Now in our tenth calendar year!
PCR #486 (Vol. 10, No. 29). This edition is for the week of July 13--19, 2009.
Movies and The Mob: part 2
The New York Mafia
| 1932 police line up (left to right) : Paul "The Waiter" Ricca, Sylvester Agoglia,Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, John Senna, Harry Brown|
Unlike the Chicago Outfit's mob wars the New York Mafia avoided media coverage and publicity. They chose to keep their "business dealings" quiet. But in reality the sagas of New York's crime families were more intricate and more bloody. As New York progressed so did the gangs. As the Italian Immigrants came to this country looking for riches in the new land of opportunity they brought with them the terrors of the old country. The mafia's early incarnation in the states were The Black Hand extortionists. Petty con men who would put a threat on a persons life and demand money or else. These extortionists were no more dangerous than the average pickpocket. The threats were mostly empty and usually wouldn't have been executed even if the threatened party didn't pay up. But out of fear they most assuredly did.
New York before and during Prohibition was mainly controlled by Jewish gambling mastermind Arnold Rothstein. His right hand man was Jack "Legs" Diamond. Rothstein also worked with another young group of bootleggers an Italian and Jewish combine ran by Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. Luciano himself was playing both sides in the mob control war between Joe "The Boss" Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Masseria was a slobby vicious pig next to Maranzano's dapper businessman attitude and they naturally hated each other and both naturally thought they were the Capo Di Tutti Capi or boss of all bosses. The bloody gang war between the two would forever be known as The Castellamarese Wars. Both Masseria and Maranzano vied for Luciano and perhaps his allegiance to the Jewish Rothstein (Masseria and Maranzano followed the Mafia rule of only Italians) finally cost Rothstein his life. It is unknown who did it, but on a November night in 1928 Rothstein, the man who had began the most lucrative bootleg and gambling empire in New York, mentored the future Mob geniuses Luciano and Lansky, set the stage for the National Syndicate Structure, and the person supposedly responsible for the White Sox World Series fix was shot in a hotel room.
| Arnold Rothstein|
After Rothsteins murder Luciano and Lansky basically took over that operation. Masseria and Maranzano now wanted Luciano on their respective sides more than ever. But under Rothstien's mentoring Luciano saw that all the murdering and war was bad for business. He set about to eliminate both Masseria and Maranzano himself. Luciano had Masseria gunned down at a Coney Island Restaurant. Luciano arranged a meeting with him and then excused himself to the men's room as a group of hit men including Bugsy Siegel blasted Masseria to bits.
| Charles "Lucky" Luciano|
After Masseria's murder Maranzano set himself up as Boss of all Bosses. Not for long though as Luciano dispatched him soon after. Rumor has it that all the nations Mustache Petes (old mob bosses) who followed the old countries stubborn and violent ways were wiped out in one violent night called The Night of The Sicilian Vespers. Luciano then got all the countries mafia bosses in one room and formed a Syndicate. There would be no more Boss Of All Bosses.He also formed the dreaded Murder Inc., a group of Syndicate hit men that would be sent to do away with Mafia trouble makers. Instead of starting a war it would be brought before the main panel of Luciano, Frank Costello, Lansky etc and decided upon.
| Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Flegenhiemer aka The Beer Baron of the Bronx|
There were always wild cards though. One of these wild cards was Arthur Flegenhiemer aka Dutch Schultz the Beer Baron of the Bronx. By all accounts he was the most eccentric of all the gangsters. He was violent, rude, and cheap. He would only wear the cheapest suits and laugh at the dapper Luciano. Schultz's war with the Negro numbers policy gangsters Bumpy Johnson and Queenie St. Claire, and his obsession with murdering crusading DA Thomas E. Dewey was his also his undoing. He was murdered by Murder Inc. hit men at the Palace Chop House. He died in the hospital muttering bizarre fever dreams for hours before passing.
| Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson|
Murder Inc. was a squad of hit men run by Louis "Lepke" Buchalter and Albert Anastasia. It was the Syndicate's personal rent-a-hit squad. Their downfall came when one of their enforcers Abe "Kid Twist" Reles was arrested on a number of murder charges and squealed to all the killings he had done and pretty much all the killings Murder Inc. had done ( a total of 500 killings were carried out between 1933 and 1940) including that all the mob bosses in the United States from New York to Detroit to Florida were all part of a nationally connected syndicate.It was the first time authorities knew of the existence of what we now call the Mafia. Subsequently Lepke was sent to Sing Sing to die in the electric chair and Reles, although he was too low in the ranks to know who the real bosses like Luciano were, was sent flying out his hotel room window before he could talk. Despite the fact that Reles was in a room guarded by cops the Mafia had the last word.
D.A. Thomas Dewey (who would later run for President against Truman) then started to crack this syndicate. He couldn't get much on Luciano so as most sources agree he framed Luciano based on a number of questionable character witnesses and sent him to prison for running a Prostitution ring. Luciano still ran the Syndicate from his jail cell and eventually was released on the condition of deportation to Italy where he died of a heart attack at an airport in Naples in 1962. By the 1940's Lansky had convinced the Syndicate to go into Gambling. Bugsy Siegel saw a dream in a Nevada dessert that would set forth the building of his life ambition The Flamingo Hotel and also cause his death after he and girlfriend Virginia Hill embezzled the mobs money. Siegel who had been friends since childhood with both Luciano and Lansky would also die at their order. Business always comes first. The dream Siegel saw would eventually become known as Las Vegas.
| Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel|
Meyer Lanksy lived his life to the fullest and somehow avoided any kind of skirmish with the law until the late 70s when he was eventually indicted on income tax evasion. He was acquitted and died peacefully in Florida in 1983.
The New York Mafia in the 60's and 70's resembled more of Capone's Chicago with blood in the streets. The Colombo/Gallo/ Gambino gang wars made headlines as did the final boss of all bosses himself John "The Dapper Don" Gotti.
Like Chicago, New York's saga has been told many times and with many interesting characters to go on they made countless biopics. They even made a Arnold Rothstein film called King of the Roaring 20's with David Jansen and a Legs Diamond film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond but neither were all that accurate as Luciano and others were still alive and couldn't be used as characters. Here are the essential and the ones truest to what happened in reality....
The Gangster Wars: The best movie about Lucky Luciano and the New York mob in the 1920's and 30's. Covers everything from Arnold Rothstein's murder, the Castallamerese Wars, to the hit of Dutch Schultz. This is a movie edited in two-parts that combines the major scenarios of the TV series The Gangster Chronicles. Although Meyer Lansky was renamed Michael Lasker in this because he was still alive when it came out it still stays amazing close to real life incidents. It strays somewhat by adding a love interest that was with Capone, then Luciano, and then Dutch Schultz. Pretty much perfect if you want to see the basics of what went on in the New York mob in the 1920's. It ends with Luciano going to jail, Meyer taking off for Cuba, and Bugsy embarking for Las Vegas.
Hoodlum: Pretty much the only film about black gangsters worth watching, as American Gangster failed on all levels including its usage of black mob boss Bumpy Johnson who is the center of this far superior film. Hoodlum covers the era when Dutch Schultz was at war with the black mob ran by Madame St.Claire and Bumpy Johnson for control of the numbers policy. Lawrence Fishbourne turns in one of his better performances as Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. Andy Garcia's Luciano is a failure as it makes him a pimp which in real life was most likely a fabrication to have a reason to send him to jail. The period clothing, the jazz music, the Cotton Club and the look at 1930's Harlem all are highlights of the film but the showstopper and scene stealer is Tim Roth as Dutch Schultz. Roth ( and to the same extent Jonathan Banks in The Gangster Wars) as the foul mouthed, racist, thrift store suit wearing, cold blooded murdering Schultz is the most fully realized portrayal of the gangster yet. There are countless memorable quotes from him and all are most politically incorrect. That's one of the more commendable things that can be said of this film is that it pulls no punches. While it adds some embellishments regarding Bumpy's involvement in dealings with Luciano, and it sort of gets the Dutchman's murder wrong, it never the less is the most underrated of all gangster films.
Murder Inc.: This film continues the New York mob saga into the 1940's with the end of Kid Twist Reles and Lepke Bulchalter's hit men ring. Peter Falk is pure gold here. Forget Columbo, Falk was Pesci before there was Pesci. One of the most frighteningly brutal performances I have seen. Way ahead of his time. Lepke is played here oddly almost reptilian some have said. He is played by stage actor David J. Stewart and is one of the most fascinating screen gangsters in movie history. Wether Lepke was like this or not I doubt it but it makes for good entertainment. The film is based on the "true life" account written by the prosecutor himself Burton Turkus.
Bugsy:This is the story of Bugsy Siegel's and the mobs creation of Las Vegas and his murder. It takes place just after Murder Inc was disbanded and during the time Luciano was about to be released from jail and deported to Italy. Beatty hams it up sometimes but its pretty much his greatest achievement. The scene where Bugsy makes LA mob boss Jack Dragna ( he ran the so called "Disney mob") get on his knees and bark like a dog is humorous at first but when taken as a possible fact quite disturbing. Again Beatty takes Ben Siegel's more novelty obsessions to the forefront, like Siegel's obsession with killing Mussolini, his quick to anger at the mention of his dreaded nickname "bugsy", his big dumb lug naive nature etc. that it is almost a dark comedy at times. But the real humanity shines through as the picture comes to a close and you see the tragedy of Ben Segiel's life, his failed marriage, when he murders his own friend Harry, the failure of his only accomplishment The Flamingo Hotel, and his fate of being murdered on the orders of his childhood friends Meyer and Lucky. The scene in the directors cut where Siegel almost takes his own life by sticking a gun in his mouth is an amazingly potent scene. It shows humanity and sadness in the usually macho gangster character. Brilliant.
Goodfellas: This film is based on the real life gangsters Henry Hill and Jimmy Burke and the Lufthansa Heist in the 1970's. It seems to follow the true events for the most part pretty correctly but the film fell short to me because Scorcese tried to make it too much of a coming of age buddy film. Deniro is wasted and hardly in the film, again cast as a non-Italian Irish Gangster. Ray Liotta like usual is just there and really can't and shouldn't be carrying the film. Paul Sorvino plays Paul Vario , Lucchese family crime boss, renamed Paul Cicero for the film.Deniro plays Jimmy Burke, mastermind behind the Lufthansa Heist, renamed Jimmy Conway and Joe Pesci (doing his best Peter Falk gangster rip off) is Tommy DeSimone renamed Tommy DeVito. To me too feelgood to be a masterpiece.
Donnie Brasco: The story of undercover cop Joey Pistone who went by the name Donnie Brasco while
posing as a Bonnano crime family member under capo "Sunny Black"Napolitano (played here by Micheal Madsen) in the 1970's. This was so so but it had some interesting things going for it. For one it is one of the few gangster films to have the low level ranking mob underlings as main characters. Pacino, who is usually a loud mouthed mob boss or big shot, plays real life over the hill mob henchman "Lefty" Ruggiero perfectly. He dresses down and acts the tired failed mobster who will never get any higher to perfection. Depp as Pistone is a problem because Depp just can't play normal for the life of him and make it believable. The other great thing about this film is that, to my knowledge, it is the only film to have a portrayal of Tampa mafia boss Santo Trafficante Jr. and maybe the only film to make mention of the Tampa Mob( not including the excellent local documentary on Charlie Wall by Pete & Paul Guzzo) and also includes the King's Court Bottle Club in Holiday Florida as a main location in the film. The photography is also really good in the New York scenes which capture that smoggy dirty air of New York in the 70's. Again a film that keeps facts true to a tee with the only exception being some personal characteristics of Sonny Black added to Pacino's Lefty character instead.
Gotti: Ending the New York mobs epic century long reign with the fall of the last major Capo the Teflon Don himself John Gotti. This movie takes far too many liberties but it does in context with the other New York mob movies close the chapter. Armand Assante looks nothing like Gotti but he does his usual stellar job in depicting the the modern Al Capone's ruthless rise to the top. The trial scenes are what most people remember about Gotti but they seem to be cut too short here and could have been made to be the most dramatic part of the film. Overall it is what it is, a direct to cable movie but it covers all that is needed from the hit of mob boss Paul Castellano, the death of Gotti's son, and the trial ending in his imprisonment.
"The Enlightenment" is ©2009 by Terence Nuzum. All graphics (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2009 by Nolan B. Canova.