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American Gangster Cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction
Fran Mason
Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
£16.99, 192 pages, ISBN 0-333-68466-4 (paperback).
£47.50, 192 pages, ISBN 0-333-67452-9 (hardback).

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

In my Cercles reviews of Michael Woodiwiss's Organized Crime and American Power: A History (2001), Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (1928/2001) and Romain Huret's Le Crime organisé à la ville et à l’écran: 1929-1951, I spoke of the Agrégation / CAPES syllabus. I also mentioned it in my review of He's All Man: Learning Masculinity, Gayness, and Love from American Movies, by John M. Clum. These words might not mean much to our international readership; they designate, roughly, French post-BA competitive exams that among other advantages secure at least a teaching job in a secondary school. This academic year, one of the CAPES questions is "Organized Crime in Fact and on Film: United States, 1929-1951." I am not certain Fran Mason has ever heard of these probably moribund exams, but he will certainly sell quite a few copies of American Gangster Cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction in France. Come to think of it, I keep phrasing the exam question (originally in French) wrongly, it is more something like "Organized Crime in the City and on the Screen."

At any rate, Mason will no doubt sell many copies elsewhere, as this book is extremely well-researched and very useful. It belongs to the series Palgrave have published for some time called Crime Files, whose general editor is no less than Clive Bloom (see my review of Clive Bloom's Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900 in Cercles). In the Introduction, Mason tackles matters of genre. What is a gangster film? When and where does it intersect with film noir? Mason is quite right to remind us diplomatically that critics have often spread restrictive and reductive visions of the genre. Indeed gangster films have frequently been classified in a rather simplistic and artificial manner. Because the early 1930s classic three (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface) have persistently been seen as "paradigmatic examples," (xiv) must we exclude films that do not exactly fit the same thematics and cultural concerns?

In the seven chapters that follow, Mason practices what he amusingly calls "unashamed textual analysis." (xvi) And so should he, I say. That is what makes this book a must for film-buffs and not merely an nth padded list of gangster films. In Chapter One, Mason begins with the concept of modernity, having stated that the classic gangster cycle "did not spring into life fully formed," but had precursors (1). He addresses the tremendous use of sound in gangster talkies, for instance evoking gunshot noises, that make all the difference. Then he examines the degree to which gangster films, as "sites of opposing ideologies," reflect or promote modernity (5). Like everybody else, he mentions Robert Warshow's absolutely indispensable text "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," (6, students be warned) before summing up the major themes handled by the major critics of the genre throughout the years. He does look at the classic three, asking the right sort of question about blood families and surrogate families, masculinity, basic Freudian notions, etc. I particularly recommend the passage concerned with the famous beer-keg scene in The Public Enemy. (20)

Mason concludes Chapter One with an illuminating passage entitled "Repressing Modernity: the Studios and the Hays Office." In Chapter Two, logically, he looks at "The Post-Code Gangster: Ideology and Social Conscience." The chapter chronicles "the return of ideology: the G-Man and early post-moratorium variations," "the social gangster," and "The Roaring Twenties, history, modernity, and the gangster." Chapter Three is concerned with "The Death of the Big Shot: The Gangster in the 1940s." Mason looks at "early variations of the 1940s," at the way High Sierra revisits and reviews the genre, at various renewals of the family plot, and indeed at post-war big shot gangsters and their demise (see in particular the passage on Key Largo). Chapter Four is entitled "Outside Society, Outside the Gang: the Alienated Noir Gangster." One of its numerous merits is to remind the reader that s/he will always gain by paying attention to what such films say about the relationships between individual and gang, individual and society, gang and society. Mason makes quite a few interesting points about the discourses of film noir, notably in his examination of "the emasculated male in early gangster noir" (79) and the "tendency in noir to identify the failures of American ideology without actually criticizing the ideology itself, or offering any solution." (75) Some gangster films, Mason writes, focus on "gangsters who are not really gangsters, but whose gangster identity is utilized to represent the death of individuality or masculinity, of which the Swede's infatuation with, and entrapment by, Kitty [in The Killers] is the symbol." (81) This is followed by three enlightening pages on Out of the Past. Later, he identifies what gangster films have to say about capitalism and American or un-American values, among other things.

Chapters Five, Six, and Seven are concerned with post-Kefauver films. Chapter Five, "Order and Chaos, Syndicates and Heists," and Chapter Six, "Nostalgia and Renewal in the Post-Classical Gangster Film," are fine, but I have a few qualms when it comes to Chapter Seven, "The Postmodern Spectacle of the Gangster." Surely, Reservoir Dogs deserved more than 44 lines and Pulp Fiction more than 95; especially considering the film is featured in the (sub)title of the book. Admittedly I am a "huge fan," as the saying goes, of Quentin Tarantino's, and thus biased, but many other readers are bound to be frustrated, especially as far as Mason's failure to really address the essential humor of those films is concerned. Mason's enjoyable book, American Gangster Cinema, will however deserve a place of choice on my crammed bookshelves, as it will no doubt on those of many a film-buff.

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