In what could be an effort to psych out astute fans of the the crime-movie, or perhaps it’s simply the next logical step in the evolution of the gangster film, there appears to be a paradigm shift in the mob movie: The boss is the rat. Whether it’s to get to the top or merely to stay there, mob bosses have been opting to keep their enemies way closer than their friends. In recent films such as The Departed, Layer Cake and (my apologies for the spoiler) RocknRolla this new hole in the mob’s wall of silence has been leaking.
To be clear, this isn’t the same thing as having a cop in their pocket. In The Godfather, when Solozzo enlisted a powerful ally in the form of Capt. McClusky, it was more of an instance of a cop being dirty, rather than a boss being “clean”. What we are talking about here is the top dog in a criminal organization the bastion of gangster culture, breaking the two cardinal rules of the wiseguy lifestyle: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”
Is this even a new twist? Besides just looking at The Godfather, I scanned through some other gangster staples and couldn’t find any prominent examples of this phenomenon. This appears to be more of a modern occurrence. So where is this coming from and what can be gained from this emerging twist in the gangster narrative? Is it meant to signal a shift in the morality of filmmakers vis a vis their perception of the underworld?
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
And ever since I can remember watching gangster movies there has been a “no rat” philosophy deeply ingrained in that culture. Is this shift away from tradition merely meant to up the stakes, or is it a new common twist that is supposed to throw the know-it-all audience off? The “thriller” element of the “crime-thriller” depends on the main character dealing with the constant menace of being caught or killed, this is where most of the story’s narrative tension is generated. As these kinds of films become more prevalent, and the way they unfold becomes more predictable, it is incumbent upon writers and directors to create films that can switch up the usual storyline in order to engage the hardcore audience. As for upping the stakes, this new element only serves to emphasize the crime film adage of “trust no one”, making the gangster world even more treacherous. If you can’t even trust the foundation upon which the criminal enterprise is founded, where are you supposed to find level footing?
I’d actually be willing to take that a step further and say that there are elements of the “abject” and the “uncanny” in the instant our hero realizes that his boss is actually crooked in his crookedness, even if they’re terms you usually only hear when speaking academically about horror movies. Abject is often used to describe concepts like the Zombie – dead yet alive, a mortifying contradiction in terms meant to generate an instant feeling of revulsion. That is certainly clear in The Departed when Matt Damon finds out that Jack may have sold him out and decides he’s got no choice but to shoot him. Uncanny is used to describe creatures like the Wolfman who are familiar, yet strange. The Wolfman is a wolf, but walks and moves like a man, a contradiction that creates a kind of disgusted fascination. In RocknRolla, a number of threads suddenly coalesce when they figure out that Lenny has been ratting out his own crew. The flow of the movie is suddenly thrown off as loyalties suddenly evaporate. What we have in these films is the crime boss who is a bad guy who is doing the “right thing” by talking to the cops, which is actually the “wrong thing” in the world he comes from. So he’s evil, yet good, which makes him even more evil.
Since we’re dealing with professional crooks here, I’m willing to admit that it shouldn’t come as any surprize that these guys are breaking the rules. It’s just unsettling when the elders, the keepers of the “family traditions” are stepping out on the very rules that their society is founded. Maybe the gangsters of the 70s who got ahead by taking out their bosses are just up to their old tricks – old habits die hard. Perhaps when this reversal of conventions becomes too predictable they will shake things up again and Hollywood can actually restore honour among thieves.