of serial killers. But mobsters such as Sammy "The Bull" Gravanno often boast of having more victims than many serial murderers, and the nature of their disposal methods can rival the worst in horror fiction. A recent episode of HBO's America Undercover, "The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hit Man" (2001)--not coincidentally following the hit series, The Sopranos--features the infamous Richard Kulkinsky, who describes his gory occupation for the camera. The narrator meanwhile provides background on the Ice Man's boss: "DeMeo's hideout was a shop of horrors where bodies were chopped up and prepared for disposal." Such horrific activities are just "part of the job" in gangland, as it were, and their fictionalization on the screen yields undeniably compelling entertainment.


But what keeps audiences attracted to these stories of criminals and their casual mayhem? It may have something to do with the presence of actual gangs in contemporary society. We read about them in gossip columns and watch their exploits almost daily on various news programs and documentaries, but they also offer a strange combination and horror that appeals to the imagination in a manner unlike the fantastic, preternatural monsters of traditional horror movies.

Often the supernatural manifests itself in the realistic image of the archetypal screen gangster. A recent episode of The Sopranos ("The Pine Barrens," #37) features a rival Russian gang member surviving both a strangling and a gunshot wound to the head, thereby haunting Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Chris (Michael Imperioli) as they leave the woods. The episode and the 2001 season conclude with no final word on their supposed victim, leaving both the audience and the characters wondering if the Russian is still alive. There is an indication that his Chechnyan commando training has instilled in him superhuman powers, or, as Paulie comments, "He's like fuckin' Rasputin!"

Perhaps just as essential as the mysterious and superhuman aspects of many horror icons is the aberrant mental state of others. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) naturally rule in the realm of realist horror, but gangster films have provided audiences with their own emblematic and terrifying lunatics. Capone-like figures such as Rico and Tony may represent the larger crime organization, but Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in Kiss of Death (1947) proves to be just as frightening at an individual level. Widmark's portrayal of this psychotic smalltime hood raises a seemingly harmless figure to monster status during the horrific scene in which he throws an invalid old woman down a flight of stairs. Next to Nick, played by the strapping Victor Mature, Udo seems weak and ineffectual, but he nevertheless manages to terrorize his victims to desperation. He too continually manages to escape the law, though not in a superhuman manner. Although the district attorney assures Nick that Udo's murder trial will result in a conviction, Udo is found not guilty, thereby giving him another life.

The element of insanity in Udo's personality is captured and magnified by James Cagney as Cody Jarrett, the diminutive psychopathic gangster in White Heat (1949). Cody's horrific death comes in the violent conflagration of a gas fire, reflecting his destruction of his enemies and cohorts. Similarly, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) in Key Largo (1948) taunts and terrorizes his captors more through his sadistic personality than through actual violence. Perhaps in keeping with the reigning MPAA Code, the anti-heroes of many later films emphasized the gangster's sadism and derangement rather than his penchant for actual violence (Dargis 16). Nevertheless, these characters' brutal natures loomed over the screen like toxic clouds or swarming insects in science-fiction horror, or like hoards of the undead in supernatural horror.

Martin Scorsese's most celebrated mob characters also derive their penchant for terror from mental abnormalities. Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) of Mean Streets (1973) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) of Goodfellas (1990) both border on insanity, which makes them even more threatening and unpredictable than their rational partners. Furthermore, the comedy that proceeds from these characters' mental instability magnifies the horror that they evoke by adding to it elements of suspense, surprise, and absurdity. In Goodfellas, for example, Tommy is most lethal when he abruptly shifts from the role of amusing raconteur to unpredictable sadist, as when he suddenly smashes a glass into a restaurant proprietor's forehead, or when he launches into a vicious kicking attack on Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) after this made man teases Tommy about the latter's days as a shoeshine boy. Pesci's portrayal of this evil clown, whose crimes start out as jokes but end up as tragedies, is nothing short of macabre. In another scene, Tommy a muses his fellow card players by shooting Spider (Michael Imperioli), a young gofer, in the foot, but the joke becomes fatal when Spider later says, "Hey, Tommy. Go fuck yourself." Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Henry (Ray Liotta) jocularly ask Tommy if he is going to take that from the kid, and Tommy responds by murdering Spider. Tommy's act is so horrific that he shocks even this group of inveterate gangsters.

Just as Scorcese co-opted paradigms of volatile characters from classic Hollywood gangster films, David Chase's The Sopranos is informed by the canonized horrors of Tommy Udo, Cody Jarrett, and Tommy DeVito, all of whom maim and kill at whim. In Episode 8, "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti," Chris shoots a bakery clerk in the foot for not having the right bread, commenting casually, "These things happen sometimes." Indeed they do, and a knowing audience catches both the allusion from Goodfellas (the actor who originally played the victim now in the role of shooter) and the suggestion that Chris's violence has been learned from the screen.

Many of The Sopranos' episodes foreground grisly, terrifying violence in the comic mode. It is simply not enough to brutally murder a squealer, and Jimmy Altieri's (Joseph Badalucco Jr.) demise in "I Dream of Jeanie Cusamano" (1999) exemplifies the excessive outrages suffered by a mob's victim. Not only is Jimmy riddled with bullets, but the transgression is punctuated by the symbolic effect of a rat stuffed in his mouth. Satriale's meat market, a gang meeting place, also serves as a shredding and disposal preparation center for fatalities, bringing a whole new meaning to the term "waste management." In Episode 25, "The Knight in White Satin Armor," Tony's sister Janice (Aida Turturro) murders her fiance, Richie Aprile (David Provale), and Tony takes the body to Satriale's for dismemberment prior to an assuredly anonymous burial. As the industrial saw severs the corpse's limbs, Chris comments to Furio (Federico Castelluccio), "I'm not eatin' anything from here for at least seven months." For almost every grue some murder or shakedown on The Sopranos, there is a violent, absurdist comic element as well. After Richie runs over (and over, and over) Beansie (Paul Herman) in a parking lot in Episode 16, he lands in the hospital with numerous metal bracees; Tony asks, "Do you get the Jets on that thing?" But according to the gangster's code, reverence for the victim would transgress an honorable act, so a caustic, pitiless attitude preserves the survivors from the victims' fate.

This impassive approach to murder and mayhem implies that the criminal must be cavalier and relentless in degrading his victims. Tony Camonte says it best: "Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it." But whereas The Sopranos features crude, dark humor to horrify audiences, Tony Camonte dehumanizes his victims by whistling the famous sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti's masterpiece concerning rival aristocratic Scottish "gangs" in the 17th century. To those familiar with Italian opera, the irony should not go unnoticed, especially considering the contrast between the horror of Lucia's insane assault on her bridegroom and Tony's lucid, calculating murders.

Many of Hollywood's post-Code gangsters, however, not only lost most of their horrific elements--they also became more level-headed, perhaps signifying an effort to "clean up" the screen by making the leading mobster somewhat sympathetic, especially as juxtaposed with the hardened gangster who serves as his antagonist. Films such as The Petrified Forrest (1936), The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), even the comically inept gangsters in Each Dawn I Die (1939) and the waggish thugs in All Through the Night (1942) lack the elements of horror and explicit carnage that branded the earlier mob films. Instead of a Rico or a Tony flashing his power through a rabid testosterone-induced spray of machine gun bullets, the post-Code gangster, such as Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) in The Roaring Twenties, captivates the audience with his boyish charm and secret soft-hearted side. Eddie still has the macho tough guy persona that Cagney played in The Public Enemy, but he no longer terrifies the public space. In each of the above-mentioned films, the protagonist is a gangster (in Each Dawn I Die, the protagonist is aided by a gangster), but one who was coerced into crime by unfortunate circumstances and who ultimately redeems himself by defeating a malevolent rival. Ironically, then, the post-Code gangster glorified the profession far more than his pre-Code counterpart.

But this moderating effect did not endure. In the 1960s, gangsters assumed a patina of respectability with mild outward manners and pretensions of virtue, similar to the morphic powers of Dracula. In Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Michael Corelone (Al Pacino) changes from a mild-mannered, college-educated war hero into a ruthless, "cold blooded monster," as his sister puts it after he murders her husband. Her choice of words signifies the random cruelty and mercilessness that afflicts anyone, regardless of blood or business, who transgresses the "Family" code of honor. The Godfather: Part II (1974) similarly concludes with Michael's fratricidal hit on Fredo (John Cazale)--an ultimate act of treachery.

In modifying the iconic cinematic gangster, Coppola portrayed a more elite class of thugs who adhere to a protocol of stylized violence. Although Vito Coreleone (Marlon Brando in Part I; Robert De Niro in Part II) belongs to the same alien ethnic class as Tony Camonte, he and his second-generation heirs have managed to assimilate, perhaps not into the mainstream of American culture, but certainly into its legal and economic power structure. This sleek representation of Mafiosi does not glorify the mobster's image, but presents him as an even more terrifying, insidious monster who at times appears to be a noble, benevolent man of honor. In The Godfather, both Vito and Michael are alternately portrayed as gentle, wise family men and ruthless, degenerate killers. Our horrified reaction to the severed horse's head in the bed depends upon the element of sudden shock that dominates this scene, its owner screaming as if he himself had been mutilated. To conclude this ugly spectacle. Coppola cuts to a tight shot of t he Don relaxing at home with a casual, even carefree, expression and an indifferent wave of his hand, as if to comment, "It's all in a day's work."

Just as The Godfather shows the mobster's mutating forays from monster to gentleman, Goodfellas emphasizes his innate seedy nihilism. A few choice scenes illustrate the dark comedic mode that is characteristic of Scorsese's art. The ad hoc burial and subsequent exhumation of Billy Batts exemplifies the normalcy with which the mob approaches acts usually reserved for ghoulish, undead monsters straight out of Stephen King novels, the only difference being that the mob operates in this manner in the "real" world. Every criminal act of Paulie Cicero's (Paul Sorvino) gang exemplifies routine procedure. Les Keyser explains that "Scorsese wanted to avoid the mythical dimensions of Coppola's Godfather saga and instead capture everyday actualities. He told Gavin Smith that for him The Godfather was 'epic poetry, like Morte D'Arthur'; his 'stuff,' Scorsese maintained, 'is like some guy on the streetcar talking"' (201). But for his audience, these ordinary guys operate in a paradigm of privilege and freedom that ordinar y mortals can only imagine.

For this reason, Henry Hill's (Ray Liotta) overt running commentary lends an almost humanizing note to his gory tale, although the ironic upshot of a career criminal justifying his actions to an uninitiated audience cannot go undetected. Seymour Chatman elucidates this narratological phenomenon in Story and Discourse: "the overt narrator's capacity to judge goes far beyond adjectives and descriptive phrases; it evokes a whole epistemology and argues the matter in a discursive, rhetorical way. In so doing it presupposes a set of norms quite contrary to the one that the implied audience presumably entertains" (243). Henry's wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), validates his rhetoric by commenting that it wasn't long before everything her husband did "seemed normal."

Prior to Goodfellas, though, one of the most enduring gangster icons of the last twenty years is Scarface's Tony Montana (Al Pacino), whom Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone (as screenwriter) depict as anything but normal. In her essay, "Brian De Palma's Horror Films," Allison Graham only briefly refers to this filmmaker's most terrifying character; compared to the satanic, personal realm of the eponymous Carrie (Sissy Spacek), however, Tony threatens not only those who have injured him but society as a whole. He does this primarily through drugs, which brings about a widespread, random mode of violence and destruction. Graham does point out, however, that De Palma's Tony reveals a monumental thirst for power when he says, "Me? I want what's coming to me... the world, Chico, and everything in it"; and she explains that the world does, indeed, come to him (142), establishing Tony's potential for terrorization of an entire society.

The traditional horror paradigm is fundamental to this film. De Palma sets up his notorious buzzsaw scene according to the traditional suspense structure of horror by panning off the victim a moment prior to the violent attack, thereby creating a false sense of security for the viewer. After several moments of frivolity between Manny (Steven Bauer) and a bikinied blonde on the street below, the camera returns to Angel (Pepe Serna)'s head half sawed off, accompanied by the obligatory splatter effects. As one victim goes down, the scene concludes with a spray of automatic gunfire, and Tony executes his rival at close range in the street. This scene helps to establish Tony's eventual stature as not only a seemingly indestructible despot, but an intrepid warrior. Such gradual character construction may not conform to traditional horror narratives whereby the monster arrives on the scene already endowed with superhuman powers, but it does demonstrate how a powerless, impoverished refugee can build a reputation for terror, and eventually menace a major American city.

Most importantly, the appeal of this film is grounded not only in its excessive violence and flashy contemporary setting, but in the perverse relationship that the audience develops with Tony. Although he is not a particularly sympathetic character, he is certainly a compelling and dazzling anti-hero, as much as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy. Of course, much of the allure in question derives from the intense, captivating acting styles of Pacino and Cagney, but the characters on the screen take on a life of their own and have become icons of popular culture.

It is particularly noteworthy that De Palma's Tony has evoked both admiration and horror in many viewers, and since this film adheres to the horror mode in so many respects, sympathy for the devil, as Noel Carroll puts it, is generated for the eponymous antagonist. Carroll explains that "Sympathy for the devil is a recurring theme in horror fiction ... generally due to the fact that the moral assessment of the monster in the story, or the grounds for the audience's moral evaluation of the monster, have been shifted in the monster's favor" (143). Tony does not elicit sympathy, nor does he merit morality points. Instead, he seduces the viewer with his overwhelming power as one man against a multitude of criminal forces--even though he is an inveterate criminal himself. Despite whatever identification the audience might form with Tony, his demise is essential to the narrative, since the conventional implication of his death would be that the social order is restored--at least temporarily--after a period of chaos . In this version of the film, however, Tony perishes at the hands of a rival gang rather than the police. Although such closure probably imitates life more accurately than the traditional denouement of death by police fire as in the 1932 Scarface, it leaves the viewer with a lingering impression of fear and uneasiness. Similar to the monsters of traditional horror narratives, the gangster always maintains a space for his return in various forms. They are the "undead" of social pariahs.

In New Jack City (1991), Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) exemplifies yet another urban drug lord who terrorizes an entire community in the style of his cinematic mentor, Tony Montana, threatening his victims with random violence while ravishing them with crack. From a social standpoint, the Cash Money Brothers' grasp on the Carter building is no less frightening than King Kong on the Empire State Building or aliens attacking the White House. Even the renegade cops, Scotty (Ice-T) and Nick (Judd Nelson), fail to overpower the gang via unorthodox and perilous methods. Towards the end, the District Attorney's case against Nino is dismissed on a technicality and, like Tommy Udo, he seems as immortal as a vampire until a seemingly innocuous character guns him down.

The sympathy that such a character might elicit, however, does not imply that his downfall is tragic in the same manner as the Frankenstein monster's demise. Siegfried Kracauer argues that the gangster's "sufferings in the wake of adverse circumstances and unfortunate destiny are often called tragic...," but "the gangster who prefers death at the hands of the police to capture and punishment [does not] bear any resemblance to the tragic hero" (265). Traditionally speaking, tragedy implies a sense of human nobility, as with the Frankenstein monster; whereas the iconic gangster, be it Tony Camonte or Tony Montana, proves to be inhumanly malicious and abjectly immoral.

Rooting for a monster may not seem all that absurd when he disguises himself as an indulgent father or a caring son or brother. He can be a picaresque figure who holds the power to remedy social injustices and personal injuries. One can lose judicious perception quite easily when Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his henchman rough up a remiss and indifferent doctor on a golf course. Likewise, viewers may hope that Tony will whack Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano) for beating to death his goomah, a young, rather pathetic "exotic dancer." Tony distinguishes himself from the gang by holding out some sympathy for her, if only as a result of his subconsciously comparing her with his temporarily estranged daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). The stripper approached him as a father figure, oddly enough, and Tony is not wholly offended. Such instances of compassion or empathy, no matter how brief, can lure viewers into a false sense of identification with the villain, and may cause them to forget that Tony is a ruthless c rime boss who kills for business and pleasure ("I wish it was me in there," he confides to his psychiatrist, referring to Furio's savage shakedown of a reluctant brothel proprietor). This is especially the case during sentimental, almost childlike moments when the villain is seen alone watching old movies, feeding ducks, or spoiling his children. But this dualistic representation makes him even more treacherous in that we may momentarily forget that he has killed his best friend, ruined his childhood companion's business, and burnt down another friend's restaurant.

As Bill Tonelli explains,

The men on The Sopranos do what most men, in their hearts, wish they could do: spend time with one another out and about, idle and unrestrained by the civilizing presence of women in their workplace, free to drink, smoke, curse, eat thick sandwiches of meat and cheese and carry guns and fat rolls of large-denomination bills. They freely commit violence and fornicate, the very things men still do best but are most vigorously denied by contemporary codes of acceptable conduct. (The New York Times 3/2/01)

But if these men are mortal--and moral--monsters, is it only because they are not bound by conventional social etiquette? I think not. Most of their appeal, it seems, derives from the comedic paradigm in which they operate. Because of their highly caricatured personas, we find them perhaps more endearing than threatening, but this is, once again, the treachery of their appeal.

Recent episodes on The Sopranos have foregrounded the horrific side of the mob, departing little from the true crime incidents this fiction represents. Another Times article claims that "with the mob's reality so emphasized and illustrated by convincing characterizations, viewers absorb both entertainment and horrific realism that rarely surfaces in traditional cinema." Regarding the level of violence on the series, Caryn James comments that,

while the blood, beatings and deaths have kept everyone buzzing, from ordinary viewers to the president of NBC, the more important issue goes beyond how much splatter appears on screen. For the first time, this season's Sopranos relied heavily on violence directed against innocents, especially women, characters not involved in Tony's mob career... Series creator, David Chase, has done more than escalate the brutality. He has kept the series honest, true to the lethal consequences of a mob boss's life. (5/19/01)

Not surprisingly, this emphasis on fierce reality has attracted more viewers than it has alienated. Bill Carter, also of The Times, has noted that "The Sopranos has been a bigger hit than ever this season, scoring ratings in its initial broadcasts on Sunday night that have frequently eclipsed those on the broadcast networks. . . [and] has achieved this despite being in only about a third as many homes as the networks" (5/21/01). Perhaps, then, the lure of the horrifying wields more fascination for a contemporary audience that has been desensitized to the big screen's violent spectacles. Similar to younger audiences' fascination with the De Palma Scarface, Sopranos viewers continue to be drawn in by the horrifying suspense generated by point-blank executions and whacks with nine irons, which are, in the long run, both shocking and absurdly comic.

The lure of gangland horrors will undoubtedly continue to captivate audiences for the forseeable future. TNT is about to air yet another rendition of the John Gotti story, and with soldiers and consiglieri like Sammy The Bull (who boasts of having committed more than 19 murders), the lone serial killer, or even the ever-recrudescent vampire, seems rather inefficient in the terror department.

Works Cited

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Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart. London: Routledge, 1990.

Carter, Bill. "NBC Executive Raises Issues on Sopranos." The New York Times, May 2, 2001.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.

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James, Caryn. "The Sopranos: Violence Rises on TV, but On This HBO Show, It Makes a Point." The New York Times, May 22, 2001.

Keyser, Les. Martin Scorsese. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Kracauer, Siegfried. The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Remnick, David. "Is This the End of Rico?" The New Yorker 4/1/2001: 21+.

Teachout, Terry. "The Sopranos: Things We Can't Miss, and Things We Can't Forget." The New York Times, May 20,2001.

Tonelli, Bill. "A Sopranos Secret: Given the Choice, We'd All Be Mobsters." The New York Times, March 4, 2001.

CATHERINE DON DIEGO received her MA ftom Michigan State University and teaches Humanities at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, New York. Her undergraduate work was done at Hofstra University, and she taught English for three years at Central Michigan University.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Diego, Catherine Don. "Hits, whacks, and smokes: The celluloid Gangster as horror icon." Post Script, Summer 2002, p. 87+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 22 Apr. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A95501720