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.