Readers know that I am no admirer of contemporary American cinema. However there is one genre where they lead the world: the mobster movie.
We have had back and white era classics such as Scarface, White Heat, The Petrified Forest, The Asphalt Jungle. There was a significant change in 1972 with The Godfather. Up till then Italian actors with names ended in ‘ia’ and ‘o’ did not get a fair break alongside beefcake all-American boys. Ben Gazzarra, for example, might have had a career as big time leading actor. Along came Al Pacino and Robert di Nero to create the whole new genre of the mafia movie.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas has worn and stood the test of time. I watched it recently for the at least the third time. Ray Liotta as the mobster Hehry Hill narrates the film, Robert di Nero is captivating as Jimmy Conway, but it’s Joe Pesci, as the psychopath Anthony, that steals the show. Unlike Godfather Part One, it does not romanticise the mafia as helping Italians when America let them down. You see the descent of Henry Hill into paranoid cocaine addict: the affluence of the bosses typified by their expensive suits: the constant violence.
The next stage was the HBO series The Sopranos. Two of the actors, Michael Imperiale, as the waiter Spider, who was shot in the foot and then killed for no apparent reason by Anthony and Lorraine Bracco, as Hill’s wife Karen, have substantial roles in the series. The Sopranos centred more on family life, but it is a linear follower of Goodfellas . Several scenes, such as shooting a person in the face so he cannot have an open cask funeral, appear in both.
It will be interesting to see where the genre goes from here. The sheer expense of making a movie, which is always speculative, means a follow-up is commercially popular as the brand is established, or it is more economic to make a tv pilot. In the absence of a Mario Puzo best-seller and the inroads made by the District Attorney into organised crime, the mafia is less box office.