Mafia Movies

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Hollywood has
brought us two great, romantic genres, two forms of movies where
the war of good versus evil could play itself out against a background
of an entire complex fictive world grounded in a present or past
reality. In this world, coherent action and struggle can emerge
dramatically by heroes, villains, their rank and file supporters,
and by innocents caught in the crossfire. The first classic genre
was, of course, the Western: epitomized in Stagecoach,
the great John Wayne movies, and countless others (one of my favorites:
the long-forgotten The Bounty Hunter, in which Henry Fonda
heroically plays a privatized and highly effective law enforcer
hated – naturally – both by the villains and by the sheriffs
and deputies whom he outcompetes for far higher pay). Unfortunately,
the Western movie is no more, felled perhaps by endless and unimaginative
repetition, but possibly, too, by the dogged leftist insistence
in the later Westerns for the Indians to be the Good Guys and the
whites the Bad. Look, fellas, it doesn’t matter what the literal
historical truth may or may not have been; the leftist reversal
– the insistence on destroying familiar heroes – simply
don’t work, it didn’t scan, and it helped destroy the Western genre.

The
more recent innovative Hollywood genre, ranking with the Western,
is the Mafia movie: the clash of heroes and villains against a mythic
but reality-grounded world, updated to twentieth-century America.
Some of the great directors have contributed gems to this genre.
John Huston’s Prizzi’s
Honor
, playing off Jack Nicholson and the incomparable Kathleen
Turner, was marvelous. But the great classic, the definitive, superb
Mafia movie was The Godfathers
I

and II
, in which Francis Ford Coppola poured out a work
of genius, grounded in his own and novelist Mario Puzo’s cultural
history, which he has never approached since.

The Godfathers
were perfection: an epic world, a world of drama and struggle, tautly
organized and memorably written, beautifully and broodingly photographed,
in which greed struggled with the great virtues of loyalty to the
famiglia.

The key to
The Godfathers and to success in the Mafia genre is the realization
and dramatic portrayal of the fact that the Mafia, although leading
a life outside the law, is, at its best, simply entrepreneurs and
businessmen supplying the consumers with goods and services of which
they have been unaccountably deprived by a Puritan WASP culture.

The unforgettable
images of mob violence juxtaposed with solemn Church rites were
not meant, as left-liberals would have it, to show the hypocrisy
of evil men. For these Mafiosi, as mainly Italian Catholics, are
indeed deeply religious; they represent one important way
in which Italian Catholics were able to cope with, and make their
way in, a totally alien world dominated by WASP Puritan insistence
that a whole range of products eagerly sought by consumers be outlawed.

Hence the systemic
violence of Mafia life. Violence, in The Godfather films,
is never engaged in for the Hell of it, or for random kicks; the
point is that since the government police and courts will not enforce
contracts they deem to be illegal, debts incurred in the Mafia world
have to be enforced by violence, by the secular arm. But the violence
simply enforces the Mafia equivalent of the law: the codes of honor
and loyalty without which the whole enterprise would simply be random
and pointless violence.

In many cases,
especially where “syndicates” are allowed to form and are not broken-up
by government terror, the various organized syndicates will mediate
and arbitrate disputes, and thereby reduce violence to a minimum.
Just as governments in the Lockean paradigm are supposed to be enforcers
of commonly-agreed-on rules and property rights, so “organized crime,”
when working properly, does the same. Except that in its state of
illegality it operates in an atmosphere charged with difficulty
and danger.

It is interesting
to observe the contrasting attitudes of our left-liberal culture
to the two kinds of crime, organized versus unorganized. Organized
crime is essentially anarcho-capitalist, a productive industry struggling
to govern itself; apart from attempts to monopolize and injure competitors,
it is productive and non-aggressive. Unorganized, or street, crime,
in contrast, is random, punkish, viciously aggressive against the
innocent, and has no redeeming social feature. Wouldn’t you know,
then, that our leftist culture hates and reviles the Mafia and organized
crime, while it lovingly excuses, and apologizes for, chaotic and
random street punks violence which amounts to “anarchy” in the bad,
or common meaning. In a sense, street violence embodies the ideal
of left-anarchism: since it constitutes an assault on the rights
of person and property, and on the rule of law that codifies such
rights.

One great scene
in The Godfather embodies the difference between right and
left anarchism. One errant, former member of the Corleone famiglia
abases himself before The Godfather (Marlon Brando). A certain punk
had raped and brutalized his daughter. He went to the police and
the courts, and the punk was, at last, let go (presumably by crafty
ACLU-type lawyers and a soft judicial system). This distraught father
now comes to Don Corleone for justice.

Brando gently
upbraids the father: “Why didn’t you come to me? Why did you go
to The State?” The inference is clear: the State isn’t engaged in
equity and justice; to obtain justice, you must come to the famiglia.
Finally, Brando relents: “What would you have me do?” The father
whispers in the Godfather’s ear. “No, no, that is too much. We will
take care of him properly.” So not only do we see anarcho-capitalist
justice carried out, but it is clear that the Mafia code has a nicely
fashioned theory of proportionate justice. In a world where the
idea that the punishment should fit the crime has been abandoned
and still struggled over by libertarian theorists it is heart-warming
to see that the Mafia has worked it out in practice.

And now, weighing
in, in the Mafia sweepstakes, comes a much-acclaimed new entrant:
Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas.
This repellent and loathsome movie, much acclaimed by all of our
left-liberal critics (including a rave review in the Marxist weekly
In These Times), is as far removed from The Godfather,
in style, content, writing, direction, and overall philosophy as
it is possible to be.

Instead of
good versus bad entrepreneurs, all working and planning coherently
and on a grand scale, GoodFellas is peopled exclusively by
psychotic punks, scarcely different from ordinary, unorganized street
criminals. The violence is random, gratuitous, pointless, and psychotic;
everyone, from the protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liota) on down is
a boring creep; there is no one in this horde of “wiseguys” or “goodfellas”
that any member of the viewing audience can identify with. The critics
all refer to the psycho gang member Tommy (Joe Pesci), but what
they don’t point out is that everyone else in the gang, including
the leader Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) is almost as fully deranged.

When Tommy
kills friends or colleagues pointlessly, Jimmy and the others are
delighted and are happy to cover up for him. All of these goons
are ultra-high-time preference lowlifes: their range of the future
approximates ten minutes, in contrast to the carefully planned empire-building
of The Godfather. Conway, after pulling off a multi-million
dollar heist at Kennedy Airport, shoots all of his colleagues to
grab all the money. This sort of behavior, as well as the random
violence of Tommy, would put these guys out of business within weeks
in any real Mafia organization worth its salt. Street punk short-term
greed and whim-worship would get you killed in short order.

Since there
are no good guys among the GoodFellas, the audience doesn’t
care what happens to them; indeed, one wishes them all to meet their
just deserts as quickly as possible, so that the movie will be over.
The rest of the film is as odious as the central theme; the direction,
as in all of Scorsese, is edgy, hurky-jerky, quasi-psychotic; the
photography, in contrast to the epic brooding of Godfather,
is light, open and airy, totally out of keeping with the theme.
The writing is flat and pointless. Great actors like DeNiro are
wasted in the movie. And the much-praised Don in the film, Paul
Cicero (Paul Sorvino) is grimly quiet and slow moving, but he too
is pointless and his role ineffectual, and therefore he fails as
any sort of menace.

Contrast the
ways in which Godfather and GoodFellas handle a common
theme: the attempt of the leading Don to keep away from traffic
in drugs, and the destruction wrought by succumbing to the temptation.
In Godfather, one Mafia leader of the old school clearly
and eloquently rejects traffic in drugs as immoral, in contrast
to other venerable goods and services, such as liquor, gambling
and “loan sharking.” “Leave drugs to the animals – the niggers
– they have no souls,” he admonished. (All right, I never said
that the Mafiosi were racially enlightened.) Here is a powerful
and dramatic theme of keeping the old Mafia moral code as against
the temptation of making a great deal of money in a technologically
innovative field.

But how in
contrast does GoodFellas handle this conflict? Don Cicero
simply orders his gang to stay out of drugs, pointing only to the
stiff sentences the Feds were handing out. And whereas in Godfather,
everyone knows that disobedience to the Don will bring swift retribution,
Conway, Hill and the other wiseguys disobey Don Cicero and nothing
happens to them. What kind of Don is that?

Clearly, the
critics admire and apologize for the left-anarchic punks of GoodFellas
the way they could never admire the Mafiosi of the Godfather,
despite the universal respect for the older movie’s technical brilliance.
Alas, the corrupt nihilist value-system of avant-garde left-liberalism
relates happily to the value-system of the deranged GoodFellas.
“This,” say these critics contentedly of the world of the GoodFellas,
“is what life is all about. Godfather romanticizes life (and is
therefore wrong).”

Will GoodFellas
succeed in wrecking the Mafia genre, the best Hollywood discovery
since the death of the Western? There is hope, on two counts. First,
I would point out that these punks are not true Mafia; they were
never “made” by the Mafia families. These are riffraff, hangers-on,
lowlifes compared to the epic grandeur of the world of the Mafia.
In fact, in the only act of violence that makes sense in the entire
movie, the only one that is not pointless and that is eminently
justified, the rotten and demented Tommy gets his just deserts at
the hands of the genuine Mafia. Told that he will at last achieve
his life-long goal of being “made” by a Mafia family, the monster
Tommy reaps his just reward. Bang, bang!

The other ray
of hope is that, at long last, and after two decades, Godfather,
Part III is scheduled to hit the screens around Christmas. What
a Christmas gift! The whole crew is back, older and perhaps wiser,
continuing the great saga of the Corleone family. The only hitch
is that the superb Robert Duvall, one of the great actors of our
time and Mr. Consiglieri himself, asked for too much money and therefore
could not be included in the picture. But that’s OK. If luck is
with us, Godfather III will restore our vision of what a
Mafia film is supposed to look like. Make way, riffraff of the Scorsese
famiglia! The true Don, Corleone, is back, and you, like your creature
and comrade Tommy, are going to reap your just reward.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

This
review ran in the November 1990 issue of the RRR.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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