23 September 2007

The Breakdown of "Omerta" and the Lure of Drug Profits: Copolla, Scorcese and Modern Mob Films

Commune di Corleone , Sicilia


The tragic history of Sicily -- conquered time and again through the millenia due to it's strategic location along traditional vital Mediterranean routes -- helps us understand why the people of that stunningly beautiful island organized themselves for protection from subjugation and sanctioned government cruelty. In modern parlance, historically: American immigrants' need for protection from the cops.

And why wouldn't the isolated, non-English-speaking Sicilian immigrants bring their deep beliefs in Omerta' and other Mafia tools with them, through Ellis Island to North America. And why wouldn't this notion of familia, organized as the old Roman legions were, evolve as the U.S. matured and grew in the 20th century? Well, they would, and did, and North America changed and so did the Mafia.

And soon the great Mob films will be about the Eastern European Mafia that quickly emerged after the implosion of the U.S.S.R. -- first out of the non-indie gate is the just released Eastern Promises.

It is the older, gritty classics -- Public Enemy, Little Caesar, White Heat, Scarface (1932 original) -- that so heavily influenced Martin Scorcese, and North America.

The modern classics of this genre we owe primarily to two men: Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Don't compare Coppola's The Godfather trilogy to Goodfellas or any of Martin Scorsese's crime syndicate movies. Coppola shows a progression from the Cosa Nostra of 1940's, with flashbacks to the first quarter of the 20th century, through North America's ongoing love affair with coke and horse. I would argue that the increase in disorganized violence was partially caused by growing illicit drug profits; it may also be argued the loss of the friendship of the Pezzonovante' (bigshots) of the Church and government went hand-in-hand with the Mafia's move into the drug trade.

In DeNiro's and Liotta's Goodfellas characters, we see competent men who couldn't break into "The Family" because they weren't full blooded Sicilian. More importantly, we also see an excellent view of mob life from the "Button Man's"

Bottom line, both the Corleone and the Paul "Paulie" Cicero (Goodfellas) syndicates were brought down, in part, by the drug trade backed up with automatic weapons.

For a historical persective on gang life, a brief discussion of Scorsese's Gangs of New York is warranted. The Five Points in 19th century Manhattan gangs alignment with Tammany Hall protected them for a while, but here hatred clouded reason and the last days of the Civil War took their toll. Compare Casino and Mean Streets.

Of course, the period Irish music -- which to great degree still is played in cities such as Chicago -- is superb. Hats off to Scorsese and Executive Music Supervisor Robbie Robertson. And then there's the elegant use of a modern Irish band, U2, with there over-the-credits ending theme: The Hands That Built America.

Drug trafficking, lack of backing organization, and uncontrolled violence are one unifying theme in the downfall of these criminal empires. In Scorsese's most recent syndicate film, The Departed (2006), the Syndicate boss (Jack Nicholson's character) deals directly with a new, inner circle "button man" (Leonardo DiCaprio's character) -- note: buffer system smashed. Further, this Irish Mob shreds Omerta'; finally, Southie is drowning in white powder and Nicholson's character, well, ... -- that would be spoiler information on a new essential film; you won't get it from me.

The unifying lessons of the Cosa Nostra films: get well organized, be faithful until death to
omerta'; and stay away from trafficking in white powders.

By way of comparison, check out Forrest Whitaker as the lead character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai -- a professional assassin following a strict Samurai code.


1 comment:

Paco Malo said...


One of the classic American Mob films touched on in this post, Little Caesar, is a cited influence of Scorcese's.

I saw it for the first time last night.

This 1930 genre-defining film made Edward G. Robinson a star. Along with Cagney, and until Bogey, "Eddie G." created the best Mob-boss-actor roles on film.

Mr. Robinson spent his money on one of the world best private art collections in the world.