I’ve made the not insignificant effort of creating a website devoted to Gangster movies, so I think it’s a safe assumption to say I like the genre. However, in a rare moment of introspection I asked myself recently, why? Why do tales about wiseguys, Mafiosi and hoods interest me so much.
I came up with several reasons, but the one that fascinated me the most was I don’t like happy endings. I know what you’re thinking and no, it’s not just because I’m a miserable bastard; it’s because you always know how the movie is going to end. Take action movies, the hero will usually find themselves in a tight spot half way through the third act, but you know that even when they’re at their lowest ebb, they will still overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds to defeat the bad dude by the end of the movie. RomComs, chick flicks, call them what you will, feature a couple who spend most of the movie awkwardly developing some kind of relationship before one of them learns an uncomfortable truth about the other and they break up… but wait; one of the characters has an epiphany and following a grand gesture of love often in an airport or bus station (my favourite is Crocodile Dundee in the subway station) and they live happily ever after.
My point is predictability. No matter how bad the situation looks with 30 minutes left on the movie you know it will work itself out.
Now take gangster movies. Where is the happily ever after? Gangsters don’t get to ride off into the sunset or save the day at the last minute. So how do gangster movies conclude? Let’s have a look at the endings of the some of the biggest Gangster Movies:
Scarface – the classic tale of the rise and fall of a drug kingpin. Tony Montana who realises he’s just a lonely man talking to himself, goes out in a blaze of glory, coked to the eyeballs and his body filled with more lead than all the pencils in Staples, inviting his would-be assassins to say hello to his little friends. Not quite your Disney fairy tale ending.
Goodfellas - As far back as Henry Hill can remember he always wanted to be a gangster; a somebody in a neighbourhood full of nobodies. Well guess what? By becoming an FBI informant, ratting out his crew and entering the ‘Program’ he became just another nobody. The closing scene has Henry dressed, not in his refined tailored suits or leather jackets, but in his dressing gown. He gets to live the rest of his life like a schnook. Happy ending? Henry became everything he despised.
Pulp Fiction – Tell me where the end is and I’ll let you know whether it’s happy or not. The final scene has Jules and Vincent tucking their pistols into the waist bands of their shorts and walking out the diner, but we also know that chronologically Vincent takes one toilet trip too many and is shot and killed by Butch. Jules (we assume from the dialogue) becomes a bum and walks the earth. Maybe it’s only Butch who gets close to a happy ending when his LA visa is revoked by Marcellus Wallace.
Reservoir Dogs – Mr Orange spends most of the movie struggling to stay alive, but gets killed anyway. Police Officer Marvin Nash is saved from further torture, but gets killed anyway. Mr Blonde is killed before he can finish off Officer Nash. Mr White, Nice Guy Eddie and Joe all die in a Mexican standoff. The only one to make it out of the building alive is Mr Pink – but wait - if you listen closely, before ‘The Lime in the Coconut’ kicks in you can hear Mr Pink being arrested. Given the bag of diamonds he has on him and the cops he’s ‘tagged’, he’s going to prison for a long long time.
The Godfather – Michael is now head of the family, he settled all family business i.e. assassinated the heads of the other New York families, Moe Greened Moe Greene, got a confession out of Carlo (and killed him) and got even with Tessio. That sounds like a happy ending, right? Wrong. Michael goes from wanting nothing at all do with the family business – “That’s my family Kay, it’s not me” – to becoming the most feared and ruthless crime boss in the country and selling his soul in the process.
In one of the final episodes of The Sopranos “Soprano’s Home Movies” as Tony and his brother-in-law and fellow goombah Bobby Baccalieri sit in a boat on a lake fishing they ponder the end. “You get older, you think about things” Tony says “My estimate historically, in the can like Johnny Sack or on the embalming table at Cozarelli's”. Tony’s under no illusion of how the game ends and nor should we.
For movies to be believable (or at least plausible) art needs to imitate life, so just as all the real life gangsters we know of like Al Capone, John Dillinger, Charles Luciano, Pablo Escobar, The Kray Twins, John Gotti, Bonnie and Clyde, etc. who all end up in the ‘Can’ or on the ‘embalming table’ as Tony Soprano puts it, we expect likewise for their silver screen compatriots.
OK, so not having a happy ending is predicable too, up to a point. Death or prison is the expected outcome, but it’s not always so cut and dried; see Pulp Fiction and The Godfather above. In Donnie Brasco the gangsters are (true to form) either pinched or whacked while Donnie gets a medal, but the disillusionment felt by Johnny Depp’s character and Al Pacino’s acceptance of fate make it a very poignant but far from happy ending. And don’t get me started on the Godfather Part II. The melancholy finale to the second instalment of the Corleone saga leaves you emotionally drained; how could Michael do that to his own brother…
I’m sure there are one or two examples of happy endings. Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels springs to mind. Guy Ritchie’s multiple story lines are neatly resolved and our four main protagonists become unstuck from the very sticky situation they found themselves in. Eddy, Bacon, Tom and Soap however, are not gangsters, they’re just four guys who get caught up in a gangster’s world; perhaps that’s the difference, and perhaps that’s why they’re allowed a happy(ish) ending. After all the real gangsters Hatchet Harry, Barry the Baptist, Diamond Dog, et al all end up on the ‘embalming table’ (Guy Ritchie does love his nicknames, doesn’t he?).
Another way to look at it is from a dramatic point of view. Movie makers are crafting a story and whilst part of the thrill of Gangster Flicks is the power and glamour that comes with the life, who doesn’t love the fantastic shot in Goodfellas when Henry takes Karen through the back entrance of the Copacabana, greeting everyone warmly and shaking hands with everyone he passes before having a table delivered specifically for him in front of the stage? there is a very real need to juxtaposition the glamour with the merciless violence that goes with it. The classic arc to a gangster flick is the rise and the fall and the tragic consequences that come from living in a violent world.
If Martin Scorsese ended Goodfellas at the point where the wiseguys are congratulating themselves on the success of the Lufthansa heist or Ridley Scott ended American Gangster when Frank Lucas is enjoying a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast in his mansion, watching audiences are not going to be satisfied with the happy ending. Having watched Billy Batts being stabbed to death in the trunk of Henry Hill’s car or junkies overdosing in front of their kids on Lucas’ cheap heroin, our moral compasses would be sent spinning unable to find their true north. There has to be justification for showing the violence and the consequences of it.
Gangsters are not entitled to live happily ever after. Or how about this: the happy ending belongs to us, law abiding movie fans who have the satisfaction of knowing bad guys get their just deserts?
If we really need a happy ending to a gangster movie then the film in question needs to be told from the point of view of the law enforcement agencies. Think The Untouchables; Gangster Squad; The Departed. In these movies the gangsters are not anti-heroes, they’re just out and out bad guys and we’re meant to cheer for the guys in the white hats. So when Eliot Ness pushes Frank Nitti off the roof, Sgt O’Mara beats the living daylights out of Mickey Cohen and Staff Sergeant Dignam appears from no-where to shoot Sullivan the good guys triumph and we leave the cinema knowing good triumphed over evil.
So what have we learned? Well I’ve learned I’m not just a miserable bastard after all, in fact I have a very good sense of right and wrong. I like my gangsters to live by the gun and die by the gun. So while I like to see Nicky Santoro crush Tony Dogs head in vice in Casino or stab a mouthy barfly to death with a pen I can only sleep easy at night from knowing that this vicious mobster had to watch his brother being beaten to death with a baseball bat and then buried alive next to the corpse.
After all, not all movies can end like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and nor do we want them to.