I could lie and pretend that I don’t know why I love gangster movies, but I know exactly why: watching a gangster movie is a cathartic experience. You can place yourself in the shoes of the lead character, and experience their thrilling rise to the heights of society, their intoxicating top-of-the-world lifestyle. You can admire their flashy suits, the fast cars, and maybe most crucially, the ability to do whatever they want to their enemies without repercussions. It’s a dirty, vicarious thrill, but it speaks to something innately human, and if you’re speaking to something human, you’re accomplishing something.
Of course, the best gangster movies, films like the first two Godfathers, or Sergio Leone’s beautiful Once Upon a Time in America, have more to offer than just vulgar thrills, and more to say than just “Damn, it feels good to be a gangster.”
I would not put 1931’s The Public Enemy, directed by William A. Wellman, or 1995’s Casino, directed by Martin Scorsese, in the very top tier of gangster movies. Big flaws keep them from equalling their closest analogues, Howard Hawks’ Scarface and Scorsese’s own Goodfellas. Still, the 1931 film remains one of the most seminal hallmarks in the genre, and its influence can still be felt, and Scorsese is Scorsese.
When watching two films of the same genre in close proximity naturally leads one to look for similarities, connections, and intertextualities: both films detail the story of two childhood friends who rise and fall within mob circles in adulthood, hardly a rare plot; both films have some of the quintessential New York actors pretending to be, oddly, Chicagoans.
Casino, though, tries to be more than a gangster movie — probably too many things, even for its nearly 3 hour runtime. The film is often lambasted as being warmed-up Goodfellas leftovers, a charge with some merit; if Scorsese wished to avoid such criticisms, maybe he shouldn’t have cast Robert De Niro as a control-freak crook and Joe Pesci as his hotheaded thug pal, essentially the same roles they played in the earlier film. But the film tries to take on other subplots and generic conventions, with mixed results.
So what exactly is going on in Casino? Well, on one level, it is a semidocumentary about the day-to-day operations of a Las Vegas casino in the days of the illegal “skim” — told with an eye-of-God style, or in the words of De Niro’s character: “The eye-in-the-sky is watching us all.” This aspect is interesting, but it can’t keep our audience for the entire length of the film, and mostly recedes to the background by the end, giving way to a semidocumentary treatment of the downfall of a criminal operation — essentially the end of Goodfellas, and thus feeling like a retread.
What else is Casino? Well, it’s a Western. In the wild, wild west of the Nevada desert lies boomtown nominally run by cowboy-hatted yokels, but in fact run by outlaws and desperadoes, raking in money from nightly poker games, robberies, and shows of strength. Scorsese uses the classic Western trope of the showdown in the desert, now re-purposed as a Mob meeting between Pesci and De Niro, juxtaposes a chintzy Cigar Store Indian with Pesci’s unfeeling mug, lets Pesci’s character calls his personal jewelry store “The Gold Rush,” and even casts Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones as a corrupt local politician. Still, this element feels more grafted onto the film than permeating throughout it, as if Scorsese is working out some of his cinephile amusements onto the project.
At times, Scorsese (and his co-screenwriter, Nicholas Pileggi), try to make the film into an epic high tragedy. De Niro’s “Sam Rothstein” laments the fall of the Old Vegas to the strains of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the end of the film, while the same piece of music plays over the opening credits, while De Niro’s black silhouetted soul goes through a visual “Harrowing of Hell,” passing through flame and smoke to tell the story we’re being presented with. Reference is made to the heads of the Midwestern Mob as being “The Gods,” and indeed, they decide the fates of mere mortals while sitting in their dark, insulated back room, dining on wine and copious amounts of food like the Olympians toying with a hubristic Greek hero. While evocative, this too feels tacked-on. The characters of Casino, like the characters in Goodfellas, are shallow and amoral, and the attempt to give their wins and losses the grandeur of a passion play feels like projecting — Henry Hill in Goodfellas never tries to claim his story is grand tragedy, and Scorsese knew not to force any comparisons there, while Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull at least had a deep streak of personal self-loathing that was reminiscent at times of Oedipus with his eyes gouged out, so themes of fall and redemption fit more naturally to that story.
Perhaps most originally and uniquely, Casino is a love story. Specifically, it is a love story between a man whose world consists of cold, rational numbers and figures, a brilliantly logical man whose life is run by calculation, who falls for an individual woman who represents chaos, disharmony, and the purely unpredictable. He seeks to control her, regulate her, make her into one of his known quantities, all while she warns him that she cannot be tamed, and that his trust in her is misplaced. Which it is. And for the mistake of thinking she was his to be contained, that man loses everything, and winds up “right back where I started.” Interestingly, this love story, between De Niro’s Sam and Sharon Stone’s Ginger, is basically the opposite of the man-woman relationships seen in most of Scorsese’s films: usually the man becomes obsessed with a woman, idolizing her as a prize to be won, but once she submits to him, his self-hatred is projected onto her, and he begins to loathe and distrust her — essentially a tragic version of the old Groucho Marx joke about never wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member. Here, Sam never stops loving Ginger, even when she is chronic trouble for him, and when he, by anyone’s standards, should probably give up on her. This is likely the film’s most thematically consistent element, and the idea of trust and whether or not you can put your trust in someone else is neatly paralleled with the trust placed in Rothstein by the Mob’s bosses, and with the very idea of gambling, the idea that you can trust a horse to come in first, or a Roulette ball to land on black. The movie is called Casino, but it could very well have been called “The Gamble.”
But even with this aspect, the movie is probably too overstuffed to devote the proper attention to it; there are long stretches of the film when Stone’s character disappears and is not referred to, and then the film picks up with her character, and you go “Oh, yes, that’s right, she’s in this movie too.”
Anything but overstuffed is The Public Enemy. The earliest gangster movies, like Little Caesar, or Scarface, are very simplistic in narrative, as audiences still unfamiliar with the young genre were not yet in need of Western motifs or complex love stories to spice up their gangster movies. All of these early classics have essentially the same narrative. The lead gangster, impoverished at first, rises up in the local criminal organization through a series of increasingly large crimes, gaining the favor of a father-figure boss. He likely has a best buddy who is not quite as ruthless as he is, but is willing to go along for the ride. The two get progressively richer and get duded up in fine clothes and fancy accoutrements. Eventually, the gangster has to commit a Freudian killing of the fatherly boss character, taking his place in the world, but his reign at the top will not last for long. The best friend will die, and the gangster enters a period of darkness and desperation. Rival gangs, or the police force, or both, will take aim at the lead character, who inevitable meets his Hayes Code-approved death in the streets, and then an epilogue comes on that ensures the impressionable audience that “thus will be the fate of all men of their kind” or somesuch babble.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Performances, direction, and clever turns in the writing separate the merely adequate (Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar) from the sublime (Howard Hawks’ Scarface, or the later The Roaring Twenties, directed by Raoul Walsh).
The Public Enemy‘s greatest strength is apparent: Cagney is perfect as the swaggering hell-raiser Tommy Powers (a real precursor to Joe Pesci’s later onscreen persona). But so are its flaws. Produced only a few years after the introduction of sound into Hollywood films, the direction seems stilted and unsure of itself at times, as do some members of the cast. Robert Emmett O’Connor, who plays the Irish-American saloon owner/bootlegger Paddy Ryan, is perfectly cast, physically, seeming to have step on to a Hollywood soundstage right off the mean streets of Anton Cermak’s Chicago. But, bizarrely, between his lines he takes the longest, most meaningless pauses. It almost seems like he’s getting paid per second onscreen, and that he’s deliberately stretching out his scenes. It really takes the air out of the film’s balloon when he’s onscreen. The actor Murray Kinnell is obviously miscast as the neighborhood fence and Fagin-like figure of Putty Nose; his plummy accent reveals him for just what he was, an Englishman pretending at being a Windy City hoodlum.
There are many ways one could approach the film: as an examination of Irish-American identity in its particular place and time, as a coming-of-age story (Tom is a particularly young screen gangster, and is only a teenager when Cagney begins playing him), as a film about a dysfunctional family, etc. etc. It’s also quite interesting to compare the film’s depiction of violence to similar film’s depiction of violence: note that Cagney is never shown on screen killing someone, and in fact, there are only about three murders we know of for sure that happen in the film, four if you count a horse — Scarface, conversely, luxuriates in graphic violence from the beginning, considers death cheap, and even uses it as a gag.
The literature on classic gangster movies is out there, and these observations are hardly new, so I’d rather move on to other approaches, namely, an aspect of the film that, to my knowledge, no one has written about.
Tommy Powers is gay.
Seriously. It’s all there, I swear. I caught something, and it all clicked, and fell into place. Tom Powers is a man who is attracted to other men, and not women. And it explains so much about the film.
What is one of the first things we hear a young, preteen Tommy say when his best friend Matt embarrasses himself in front of a girl? “That’s what you get for fooling with women.” Later, an older Tom is contrasted with both Matt, who is a persistent womanizer, and Tom’s older brother Mike, who has a steady girlfriend. Tom gets one girlfriend, and is remarkably un-physical with her; counterintuitvely for Cagney, who was one of screendom’s most physical actors. He later gets bored of her and throws her out of his life. He gets another girlfriend, played by Jean Harlow, who even complains that their relationship isn’t going in the direction she wished it would. Unless I’m misremembering, he never kisses her, and even when the gorgeous Harlow lounges around Tom’s home in slinky outfits, Tom sits far away from her, looking bored, barely glancing at her. She even remarks that Tom “isn’t like all the other men,” and wonders what his “boyfriends” will think! When he has a chance to get physical with Harlow while dancing at a nightclub, he tears himself away from her to look at an male mentor who betrayed him years earlier, all while his friend Matt is getting rather frisky with his paramour. In one scene that would later be cut from re-released prints for its ribaldry, Tommy gets fitted for a new suit by a very effeminate, gay-coded tailor who is all but hitting on him, complimenting him on his impressive, muscular arms. But Tom, despite being someone whose typical reaction to all things is violence and anger, basically let the tailor’s comments go by, unremarked upon. He even seems somewhat amused with the guy! This all occurring in a highly homophobic, straight male chauvinistic era, too.
All throughout the film, Tommy tells Matt about how all they need is each other, and how they’ll be looking out for each other for the long haul. Tom Powers, unless my reading of the film is totally ridiculous, is in love with Matt, although he’d never admit, and could never admit it.
For the skeptical, recall how often gangsterism and criminality is associated with ‘deviant’ sexuality in older films — Scarface‘s Tony Camonte is obsessed with his younger sister Cesca, and reaches his most pure, primal state when he and his sister engage in a psycho-sexually charged shootout with the coppers, White Heat‘s Cody Jarrett is incestuously fixated on his mother. Whether these filmmakers from a less tolerant age genuinely associated crime with “kinky” sexual behavior, or whether the portrayal of villainous characters allowed for them to depict said behavior in a way that they couldn’t have with “virtuous” characters, I could not say. But the tradition exists, and The Public Enemy can clearly be read as a part of that tradition.
Another, and perhaps the most revealing, bit of evidence for my theory that Tom is gay, and that his homosexuality is key to understanding the film, is that his sexual desires and fears ultimately lead to his undoing. When Tommy, laying low from rival gangs in a hideaway, is raped by Jane the innkeeper near the end of the film, he reacts with extreme shock and disgust, which is natural. He immediately rushes out of the hideaway and into the streets with Matt. Matt tries to calm him, and Tom confidently pledges his eternal devotion to him, saying that they’re all they need in the world, playfully hitting him on the shoulder.
Just then, a hail of phantom machine gun fire strikes down Matt. He’s dead. Tom loses all his bearings in life, and spends the rest of the film in a downward spiral.
In other words, Matt and Tom are both punished for Tom’s “sin” of homosexuality.
Trust me, it’s all there. Watch it again, or for the first time, with this in mind, and you’ll be able to see it too. It adds another, more interesting layer to a story that, while stunningly fresh and original at the time of its 1931 release, has been told time and time again, and has thus lost much of its novelty.
Gangster films can be some of the most formulaic and cliched Hollywood films around, even the good ones. Casino and The Public Enemy both demonstrate how a gangster film can complicate the structures and restraints of the genre.