“America, as a social and political organization, is committed to a cheerful view of life… In ways that we do not easily or willingly define, the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself.”
—Robert Warshow, from “The Gangster As Tragic Hero”
The opening scene of Allen and Albert Hughes’ Menace II Society is like watching a helium balloon drift toward a heat lamp. Two young men, Caine and O-Dog (played by Tyrin Turner and Larenz Tate), walk into a convenience store to buy beer. As soon as they enter, the store’s owner and his wife are watching them, following them, chastising them, and making them feel unwelcome. For their part, Caine and O-Dog are swearing and glaring, directly threatening the shopkeepers. Then, just when it looks like Caine and O-Dog are about to leave without incident, the owner makes the mistake of saying, “I feel sorry for your mother.” Seconds later, he and his wife are lying dead on the floor.
Stylistically, Menace II Society’s opening resembles a suspense film, with its tracking shots that hold close to the characters, waiting for them to explode. Thematically, the opening comments on troubled race relations, as the Korean store owners presume the worst of their African-American customers, while in return, Caine and O-Dog don’t acknowledge the Koreans as human beings, worthy of respect. And along with all its other meanings and signifiers, Menace II Society functions as yet another example of the American gangster film: a genre that, since the 1930s, has explored the volatile, violent tendencies of criminals whenever they gather into groups.
There were films about organized crime during the silent era, but “the gangster picture” as a phenomenon really began in 1931, when Warner Bros. released the taut, rough Little Caesar. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Edward G. Robinson as a small-time hood who becomes a kingpin and then overextends his empire, Little Caesar reached an American moviegoing public that had dealt with industrialization, war, and economic depression, and along the way learned to tolerate—and even indulge in—a little criminality. (Prohibition played no small part in that, too.) Little Caesar’s box-office success in early 1931 was matched later that same year by Warner Bros.’ The Public Enemy, directed by William Wellman, and starring James Cagney as another ambitious gangland entrepreneur, undone by the people he’d angered on the way up and the poisonous friendships he couldn’t bring himself to scrap. With the lumpen Robinson bringing the pathos and the quick-witted, handsome Cagney providing the frightening charisma, the gangster film had its types, its style, and its basic plot conventions in place at the start of the 1930s. There followed a decade-long boom, with its epicenter at Warner Bros.
The gangster pictures of the 1930s served as a kind of shadow-history of the United States, from the turn of the century through the Great Depression, explaining how big business and the government put the squeeze on enterprising immigrants. But when World War II began, patriotic fervor made big business and the government into movie heroes again. Meanwhile, the rise of film noir satisfied much of moviegoers’ fascination with crime, effectively squelching the gangster genre for a time. The whole 1930s gangster cycle was given a sublime “epilogue” with 1949’s White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh, and starring Cagney again as an in-over-his-head minor-league crime boss. White Heat is grimmer and more realistic than the crime pictures of the previous decade, with more location shooting and social/psychological explanations for the protagonist’s behavior. But the essence of the main character is the same: a dangerous man with a hair-trigger temper and an underworld cool, marked by his ability to trade quips and put-downs with his crew.
“The mob” continued to pop up in the movies in the 1950s and 1960s—frequently as comic relief—but aside from the occasional mature drama like On The Waterfront, a lot of the focus on the criminal element in the decades between WWII and the Vietnam War was on the trumped-up scourge of juvenile delinquency. “Gangs” on film became less about heavyset men in suits, and more about teenagers wearing jackets, sometimes with their street affiliation emblazoned on the back.
This new trend in movie gangs eventually influenced films like Menace II Society, by offering examples of what not to do. The teenage criminals who started popping up regularly in American cinema in the 1950s had traits that read like they’d been cribbed from a university sociology department (broken homes, urban alienation, etc.), but they didn’t look or behave like anything other than characters. The cartoonish, less-reality-based gang member continued to pop up well into the 1980s, sometimes in good movies like West Side Story or The Warriors, but more often as some middle-class suburban American vision of what life in the big city must be like, with dark street corners patrolled by multi-ethnic bands of marauders in ripped jeans and bandanas.
The fusion of the two main kinds of mid-20th-century gangster movies into the wave of 1990s movies represented by Menace II Society was rooted in two big changes in the genre that began in the 1970s. First, 1972’s The Godfather revamped and renewed interest in the 1930s-style gangster picture, about crime families and the hidden architecture of American history. Hollywood and the B-movie industry quickly pumped out more movies where organized crime was presented as a complex way of life, as opposed to a generator of colorful pulp characters. Then, after a small dip in popularity in the 1980s, gangster pictures came back in a big way in the 1990s, thanks largely to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In 1973, Scorsese made one of those post-Godfather films, Mean Streets, which hearkened back to the matter-of-factness of the 1930s Warner Bros. movies (and was actually made for Warner Bros.). Goodfellas picked up where Mean Streets and The Godfather left off, combining gritty realism with a sense of how the tradition-bound society of criminals was adapting to a changing world.
The other precipitating event in the 1970s was the rise of what came to be known as blaxploitation films, which again moved away from the old image of the well-heeled criminal, except as one of the many antagonists faced by the hustlers who ruled the ghetto. These movies were frequently blunter and broader than the likes of The Godfather, but they were also more honest about the actual crimes characters were committing, depicting drugs and prostitution with more specificity than most mainstream cinema was attempting at the time. (It’s worth noting, however, that American television has often followed through on what gangster movies have only promised or hinted at, and that the violent cop shows of the 1970s and the rich cable dramas of today have expanded on what movies like Across 110th Street and Reservoir Dogs set up, exploring the culture surrounding crime.)
The inner-city action films and social dramas of the 1990s often get compared more to blaxploitation than to the traditional gangster picture, largely because the movies proliferated rapidly, in much the same way that Shaft and Superfly seemed to beget a new imitator every month. But the 1990s crop balanced their sensationalism with earnestness. In 1988, the police thriller Colors sparked controversy for its outsider’s vision of the West Coast gang wars between the Crips and the Bloods, at a time when the nightly news and op-ed pages were filled with tongue-clucking secondhand commentary about roving hordes of violent minorities. Movies like Boyz N The Hood, Straight Out Of Brooklyn, Blood In Blood Out, American Me, and Juice aimed to paint a fuller picture of what was really going on with black and Hispanic youth on the West and East Coasts, by considering the history and community that was stoking gang activity.
This really isn’t that different from what The Roaring Twenties attempted back in 1939, or what the two films called Scarface did in 1932 and 1983, respectively. There’s always been an element of cultural explication to the gangster picture—as well as an element of misbehavior-by-proxy for the viewer. Exploitation cinema has traditionally couched its cheap thrills in the redemptive language of education, promising to expose “the shame of the nation” so we’ll all become better-informed citizens. It isn’t the movies’ fault if we also get a kick out of the gunplay—even though directors like Howard Hawks and the Hughes brothers do have a way of making bloodletting look exciting.
In Robert Warshow’s 1948 essay “The Gangster As Tragic Hero,” the critic argued that movie gangsters embody Americans’ simultaneous fear of failure and guilt over material success, and that the death of the gangster at the end of most movies is cathartic. Warshow was on to something there; but he didn’t really reckon with the part of the audience that “liked to see other people do dirt,” as Menace II Society’s Caine describes an older, less involved member of his crew.
Caine also defines O-Dog as “America’s nightmare: Young, black, and didn’t give a fuck,” but it’s the “didn’t give a fuck” that’s been a big part of the movie gangster’s appeal from the beginning. Even the way O-Dog tosses his empty beer bottles onto the ground has a certain asshole charm, not unlike Jimmy Cagney taking what he wants and pushing all pretenders aside in his old movies. Like the 1930s gangsters, O-Dog doesn’t expect to live long, and he’ll he damned if he’s going to waste 10 seconds of his time on earth looking for a trash bin.
Ever since Little Caesar, filmmakers have wrestled with how to make these bad men appealing enough so viewers want to watch them for 90 minutes or a few hours, but not so attractive that the movie seems like an endorsement. The two main solutions to that problem has been to linger over the after-effects of violence, and to show gangsters’ lives as ones of pathetic paranoia, with the crooks always looking over their shoulders even at their closest friends, fearing comeuppance. But more than anything, what connects a movie like Menace II Society to a movie like The Public Enemy is the way it shows how when criminals gather, there’s a pecking order of who gets to talk shit to whom. Meanwhile, the audience gets that vicarious thrill of being able to spout off, mixed with the fear of knowing that any minute, words can turn into bullets.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Menace II Society ends here. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote on the film’s brutal fatalism, and Wednesday’s staff forum on its shock value, morality, social commentary, and more. Next week, p-p-p-please join us as we travel to Toontown for a discussion of Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit.