Thursday, April 25, 2013

Gangsters Through the Ages: From Scarface to Miller's Crossing

The 1932 film Scarface makes up one third of what’s been described as the shortest classical period of any Hollywood genre: the gangster movie. Scarface and others established many of the conventions that became the codified genre we know today. Miller’s Crossing (1990) is part of the revival of this genre, bringing back these conventions and presenting them through the revisionist lens of the 1990s.

The world and tone of Scarface exemplify trends of the pre-revival gangster film. Our reading described the typical gangster film world as flattened-out and reminiscent of a comic book. Many of the characters in Scarface are very two-dimensional, including Tony. Although he does show a glimmer of humanity near the end when his sister is killed, overall his character is very broadly drawn, reaching the peak of cartoonish flatness when he laughs wildly while shooting the police below his window. The whole ending sequence of Scarface is extremely pushed and operatic—this is a world in which characters are motivated by powerful, simple emotions. Even the events of the plot are very simple. We see a montage of Tony’s ruthlessness and rise to power, but don’t get any specifics as to why he’s killing these people or even who they are.

Miller’s Crossing, on the other hand, has a very complex and fully explained plot of intrigue and multiple double-crossings that require careful audience attention to fully understand. Although emotion in Miller’s Crossing is definitely pushed to the extreme by the end of the film, characters are much more complex than those in Scarface. Villainous Casper has some honor, refusing to betray others’ trust. Alluring “gun moll” Verna is protecting her brother. The protagonist, Tom, is especially different from his Scarface counterpart. While Tony is flat, somewhat unintelligent, and serves as a cautionary figure, Tom is a smart, enigmatic character with an arc—beginning as someone who is merciful and concerned with keeping peace, and ending by killing his former friend.

As the reading noted, the gangster film is the only major genre named for its protagonist; much like the Western is defined by its setting, the gangster film is defined by character, and Tony Camonte is a prime example of the classical-era hollywood gangster. Because of the moral climate in which early gangster films were made, criminals were not often portrayed as the protagonist. When they were, as in Scarface, they were depicted unfavorably, warning the audience of the dark fate awaiting wrongdoers. Miller’s Crossing takes a much more ambivalent view of crime, and Tom’s defining characteristic is not his badness, but his cleverness—one of the traits that causes an audience to empathize with a character, as opposed to something despicable.

This shift demonstrates one major difference between the classical era of gangster films and the genre’s revival: the cultural attitudes toward crime present in the films. In the classical era, the organized crime and gang wars depicted were current events. Prohibition was still in place, and the Hollywood Production Code imposed strict standards of morality on films being produced. Production Code censors worried that gangster films glorified crime, and as a result, classical-era gangster films were required to be blatantly (and often inelegantly) moralistic. This can be seen most plainly in Scarface in the title cards at the film’s opening, exhorting the audience to demand government intervention in organized crime, as well as a narratively-irrelevant scene inserted in the middle of the film in which a newspaperman and a law official discuss the serious problem of gangsters. The film’s ending is also illustrative of the prevailing societal viewpoint; Tony has lived a bad life, and so he must pay the price in the end.

This zeitgeist of moral panic that so greatly affected the short classical era of the genre was not present during the revival, and so the moralistic portrayal of crime is absent from Miller’s Crossing and other revisionist gangster films. In Miller’s Crossing, corruption is everywhere; the police are just as violent as the gangsters, the mayor is a willing puppet, and even when mercy is given, “friends” betray one another for their own gain. There is not a single moral character, and so morality becomes a non-issue.

Uncontrolled avarice and ambition are common themes in many gangster films, and both are driving forces in Scarface. As the reading said, money is not a way of getting something desired so much as it is an abstract goal to be pursued for its own sake. Tony is motivated not by need but by greed for the sake of greed, and this is what brings about his downfall. This good-versus-evil dichotomy is absent from Miller’s Crossing, or at least less clear. Instead there is a morally ambiguous web of mercy, betrayal, loyalty, and power.

This distinction between simplicity and complexity is a fundamental difference between these two films and the classical and revival eras as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. CLARIFY: I know you are writing about both films, and that one is "classical" and one is "revisionist" but you don't have a clear thesis as to what you plan to talk about with those two films, or even why you have a blog post that is including both films. Of course they are both gangster films. But you don't have a thesis. Perhaps it is something like "By comparing the two films the conventions of the gangster genre can be traced, and one can also see how the films exemplify those two distinct eras of the genre." You do a better job at the end of kind of summarizing this is what your post was about - would be good to do that at the start.

    VALUE: Great points throughout and you do a very good job explaining those points with specific examples from both films.

    CONCERNS: I think you could have gone more in depth into how the issue of Miller's Crossing might tie in to the "revisionist" time period as you did for how Scarface is a product of its time. You just say that "morality is a non-issue" but I'd love to see you go more in depth into why you think the film is saying that.

    I think you give a much better picture of Scarface with specifics from the film than Miller's Crossing - you bring up some characters and examples without really explaining them and I think someone who hasn't seen the film would get a little confused by your post. Maybe a very short summary of the film's plot would help. You basically do this for Scarface as you are more specific with the (straightforward) plot.