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In chapter 4 of THE NEW FILMGOER’S GUIDE TO GOD I write about gangster films, introducing the subject in this way:

“If damnation comes from the judgement of humans, we can only look to God for salvation. It is a key strand in Christian thought that there is a profound version of justice beyond the ability of humans to order themselves, and if that is the case, we must therefore rely on a divine mercy if we are to escape the risk of damnation. Hence the human soul awaiting the advent of grace (chapter 1), hence our individual experience of resurrection (chapter 6). Hence the importance of the gospel story (chapter 2) in offering two ways out: resurrection in order to overcome Jesus’ cruel and unjust execution, and through the sacrifice of his innocence, redemption from the pain of human sin.

“The notion of sacrifice is a long way from clear-cut American justice in the movies. In Westerns, the hero makes law with the gun settling matters not through any judicial procedure but by natural intuition of how corruption is to be dealt with, a gift that both sanctifies his violence and as it were lends him the necessary skill with a gun. Moral superiority translates into a practical one. But Hollywood has created another version of this myth, that of the gangster who uses violence to assert his difference from, and antagonism toward ordered society. He is the dark doppelgänger of the Western hero, and the central protagonist of dozens of films.

“In the portentous words of the hard-boiled American director, Samuel Fuller, pronounced in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965), ‘film is like a battleground: love, hate, action, violence, death . . . In one word, emotion.’   This is a wonderfully concise description of the gangster film, one of America’s notable contributions to popular culture, so popular that many other countries have now taken up the genre.  Yet, while being a battleground, it offers a context to explore the suffering of the world not just by the willed evil in living and dying by the sword, but also in ideas of guilt, redemption from evil, and ultimate salvation.  Although we shall look at examples where these themes are touched on, it is a feature of the genre that they have been largely ignored, perhaps as a result of necessity since the mechanisms of revenge and the conclusion of justice have to be kept at the forefront, as if directors and scriptwriters by and large feel that any consideration of whether these people have any human dignity is an irrelevant one. Questions of right and wrong have been sidelined into formulas of ‘good guys’ (the cops, at least some of the time) and ‘bad guys’ (the gangsters most of the time), and because the films’ purpose is to seduce the viewer into an involvement with the story regardless of rights and wrongs, their creators are most focussed on entertaining adults in an adult world.  One side-effect has been that they have not had any hesitation about putting the gangster film at the forefront of portraying violence on screen, to the point where there seem, over a hundred years on from the invention of the cinema, to be no taboos left as to what is permitted, and the images of violence seem drained of moral meaning.”

Among the films I then discuss or refer to in passing are: The Godfather films, White Heat, The Big Heat, Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral. That leads into a consideration of the ‘atheist’ gangster films of Jean-Pierre Melville, especially Le Samourai.


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For my film website, go to: www.timcawkwell.co.uk