Al Pacino in 'The Godfather 2'/Image © 1974 Paramount Pictures
Editor's Note: Marc Krulewitch's Jules Landau mysteries take place in Chicago, where he was born and where his family has lived for generations. He now resides in Colorado. Upon the release of his new book, Maxwell Street Blues, we asked Marc to break down the musts of gangster movies.
My great-granddad, Morris Eller, was an old fashioned Prohibition-era boss who, according to the newspapers of the time, ruled Chicago's "bloody twentieth ward" with an iron fist. Great-granddad was affectionately known by many names in his day, among them political dictator, city hall chieftain, scoundrel, and tyrant. In addition, he was respectfully referred to as Boss Eller while his employees were known as Boss Eller's henchmen, and his election-day shenanigans were considered acts of terrorism (yes, they used the word "terrorism" back then). Despite once sharing a headline with Al Capone - the man who put the "bloody" in the bloody twentieth ward - Great-granddad was never called a gangster. But nobody's perfect. The first novel of my detective series, Maxwell Street Blues, takes place in modern-day Chicago, a city that still practices politics using the time-worn and proven methods that Great-granddad and his ilk first pioneered.
The passage of time has a habit of changing word connotations, which usually isn't a big deal to me, unless it's one of those uniquely American words that defines a genre embraced the world over. So it is with "gangster," a word that while growing up in the Chicago suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s, meant guys named Cagney, Robinson, Muni, and Bogart, machine gunning their way to black-and-white infamy on the scratchy, popping celluloid of the 1930s and 40s. The bottom line for me: If you want to make a gangster movie, then it darn well better take place in great-granddad's Prohibition/Depression-era Chicago, although New York is also acceptable (that's right, NY, how does it feel to be the second city?).
So here are my picks for the five gangster movies you have to see. And go ahead, call me old fashioned.
"Once Upon a Time in America" (1984, the long version)
Hands down the best portrayal of Prohibition-era America told through the eyes of four gangster pals starting from their Lower East Side childhood in 1910s New York and covering five decades. Only watch a version at least 229 minutes long. Otherwise, you're wasting your time.
"The Godfather Part II" (1974)
A great movie from start to finish, I chose Part II for its authentic depiction of young Vito Corleone's life, starting as a child fleeing the Mafia of his Sicilian village and coming to America where he rises to become a respected - yet feared - member of his community. The whole Vegas story with Michael is also great, but it's the old world stuff that I dig.
"Miller's Crossing" (1990)
Loosely inspired by the Dashiell Hammett novel The Glass Key, "Miller's Crossing" has a complex plot full of stylistic nods-of-the-head to eccentric characters of classic noir crime novels. Great cinematography creates a visual richness that I love. This is one of those great movies that lots of people won't like, but everyone should give it a try.
"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)
Okay, it's not big-city Chicago or New York gangsterism, but Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are perfect as the famous duo robbing and killing in the dusty Midwest of the Great Depression. I especially appreciate director Arthur Penn's attention to portraying the desperate condition of the country and how Bonnie and Clyde, although killers, manage to create a folkloric aura about themselves.
No, not the Tony Montana "Say hello to my little friend" cartoon, but the original Scarface referencing a famous Chicagoan of Italian extraction. Although the story was only loosely based on the aforementioned Chicagoan, nobody in 1932 needed an explanation of who inspired the making of the movie. Yes, it's old and some of the comic relief may seem silly, but the movie is generally regarded as the archetype from which future gangster films would be made.