Thursday 16 May 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
The gangster, or mobster, has become one of America’s most enduring cultural tropes. The genre of the gangster film rivals even the Western as one of the most formative narratives of 20th-century America, and was born of the rise of organized crime in the 1920s and 30s, following the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, or Prohibition.
As mobsters like Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Lucky Luciano amassed fortunes selling illegal booze they also became frightening and oddly titillating figures in the public imagination.
Hollywood cashed in on this new criminal anti-hero archetype, and began producing gangster films as early as 1931, each falling the same general pattern: beginning with the protagonist’s rapid rise through the criminal underworld, and ending with his rapid downfall, always with an implied “crime doesn’t pay” moral message.
Overwhelmingly, the gangster of American consciousness is Italian, and in particular, Sicilian. Many of the most notorious early-20th-century gangsters were Sicilians, who came in late-19th century waves of Italian immigrants to the United States, and who brought with them a uniquely Sicilian form of organized crime known as “Mafia,” or “cosa nostra” (which translates roughly as “this thing of ours”).
Historians trace the rise of the Sicilian Mafia to social instability on the island in the early 1800s, as feudalism was overturned, and as Sicily was eventually annexed by the nascent Italian nation in 1860. Land was redistributed, a middle class gained wealth, but an effective police force had yet to be established. In the power vaccuum that resulted, sects or brotherhoods of strongmen ran protection racketeering businesses, which rapidly evolved into Mafia clans, adopting highly ritualized codes of conduct. By 1876 Roman officials sent to study the Mafia problem in Sicily concluded that it was already so entrenched only a total overhaul of Sicilian society could rid the island of this new social disease.
When young men from Mafia-soaked Sicily began emigrating to Canada and America in the late 19th-century they brought cosa nostra with them, a cultural import that eventually spawned the fedora and pin stripe suit-wearing gangster that is now such a vital part of American film legend.
Despite the fact that the Irish, the Jewish, and the Chinese all had gangs of their own, the Sicilian gangster still reigns supreme in our cultural imaginations, and with only a few exceptions, all of film and TV’s most memorable gangsters have been Sicilian, or at least Italian.
Below is a clip of James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano, the most recent successful incarnation of the gangster figure, a mob boss and murderer who suffers from panic attacks. Here he is in therapy with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco) as he lays out his troubled moral reasoning for his criminal life, and how he sees it in the context of the Italian immigrant experience.