Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Spray of Bullets, A Cornucopia of Corpses

Let me make one thing clear. Unlike a lot of moviegoers, gratuitous violence is not a turn-on for me. Whereas some people are thrilled by exploding bombs, car crashes, and gang wars, the only kind of violence I genuinely enjoy is the sound of Ann Miller's shoes rat-a-tat-tapping on top of a giant can of soup.

Like it or not, there are gangster films of every type. From the Japanese Yakuza to the Sicilian Mafia, from drug cartels to gun smugglers, random rounds of bullets sell better at the box office than random acts of kindness. Put an AK-47 in someone's hands and teenaged boys will cum in their pants. Whether bullets are shattering office windows or a classic automobile driven by Bonnie and Clyde, bodies spurting fake blood draw people to the movies. In a perverse way, glorifying violence leads to box office gold.

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During the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, there was a special effort to program a series of movies that fell into the category of "Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film." These included:
Poster art for Scarface
Guest curator Nancy K. Fishman, who designed a series of screenings featuring Jews in gangster films that will continue this fall at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, explains that:
"Gangster films are an intriguing prism through which to view one of the darker aspects of American Jewish history: Jewish gangsters and Jewish crime. The program includes cinematic images of Jewish gangsters, as well as 'ethnic' gangsters played by Jewish actors. Scarface, starring Paul Muni as a thinly disguised Al Capone, is an excellent example of a gangster movie that would have had a Jewish subtext for the Jewish audience of its day because of Paul Muni’s career in the Yiddish Theatre.

Gangsterism is often a prevalent phenomenon in immigrant communities precisely because it offers a way out of poverty. A large percentage of American bootleggers (some estimates are as high as 50%) during the Prohibition era were Jews. Many of the Jewish gangsters, from the turn of the last century through World War II, were simultaneously hated and admired for their grit and chutzpah. The second wave of Jewish gangsters, in the late 1940s and ’50s, added brains to their brawn and created an almost corporate business model for their criminal activity. Some of their stories are not pretty, but there are also tales of Jewish mobsters doing good. Rumors swirl around anti-Nazi and anti-bund activities, aid to the United States Navy in the invasion of Sicily, and early support for Israel.

I first became interested in Jewish gangsters when I found out that my grandparents, Arthur (Abe) and Frederica Fishman, had been threatened by Brooklyn gangster Dopey Benny Fein, who sent them a funeral wreath -- probably because they refused to pay him protection money. Frankly, I thought that the name Dopey Benny had been made up until I did some research and realized he was the real deal: a New York thug and racketeer who (when he wasn’t intimidating small business people like my grandparents) sold his strong arm services to unions -- and never, he claimed, to management --  in the seething labor disputes that raged in the first half of the last century. Not exactly what one would call a nice Jewish boy!

Scratch the bark on your family tree and you might uncover a Jewish gangster or someone who paid off a Jewish gangster. However, you might have an easier time finding a Jewish gangster story in your family than an explicitly Jewish gangster film. A complex question for cinema historians is the extent to which Hollywood’s mostly Jewish producers and studio owners avoided making films about Jewish gangsters for fear of creating negative images of Jews during a time of widespread anti-Semitism.

Are Jewish gangsters or Jewish gangster films good for the Jews? I don’t have the answer to that question. But I do know that these films are exhilarating and endlessly entertaining, while providing a unique window into the Jewish immigrant experience."
I found King of the Roaring 20s and Scarface most notable for a sense of noir style, especially the footage of vintage automobiles as they sped around street corners with their occupants spraying bullets into innocent crowds of people. Watching Paul Muni's beautifully detailed performance as Antonio "Tony" Carmonte in Scarface was as much a treat as the work of  Ann DvorakKaren MorleyBoris KarloffOsgood PerkinsGeorge Raft, and Inez Palange in supporting roles. Here's the trailer:

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Directed by Robert GuédiguianArmy of Crime (which was shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and is now being screened for a week by the San Francisco Film Society), also has plenty of wanton killings. Most of them, however, are revenge killings against the Nazis by Parisian members of the French resistance.
Poster art for Amy of Crime
The title of the film derives from an infamous Nazi propaganda poster, which insisted that members of the French resistance (who had been killing Nazis in retaliation for the deaths of innocent Frenchmen) should be regarded as criminals. The poster, which appeared during the Nazi occupation of France, asked "Liberation? Liberation by the army of crime?"

Based on history, the film depicts Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) --  an Armenian poet and intellectual whose family had been murdered by the Turks -- as the quiet, ethical leader of an unruly group of young Jewish, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Spanish, Italian, and Armenian resistance fighters. Missak's wife, Mélinée Manouchian (Virginie Ledoyen), stands solidly behind his efforts.

When Monsieur Rayman (Boris Bergman) receives a green card informing him to register with the local Nazi office, his son Marcel (Robinson Stévenin) begs him not to go. Sure enough, Marcel's father disappears (a local railway station is lined with posters depicting how happy Jews are getting new jobs elsewhere) and Marcel is left to look after his kid brother, Simon (Léopold Szabatura).

In another home, where Monsieur Elek (Patrick Bonnel) and his wife (Ariane Ascaride) run a small restaurant, their hot-headed teenaged son Thomas (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) returns home from school one day after getting into a fight with a Nazi sympathizer. Unfortunately for Thomas, his opponent (Yann Trégouët) soon gets promoted and becomes known to the local Nazis as Le Commissaire David. When one of the townspeople rats out a suspicious Jew, David commends and promotes Inspector Pujol (Jean-Pierre Darrousin).

The younger members of Manouchian's gang of fighters often prefer to take matters into their own hands. Whether lobbing grenades into a group of German soldiers or planting a bomb inside a hollowed out book, they are eager for blood. Marcel, who has excellent aim with a pistol, develops a technique of chatting up German soldiers, taking out a cigarette, asking them for a light, and then killing them at point blank range.
Marcel Rayman (Robinson Stévenin ) claims another victim
Unfortunately, when Mr. Petra (Mirza Halilovic) -- a leader of the resistance who has been issuing orders to Manouchian -- gets captured by the Nazis, he doesn't hesitate to name names. Soon Feri Boczov (Ivan Franek), Gilles (Lucas Belvaux), and Henri Krasucki (Adrien Jolivet) are also arrested. Ironically, Krasucki survived and went on to become the secretary general of France's General Confederation of Labor  (a national trade union center) from 1982-1992!

At a length of nearly 140 minutes, Army of Crime has moments when it loses steam and direction. The cast, however, does a creditable job of bringing these young freedom fighters back to life, particularly Robinson Stévenin as Marcel, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet as Thomas, and Simon Abkarian as Missak Manouchian.

As with the American gangster films shown during the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the vintage automobiles used in the production come dangerously close to stealing the show. Here's the trailer: