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The Gangster – A Political Tool (Test- Draft)

In Tito Gerassi’s seminar, Theater As a Political Weapon, he made the claim that all art that lasts has a political message. We spent hours trying to dissect the secret messages of plays written hundreds of years ago. Warshow touches on this same sentiment in his article about the gangster genre of film, noting that it is the responsibility of popular culture to maintain people’s happiness, so when art seeks to reflect opposition it must do so in disguise. The gangster film, he claims, provides the perfect formula with which to do this. The audience is delighted at watching the gangster’s rise and fall, because he expresses that part of themselves that is un-American and resolves any fear experienced from seeking conformity, from moving beyond the middle class or rebelling against society.

Gangster films of the past seem to end with our tragic hero’s death, but in the modern gangster film the theme of conformity emerges, as well, albeit in a different context. In films such as Catch Me If You Can, Goodfellas, and Casino, the protagonist takes a job or is aided by the government in the film’s end, reflecting a culture bent on conformity and the inevitability of government run society.

Just as we struggle for sameness by celebrating the gangster’s rise and fall, we struggle for sameness in convention. This is reflected in the popularity of the gangster genre and other film conventions. Gnagster films, in my opinion, fall short of acting as political tools for non-conformists, but more like tools for conformity to middle class, American values. The movie we screened in class, Public Enemy, reveals this blatantly. With disclaimers at the movie’s start and end and the “I’m not so tough” near the film’s close reflect the mentality that conformity is a good goal.Reflecting on the comments made by William Wellman, the film’s director, in his interview with Scott Eyman, his main motivation for making films is money. We don’t see him going out on a limb with the production code as we do in the original Scarface. The film’s most shocking and innovative moment is its ending.




~ by Jamie Parganos on February 7, 2010.

One Response to “The Gangster – A Political Tool (Test- Draft)”

  1. The tension between conformity and rebellion in gangster films is incredibly complex. I absolutely agree with you (and Warshow) that the veneer of rebellion in these films masks what is ultimately an appeal for the status quo (upholding social values, seeing the gangster punished, etc.). At the same time, I’m not sure if we can take Wellman’s interview at face value. I felt as though he might be performing the part of the salty, cranky old director (“I’m just in it for the bottom line”) while the film itself suggests a more subtle artistic ambiguity. In the end, Powers is punished for his crime, and the end credits tie things up neatly. But when we remember the film, our emotions are stirred most by the dark and thrilling ways in which gangsters like Cagney refuse to be boxed in (at least mine were!)

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