I once worked with a guy that claimed he was “Connected.” I said “What, like Cable?” He said no, the Mafia. I told him he was full of shit. Anyone who was connected would never brag about it to a guy like me. He thought I was a rube. Anything but, I’ve seen as many if not more Mafia movies and shows than anyone should have the right to. The mob. Mafia. Gangsters. Wiseguys. Goodfellas. Made Guys. Whatever the name, I can’t get enough and I know my shit, so to speak.
As a law-abiding citizen with no interest in changing that anytime soon, I have an unhealthy fascination with organized crime. The Godfather 1 and 2 (not 3) Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, Once Upon a Time in America, The Soprano’s, the list goes on forever. I can watch them over and over again.
And I have.
And will continue to do so.
What is it about the Gangster that captures our fascination? For me, I suppose it starts with the history. In this country, and in NY in particular the Mafia, or La Casa Nostra was integral in protecting Italian immigrants and their fledgling families as they established themselves in this country. “Protection” cost them a fee but if someone crossed them there was someone to act on their behalf. Failure to pay for that protection of course cost them more than money, disrespect equaled swift old-school justice. Police, judges, and non-Italians largely looked the other way. It was common folklore that if you didn’t cross or disrespect the Mafia they would never bother you. But if you were asked a favor, you were wise to grant it. The words tossed around were honor, tradition, respect. Call it what it is, it’s fear based on power.
For generations Americans have looked the other way and tolerated the presence of “the Mob” in American society. I suppose there are several reasons for this. If you were a small Italian business owner in 1900’s New York you may have welcomed the link to the “Old country” and the protection. Another reason would be that many of our lives were unaffected by it; if you didn’t engage in activities that they were involved in then it didn’t matter. Maybe it was just accepted, it’s always been there. I for one don’t gamble in illegal casinos, frequent prostitutes or even live in areas where there is a presence. With the exception of a stray bullet striking a innocent civilian during a “hit”, we look the other way.
Despite the capacity to be vicious, even sociopathic criminals there is such a aura about them. I would never go so far as to say that they are role models. But there sure is a fascination with their lifestyle that has led to so many movies and shows.
Maybe it’s the suits. Those guys sure dress nice. Maybe it’s the wad of 100’s in their pockets, freely being tucked in the breast pocket of every doorman of every nightclub. People scrambling to accommodate them as if they were visiting royalty. Maybe it’s the prestige of being “known” in the neighborhood. Maybe it’s the ability to do whatever they wanted virtually unfettered. Maybe it’s the whole “respect” thing (it’s really fear). People know your name and your “affiliations” or connections and they don’t dare cross you. Swagger, prestige and respect.
That is until a bullet finds the back of your head.
“In this business you go in alive and you come out dead. And it’s always your best friend that does it. ” Lefty, Donnie Brasco
Donnie Brasco is one of the best movies or shows to present mob life for all of it’s ups and downs. I marvel at its ability of to actually create a sympathetic character. One that we relate to, like and even mourn when they die. Lefty was a tragic character. I enjoyed Tony Soprano, despite some despicable behavior, in all of his neuroses. I got a kick out of Henry Hill of Goodfellas because, at least for a while, he lived like a king and in the end lived to tell of all of his debauchery. Lefty, on the other hand was a sympathetic character and despite not being the first film project to be dedicated to the down side of the life; that is to say that it isn’t always glamorous or prestigious, that it can be thrust upon you and once in you can’t get out. Not without rolling over on your buddies and going into witness protection. Or getting that bullet in the back of the head.
“Hey Mac, have you seen ________? It’s about the mob.”
“Have I seen it? Have I seen it? Fuhgeddaboutit!”