Good vs. Evil, a universal theme seen throughout the history of story telling, can find itself to be especially malleable and suprising in the modern gangster movie. In the classic depiction of this struggle, the Gangster was looked upon as the criminal, the bad guy, while today this is not always the case. In this paper I will be explaining the early gangster films restrictions on who could be good or evil, and then introduce the two films I will be comparing.
After a brief summary, a comparing and contrasting will take place between them, offering insights into how the two different films offer up this classic struggle. Early on in the gangster film genre, when the Hays Code was in effect, crime was not allowed to be something that was glamorized. The Hays Code was basically a set of moral standards films had to measure up to before being passed for distribution. It lasted from 1930 until 1968. The Hays code made things like profanity, violence, and sex completely unmentionable or undoable on the big screen.
In the case of the gangster film, the gangster, as stated above, was always to be portrayed as the bad guy, and was almost always met with demise by the end of the film, to give the idea that “crime doesn’t pay. ” As discussed in class, the antagonist to the gangster in these early films was usually the detective. The detective was the “good guy,” that is, usually a white, clean cut, god fearing American man who takes it upon himself to rid his city of crime after the rise of the gangster. This example of “good vs evil” was apparent to me in the film we watched earlier in the year, Little Caesar (1931).
It doesn’t quite develop the detective as well as other films, but you could clearly see the Hays Code at work. The gangster in this film is portrayed as a stereotypical immigrant; uneducated, not speaking very good English, and destined for a life of crime. The life of crime would be short lived, however, as the police (all very Americanized white men) take Caesar down in the end, keeping their city safe from the treachery of the gangster. After the Hays Code ended, films could explore more things in the realms of which characters would be good or bad.
Criminal types could now be portrayed in a favorable light, and in some cases, the audience may even feel sympathetic towards their cause, as perhaps they are the underdog, trying to make a living in any way possible. The classic “good guys,” police, politicians, or the like, could now be portrayed as corrupt, thus turning the tables on the audience, who would normally expect them to be the heroes of the story. The Godfather (1972) portrays these points perfectly. The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone Family- a family from Sicily who comes to America to attain the “American Dream.
” Led at first by Vito Corleone, and later his son Michael, The Godfather takes a very different approach to the classical image of the gangster as the “bad guy. ” As the movie progresses, one feels sympathetic toward the family and their struggles, even though their lives are based around organized crime and extreme violence. Through the characters of the movie, one can begin to understand that the life of crime is the only one that will allow the family to attain the “American Dream” of prosperity. One even begins to root for the family to succeed- they become they “good guys.
” especially after Vito dies, and his son Michael assumes control of the family’s affairs. The morality of the family is also warped in a way that makes one sympathetic towards their cause. Although they kill, extort, and bribe their way to power, there are certain things they stand against as well. The only people who get killed are men; no women and children are harmed. They also do not get involved in drugs, as this is considered to be too immoral a means of prosperity. The antagonists, or “evil” to the Corleones are many-fold.
They battle against the other mafia families, after the very same thing the Corleones seek. They deal with corrupt police officers and politicians, being bought off by rival families to put an end to their reign. As stated above, this is a complete reversal from what one would expect to see in the early gangster film. The Godfather offers a very unique perspective into what a gangster film could become in modern cinema. The Untouchables (1987) on the other hand, offers the more classic scenario of good and evil, but with a little twist.
The story takes place in Prohibition-era Chicago, where Al Capone has the city in his back pocket, allowing his criminal activity to go completely unchecked. Capone is portrayed as the bad guy, with protagonist, Treasury Department Agent Elliot Ness, trying to figure out a way to restore order to the city. This carries the classic theme of good vs evil as the gangster portraying evil and law enforcement good, yet the twist is that most of the police force is corrupt, being bribed by Capone. Ness cannot trust anyone, and fails in his first attempt to bring Capone down by raiding one of his liquor warehouses.
As the film progresses, Ness meets up with another officer who also vehemently defends righteousness, and the two begin to hatch a plan to take down Capone together. After discovering the amount of corruption in the court system and on the police force, Ness and his partner decide to go outside of the law, and form a team of trustworthy men fresh from the police academy, unable to be corrupted by the allure of money from Capone. This development offers a disconnect in the traditional view of the hero, as in order to achieve his goal, the hero may need to use means which could possibly be looked upon as immoral and illegal.
The audience gives this lapse of righteousness a pass in favor of the ultimate goal, however, which remains getting the bad guy. Eventually, at the end of the movie, Capone is finally brought to justice. It is done so in a completely non-violent way, although violence was definitely used in order to reach the climax. The corruption in the courts is shown as being broken, and Capone is sentenced to jail for tax evasion. These two films give a very different portrayal of the life of crime and how the gangster operates and is viewed by the audience.
In The Godfather, the audience is subjected to the inner-workings of the Corleone Family, and gains an appreciation for their dedication and love for each other. Their criminal activity can be overlooked, as the world that they live in is stacked against their success, and they are simply trying to provide for each other in the only way they know how. This is contrary to what is portrayed in The Untouchables, where the gangster is not given the opportunity to make a connection with the audience, instead his way of life is given the title of evil, while the family man Elliot Ness is the focus.
His striving for justice is given the spotlight, and the audience is shown to root for him. He is the hero in a world filled with evil and corruption. An interesting dilemma arises from the way in which Elliot Ness achieves his success against evil, however, as stated above in the movie’s summary. Just as the audience is to overlook the wrongdoings of the Corleone family in their pursuit of happiness, the same must be done for Elliot Ness in the way he tiptoes along the fine line between legal and illegal during his pursuit of Capone. He kills and tortures Capone’s henchmen in order to get at Capone himself.
In the tradition legal system of the United States, all men accused of wrong doing should be brought in front of a court and judged fairly. This is shown to be impossible, due to the corruption of Chicago’s legal system at the time, with Capone bribing everyone from judges to juries. Thus Elliot Ness and his posse’s transgressions against humanity are brushed to the side in the place of the ultimate goal of restoring peace to the city. The main characters of the two films are in fact very similar, despite being on different sides of the law.
Michael Corleone and Elliot Ness are both at their core, good men. Their upbringing and families are the key difference in how they are perceived in the world. Michael Corleone was born into a life of crime. It is interesting that in the beginning of his story, he sort of on the outside looking in. The family business is really no concern to him. He is shown as having served in the army, and having an American girlfriend. This removes him from the inner workings of his family for some time, but when he is called upon to step up and protect his family in a dire time of need, he does so.
His character transforms from an innocent man on the outskirts of his family’s life of crime, to a man who is just as or perhaps even more ruthless than his father before him after he assumes control. Elliot Ness is a protector of the law. He takes his job very seriously, and believes in the justice system as a means of keeping evil out of his city. He is a family man as well, with his wife and child (later on children,) constantly in his mind. His goal is to protect them and the city he loves at all costs. He also goes through a pretty drastic transformation.
From the naive agent who believes in his justice system, to a cold-blooded killer intent on destroying the criminal enterprise threatening his family and city. Both of these transformations are accepted by the audience, and really lead one to root for these particular characters. Although they are both shown to get their hands dirty, and although they are on opposite sides of the law, common ground can be found in the fact that they both are men who stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to put themselves in harms way if it means protecting their families, as well as everything else they hold dear.
Even in the case of the “criminal,” the audience can come to terms with the idea that he is simply staying true to his beliefs, and that is something that should be respected. Elliot Ness is a character who in the beginning is easy to root for, and even though some might waver on his methods, still end up rooting for him in the end. Michael Corleone is tougher to root for in the beginning of his saga, due to his distance from his family, yet towards the end of the film, is easy to root for in the coming to defense of his family in their time of need.
This contrast shows that even though the distinct characters follow very different story arcs in their respective films, both are ultimately loved by the audience. Good vs. Evil is not a black and white subject. As these two films show, it is indeed very grey. The line between right and wrong can be very blurred, and can be crossed many times throughout the course of a story. Perceptions of characters and their place in the world can change drastically based on a few events, and the classic examples of cops and robbers can be turned on their heads.
I greatly enjoy both of the films discussed in this paper; as they are very different in many ways, yet in the end, provide us the audience with a common denominator, a lovable character who will hold our attention to the very end. Even though the circumstances in which these characters interact with their worlds vary greatly, they both basically hold the same values very close to their hearts, and that is what shows on the big screen. It shows us that whatever our preconceived notions are about who is good and bad in a particular scenario, everyone has an opportunity to prove us right or wrong.
This is what makes the modern gangster film so popular and great- an ability for us, the audience, to be surprised. Bibliography “Synopsis of The Untouchables (1987). ” IMDb. IMDb. com, n. d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. . “Synopsis of The Godfather (1972). ” IMDb. IMDb. com, n. d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. . Bynum, Matt. “The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code). ” The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code). Arts Reformation, n. d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. .