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TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 10, Number l, Spring, 1979 TheAge Demanded an Image: TheGangster as American JackShadoian. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/ CnmtFilm. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1977. 366 pp. Daniel Golden Popular arts have a way of taking the pulse of a nation-witness the bawdy, participatory English music-hall tradition, the anguished recitatilie of the isolated French chanteuse, the dizzying alterations of lyricism and violence in the Kabuki, the decadent eroticism of the German cabaret. And, in America, the genre movie has, for over fifty years, documented a national obsessionin the celebration of fierce individualism. The dogged persistence of aself-made man, who defeats or goes down fighting against social constraint, the "system," is seen almost everywhere-in war films, westerns, gangster movies, even musicals. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternityinsists at the cost of his own life that "if a man don't go his own way, he's nothing"; John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach is compelled to avengeblood murder and is then permitted to escape across the border, "safe from the blessings of civilization," according to Doc Boone; and in Little Caesar,the narrative unfolds only when Caesar Enrico Bandello seizes the day, boldly heading "back East, where things break big." The man of action is the dynamic center and source of the popularity of so manyAmerican genre films. The audience shares his urge to move, his private aspirations and yearnings. And no creature of American popular culture is more ambiguously enticing than the gangster. He has recently and quite logicallycome to supplant the western hero, for the spiritual geography has changed, the forbidding beauty of Monument Valley now displaced by the concrete overpasses and polyvinyl imagination of latter-day L.A. As Jack 72 Daniel Golden Shadoian's study, Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/ Crime Film, amply demonstrates, the gangster enacts the paradoxical dream so central to American life and letters: the pursuit of self-defining autonomy ina conformist mass culture. This confrontational dream is a national abstraction , and perhaps only Walt Whitman fully believed in the possibility of reconciling the individual and society. Though we seek "ensemble," a community based on equality and love, the grey bard himself also insists in Democratic Vistas on maintaining the "centripetal isolation" of a human being in himself, in identity, in personalism. Jack Shadoian avers that the gangster is central to a national imagination that, if not overtly hostile to, is decidely ambivalent about the growing restrictions of urban, collectivized society. Out of our misgivings, and out of the troubled matrix of the Depression, springs the modern oppositional man, the gangster. Some years ago, Robert Wars how gave us a seminal vision ofthe gangster as "tragic hero," with whom we identify but whom we must ultimately reject as he falls from momentary grandeur and the lights comeup in the theater. 1 Shadoian suggests that the rejection is necessarily incomplete, that "the gangster's continued popularity and his transformation from afigure reasonably close to historical actuality to a near-mythic condensation of forces is a sign of an entrenched moral/ ethical confusion of the culture" {p.6). Dreams and Dead Ends traces this confusion, making for valuable social and cinematic history, as it returns often to the interstices in gangster filmsof , crime and business. Both Andrew Carnegie and Vito Corleone, the Godfather, ! built empires on ruthless ambition, and, whether real or fictional, each figureI evokes admiration and envy, distrust and fear in the popular audience.I Though there is not a consistent polemical strand running through the book, Shadoian's Introduction does posit that "crime films are often disguised' parables of social mobility as a punishable deviation from one's assigned place," and these films underscore the covert if muddled class conflict that lies beneath the surface of so many American movies (p. 6). Thus the gangster can become a "monstrous emblem of the capitalist," and his downfall, imprisonment or death derive not only from his moral violations (he is, after all, a killer of men), but from his indiscretion of aspiring to ascend1 from his caste. These assertions appear as part of seven large...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 71-75
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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