By Rivka Rappoport
A response to a public conversation with Paul Lieberman, author of the Gangster Squad, at Columbia University on February 19th, 2013.
Paul Lieberman’s talk “Gangster Movies and Reality” was marked, more than anything else, by a pervasive sentiment of nostalgia. Throughout the talk, it seemed as if Lieberman longed for a world that was characterized by both the sub-system vigilante justice of the real life “Gangster Squad,” upon which the film Gangster Squad was based, and for the mobster, Mickey Cohen, whom the squad was tasked with bringing down. As Lieberman walked the audience through important dates from the biographies of Cohen and the Squad, a fascinating narrative emerged of a world in which, sometimes, the differences between lawman and mobster were merely a matter of dress.
It turns out that the real-life members of the Gangster Squad were more than worthy of dramatization—complicated, obsessive, occasionally self-destructive characters who pursued Cohen aggressively. Lieberman’s diligent delivery of the men’s bios was packed with fascinating tidbits that gestured toward the more complex film that might have been made in the blockbuster’s stead. For example, he explained that Mickey Cohen was obsessed with cleaning his hands, washing them hundreds of times a day; the image of the fastidious gangster is so unlikely and so strong that it’s a wonder Hollywood could resist. The members of the Gangster Squad had frequently interesting backgrounds, as well—one was the son of a real-life con man, another, a Texan sheriff—but these facts were delivered as though the audience was already acquainted with their names and invested in their stories.
Lieberman’s expertise was apparent, if not overtly analytical. When he spoke of the ways in which the Hollywood film went wrong, he spoke mostly of the advice Sean Penn failed to take, rather than the executives’ mishandling of the story’s genre —making a shallow action film out of a gangster legend—or the sloppy script adapted from Lieberman’s book by Will Beall. Unsurprisingly, Lieberman had an impressive grasp of the vast canon of gangster films and, towards the end of the lecture, pondered why Hollywood refuses to forgive the eponymous gangster, utilizing clips from the 1938 Michael Curtiz film Angels with Dirt Faces.
In addition, Lieberman alluded to the foundation of the appeal of the gangster film, the great Horatio Alger myth, of which it is a violent inversion. Today, though, the source of the myth seems to be obscured by the predominance of the gangster film, itself. It is as though too many films stand in-between the newest release and the real, as though each new film is so preoccupied with commenting on films of the past that we have forgotten that they are also, ultimately, commenting on life itself. Today, the canon can be thought of as its own hall of mirrors, with films that constantly borrow and refer to their antecedents. This sensibility seems to have leaked into the psyche of the mainstream viewing audience, allowing films to utilize shoddy shorthand in the development of their characters and plot. (A charge that critics have leveled at Gangster Squad.) However, this is not necessarily new, nor is it necessarily bad—it is, to some extent, a principal condition of genre. This referentiality can be utilized by some (Quentin Tarantino, for example) to open a dialogue in which the film, itself, and the effects of film, in general, gain a voice independent of the story they are telling. When asked if the gangster film is losing relevance as people lose faith in the Horatio Alger myth, Lieberman replied that he believes that rappers, too, are a modern manifestation of that myth.
Despite this, what was lacking from the talk, perhaps, was the incentive, the what for and why do we care. Lieberman’s investment was clear but seemed rooted in the past. Perhaps Lieberman was nostalgic for a time when the gangster myth stood for itself.
Rivka Rappoport is a sophomore at Columbia University majoring in Film Studies and English. She is an assistant at the IRCPL and also works at Let’s Get Ready!, a SAT tutoring and college access non-profit that works with under-served youth in Northeast.