Movies that are married to the Mob
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, July 24, 1999)

When Francis Ford Coppola's first Godfather movie came to Brooklyn in 1972, one of the many young men who went to see it was Salvatore Gravano, later known to the world and the witness protection program as Sammy the Bull, professional killer and government testifier. Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain told the story in Gotti: Rise and Fall, which was published three summers ago and is now largely forgotten, the fate of most Mafia books.

The Mob can still yield bestsellers, but it's a crowded, highly competitive field: The other night, I asked the Library of Congress computer how many of its books are concerned with the Mafia and received an answer that will probably startle even those who follow true-crime writing: 555.

Still, the modest contribution of Capeci and Mustain deserves to be remembered, if nothing else, for the phrase they used to describe what The Godfather did for Gravano and his friends -- it sent them "gloriously floating out of theatres." Inspired, Gravano became a talented Mafia soldier and then an executioner. He killed or helped kill 19 people before finally turning against his boss, John Gotti, and helping to send him (and three dozen lesser fry) to prison.

On reflection, Gravano has decided he liked the movie better than the actual Mafia, where he found "no honour . . . no respect. Everything is a double-cross."

He was not the first to be surprised and affronted by morals in the Mob. Even Al Capone, who beat a man to death with a baseball bat while his associates held the man's arms, publicly expressed alarm over warfare among Mafia families. "There is enough business for all of us without killing each other like animals in the streets," he said 70-some years ago. Perhaps there was, but what made him think that young men chosen for their willingness to deal out violence would not act like animals, i.e., kill to achieve their career goals?

None of this everyday horror surprised Mario Puzo, whose recent death has produced another wave of praise for his bizarre accomplishments, above all his novel The Godfather. "They're not my Mafia," one of the obits quoted him as saying, meaning the real-life Gottis and their colleagues. "My Mafia is a very romanticized myth." As an artist, Puzo wanted to separate his several Mafia novels and his own reputation from the array of psychopathic killers, drug merchants, pimps, kidnappers, loan sharks and extortionists who, for four generations, have done all in their power to corrupt the societies of North America, Italy and several other places. He wanted to be considered an upstanding citizen and an honest craftsman. And, by God, he got away with it.

Alfred Hitchcock used to say that the audience has no morals, meaning that you can get people who are watching a movie to identify with a killer in a tight spot if you do it cleverly enough. He demonstrated this truth in several movies, but never managed anything like the trick pulled off by Puzo, Coppola and other filmmakers. These people sold the idea that a genuine menace to society can still be an honourable fellow.

That's what Gravano saw on the screen in 1972, and what millions of us have been seeing since. Has ever evil been so beautifully packaged? Milton in Paradise Regained famously showed us the attractiveness of Satan, but that was just one long poem, not a generation's worth of melodrama and comedy, and Milton had a serious point to make.

Coppola's Godfather movies introduced a new tone, a kind of solemn dignity, to Mafia entertainment. He admired his mobsters from a distance, as grand and impressive if rather cold and businesslike. Martin Scorsese, in Mean Streets (1973), depicted apprentice Mafia soldiers as touchingly troubled young men, misunderstood by their elders. Later, in GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Scorsese's characters (and the great star he helped shape, Robert De Niro) grew older but not wiser. Scorsese encouraged us to see the world from their point of view. This is an approach also often taken on TV, though Law & Order remains a major exception. It handles the Mafia with tongs and, when a gang boss shows up as a character, not a trace of sentimentality attaches to him. He's clearly identified as a form of vermin.

But Mike Newell's 1997 film, Donnie Brasco, a well-crafted instance of Mafiadolotry, manages to put the mobster on a higher moral plane than the FBI. Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a minor, rather melancholy soldier in the Mafia ranks, comes across as a decent guy, much put upon; there's nothing wrong with him except his practice of killing and maiming people. By comparison, the FBI man, the pseudonymous Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), begins to seem ruthlessly ambitious; he becomes a sympathetic character only when he shows affectionate sympathy for Ruggiero. Our last glimpse of Ruggiero leaves us with a lingering image of his thoughtfulness. He's stoically reconciled to his inevitable death, the result of his having mistakenly introduced the FBI man into the Mob. Summoned to a meeting that he knows will end with his execution, he carefully removes his cufflinks and rings, leaving them behind for his wife. Who wouldn't admire a thoughtful guy like that?

In March, Harold Ramis's film, Analyze This, imagined a Mafia chieftain (De Niro) who suffers anxiety attacks and consults a psychiatrist (Billy Crystal). This turned out to be not so much a comedy as a collision of clichés, the Italian gangster and the Jewish psychiatrist each written and played as if from a handbook of standard jokes. De Niro's all-too-human gangster seems no more than a degraded version of several characters he's played earlier. But this was another stage in the process of making the Mob a cuddly and acceptable toy for moviemakers.

And now the gentlest and sweetest of all Mafia depictions, The Sopranos, made for pay-TV, has turned out to be the year's most widely admired comedy. David Chase, who created the series, has also used the idea of a neurotic boss telling his troubles to a psychiatrist. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), who runs an operation in New Jersey, has trouble not only with his associates (like Capone, he deplores undue violence) but also with his wife and his mother, both of whom find him distinctly inadequate. It's funny and it's also outrageous, another trivialization of a social illness, another loving portrait that casually accepts the monsters who live among us. By now, audiences are so accustomed to this nonsense that they accept it without blinking and beg for more.

Perhaps we could extend Hitchcock's rule: The audience has no morals and doesn't want to hear about anyone who does. Anyone who is waiting for a reaction against loving portraits of the Mafia can (as Donnie Brasco's former friends liked to say) foged aboudit.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image