Thursday, May 14, 2009

Movies and the Modern Mobster

So, I happen to be a big fan of gangster movies. The Godfather, Goodfellas, White Heat, The Public Enemy… I’m seen ‘em all. Maybe it’s some sort of a detective thing – in-depth research, you know? At least that’s what Esposito and I tell Beckett when we knock off early to catch the latest one opening day. Hey, she’s got her mystery novels, we’ve got our mob movies.

But one thing I learned on the job is that I’ve got nothing on the guys themselves. Mobsters love mob movies. They’re the biggest fans of the genre out there – pull a search warrant on a made guy and you’re gonna find the whole collection. And not only do they love ‘em, they try to live ‘em.

For example, when we pull some of them in for questioning, the paperwork’s a nightmare. Everyone’s got at least five nicknames: Shortstop Johnny, Frankie the Big, Jackie One-Time, Red-Eyes Rudy… The list goes on and on. Now, if that sounds like the restaurant scene from Goodfellas, that’s because it IS like that restaurant scene from Goodfellas. All those palookas saw that flick and started modeling themselves off it.

When you think about it, it’s not entirely surprising. Us cops have to attend the Academy, we have manuals and mentors and procedure – gangsters don’t have any of that. There’s no procedure or code of conduct, because that’s the point of being a gangster. There aren’t any mentors, ‘cause you’re too busy gunning your way to the top. Far as manuals go, there’s Puzo’s original Godfather book and gangsters (like most people) would rather see the movie than read the book…

As result, you’ve got a bunch of swaggering mobsters who model themselves after a bunch of actors. Actors who were just doing what a writer put down for them to do. A writer who was probably just putting down a modern version of those gangster movies he loved growing up. So it’s a vicious cycle of people making it up as they go along. Like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.

So when you start dealing with these guys, what you find is a series of DeNiros and Pacinos imitations. Everybody’s full of bluster and big talk, but not the sharpest switchblades in the drawer. I mean, they can quote you lines from those flicks verbatim, but they can’t stop from brag about their crimes or remember not to pull off a truck hijacking in front of a security camera. Good for us, not so good for them.

Me, I think gangsters must have been a lot scarier before Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson got involved. Back then they weren’t compelled to parade around or talk endlessly about the “good old days.” The real gangsters, the guy who started everything back in the 1920s, weren’t interested in being some movie star ideal, living a glamorous life and getting a book deal out of it. The old-timers, they just wanted to get rich and not get caught.

Once this whole mythology rose up, that’s when things got complicated. See, movies end after two hours (well, three if you’re by Francis Ford Coppola), but real life goes on much longer. So being flashy and living a high-wire life is great for the biography, but they all end up the same place – in jail or dead.

Of course, those same gangster movies always end with the guy either dying or being arrested. So maybe these new guys can’t help it, that’s just what they expect. When’s the last time you saw a mob movie where the mobster got away with it? Result, is they simply couldn’t imagine it going otherwise in their own lives.

That’s probably another reason I dig on those movies – the bad guys always get theirs in the end. Doesn’t happen that way in real life, but I appreciate the movies letting me pretend that it could. And making the bad guys think there isn’t any other way, that’s useful too. Sometimes it makes my job just a little bit easier – when you’re stuck for hours in an interrogation room trying to convince Jackie “Short Eyes” Altasante to confess, it helps to have Hollywood on your side.


  1. Don't you love it when your case is almost completly documented somewhere else? Like when that one was written in a Rick Castle Novel.....

  2. Also, if you know what happens in the movies, you can pretty much be waiting for the moes when they try to pull something. Stupid criminals are God's gift to cops.

  3. Word.

    Have you ever read "Underboss" by Sammy Gravano? He talks about this point. When he was thumpin all those guys never wore flashy shit, until they saw The Godfather in theaters. Then you get the flashy, look-at-me-i'm-a-mobster, John Gotti...wearin expensive suits and bling everywhere!

    I also believe this happens everywhere in culture. All the thugs nowadays talk and dress like the rappers they see on MTV...

    They're all just sheep!

  4. Makes ya wonder if the same thing happens with newbie doctors (ER, Chicago Hope, Grey's Anatomy) or cop shows (the CSIs, NCIS, all billionity of the Law & Orders), eh Makolyte?