American Success

June 24, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers the gangsters of America.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The success of Peter Maas’s book on Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, the turncoat of the John Gotti Mafia gang, reminds us that no figure in American mythology is as attractive as the gangster.

Why is this? Even the American cowboy, who dominated the movies in the first half of the century, backs off whenever the gangster drives into town. Picture a shootout between Gary Cooper in “High Noon” and Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar.” The dusty street is cleared; the citizens cower, the tall, live graceful Cooper reluctantly goes for his pistol. But, unfortunately, the stubby, thuggish Rico already has his gun in hand–and he blows the honorable West away.

Why is such low-life appealing to our imaginations when it is clearly all that America should not be–brutal, cruel, pitiless. An ungenerous mind might answer that those low-life qualities are exactly why the gangster rules our mythology. But there may be a more expansive, if not necessarily a happier explanation. The gangster is a poor boy, first of all, without advantages. He must work his way up in the classic American climb. Be he Little Caesar, the Godfather, or a good fellow, he has to learn his trade.

What’s more, he functions in the city, in the poor tough neighborhoods where most up and coming men come up. That he strives for success down these mean streets, rather than on Fifth Avenue or Park, is only a difference of atmosphere.

Every gangster, from Al Capone to John Gotti, does it the hard way. Poor boy makes bad. Robert Warshow, the great movie critic of the 1940’s, saw the gangster as a tragic hero and pinned his popularity on America’s need for a homegrown tragedy. Warshow said that as a culture we are committed to a cheerful view of life. So we discover tragedy in the Paul Muny or the Al Pacino, or Dutch Schultz, or Clyde Barrow, or John Dillinger, who rises and falls.

Warshow’s theory, while brilliant, is probably not true. No one watching Jimmy Cagney or Humphrey Bogart achieved their dark prominences in the films of the 1930’s was waiting breathlessly for their comeuppance. To the contrary. It was much more satisfying, more fun to see them rise and rise as high as possible on the wings of crime and cruelty–to rise without a fall–what? Could Cagney really pop a grapefruit into that woman’s face and get away with it? First murder, then bad manners? What next? No. The reason the gangster never fades from our affections is that he is the cheerful view of life, or to assert proper morality, he is the mirror image of cheer.

The American gangster is American success. He is the archetype mysterious businessman. No one really knows what businessmen do, though they run the country, and no one wants to, especially in the case of the gangster, who traffics in drugs, prostitutes, numbers, that sort of merchandise.

What people admire is his pure, abstract success–like Rockefeller or Carnegie or Bill Gates or the Donald–only he lives downtown, and he pushes people around with his own hand. Since he is so successful, he is forgiven practically everything. Nonexistent virtues are accorded him. He is said to be a good family man, even though he has a few doxies on the side.

He is shown to be the melancholy Hamlet loner like Robert De Niro in “Heat” to disguise the fact that he’s merely a killer and a thief. He wins. That’s his virtue. And at the moment justice is done and he is brought down in an explosion of gunfire, relief gives way to disappointment. All’s right in heaven, but on America’s earth we don’t want success to fail. There you are, Little Caesar.

ACTOR: Remember, no mercy. Is this end of Rico?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Never. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.