Tag Archives: gangster movies

One for the Road

This is my favorite image from Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002), the subject of this week’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at the venerable Film Experience. It’s six gangland silhouettes, rain-slicked and monochrome, dynamically posed and ready for anything. (Well, anything but Tom Hanks with a Tommy gun.) It’s a terrific composition in depth, with diagonal lines converging at a horizon—a geometrical schema used again and again and again by Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall (who earned the hell out of his posthumous Oscar), but which retains its focus-narrowing power.

Light diffused by rain grants the shot moodiness and gravitas. You don’t even need Thomas Newman’s score to know that this is a climax (the first of several) or that the man they’re glancing around for, the stealthy Mike Sullivan (Hanks), is lurking just behind the camera. Like so much of the film, this shot plays as distilled Depression-era iconography; it just screams “GANGSTERS.” And when that visual bombast is wed to Jill Bilcock’s punchy editing (that hotel showdown, wow), it makes for some thrilling, morally charged genre filmmaking.

I say “morally charged” because Road to Perdition is about fathers, sons, the cycle of violence that binds them, and Mike’s attempt to remove his son from that cycle. The top pair of eyes there belongs to Mike’s son at the instant he learns his father’s a murderer; it’s a loss-of-innocence shot that’s reprised a couple scenes later by Daniel Craig, playing a mob boss’s sniveling, smirking son, when he kills half of Mike’s family. In both cases, the eyes are disembodied and wide-open, boiling over with terror whether they’re witnessing a shooting or performing one. The parallels deepen both shots, linking these sons’ traumas, making the sight of their disbelieving eyes all the more haunting.

Even these brief close-ups are invested with so much emotive energy. Although Road to Perdition occasionally gets so gorgeous and glossy that it verges on crafts-and-prestige porn, it’s shot and edited so intelligently that it’s never less than viscerally engaging. Honestly, I could’ve gone with so many different “best shots”: epic landscapesphallic guns, or horizontally legible compositions that bespeak the film’s panel-by-panel comic book origins. Maybe one showcasing the film’s archetype-tweaking performances by Ciarán Hinds (poor sap), Dylan Baker (prissy accountant), or Jude Law (cold-blooded hit man). At its best, Road to Perdition is a tense, meticulous recreation of the Chicago-area underworld, a series of sepia snapshots streaked with blood.

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One Hour Mark: Little Caesar

Old friends grow into new enemies, 1:00:00 into Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931). On the right we have Edward G. Robinson’s Rico—vulgarian, sociopath, and rising star of the Chicago underworld. On the left is Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), a former gang member who now makes his living as a dancer. But you can’t get out that easily. After inviting him over for a cordial parley, Rico throws down an ultimatum: either Joe dumps his career and girlfriend for the gang, or he and his “dame” are as good as dead.

The scene starts out visually loose, with the camera taking in the whole of Rico’s new, palatial apartment, lingering on the nouveau riche decadence of his statues and furniture. But as the conversation turns heated, as Rico tells a lackey to “screw” and edges nearer to Joe, the framing gets tighter. Only the two impassioned men remain in focus. This particular shot lasts nearly thirty seconds, zeroing in on Robinson’s face as he lectures, cajoles, and threatens his erstwhile partner in crime.

“Can’t you just forget about me?” begs Joe. Rico snarls back, his voice cracking: “No, I don’t wanna forget you, you’re my pal!” This is more than a mere gangland squabble. It’s a tragic romance. Robinson’s arched eyebrow and burning gaze bespeak the heart of a spurned lover, of a man consumed by that age-old sentiment “If I can’t have him, no one will.” (I’m certainly not the first to point out Little Caesar’s throbbing queer subtext. Rico’s line “Nobody ever quit me!” is especially striking in post-Brokeback America.)

So he leers at Joe, trying to look intimidating while also banking on their one-time closeness. When he rests a cigar-clenching hand on Joe’s shoulder, he could just as well be getting ready for a kiss or a fistfight. The shot’s constructed for maximum tension, relying on both their physical proximity and the fact that Fairbanks was a good four inches taller than Robinson—a fact for which Robinson’s aggressive body language more than compensates.

Furthermore, the camera’s positioned so that we only glimpse the side of Fairbanks’ face, but get to witness Robinson in all his jealous glory. He’s the star of this show, the histrionic firecracker whose obsession propels the scene. He’s poised to seduce or, failing that, destroy. Inflamed by rejection and inflated by his sudden ascent, he can’t take “no” for an answer. Hell hath no fury like Little Caesar scorned.

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