Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Subtle Toughness of 70s Gangster Films

If anything, masculinity in the 70s film can be characterized as an open display of silent toughness. If that last sentence seems contradictory it's because it is. Certainly, violence occurs in these films, yet it is more the sense of unuttered menace in them that is suggestive. They have an atmosphere. So much so, that a film like, say, for example, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets or Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle seem to pulse, to vibrate with energy; the viewer can almost smell the desperate sweat of the characters or their cologne. Both of these films hint at violence. The occasional violence that does occur throughout is accented and made more intense by the threat of it, which seems to be in the air at all times.

These two films can be categorized as gangster films. They portray connected life in New York
and Boston respectively and were made in the same year (1973). Perhaps it is the shared release year that makes them feel similar. In no way am I inferring that the content is similar. It's not. It is simply that the energy is the same. The similarity lies, I think, in the sort of grasping quality these films have. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and (Johnny Boy) Robert DeNiro desperately want something. Charlie wishes to own a restaurant but also to quell a sense of questioning anxiety that he has concerning his place in New York, the world, the universe, whereas Johnny Boy wants to avoid responsibility but still live a kind of glamourous existence. Robert Mitchum's Eddie Coyle is an older man so his desires are smaller- to preserve his way of life, rather than stake a new claim. But the same feeling is present in these two films- the sense of uncontrolled desire. This is in keeping with a theme of all gangster films. The gangster is an outsider; but one that desperately wants to be an insider and will resort to crime to gain an approximation of an inside life.

Barry Keith Green writes about the history of the gangster film in his book Shadows of Doubt. To him, the "gangster films [of the 20s and 30s were] a cultural response to the closing of the frontier...its protagonists embraced a pioneer individualism placed in a contemporary setting." Moreover, he perceives that gangsters in film are "remarkably American in spirit for they were, at the same time, unethical businessman, a newer breed of Robber Barons seeking the American Dream amid the dangers and opportunities of the new urban wilderness." The same could be said of the 70s film gangster. They are business minded at the same time that they are criminal minded- they simply marry the two impulses to achieve a kind of imagined American ideal. A later Scorsese undertaking, the 1990 film Goodfellas explores this idea at greater length. It is a film that is primarily about materialism and consumerism. It celebrates all the gaudy accoutrements of the gangster life.

Yet in all these gangster films there is the sense of being trapped by the life or the things acquired by the life. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu quotes Karl Marx in his book Masculine Domination when he states that men are "dominated by their domination." These films seem to showcase that idea if it is taken that these three characters are acting on an ingrained ideal of manhood-- and all evidence suggests that they are. From Coyle's insistence that his wife remain a homemaker and that she also be forced out of the room to other quarters of the house when he handles business, to Charley's need to figure out a way to be a success, to Johnny Boy's endless accrual of debt and general freewheeling chaotic lifestyle which includes fancy clothes and girls. They're all men that see no other way, or rather, they can't imagine another way to be men. The treatment of homosexuals, women and blacks in Mean Streets and in The Friends of Eddie Coyle by these characters shows that they are very subconsciously aware of their status as men-- that what gender theorist Todd Reeser calls, "masculinity [as] [a kind of] 'unmarked'...norm" which is in "opposition" to all these Others has occurred to and is cherished by them because they don't have anything else to fall back on.

Reeser, Todd W. Masculinities in Theory
Grant, Barry Keith. Shadows of Doubt: Negotiations of Masculinity in American Genre Films
Bourdrieu, Pierre. Masculine Domination

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