Thursday, December 6, 2007

Gangster Morals in the post-Godfather era

In the commentary for the DVD edition of the first season of The Sopranos, series creator David Chase refers to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) as "The Koran"[1], expressing his admiration for Scorsese's work but also his usage of the film as a kind of 'guidebook' for all things Gangsters and Mafia. While Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is a sort of standard as far as modern gangster movies go, it is interesting to explore how films in the post-Godfather world deal with the subject. While Scorsese's Goodfellas set the initial tone of where Gangster movies were at and where they were heading, it wasn't until The Sopranos that the subject really infiltrated mainstream to the point that it has following the series' completion. By examining elements of both Scorsese's Goodfellas and Chase's The Sopranos, I intend to show that post-Godfather 'gangster' films not only blur the distinction between right and wrong, but they further use this blurring to show the severity of the subject in the social context in which it exists.

To do this, I will first examine the subject of comedy in action and violence - how and to what purpose is humour used in the gangster film context? Following this, I will turn to the subject of the family and more specifically the woman character. While gangster films are usually rather patriarchal, the woman's role has evolved and changed with time than the one it was in the Godfather days. Finally, I will look at the social aspect and the morality of the gangster film. How does the subject fit in (or doesn't) with today society's moral values? How does it abide by or go against them and what significance does this have to the blurring of the line between right and wrong?

To begin with I'll consider the subject of comedy. Both Goodfellas and The Sopranos contain their share of comedy in what is for all intents and purposes a relatively serious and severe subject matter. In Goodfellas the most obvious example is the scene in which Joe Pesci recounts his story to Ray Liotta and then inquires about the nature of his 'being funny' ("Funny How?"). As Kinder notes, Pesci's story 'may or may not be intentionally funny and purposely makes both [Ray Liotta's character] (and us) uncertain as to whether it's dangerous to laugh.' She refers to this as the double bind that makes us feel guilty when we laugh at the presence of humour in an otherwise serious and negative/morally objectionable matter.[2] The Sopranos on the other hand, has it's own brand of humour. 'Chase loves comedy. And "The Sopranos" rejoices in the strangest kind, from stupid jokes (Tony, Paulie, etc.) to malapropisms (Christopher, Little Carmine).' But in The Sopranos, like in Goodfellas, it is not used in vain, rather - the show 'leavens violence and sex with adolescent humor and malapropisms.'[3]

As we can see in both instances, humour is used to render relatively immoral and disturbing events in both cases as more accessible to the viewer and to diffuse the severity of the violent and immoral nature of the subject matter. On one hand, the viewer is prompted to laugh along with the characters or at the characters and enjoy the fact that they are laughing. On the other hand, they are laughing at material that is interspersed with elements of crime and violence that would otherwise evoke completely different reactions than laughter. So the humour serves not only to desensitize the viewer, but also to make them aware of this fact (assuming at some point they ask themselves 'should I be laughing at this?').

To continue on to the next subject - the family and the woman's role in the films. While The Godfather was very much family-centered, Goodfellas offers us a more practical and modern 'insider's look into the actual workings of a family involved in organized crime, even a small family like Henry's family.'[4] But while Goodfellas was a good start, The Sopranos becomes the epitome of family portrayal in the crime world. 'Before anything else -- "The Sopranos" is a show about family -- two of them. The amazing debut episode laid the foundation for the mirror-families theme; the next 12 pulled it apart, twisted it around, fractured it and pieced it back together.'[5] And indeed the parallels between the 2 families - the crime family and the biologic are there, but the more interesting parts are when the two do not align. On one hand we have something that most of us can relate and understand - the workings of a family - parents, children, relatives. On other hand there is the crime family - violence, crime, secrecy - and the two notions of the family conflict.

Perhaps the most crucial elements of both Henry's family and that of Tony are their wives. In discussing the issue of gender in Hollywood Action-Adventure, Steve Neal talks of the crucial role that women have in the success of the group as a whole[6], and indeed both Henry's and Tony's success is rooted in their wives' wellbeing. In fact, 'the women of "The Sopranos" all owe a debt to Karen Hill of "Goodfellas."' Braco's character served to redefine 'the stock character of the Mafia wife' and was by no means just a 'meek housewife'. Seltz shows this same attitude to be 'one of the key differences between most mob stories and "The Sopranos": Though the males drive most of the plots and do all of the killing, the females aren't helpless bystanders.[7] So while all this serves to break away from the patriarchal nature of the mob families of yesteryear and situate them in today's more equal opportunity world, it still doesn't hide the fact that it is still a crime family and their husbands are still cheating on them, still putting them and their children in danger and still treat them in a manner which, despite being relatively progressive, is nevertheless few years behind the rest of society.

Which brings me to my last subject, that is, how does this all fit in society? Well, we've seen the mobster's wives who have 'all made certain moral compromises - looking the other way sometimes when the men fool around, enjoying a good life paid for with blood money'[8] but how do these moral compromises fit in the society where the respective stories take place? The way they do is by the mere fact that they are not fiction and are actually choices that real people do in real life. As such, any contemporary gangster film has to show this aspect of the subject if it is to match-up to the standard set by The Godfather. As Scorsese himself points out 'there's no sense in making another gangster picture, unless it is as close as possible to a certain kind of reality, to the spirit of a documentary'[9]. And what is this reality that one should strive to be as close as possible to? In the case of Goodfellas (and to an extent The Sopranos) it's the reality of the American dream, but rather 'it's the American dream gone completely mad and twisted'[10] In this dream, 'it's impossible…to recognize what's important and what's not', for Henry in Goodfellas, the fact that there's an FBI helicopter that might be chasing him seems important, but 'the correct stirring of his tomato sauce seems just as important'[11]

What's more crucial however, is that we get enthralled in these decision making processes when viewing the respective works and we forget the larger picture. We think about whether Carmela should leave Tony or not in The Sopranos but we forget that at the end of the day, he is a murdering criminal whether she leaves him or not. Our moral choices start working on a different scale than the one we would normally operate on in everyday life. Much like the members of the crime families and their actual families in Goodfellas and The Sopranos, we are inclined to develop a sort of second moral scale, one in which there is still right and wrong, but which is ultimately operating under the greater 'wrong' side of non-mobster morality. The strength of having this kind of effect on the viewer is of course the fact that it makes them realize that they've begun thinking on this scale, and it brings about to a greater appreciation of the nature of the subject. Of course, there is also the case where the viewer does not come to this appreciation and becomes completely desensitized to the subject matter - which one would assume was the fear that prompted the initial ban on portraying of gangster characters as 'heroes' in pre-Godfather Hollywood.

In summary, we've seen how post-Godfather gangster films use the elements of comedy and family to blur the lines between right and wrong. We've observed the changing role of women and their significance in modern-day gangster films. Finally, we've seen the significance of this moral ambiguity in the society in which it operates and its effects on the viewer. Ultimately the interpretation and reaction to the way the subject is portrayed falls on the viewer that is exposed to it. While a negative effect might have been a concern in the pre-Godfather Hollywood, one would think (hope?) that with the increased complexity of film across time, so did the complexity of audiences has increased to the point where they can discern moral decisions presented to them versus ones they actually have to make themselves.

[1] Gabbard, 2002, p11

[2] Kinder, 2001, p79

[3] Goodman, 2007, pE1

[4] Scorsese, 1989, p155

[5] Stark, 2001

[6] Neale, 2004, 74

[7] Seitz, 2000

[8] Seitz, 2000

[9] Scorsese, 1989, p151

[10] Scorsese, 1989, p155

[11] Scorsese, 1989, p160


Gabbard, G.O. (2002). The psychology of the Sopranos : love, death, desire and betrayal in America's favorite gangster family. New York: Basic Books

Kinder, M. (2001). Violence American Style: The Narrative Orchestration of Violent Attractions. Violence and American Cinema. New York: Routledge, p63-100

Goodman, T. (2007, April 2). A tidy finish? Fahgeddaboutit. The San Francisco Chronicle, p.E1

Scorsese, M. (1989). Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber

Stark, J. (2001). The Sopranos - DVD Review. Arts & Entertainment. Retreived December 8, 2007 from

Neale, S. (2004). Action Adventure as Hollywood Genre. Action and Adventure Cinema. London; New York: Routledge

Seitz, M.Z. (2000). 'Soprano' women: Hear them roar. Star-Ledger Sopranos Archive. Retreived December 8, 2007 from