“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry Hill tells us this at the opening of Goodfellas (1990), and it’s easy to understand his draw to the mob life. Film history is filled with iconic, tragic gangster figures. From the first gangster cycle in the 1930s to today’s mafia movies, all crime films work on a sort of sliding scale of realism, some pictures choosing to depict gang life with realistic grit, while others take greater creative license over the subject matter.
The first gangster cycle was born just before its legs were cut out from underneath it by the Hays Code in 1934. It’s iconic films: Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) provided an escape for the struggling workers trying to keep afloat in the Great Depression. The first half of any of these films follows a character from rags to riches as he claws and kills his way to the top; a fantasy of breaking the rules and getting wealthy. But just as important as the rise is the fall, the audience’s reaffirmation that crime does not pay. The films followed a simple formula, but they developed the language that all crime films speak through and defined the genre.
In the 1970s, after the code broke down, filmmakers began taking these conventions and applying them in new ways. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather is perhaps the prime example of the romanticism of the crime life. Coppola opens on the Corleone family, a sort of crime monarchy in 1940’s New York; business runs out of cigar parlors and is discussed in easy chairs. While the film is not without it’s violence, it handles it with more style and less grit. Coppola focuses on the family instead of the violence, choosing to examine the way the Corleones’ business functions within a family structure. The film provides a somewhat distorted view of the mafia, trading in realistic grit for lyrical beauty.
In 1973, Martin Scorsese exploded onto the scene with his first major feature film Mean Streets. The film stripped the romanticism away from the mafia and examined the life of crime in a violently gritty way. That is not to say that Mean Streets is not a beautiful film, it is simply showcasing an uglier, perhaps more realistic, view of the mafia. Throughout the film, Scorsese cuts to films like The Searchers and The Big Heat, juxtaposing their scenes of seemingly tame violence with the horrifying, realistic violence of his film, suggesting that what we’ve seen up to his film is fiction and that his film is reality, which is far more frightening.
Both The Godfather and Mean Streets have contemporaries that run the scale from gritty realism to romantic lyricism. Some objectify the life of crime, attempting to capture brutal reality; a modern example of this would be Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah from 2008, which tears through the crime-ridden streets of Naples with horrifying violence and realism. Other filmmakers choose to skew reality and create wholly personal visions employing the conventions of the crime film. A particularly adept example is Jacques Audiard’s 2009 film A Prophet.
A Prophet chronicles Malik El Djebena’s six year stint in a French prison. Malik first appears an illiterate, naïve nineteen year-old Arab, and over the course of the film rises in the ranks of the Corsican mob while slowly becoming a mafia kingpin. The film is a fascinating look at life behind the walls of prison and is an even more magnificent character study.
Tonally, Audiard strikes an effective balance between reality and surrealism. Set almost entirely behind the walls of a penitentiary, the film exists within the drab, claustrophobic corners of prison, pushing these characters together towards unavoidably explosive conflict. These setting are kept muted and understated to accentuate the innate beauty of the outside world in the few scenes where Malik is allowed to go on leave. The contrast between life inside and outside of the prison creates a wonderful opportunity for artistry and Audiard absolutely capitalizes on it.
Much of this beauty comes through the playful, surrealist view of reality through Malik’s eyes. At several points throughout the film, Malik has visions of, and sometimes conversations with, the first character he is forced to kill in prison. While perhaps undercutting the realism, these scenes call for a richer, more layered study of the film as a whole. Audiard is, in many ways, more interested on crime’s impact on Malik than on the crime itself. We see his character change in subtle and overt ways over the course of the film. In one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking scenes in the film, we see Malik go through airport security and immediately perform the security procedures he learned in prison. In some ways these small shifts in idiosyncrasies are more haunting than the shootings, stabbings, and other acts of brutal violence displayed in the film.
The crime film is one of the most well established genres in film and as such has one of the most identifiable sets of conventions. It is the careful, educated play with these conventions that allows for a rich variety of films. There is something that compels us to sit in the dark and experience horror for two hours to emerge from that darkness enlightened somehow. Whether we are looking the reassurance of society’s moral code or a fantasy of violent empowerment, we will keep searching, keep returning to probe the dark, forbidden corners that these films provide gateways to.