No Brando, No Bogey, No Robinson, No DeNiro—and Cagney’s “a Cheat”: In Salon’s “10 Most Compelling On-Screen Gangsters” List, Affirmative Action Goes to the Movies
Who gave the "most compelling on-screen" performance as a gangster? Brando, in The Godfather? DeNiro, in The Godfather: Part II? Bogey, in High Sierra? Edward G. Robinson, in Little Caesar? None of them is even in the Top Ten, according to Salon sage Matt Zoller Seitz, who lists Al Pacino's Godfather performances as the greatest in the history of gangster movies, followed by Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing, and Talia Shire in The Godfather movies, particularly in that masterpiece, The Godfather, Part III.
Is this all a practical joke by Seitz? By me? As one of Bogey's most memorable characters says, "I kid you not."
You are now entering the world of "progressive" cultural criticism; forewarned is forearmed!
On Friday night, my Inbox told me that one of Salon’s hacks had just come up with a list of “The 10 Most Compelling On-Screen Gangsters.” Not to be outdone, before perusing the Salon list, I quickly came up with my own, including 11 honorable mentions.
I expected mention of Al Pacino in the remake of Scarface, but did not consider him, because I have only seen a few minutes of that version, and did not consider Denzel Washington in American Gangster, because I have not seen the picture at all.
3. Michael Corleone, "The Godfather Saga" (1972, 1974, 1990)
4. Tom Reagan, "Miller's Crossing" (1990)
5. Connie Corleone, "The Godfather Saga" (1972, 1974, 1990)
6. Cody Jarrett, "White Heat" (1949)
7. Nino Brown, "New Jack City" (1991)
8. Sam "Ace" Rothstein, "Casino" (1995)
9. Aniki Murikawa, "Sonatine" (1993)
10. Tony Camonte, "Scarface" (1932), Tony Montana, "Scarface" (1983)
The Salon list, compiled by Matt Zoller Seitz, got one thing right: Jimmy C. in White Heat. Otherwise, it was clearly compiled based on multicultural mishigass, rather than aesthetics. And you don’t mash together movie and TV lists. Thus, although the performances by James Gandolfini in The Sopranos and Ian McShane in Deadwood were wonderful, they belong on a different list.
The only rationale I can think of for Seitz’ listing of Gabriel Byrne (Miller’s Crossing), who is one of the most incompetently hammy actors on the face of the earth, is because Byrne is a communist. Heck, the best performance as a gangster in Miller’s Crossing was by Albert Finney! I guess Finney isn’t far enough left, to be considered for Seitz’ list.
In another ridiculous pick, Seitz listed Talia Shire (The Godfather Saga), merely because she’s a woman.
Likewise, Wesley Snipes (New Jack City) got the black supremacist AA slot. (Snipes was good, but not nearly good enough for a 10 Best, or even 50 Best list.)
Seitz chose Robert DeNiro’s performance in Casino, one of the least distinguished of his many performances as a gangster, while snubbing the three great performances I cited (not to mention Heat), because in Casino, DeNiro played a Jew. Seitz either gives Jews an AA slot, or he did it to be cute, since people who know nothing about the history of crime in America don’t think of Jews as gangsters. But other actors have given much more compelling performances as Jewish gangsters: Warren Beatty, Harvey Keitel, and Ben Kingsley, in Bugsy; and Lee Strasburg, in The Godfather: Part II. But as great as those performances were, they don’t come close to the ones I chose. (Still, what about DeNiro’s towering performance in Once Upon a Time in America? Was it simply too good for Seitz?)
Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine) filled the Asian AA slot.
And while Al Pacino may well, for all I know, have given a great, if hammy performance in Scarface—I’ve heard the blurb of him saying, “Say hello to my little friend” at least 100 times—Seitz chose the role, because it was Cuban in the remake.
Indeed, a great many performances that I didn’t even give honorable mentions to now come to mind, that leave Seitz’ affirmative action choices in the dust: Jimmy Caan and Richard Castellano, in The Godfather; Michael V. Gazzo, John Cazale, and the aforementioned Strasberg, in The Godfather, Part II; Jimmy Cagney, as a gangster who goes straight, in The Roaring 20’s (1939); Richard Widmark, in Kiss of Death (1947); Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990); Roman Polanski in Chinatown (1974); and Tony LoBianco and Fernando Rey in The French Connection (1971).
I’m sure that with a little thought, and a review of gangster movie lists, which I did not do for this essay, I could add plenty of other great performances. But that’s not even necessary, in order to counter Seitz’ list. For the most obvious slights: No Brando?! No Bogey?! (And when a reader suggested that “including [a character from the TV Western, Deadwood] is a bit of a cheat,” Seitz responded, “If there's anybody on this list who's a cheat, it's [Cagney’s character in White Heat]…,” which he now says he only included because it connected in his mind to the TV show, The Sopranos, and the mother fixation that the TV show’s protagonist had. See my longer P.S. at the end.)
If it seems as if Seitz purposely snubbed greatness, it’s because that’s just what he did (which explains his preference for the weaker performances in the Godfather pictures).
(The Salon list’s teaser, which I read only after having written this essay, is “Slide show: From the Corleones to Nino Brown, the characters that breathed new life into the mobster genre.” But that’s just a pretext, in order to multiculturally erase almost all of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Besides, Seitz’ title was “The 10 Most Compelling On-Screen Gangsters,” not “The 10 Most Multicultural Gangsters.”)
Conversely, my criterion was cinematic greatness. (That’s another thing: When people read “On-Screen,” they think “movies.” Seitz knew this, but deception is second-nature to him.) And I chose based on performances, since if you’re going to talk about the characters, without judging the actors’ performances playing them, then you have to read the scripts, and try and forget the performances. But Seitz didn’t say anything about reading scripts, and so we’re left with performances. He talks about “characters,” because he’s reducing them to the political significance they have for him. And his politics leaves no room for greatness.
Matt Zoller Seitz loves neither great movies nor great acting.
Seitz responded to reader lynch345’s suggestion that including a Deadwood character was “a bit of a cheat,”
I think Swearengen fits any reasonable definition of a gangster, especially if you want to get strict about it and go with "A member of an organized group of criminals; a racketeer." Swearengen's a pimp, a bootlegger, a drug dealer and a corrupter of public and private citizens, plus he's killed people and ordered them killed. If there's anybody on this list who's a cheat, it's [White Heat’s] Cody Jarrett, who's arguably less an according-to-Hoyle gangster than some other characters played by Cagney. (But the "Sopranos" connection made it irresistible.)
According to some sources, though, the first use of the word "gangster" in print was 1896, so the period depicted in "Deadwood" isn't that much of a reach. The term became more commonplace in the 20th century, but it describes behavior that's been around since the dawn of humanity. "Gangs of New York," set shortly before the U.S. Civil War, was pretty clearly a gangster picture, and not just because Scorsese directed it. (I believe Jabba the Hutt was described as a gangster, too.)
And to answer your implied question, yes, I just flat-out wanted to include Swearengen, and even though I didn't have to stretch the definition to justify it, I would have considered doing so.
Jimmy Cagney in White Heat was “a cheat,” but Deadwood’s “Al Swearengen” was legit?
First of all, Deadwood was a western TV series. I saw quite a few episodes. The gangster film was the original urban genre, before “urban” became a euphemism for “black and Hispanic thug stories.”
And so, Seitz has eliminated the fundamental difference between the gangster movie and the western. If Al Swearengen was a “gangster,” so too were Frank Miller in High Noon, Ryker in Shane, William Munny in Unforgiven and the Comanche chief, Scar, in The Searchers. (And as reader Big Paulie suggested, the eponymous protagonists in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)
While Seitz is at it, why distinguish between action movies and women’s pictures? After all, excepting for The Women, women’s pictures contain actors, and action films contain actresses. Why not treat of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, starring Shirley Temple, as a gangster movie?
(Of course, the Left has been telling us for years that “race” and “sex” are mere “social constructs” that don’t exist, even as its entire politics presupposes that they are real.)
Next, we can do away with truth and falsehood.
Everything’s connected; everything’s the same.
Seitz has also eliminated the difference between TV and movies. And yes, its ad campaign notwithstanding, HBO is TV. It’s based on soft-core pornography, rampant profanity, and the sort of extreme violence that lefties campaigned against when it was on network TV and wasn’t presented by their fellow lefties, but TV nonetheless. (And writer-producer David Milch’s work on the network fare of the early NYPD Blue was vastly superior to his work on Deadwood.)
The reason Seitz made room for HBO, and the reason that he loves its shows, is that in the cable channel's embrace of wickedness and outright evil, it is a piston in the Left’s cultural machine: It is anti-family, anti-Christian, and racist. 1. Anti-family: Its negative, debunking image of a “family” is The Sopranos, a murderous criminal enterprise headed up by a man with mother issues (some leftists still cleave to Sigmund Fraud); its positive image of a family is Big Love, which is about polygamy. 2. Anti-Christian: Has HBO ever shown devout, white Christians in a positive light? 3. Racist: HBO has for years bankrolled the black supremacist propaganda of Spike Lee, including his four-hour travesty on Katrina, in which he turned the truth about New Orleans’ 2005 anarchy on its head.
Yeah, I know: Seitz’ sophistic fig leaf was, “Slide show: From the Corleones to Nino Brown, the characters that breathed new life into the mobster genre.” So, Talia Shire’s work in The Godfather Trilogy led to a series of towering gangster women, right? Wrong. Besides, his title was “Compelling,” not “Multiculturally Significant,” and “On-Screen,” which readers expected to mean, “Movie.”
This one essay alone qualifies Matt Zoller Seitz to be a tenured, distinguished professor of cultural studies. He learned everything he knows from Multicultural Sophistry for Dummies.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.