Metaphor For All Seasons

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 made the bootlegging gangster an instant anachronism, and the FBI's assault on organized crime throughout the decade drove the gangster underground. But he remained as a powerfully meta-phoric figure that could be adapted to many uses. High Sierra squeezed weary but honorable ex-con Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) between the faithless gang that has sprung him from jail for one last job and the all-American girl who rebuffs his fatherly romantic advances. The Phenix City Story (1955) buried a plea for good government in the semi-documentary story of an

Alabama town run by a criminal syndicate. The Killers (1946), taking its cue from Ernest Hemingway's short story about a man who refuses to run from the two hit men looking for him, supplied a backstory for the doomed hero that used the expressionistic techniques of film noir to intensify its tale of an innocent hero caught in the toils of a gangster and his sultry girlfriend. Don Siegel's (1912-1991) 1964 remake of the film reima-gined the hit men themselves as detectives defying their anonymous criminal client to figure out why their target failed to run. Most influentially of all, The Asphalt Jungle (1950) charted an urban landscape whose most respectable citizens were double-dealing hypocrites dependent on the honor of the petty criminals they used as pawns. The Asphalt Jungle inaugurated a new kind of gangster film: the heist or caper film in which the gang is assembled only for the purpose of pulling off a single job—an organization far more unstable than the gangs dominated by Tom Powers and Tony Camonte. Across the Atlantic, such pickup gangs became the subject of comedies in England (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951; The Ladykillers, 1955) and Italy (I Soliti ignoti [Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958]) as well as the existential melodrama Rififi (France, 1955).

The gangster might have continued indefinitely as an all-purpose metaphor for social deviance if not for three developments in the movie industry. First, the gradual decline of the studios after the Paramount decrees of 1948, requiring them to disband their vertically integrated monopolies, left movie stars, once treated as chattel, with ever more power over their projects. Second, the emerging medium of broadcast television pushed film studios to provide experiences television could not match. And third, a series of challenges to the Production Code during the 1950s and 1960s led to a new ratings system in 1969 that broke with the longstanding Hollywood practice of releasing only films every possible audience could watch to mark different films as appropriate for different audiences. The result throughout the industry was a series of star-driven vehicles with rapidly escalating budgets and increasingly liberal doses of sex, violence, and harsh language. It was a climate ripe for the reemergence of the gangster as a major figure.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972), the two films that most decisively marked the return of the gangster, both treated their heroes frankly as anachronisms in order to reveal the mythopoetic power beneath the genre's realism. For all the seedy glamour of their 1930s outfits and stolen cars, Bonnie and Clyde are children of the 1960s, counterculture heroes for a generation that no longer trusted the social institutions of the democratic state; the capitalistic economy; and their servants, the police. Michael Corleone, the dark hero of The Godfather and its two sequels (1974, 1990), was

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