Shooting the City: The Gangster, New York Stories and the Movies
Analysing the screen gangster's relationship with the city
By Robert J. Cardullo
The archetypal creature of the city is the movie gangster, whom American critic Robert Warshow described 60 years ago as a tragic hero. "Thrown into the crowd without background or advantages, with only... ambiguous skills," Warshow wrote, "the gangster is required to make his own way, to make his life and impose it on others." Frustrated by the facelessness of the individual in the big city, he sees crime as the rational way to establish his identity. Yet there is a tragic flaw in this ambition to rise above the crowd, for the successful racketeer increasingly becomes the target of both the police and his fellow criminals. The greater his success, the more precipitous his fall; in the end, "there is only one possibility failure." The final meaning of the city for the gangster, according to Warshow, thus can only be "anonymity and death".
But Warshow understood that, like Greek tragedies, gangster films were not realistic works of art they were mythological ones. And this means that, from an artistic point of view, the city, like the ancient Greek stage, is a metaphorical space and not a real one, even when gangster films are shot on location in actual cities like New York. So, for Warshow, the gangster inhabits the
Warshow was writing about the movie mobsters of his own youth most famously, Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1930), James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931) and Paul Muni in Scarface (1932). The formula of these films was repeated throughout the 1930s in Warner Brothers vehicles for rising stars like George Raft, Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield. By the early 1940s, the focus on the mobster's alienation had only intensified. Later in that decade, however, the gangster movie was updated. Just as concern about the "organisation man" became part of the emerging debate over the effects on the individual of "mass society", the syndicate began to replace the solitary criminal entrepreneur in celluloid versions of the underworld.
In Force of Evil (1949), for example, Garfield played a syndicate lawyer operating on Wall Street; the same actor who had portrayed so many Prohibition- and Depression-era outsiders was now a crooked insider. Fuelled by the Kefauver hearings on organised crime in the Senate and Joe Valachi's Mafia revelations on Capitol Hill, similar treatments of the banality of gangland evil continued in film productions over the next 20 to 25 years, climaxing with The Godfather in 1972. Significantly, that picture dealt less with the Marlon Brando character than with his family and its assimilation into American (business) life at a time when, in real life, the middle class was embracing the values of the counterculture. Francis Ford Coppola's gangsters were just as subversive of law and order and conventional values as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or even the Weathermen had been; but the Corleones combined anti-social, inveterately criminal behaviour with the exceedingly conventional activity of making money and the intensely traditional project of keeping the family together. They were, you might say, unregulated capitalists at the same time as they were regular family men, and Brando himself, the rebel without a cause before Rebel Without a Cause (1955), was the perfect fusion of countercultural sentiments with those of the middle class.
(I have omitted Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets  and his later GoodFellas  from the previous discussion because, like their latter-day embodiment, the television series on HBO known as The Sopranos, they are less concerned with the gangster figure per se and thereby with the gangster film as an ironic comment on hidden social dynamics, as a metaphor for the gangsterish spirit behind American get-up-and-go than with what Dickens called "the attraction of repulsion" in characters so de-idealised that there is no gap, no hiatus, between what they want to do and what they do, to the point that the boundary between the conscious and the subconscious in them seems to have been erased.)
Beyond The Godfather, tragedy in gangster movies as in history itself, it has been claimed repeated itself as farce, with a consequent de-emphasis on the anonymity-cum-fatality of the urban jungle. After The Godfather's identification of the gangster with the most positive, energetic elements of American life with what I describe above as unregulated capitalism in what is otherwise an atmosphere rife with family values the gangster was finally ready to become Everyman, which is to say a figure ripe for farcical satire. From Prizzi's Honor in 1985, Married to the Mob in 1988, Miller's Crossing in 1990 (in which Gabriel Byrne was the first movie gangster to throw up from fear), and Brando's own send-up of Don Corleone in The Freshman in 1990, up to Robert De Niro's send-up of his Don Corleone in Analyze This in 1999 and Anaylze That in 2002 (both Brando and De Niro were throwbacks in this regard to George Raft, who satirised his own gangster image in Some Like It Hot ), the Mafioso was becoming a comic, less lethally threatening, figure, even as the Mafia itself was being steadily curtailed by the forces of law and order.
Even earlier than these films, however in the musical spoof Bugsy Malone (1976), with a cast consisting entirely of children the following changes in this crime genre had already occurred: mannerism had supplanted craftsmanship; distance and detachment had replaced audience involvement; and attitudinising had replaced the moralising of earlier gangster movies. Alienation no longer an authentic reaction to the anomie of the urban experience thus became simply a posture that patronised the past.
All of the above is by way of prologue to the real subject of this essay, which is the relationship to the city of film figures other than the (dying) gangster. Artists and intellectuals themselves across the arts, not simply in the cinema have generally been sceptical of city life, preferring the pastoral to the industrial, the peace and simplicity of rural life to the alarum and alienation of the urban. Yet the accursed anonymity of the big city has always been the protector of freethinkers' liberated ways. And the tension resulting from this contradiction, not unlike the flaw in the gangster's ambition, is at the centre of three representative films from the 1970s or it should have been at their centre, not on their periphery, as should have been the tension resulting from the split personality of Metropolis as both a real and a mythic place. (Not by chance, I think, this is the period that also witnessed the beginning of the gangster picture's own decline into self-parody). I'd like to re-review those three movies here, not least because they continue to reappear in art-house, university and museum film series, on television, and on DVD everywhere.
Next Stop, Greenwich Village
Let me begin with Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), written and directed by Paul Mazursky. It is the largely autobiographical tale of Larry Lapinsky (Lenny Baker), a young actor in the early 1950s who leaves his mother (Shelley Winters) and his Brooklyn home for an apartment in the Village and the beginning of a career in show business. Larry's new neighbourhood is aptly named, for it is a closely knit community in the middle of New York City: a heterogeneous mix of would-be actors, writers, artists and composers sharing cultural, political and sexual values. Larry and his friends have come from all parts of the country not just the outer boroughs to seek their fortunes there, and Mazursky's affection for these struggling individualists is apparent. But our ironical understanding of Next Stop, Greenwich Village is that its vision of the city as the realm of yet-to-be-realised possibilities has to be set in the past. For one finds it hard to imagine a film set in the 1970s, let alone the first decade of the 21st century, with characters who have such a bright-eyed view of "making it" in Manhattan as these do.
To Mazursky's credit, he shows the ambivalence that underlay artistic ambitions even in the 1950s. Sarah (Ellen Greene), for example, is a hanger-on who comes to the Village by day and goes home to her parents' house "in the provinces" at night to sleep. Larry himself struggling with his guilt at leaving home but simultaneously exulting in the opportunity to employ his talents, as well as to pursue friendship and to exercise his newfound sexual freedom acts out all the contradictory impulses of the individual searching for a sense of self in the city. Some of that "contradiction", or opposition, comes from outside in the person of Clyde (Jeff Goldblum), an ambitious Method actor whose competition with Larry for a bit part in a film degenerates into bitter paranoia.
Unfortunately, however, Mazursky's vision is as shallow as it was in previous movies of his (among them Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice  and Harry and Tonto ). Although he is quick to recognise his, and by extension his characters', contradictory attitudes and impulses, and equally quick to make these the target of his often incisive humour, he seems incapable of probing deeper than, let us call it, "laughter at the recognition". And thus, for him as for many other American artists, his own experience is a curse. In the United States more than other nations, you see, artists have been enjoined to create from personal experience: to write (or paint or whatever) about what they know. The worst of it is not just that artists (especially Method actors) feel lashed to their first-hand experience but that they take its use as proof of their and their works' worth. Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland (1970) and Blume in Love (1973), for instance, were pasted with pleas for praise because they were honest about what the author "knew". There wasn't much else in them, though, and the same goes for Next Stop, Greenwich Village: there's little more in this film than easy laughter at remembered characters who all too often lapse into stereotypes.
Shelley Winters' portrayal of Larry's mother is a prime example of the shallowness of Mazursky's sensibility. Between his conception of the role (if one can call it that) and her hysterically mannered acting, Winters becomes the archetypal Jewish mother hardly a characterisation, or caricature, that needed much elaboration in the 1970s in the wake of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1972). Once more we get the whole routine of love and hate, protection and strangulation, flight and return and any other antithesis you care to append. Mazursky's coolness in using this material (which by then was considered stale even for revue sketches), just because it happened to him, is the most remarkable part of the whole picture. The cruellest aspect of Winters' part is the extent to which Mazursky exploited her personality, for, by this time, she had been confessing on so many television talk shows that her life and her roles had begun to blur; and her director in this instance used this shared audience response in a particularly disturbing fashion.
Even the characters that are regarded with some fondness, though, are made to look foolish in Next Stop, Greenwich Village: the suicidal friend, the philandering poet, the homosexual who "comes out". Moreover, Larry and his friends never walk they always appear to dance (the conga), hop (like rabbits), or strut (like Chaplin's Tramp, twirling imaginary canes); they always say "I love you" instead of "I like you"; and they are offhand not only about premarital sex, but also about drugs and abortion. On top of all this, their "intellectual" discussions of the Rosenberg spy case, or of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, are simpleminded at best. It is difficult to know whether Mazursky takes this drivel seriously, or whether he is rudely satirising his characters (and thus himself) by having them mouth such banalities.
But Mazursky isn't finished: he has even managed the trick of making New York City look small. Though the movie was naturally shot on location, there are so few sites (and they are used over and over again) that the effect is claustrophobic. Part of this is intentional, no doubt to emphasise both the cramped Village housing and the tight (in both senses of the word) Village community. But the feeling of claustrophobia is exaggerated by the nature of Arthur Ornitz's cinematography, which seems to have been done, or processed, underwater, as a sickly blue-green hue suffuses almost every shot. And this lack of sensitivity toward the visual aspect of his picture helps to explain why Mazursky's nostalgia is so superficially expressed. To be sure, it is hard to render such a romantic (not to say naοve) vision in the literal as well as the figurative sense satisfactorily without lapsing into suffocating sentimentality, but the cinema has the resources to overcome this difficulty through nonverbal allusion and suggestiveness (in this case, for one thing, by opening up the frame to the expansive potential of a life in the arts, in New York or any other large city).
Mazursky's failure to take advantage of his medium, however, did not prevent some critics at the time from comparing Next Stop, Greenwich Village to Amarcord (1973), in which Fellini was nostalgic about his own past. (A direct homage to Fellini runs through Mazursky's work: like the hero of 8½ , Larry Lapinsky kisses his mother passionately on the mouth in a dream scene; and in Alex in Wonderland, Donald Sutherland played an admiring film director who visits Fellini who appears briefly as himself.) But Fellini's memories were expressed visually, through subtle yet powerful images and metaphors that evoked a visceral romantic response: the omnipresent sea, on which the new and magnificent steamship Rex arrives; the old, blind accordionist who is a son of a bitch; the unidentified motorcyclist who periodically weaves through the picture; the lawyer who addresses the camera like a narrator or town manager; the grandfather bewildered in a thick fog that is like a prevision of his death, then his grandson bewildered in the same fog that becomes a prevision of his life.
Mazursky's reminiscences, by contrast presented within Movieland conventions of plot and dialogue too often lapse into the trite or the formulaic. Instead of exploiting the possibilities or potentialities of the urban experience, he has chosen to exploit clichιs and his actors (among them people of genuine talent: Christopher Walken as the philandering poet and Lois Smith as the suicidal friend); and in place of a film rich with memory, desire for memory, memory of desire, we are given a feckless exercise in self-love. Why Mazursky chose Lenny Baker an actor so lacking in "presence" that he never quite seems distinguishable from the scenery to embody that love is a matter for Freudians, not film critics, to ponder.
Something like the opposite is true of Robert De Niro, who plays the protagonist of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976): at the time a good and growing actor (as Godfather II  showed), De Niro, unlike Baker, was too good to play his role; his talents were unnecessary in the role of a character that Robert Blake (a much lesser talent) could easily have handled. That character is Travis Bickle, who happens to be exposed to a far more bizarre cross-section of humanity than was Larry Lapinsky. But that is as it should be since Travis, as insomniac ex-marine, drives a cab during the graveyard shift, and Taxi Driver is set in some of the tawdrier parts of New York City as it was in the 1970s.
Paul Mazursky, for his part, was concerned with a young man's contradictory, and sometimes desperate, search for both community and individuality; Scorsese is concerned with the opposite pole of modern urban experience: the excessive, dangerous and destructive self-indulgence that derives from the breakdown of family and community. Mazursky's city was the realm of future possibilities; Scorsese's Manhattan is the teeming world of crawling actualities in Travis's words, the "whores, queens, fairies, dopers, and junkies" of Eighth Avenue. Next Stop, Greenwich Village was uncinematically imitative of Fellini, particularly in his autobiographical mode, whereas Taxi Driver imitates the form and movement of Bresson but (fatally if foreseeably) without rooting itself in the native European sources from which its model grew. (The script of Scorsese's film is by Paul Schrader, the author of a book-length study of three directors, including Bresson, titled Transcendental Style in Film , and subsequently a faux-Bressonian director in his own right.)
In the midst of this uprootedness urban as well as artistic in the case of Taxi Driver De Niro's Travis is the big-city loner carried to the logical, and psychopathic, extreme. He is completely alienated, to the point that he can't even talk with people. And the fact that his personality is so eerily out of synch with the rest of the world may be one of the reasons he chooses to drive all night in the riskiest parts of Manhattan. After work, Travis goes from his 10-hour shift to porno movies because he can't sleep.
In the course of the film, he also keeps a journal, develops a crush on a distant blonde beauty, fails with her, and next assumes a knightly stance toward a 12-year-old hooker in the East Village. Showing increasing signs of psychosis, he arms himself with a knife and several pistols, makes an attempt on the life of a presidential candidate for whom the blonde works, fails, then kills the two pimps of the child prostitute. There is a (presumably ironic) postlude after the finish in which Travis is acclaimed for his heroism in rescuing the child, rather than being committed for the madness that drove him to murder.
Taxi Driver begins with a shot of a cab emerging out of a cloud of steam billowing from a manhole New York as Hell and the problem is: there is nowhere to go from that view but down. In virtuoso fashion the movie accordingly proceeds to the very pits, the bloody shootout in the whorehouse. Hence, in the end, Taxi Driver rests on only one idea: that the city, or living in the city, is a nightmare. Scorsese's taut direction (with far less zooming and handheld camerawork than was found in his Mean Streets and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore ) relentlessly pounds the notion in, and De Niro's hyperkinetic performance makes it indelible. Still, the theme is too simple, or it is over-determined. Indeed, for all its gore, Taxi Driver is peculiarly bloodless in both conception and execution, as coldly logical as a mathematical demonstration.
But the film's problem is not only that it wants to demonstrate just one idea, but also that its script wishes to document a sole artistic influence: that of Bresson. There is a lone, quasi-monastic protagonist in the midst of an ugly, brawling city, a man whose vision of the "Wholly Other" (Schrader's phrase) is a blonde bombshell, as in Pickpocket (1959); a man who keeps a journal that to some degree "doubles" the action that we see, as in Diary of a Country Priest (1951); and for whom the night time, neon garishness of the big city in which he lives is like a foreign country, as in Une Femme douce (1969). The more that the script reminds us of Bresson, however, the less it tells us about itself, spiritual Otherness, Scorsese or New York. The hero of Pickpocket, for Bresson, is a tiny, lonely digit in the infinite calculus of God's universe. The hero of Taxi Driver is finally a psychotic, not much else, and his story thus becomes a case history, little more. It's as if one were to copy Macbeth by including the murders for career-advancement but omitting the spiritual withering of the murderer.
The result is that the film itself, not just its protagonist, seems to have a tortured psyche. On the one hand, there's Paul Schrader, trying to impose on his script Bressonian strophes. And on the other, there's Martin Scorsese, abetted by Bernard Hermann's score (music that is elephantine in its banality and its underlining), wallowing around in the mise en scθne of facile naturalism out of the belief that truth resides in facsimile. This kind of facsimile, of course, was (and continues to be) the reaction by young filmmakers against the tinsel and fakery that burdened Hollywood for so long. The prohibitionist's son becomes a drunkard, however, for the facility with which the devices of naturalism are used here the stenographic dialogue, the action right out of the lower depths is simply the new equivalent of the old tinsel, the new Hollywood but Hollywood still (and still with us in the person of Scorsese and company: Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, et alia).
Taxi Driver's split psyche aside, the film is unsatisfying primarily because it develops its single possibility the city as nightmarish vision, its denizens as ghoulish grotesques all too well. Next Stop, Greenwich Village was equally unsatisfying because it did not develop its possibilities of the city as artistic and personal haven enough. While acknowledging the complexities of urban experience, Paul Mazursky chose to dissolve them in easy sentimentalising; Scorsese, by contrast, has narrowed the complexities of that experience to such an extent that the only response his as an artist or ours as an audience can be an extreme and unalloyed, even torturous, one. Yet between maudlin Mazursky and mad Marty there surely is some middle ground.
Saturday Night Fever
That middle ground might have been found in Saturday Night Fever (1977), but it was not. For this film, New York means Brooklyn, and Brooklyn means Bay Ridge; although Manhattan is only a short subway ride away, it might as well be a different continent. Having been born in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn and having lived in lower Manhattan, I can tell you (as can many others) that each place lives as if the other didn't exist. Manhattan has no interest in Bay Ridge; Bay Ridge, possibly resigned to this or resentful of it, concentrates on its own society its social patterns, clubs and assorted amusements. And it's this Brooklynesque feeling of self-centredness separate and defiant, parochial in the midst of a metropolis that floods the screen in Saturday Night Fever.
Its script was written by Norman Wexler and was based on a piece of New Journalism by Nick Cohn in New York magazine titled Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night (more on which later). The hero of the story is 19-year-old Tony Manero, whose awareness of any larger possibilities in life has been squashed between the tight boundaries of his Italian-American community. To his parents, with whom he still lives, he is a disappointment compared to his older brother, a priest. To his boss at the local hardware store, he is barely worth a $2-a-week raise. A year after graduating from high school, Tony is thus, in his own words, "a nobody on the way to nowhere".
But on Saturday nights, Tony manages to escape his dreary existence for a few hours. He and his gang, known as "The Faces", cruise the neighbourhood, defend their turf against Puerto Rican gangs and perform foolishly dangerous acrobatic stunts on the railings of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Then, as inevitable as clockwork, they wind up at 2001 Odyssey, the local discotheque, full of flashing coloured lights and you guessed it loud disco music. When Tony hits the dance floor there on Saturday night, after six days of taking orders from his boss and taking grief from his parents, he sheds his chains and transforms himself into a king. It's all a trip out of Bay Ridge but nonetheless firmly rooted there.
The focus of Saturday Night Fever, however, is different from that of its source in New York magazine. Cohn's article demonstrated that the children of lower-middle-class white ethnics who tend to go directly from high school into menial employment were hardly affected by the social upheavals of the 1960s and particularly not by the economic revolution that brought with it rising expectations and dual-career couples. The film, as written by Wexler and directed by John Badham, is quite different: full of movie hokum, embarrassing sentiment and simple-minded social realism. The job dealings, the family dinner-table tensions, the discotheque patter in Saturday Night Fever all these may be at so vivid, valid and highly affecting a pitch as to make most of the "new reality" on television at the time sound as if it had ad-agency approval. But character and plot elements in the movie, as opposed to the dailiness of life lived from day to day, are another matter.
The treatment of sex is an example. Wexler and Badham are not content to have Tony announce that there are two kinds of women: "nice girls and cunt". To drive home their point about the nature of working-class sexual mores and the burden of Catholic guilt, they stage several extremely crude sex scenes in the back seat of a car. One of the Faces, following a very brief encounter, can even be heard to ask his partner, "What did you say your name was?" Apparently, the creators of Saturday Night Fever are labouring under the old social-realist delusion that mere ugliness, especially regarding sex, is enough to be dramatically revealing and truthful. But their own film should have told them that sex for Tony and the Faces is secondary and therefore did not require such italicisation. The real gratification comes from cutting loose on the dance floor in public and exciting admiration, for a moment being something other than a shop clerk or a secretary before a jury of your community-bound peers.
The character of Tony himself is a throwback. The inarticulate, sensitive spirit, trapped inside a leather jacket and strangled by a Brooklyn accent, has been a stock figure of the genre regrettably revived here at least since On the Waterfront (1954). How such a diamond as Tony got lost in the rough to begin with is never made clear. Wexler's script supplies the usual lame explanations (parental conflict, sibling rivalry), then proceeds to plunge the protagonist into a domestic crisis (his brother leaves the priesthood), a meaningless gang war, the death of a friend, and not one but two disastrous sexual episodes. Under the burden of so many potentially ennobling experiences, any young punk in Brooklyn would emerge as a tragic hero or an ignoble one.
Badham's direction does not help matters, particularly in the scene that triggers the movie's climax. After practising for weeks, Tony enters a big-money dance contest at the disco. His partner, Stephanie, is a pretentious social climber who flaunts her experience, age and ambitions, and through condescension as well as mockery further sows seeds of discontent in Tony. By the night of the contest, he has few illusions left: about her, himself or his pathetic weekend ritual. Yet Badham stages and photographs their big number as a slow-motion, soft-focus pas de deux a sappily romantic interlude that runs counter to the events immediately leading up to it. (A similar inconsistency plagues all the dance numbers: while Tony is dancing, the music blares; as soon as he steps off the floor, even if it is in the middle of a song, the volume immediately drops. Badham no doubt did this to make conversations easier to hear, but the volume-drop disrupts the "high" Tony is supposed to feel from the moment he walks in the disco door the total experience that sets off 2001 Odyssey from his daily routine.)
When Tony and Stephanie win, he is supposedly so disillusioned by the hollowness of their victory that he gives the trophy and the prize money to the runners-up a Puerto Rican couple he feels was denied first place because of racial prejudice, in yet another nod on the part of Wexler and Badham to simple-minded social realism. But Tony and Stephanie's performance was so "byoo-tee-ful" that it's difficult to understand why he got so upset by the judges' decision. It's equally difficult to understand why, in the film's last scene, Tony joins Stephanie in Manhattan, where she has gone to work and live. As in the case of Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Manhattan can still serve as the Promised Land for aspirants from Brooklyn, still be a place to escape to rather than from. Yet it's surprising to find such a benign view of Manhattan in Saturday Night Fever, for the film's upward motion out of provincial stratification and into cosmopolitan paradise is completely unjustified by anything we have seen and heard. At the end, the Bay Ridge duo are both breaking out and on their way but only because Wexler and Badham say so. What Tony and Stephanie are on their way to achieving in Manhattan is another question altogether.
The incredibility surrounding this question is compounded by the casting of Karen Lynn Gorney (who?) as Stephanie. Her terpsichorean skill being less than inspiring, it is hard to believe that her solo dancing was what attracted Tony to her in the first place. Her looks didn't do it, either: Gorney has neither a face to go along with the Faces nor a nice set of legs, the sine qua non for a female dancer intent on showing them. As for her attempt at "aristocratic" pronunciation compared with the plebeian accent of everyone around her, it's exaggerated to the point of (unintended) comedy. (There is one other principal female in the movie, Donna Pescow as Angie the woman who would love Tony and she is poorly cast as well. So poorly, in fact, that after Saturday Night Fever, she wound up where she belongs: on television in a spin-off sitcom by the name of Angie, as well as in such soap operas as All My Children and One Life to Live.)
John Travolta, as Tony, is a much more felicitous choice. He is simply superb on the dance floor and he has the Brooklyn accent down pat. That's not really remarkable, considering that fact that he spent most of his first 23 years in the New York City area. What I did not expect when I saw Saturday Night Fever nearly 30 years ago after having suffered through Welcome Back, Kotter on television and Travolta's inauspicious dιbut in Carrie (1976) was this actor's firm grasp on the character of Tony Manero. In one scene, for instance, Stephanie is sceptical when Tony claims to be 20 years old, so he backtracks and admits, "Actually, I'm 19 at the moment." And along with the nervous grin here, a flicker of apprehension can be discerned in his eyes. That is, Travolta is genuinely acting the part from within, as a good-hearted, frustrated, vain and clever cockerel, instead of merely adopting the superficial aspects of the role the swagger, false bravado and streetwise gestures that any ham could pick up.
And more or less routine, in the end, is each of the city boys in the three films discussed in this essay: Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Taxi Driver and Saturday Night Fever. Perhaps that is because each of these pictures wants to use New York City as a backdrop for its narrative at the same time as it does not fully integrate the City into that narrative or into its protagonist's psyche. Or, if it does do so, it integrates that psyche too fully, as in the case of Travis Bickle: in the most self-serving, self-adoring sense, on the one hand, or the most deeply disturbed, self-cancelling sense, on the other. The gangster's relationship with the city, by contrast, is perfectly pitched between self-preservation and self-destruction, self-love and a death wish. That is, as Robert Warshow realised in the 1940s, the gangster cannot exist without the city, and the city does not really exist without him something that cannot be said for such non-criminal characters from the 1970s as Larry Lapinsky and Tony Manero.
I'd like to close more or less where I began: by quoting a passage from Warshow's essay The Gangster as Tragic Hero in which he not only describes the identification between the gangster and the city, but also posits the resultant representative or universal nature of the gangster figure in other words, the quality that makes the gangster memorably emblematic in ways that Larry, Travis and Tony could only (or perhaps could not even) dream. Here then is Warshow, writing in 1948 about the gangster-as-tragic-hero, just as, at that moment in the history of cinema, the ethically mottled protagonists of film noir (not gangsters, but not cops either) were taking over the screen:
If Warshow sounds almost elegiac in his celebration of the screen gangster, perhaps he is, even as Aristotle struck the same tone in the Poetics as he analysed the kind of tragic protagonist that had disappeared from the Greek stage by the time he was writing, in the fourth century BC. Fifth-century Athens a society without religion in our sense of the word today seemed to need its individualistic tragic heroes, and to use them ritualistically, as sacrificial lambs. Similarly, one could say, 20th-century America used its gangsters as sacrifices to the great god of capitalism, or to the bitch goddess of material success. The old Hollywood always had a liking for the big-time gangster, just as ancient Athens did for the larger-than-life tragedian: showbiz and the underworld, after all, the theatre and mythology (which of course includes its own underworld), were the two places in modern American life as in that of pre-Christian Greece where people who did not fit into mainstream society, or the common community, could flourish in a parallel universe. Isn't this still true of America today, of the show business of Broadway and Hollywood even as it is of the closeted business of organised crime?QLRS Vol. 11 No. 1 Jan 2012