×

Bullets Over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to the Sopranos

There's something seductive about a guy or a gal with a gat, acting out our most antisocial fantasies while we shudder with delight. Which is why, 92 years after D.W. Griffith's "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" laid out the basics -- sex, violence, intoxicants -- in a scant 17 minutes, Tony Soprano can whack all his rivals in the Nielsen ratings.

There’s something seductive about a guy or a gal with a gat, acting out our most antisocial fantasies while we shudder with delight. Which is why, 92 years after D.W. Griffith’s “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” laid out the basics — sex, violence, intoxicants — in a scant 17 minutes, Tony Soprano can whack all his rivals in the Nielsen ratings. The gangster drama remains a pop culture staple because it’s flexible enough to be reinvented by each new Hollywood generation, yet familiar in its essentials. It’s a point ably demonstrated in John McCarty’s slightly plodding history, “Bullets Over Hollywood.”

The author conscientiously covers silent gangster flicks through the 1920s, outlining the genre’s roots for those without his access to the archives. McCarty isn’t a gripping writer or theorist, however, so the narrative only picks up steam when it arrives at the movies most fans have actually seen and the three actors who defined the classic gangster persona.

There was Edward G. Robinson, whose “green-eyed mobster” wanted nice clothes and fancy cars and didn’t care how he got them; James Cagney’s flamboyant psychopath, who did bad things because he wanted to; and Humphrey Bogart’s more sympathetic loner/loser, who felt rejected by society before he resorted to crime. Films like “Little Caesar,” “The Public Enemy,” and “The Petrified Forest” struck a chord with Depression-era audiences, and Bogart’s brooding, alienated outsider in particular cast the mold for countless film noir antiheros of the 1940s and ’50s.

McCarty frequently whips across decades to compare, for example, Brian De Palma’s baroque 1983 “Scarface” with the casually brutal 1932 original directed by Howard Hawks. He structures his text thematically rather than chronologically, shoehorning almost all the women in this male-dominated genre into one chapter on “Molls, Twists, Babes, and B Girls.” The story moves generally forward, however, toward the paradigm shift initiated by “The Godfather” and brought to postmodern fruition with “The Sopranos.”

With the notable exception of Scarface’s incestuously adored sister, Golden Age gangsters’ only relatives seemed to be the poor old mothers who periodically pleaded with their boys in broken English to go straight. Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola gave their criminals wives, kids, and personal problems beyond the question of who to bump off next, bringing family life and emotional complexity to an art form that had previously specialized in no-frills rage with a dash of social criticism.

“The Sopranos” does all this and more, putting its don into therapy and taking ironic note of a fact George Raft had joked about years earlier: real-life gangsters are as fascinated by movie mobsters as the rest of us. “Bullets over Hollywood” expresses the same fascination, though one could wish it displayed more of its subjects’ swaggering panache (or Dr. Melfi’s analytic skills) as it thoroughly reviews a century of bad guys, tough broads, and blood-soaked conflict resolution.

Popular on Variety

More Reviews

  • 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    Busan Film Review: 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    “To the Ends of the Earth,” the story of a young Japanese journalist’s experiences in Uzbekistan filming a report for a Japanese TV travel show, was originally commissioned to celebrate 25 years of cordial diplomatic relations between director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s hyper-developed island homeland and the less affluent, landlocked Central Asian nation. As such we might [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

  • Brandi Carlile Gets Red-Hot and 'Blue'

    Brandi Carlile Gets Red-Hot and 'Blue' Saluting Joni Mitchell at Disney Hall

    If nothing else was established by Brandi Carlile’s live recreation of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 “Blue” album — and plenty else was — it was that the 38-year-old singer has nerves even steelier than her vocal cords are pliable. Mitchell is as impossible to emulate as a ridiculously tricky singer, songwriter and picker as they come, which [...]

  • Looking For Alaska is an 8-episode

    TV Review: 'Looking for Alaska'

    It was probably just a matter of time before John Green and Josh Schwartz became collaborators. Green, whose novels include “Looking for Alaska,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” and “Paper Towns,” has become known for writing teenagers filled with so much restlessness and existential melancholy that they can hardly stand it. Schwartz, whose shows include [...]

  • Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

    Film Review: Angelina Jolie in 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil'

    With her horned headpiece, impossible alabaster cheekbones and high-camp attitude, Maleficent looms as by far the most iconic villain Disney ever created. Landing Angelina Jolie to play the “Sleeping Beauty” baddie in 2014’s live-action redo was a dream-casting coup for which the studio was rewarded with three-quarters of a billion dollars at the global box [...]

  • Watchmen HBO

    TV Review: 'Watchmen'

    “Watchmen,” the 1980s DC Comics series whose popularity demands adaptation and whose singular vision makes that near-impossible, might be too much itself to bring out the best in any artist. But it has brought out the most in Damon Lindelof. As a follow-up to HBO’s “The Leftovers,” Lindelof returns to the cabler to remix and [...]

  • Lucky Day

    Film Review: 'Lucky Day'

    It’s been 17 long years since “Rules of Attraction” director Roger Avary has released a film, during which time he was involved in a deadly car crash, charged with gross vehicle manslaughter, saw a work furlough translated into actual prison time, and watched things go south with Video Archives amigo Quentin Tarantino over the “Pulp [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content