American Gangster: Seductive Crime

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David Lee / Universal

Denzel Washington stars in American Gangster.

The ruling cliché in writing about crime bosses — "the gangster as tragic hero" — was coined in 1948 by Robert Warshow, an extremely intelligent cultural critic, whose premature passing in 1955 robbed us of an invaluable voice. Warshow held that the classic movie mobsters (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy) were, in their essence, classic Americans forced by their status as the sons of immigrants to seek success and status outside the law, even though their style and motives were not so very different from the robber barons who found their riches in more respectable industries. The difference between the gangsters and, say, John D. Rockefeller, was that their methods of eliminating the competition was, shall we say, somewhat more strenuous, and that ultimately they paid a deadly price for their depredations.

It has been 59 years since Warshow wrote, and it seems to me that studies of the modern criminal have not advanced very much in that time. As evidence we might consider Ridley Scott's American Gangster, which is based on the true story of a drug lord named Frank Lucas, who in the 1970s cornered the Harlem heroin market and thereby made millions upon millions. He is a black man, no less a member of a struggling underclass than his Italian and Irish movie predecessors, and he has a couple of gimmicks that they (who were never drug dealers) didn't have. For one thing, he eliminated the middle men; he bought his smack directly from sources in Southeast Asia and smuggled it into the country, often in the body bags containing the remains of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. For another thing, he "branded" his product as "Blue Magic," which was a purer and cheaper product that his competitors offered. Finally, Frank, who is played with a smooth coolness by Denzel Washington that eluded the more rough-hewn Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, does not come to a tragic end. Eventually, he is turned by an almost comically obsessive cop named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), does some jail time and loses his fortune, but remains available to tell his story.

In Washington's soft-spoken, gently smiling and ingratiating performance, he is altogether more charming than most of his predecessors; it comes as a real shock when he must off a competitor or a betrayer. And we enjoy seeing him enjoy his success — the gigantic mansion in which he installs his formerly dirt-poor family, his trophy wife, the celebrity that comes to him. There has never been much point in deploring a gangster's rise; it's his demise that we fear — the notion that the American go-getter must inevitably be gotten. "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?" Robinson moans at the end of Little Ceasar —as surprised as we are by a death that may be tragically ordained, but is also a sop to conventional morality.

Thus, perhaps ironically, American Gangster, Steve represents an improvement on gangster myth. In truth, crime kingpins tend to lead long lives, interrupted by a little jail time (Frank's life sentence was commuted to 15 years). It is also improved by the fact that Crowe's bumptious character comes to enjoy the man's company, even becoming his attorney when he leaves law enforcement. It's the old Dostoyevskian bit about cop and crook being brothers under the skin. In the film, the only truly loathsome villain is a crooked cop, Detective Trupo, played with wonderful brutality by Josh Brolin, who encourages us to think that the only real crime is to interrupt the smooth flow of criminal entrepreneurship.

Warshow observed that the classic gangster dramas punished their protagonists not so much for their unlawful activities, but because they dared to succeed. He implied that we may seemingly worship success in this country, but that we also deplore and envy it — since most of us never attain it. But that was then, and this is now. Our love affair with wealth and fame is now untrammeled by doubts. It is our big good thing, and eventually Crowe's character, like the rest of us, must surrender to its cheerful demands. That makes American Gangster, which is rather leisurely paced but richly detailed in the way it pursues the minutiae of conspicuous criminality as well as consumption, a more disturbing movie than its makers may have intended. I don't think it attains the Godfather level — it lacks dark passion and grand-scale irony — but it is an intelligent, well-made and seductive movie.