The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival gets underway next week, and among the more entertaining foreign entries is a gritty French thriller called The Connection. It's based on real events and tells the story of The French Connection from the other side of the Atlantic.
Many of you will remember Jean Dujardin as the suave silent film star in The Artist, but here he plays a harried Marseilles police magistrate trying to cope with an explosion of gangsterism. In the 1960s, a Corsican mafia gang began importing pure heroin from Turkey, refining it in Marseilles and sneaking it into America. .
In The Connection, Gilles Lellouche is Tany Zampa, a hoodlum who rises to the top of the Marseilles pile in the early 1970s. Not content with controlling the world's most lucrative heroin business, Tany begins squeezing the city's bars and clubs for protection money. And when Pierre Michel (Dujardin) is appointed to the drug squad, he decides it's time to bring Tany down.
Cedric Jiminez's nicely made film painstakingly recreates the palpable danger and dodgy fashion sense of mid-70s Marseilles. But The Connection has more in common with the American gangster film tradition than it does with the French policiers, from its stylised violence and epic car chases to its slow confrontation between a lonely bad guy, and a solitary cop.
That basic dramatic structure has been used time and again in American crime pictures, though the odd gangster film (The Godfather, Goodfellas) has abandoned the cops entirely and concentrated on the hoodlums instead. But the gangster movie tradition stretches right back to the dawn of talking pictures, and has produced some truly splendid films.
Probably the earliest gangster film was Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927). This atmospheric silent flic followed the career of a fictional Chicago mob boss, and so closely echoed actual events that it was banned in the Windy City. But gangster pictures really came into their own in the early 1930s, when a daring new mood for realism created the first mobster maniacs that audiences loved to hate.
In Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and the original Scarface (1932), Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Paul Muni respectively brought the swaggering, vicious and somewhat glorified archetype of the ruthless mob boss to the silver screen, shocking and delighting contemporary audiences hungry for stories based on the chaos wrought by the recent Prohibition Act.
In real life an urbane, art-collecting Romanian-Jewish intellectual, Edward G. Robinson became the first big gangster star on the back of his electrifying portrayal of a psychotic Chicago hoodlum in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar. Rico Bandello starts out as a lowly member of a southside criminal gang, but soon rises to the top after showing no compunction in killing policemen and rivals. But of course Rico soon gets too big for his boots, starts referring to himself in the third person, and ends up dying in the street.
With his rolling eyes and fleshy sneer, Robinson played the mobster too well, and would become typecast as a gangster for much of his career. But his status as the number one screen criminal was seriously challenged through the 1930s by the compellingly pugnacious James Cagney.
An Irish-American New Yorker with a talent for tap-dancing and boxing, Cagney drifted to Hollywood in 1929 and was picked up as a contract player by Warner Brothers. They were the studio who'd recently had a big hit with Little Caesar, and would soon become synonymous with gangster pictures. It was a happy chance for Jimmy Cagney, who would become their biggest star.
He made an astonishing breakthrough in The Public Enemy (1931), bringing an electric edginess to his portrayal of up-and-coming mobster Tom Powers. In the film's most famous scene, Powers becomes so tired of his girlfriend's moaning that he shoves a grapefruit into her face. It was, for the time, a genuinely shocking moment, and one contemporary critic described Cagney's performance as "the most ruthless, unsentimental appraisal of the meanness of a petty killer the cinema has yet devised". He'd play a killer many times again.
In the 1930s, Warners began churning out mob pictures by the dozen: they made literally hundreds of them, and while most have been deservedly forgotten, a couple stand out as timeless classics. In the late 1930s Cagney teamed up with Humphrey Bogart to make Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), two wonderfully baroque crime dramas in which Cagney played ruthless bootleggers. In both films Bogart played the treacherous sidekick, who cracked wise and acted tough but caved under pressure and ended up begging (fruitlessly) for his life.
In fact all the mobsters in films of this era met grisly ends in the final reel, due to the censor's demand for appropriate moral retribution. And that convention was still in force in the late 1940s, when Cagney returned to gangster films to play Hollywood's first overt psychopath in White Heat (1949).
Directed by Raoul Walsh, White Heat was much more hard-boiled than its 1930s predecessors and starred Cagney as Cody Jarrett, a mother-fixated gang leader who stages a jailbreak and embarks on a desperate crime spree. Jarrett ends up on top of an enormous burning gas tank shouting "Top of the World Ma!" before disappearing in a ball of flame. No sequel there, then.
Overall though, the 1940s and 50s were not a great period for gangster movies, as film noir veered off into seamy detective stories and prohibition became a distant memory.
There were, however, a few exceptions. Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946) was a film noir and a gangster picture, a dark, treacherous tale that reflected the grim post-war mood. Burt Lancaster was Swede Andreson, an ex-boxer who gets mixed up with a criminal gang and makes the mistake of falling out with its boss over a woman.
Things didn't go too swimmingly for poor old Gloria Grahame either in Fritz Lang's brutal 1953 crime thriller The Big Heat. Glenn Ford starred as an honest cop who goes after a major crime syndicate when his wife and child are killed in a car bomb, and Grahame was the unfortunate moll who ended up getting hot coffee thrown in her face by Lee Marvin.
In all of these films, the crooks had their day in the sun but were taken down by the good guys in the end, but in the 1960s and 70s the mood of gangster movies shifted abruptly. Although Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway died in a hail of bullets at the end of Arthur Penn's stylised and shockingly violent 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, they were clearly the heroes of a movie that eulogised the exploits of a pair of real life 1930s bank robbers.
And the moral landscape was muddied still further in the early 1970s by Francis Coppola's Godfather films (see panel). It was as if Coppola and the film-makers - Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma - who followed him decided that moral judgement did not enrich stories about criminals. In The Godfather, an Italian-American mob boss was depicted as a fiercely loyal and oddly moral patriarch who in another life might have been a captain of industry.
Martin Scorsese's low-budget 1973 film Mean Streets portrayed two minor New York hoodlums played by Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel as tragic victims of circumstance rather than outright villains. And when Scorsese returned to the gangster genre in spectacular fashion in 1990, it was to tell the story of a winning young man's tragic journey to the heart of a Brooklyn crime family.
Goodfellas' Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is just a boy when he starts running errands for local mafia boss Paulie Cicero, and dreams of one day becoming a swaggering mobster himself. His dream comes true but turns into a nightmare when he gets addicted to cocaine and becomes an FBI informer.
Films like Goodfellas, Mean Streets and The Godfather Part II explained how and why men became villains rather than merely demonising them, and Brian De Palma's fine 1993 drama Carlito's Way explored similarly nuanced territory. But his far more successful 1987 film The Untouchables took a more traditional approach, and in it Robert De Niro portrayed Al Capone as a maniac bereft of any humanising qualities. Which of course he may well have been.
And then there's The French Connection, the gritty 1971 masterpiece that inspired Cedric Jimenez's The Connection and a great many other crime dramas besides. For all his bourgeois elegance, there's something profoundly odious about about Alain Charnier, the cold-blooded Marseille drug smuggler so enigmatically portrayed by Fernando Rey.
In my favourite scene, Charnier dines on lobster and Chablis in a fancy restaurant while Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) waits across the freezing street sipping cold coffee and stamping his feet. Some gangsters aren't all that likeable.
A VERY AMERICAN FAMILY
If ever a great film came about almost by accident, it was The Godfather. When Paramount picked up the rights to Mario Puzo's pulp crime novel in 1969, they asked Sergio Leone to direct it, but he had other plans and so did Peter Bogdanovich and at least 12 other directors. When they settled on Francis Ford Coppola, the young director worried that the film would glorify violence and reflect badly on the Italian-American community.
But when Coppola hit on the idea of making the story of the Corleone family a metaphor for American capitalism, he realised he had an opportunity to make a great film. He struggled to get Paramount to agree to the casting of Al Pacino as Michael, but getting them to hire the virtually uninsurable Marlon Brando was much harder. But Coppola knew casting Brando as the soft-spoken and seductively domesticated mafia boss Vito Corleone would give his film a gravitas Mario Puzo's book lacked.