A Conversation with
|INTRODUCTION to BOOK|
“Leave the gun, take ___.”
“Say hello to my ___.”
“Now youse can’t ___.”
“I coulda had class. I coulda ___.”
These lines are part of the American lexicon, part of pop culture, part of every guy’s experience interacting with other guys.
Indeed, gangster movies have influenced the culture since Hollywood first turned on the lights. Six decades before Joe Pesci’s unhinged bantam tough guy terrorized the world in GoodFellas, Edward G. Robinson did exactly the same in Little Caesar.
| 57 KILL THE IRISHMAN (2011-R)
STARS: RAY STEVENSON, VAL KILMER, CHRISTOPHER WALKEN, VINCENT D’ONOFRIO
DIRECTOR: JONATHAN HENSLEIGH
Soon enough, the power struggle began. By the end of the year, 36 bombs had exploded around northeast Ohio and more than a dozen men were killed. The Cleveland wars sparked a chain reaction that shook the underworld structure in Milwaukee, Kansas City and other organized crime outposts. It led to acting Los Angeles boss Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno—who knew the inner workings of La Cosa Nostra across the country—flipping to become one of the government’s most-important witnesses against the mob.
A central figure in that combat was Danny Greene, known to all as “The Irishman.” All these years later, Greene has become a legend to certain constituencies, a charismatic mythical figure. Greene’s story is told in the excellent 2011 biopic, Kill the Irishman, which covers his rise fromlugging boxes as a stevedore to running a corrupt union to working as a mob enforcer to standing up to the new Mafia boss—Scalish’s replacement—looking to grab a percentage of Greene’s operation. There’s a lot packed into two hours.
Conversation with authors George Anastasia and Glen Macnow on
THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF GANGSTER MOVIES
Q:Why did you name The Godfather the all-time best gangster movie?
GA: The movie is a classic from a cinematic perspective - the writing, the acting, the direction. More important, it arguably re-established a genre and became the template for dozens of movies that followed. Almost any gangster film in the modern era is compared to it. And most don't measure up.
GM: Not really much debate here. The Godfather revived a genre that had languished for decades. As Chazz Palminteri told us, "It created the game. Any of us today who make a movie about organized crime should realize that without The Godfather, we never would have had the chance."
The Godfather changed how audiences view Mafiosi, turning them from nasty thugs to an incarnation of Roman royalty. It made careers, most notably Al Pacino and Francis Ford Coppola. And, of course, it revived Marlon Brando's career.
The movie is a brilliant balance of action and drama, best exemplified by the baptism-massacre scene. It is packed with rich characters, even in secondary roles. And, it brought more quotable lines to the modern vernacular than any movie ever made.
Q: Why is The Godfather: Part III ranked #75 while The Godfather I and II are ranked first and second?
GA: I think we make the point that while it's a decent movie, it's not a great movie and what's more it always falls short when compared with I and II. But then most movies do. Also I think this was a case of the actors, the directors, the writers and the studio deciding they all wanted to wet their beaks one more time. A good movie, not a great movie. But it has its moments.
GM: GF3's biggest shortcoming is that you can't watch it without comparing it to the first two. And that's like comparing a decent home run hitter with Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. I'll agree with actor Joe Mantegna, who played a mob don in III, and told us, "If you look at the movie on its own, it works. In hindsight, it was impossible for it to live up to expectations after all those years."
Q: Why isn't Scarface in the top ten?
GA: This was one we argued about and were it up to me I don't think it would have made the top 20. This movie and Pacino's character have become iconic and there is a pop culture following that continues to grow. But looking at the film objectively, I argue that the second half falls apart with Pacino chewing the scenery intensely, screaming FUCK at the top of his lungs and shooting everyone in sight. I liked the premise and the attempt to modernize a gangster classic, but I think the story loses its way.
GM: Yeah, we did debate this, and I appreciate Scarface more than George. I can't argue that it's a great movie. But it became a cultural icon and remains one all these years later. People who weren't alive when it was made now quote the lines and hang that poster of Pacino on their wall; all I need to say is, "Say hello to my little friend!"
Q: What is the worst gangster movie ever made?
GA: Hard to say, but I think we agreed that almost any gangster film in which Stallone played a leading role has to be considered. Glen did the piece on the worst so he would be better equipped to talk about that. Of the movies that made the top 100, the one I disliked the most was Prizzi's Honor and I think the essay I did about it (#89, page 307) says why.
GM: I previously wrote a book, The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies, in which Stallone's Rocky ended up the No. 1 sports film of all time. In this new book, Sly dominates the other end of the list. Whether you want to take The Specialist, Avenging Angelo, Oscar or his pathetic remake of Michael Caine's Get Carter, there's no one who destroys a gangster film like Sylvester Stallone.
Q: Why did you choose to include foreign gangster films?
GA: Because there are a lot of damn good foreign gangster movies, better than American movies that would have been in the top 100 had we not chosen the foreign films. I think we point out that there are inherent problems in reviewing movies with sub-titles, but I think we have a good sampling of the best from the countries we chose.
GM: I was amazed how many other countries contributed to the genre. We've got films from 12 other nations on our list - and not just the expected ones. There are entries from Russia, Mexico, Australia, as well as Italy, Germany and Japan. The story of the mobster works in every culture and we found some of the best films that few Americans have seen.
Q: Why do you think gangster movies are such a popular genre?
GA: Americans love the outlaw, from Billy the Kid and Jesse James through Al Capone and Don Corleone. There's something fascinating about an individual who chooses to live life on his own terms. Of course the movies glamorize this, but I think fundamentally it's the rogue that movie viewers like. Danny Provenzano speaks to this in the interview we have with him (page 147).
GM: The bad guy is always mesmerizing. We all want to believe that we're rebels under our law-abiding skin. So when we sit in a dark theater rooting for the gangster, we get the vicarious thrill of striking out at authority without, well, actually breaking the rules ourselves.
Q: Who is the most famous director of gangster movies?
GA: It has to be Scorsese.
GM: Yeah, Scorsese's all over our book, including five masterpieces that are among our top 22. Of course, it was Francis Ford Coppola who created the modern gangster film with the first two Godfathers. And in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino revitalized the genre - and inspired many copycats - with Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.
Q: Which actor turns up the most in your top 100?
GA: I think it would be a toss-up between Pacino and DeNiro. Although Cagney and Edward G. Robinson probably made as many gangster movies, but those didn't all make it into the book.
GM: Robert De Niro appears in an amazing 11 of our top 100 - sometimes as the primary star, and sometimes (Bronx Tales, Jackie Brown) as a scene-stealing supporting actor. Pacino is in seven movies on our list including, of course, the Godfather films. Bogart makes it five times and Cagney four.
Q: What is the most important quality of a good gangster movie?
GA: The story line and a character that people care about. Too often I think modern writers and directors substitute action, shooting, violence and shouting to cover flaws in the story. If you don't have a good story to begin with, then you end up with a cartoon.
GM: We looked for movies that had a powerful script, three-dimensional characters, memorable scenes and a good bit of action and violence, because a movie where no one fires a gun is not much of a gangster movie.
Q: Which movie is your personal favorite?
GA: I've got a few. I've always liked The Pope of Greenwich Village. Of the movies I had not seen before doing the book, I think In Bruges was one I liked best. The "sleeper" for me in all of this was The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I had seen it a long time ago and in watching it again for this project I was struck by how good it is. Probably one of the best movies Robert Mitchum did and the rest of the cast is first rate.
GM: Well, the list really is in our order of preference. But beyond the obvious, like The Godfather, On the Waterfront and GoodFellas, there are a few smaller movies I really enjoyed. Here are four sleepers: Sexy Beast, with Ben Kingsley as a frightening British mobster; Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, a 1956 heist film that influenced Tarantino; Things Change, which is a fluffy comedy, and the British film Let Him Have It, which will break your heart.
Q: How do you hope readers will use your book?
GA: As a starting point for discussions and arguments and as a reference to settle disputes about gangster movies. I'm also hoping somebody comes up with a board or video game based on it and we can both retire.
GM: More than anything, I hope that readers discover fresh details about films they've previously seen (like the fact that Stallone and Ellen DeGeneres almost ended up in the cast of Pulp Fiction), and that they're inspired to watch movies they've not seen before. We sampled more than 250 movies to come up with our list. There are some gems in the book that didn't make it big at the box office. Now, readers can go back and see them all.
THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF GANGSTER MOVIES:
Featuring the 100 Greatest Gangster Films of All Time
By George Anastasia and Glen Macnow
$20 US; Paperback; ISBN: 978-0-7624-4154-9
Publication Month: October 2011
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