You don't have to love The Sopranos to see that screen gangsters are a lasting feature of American mythology. And yet a mystery remains, even after all those hits and deaths. The allegorical message is obvious and has been since the great mob movies of the 1930s: there are gangsters everywhere, and there are more than we think, since many of them are called businessmen, politicians, lawyers, clerics and union leaders. But then the apparent political or moral point vanishes as soon as it appears, and everyone still wants to be a gangster. He is not exactly a tragic hero, as Robert Warshow once suggested in a famous essay, but he is an embodiment of rogue power, a Robin Hood without the sentimental interest in the poor. Actually, gangsters in movies are always giving things away to children and widows, as Jack Nicholson hands out groceries at the beginning of The Departed; but this is just one more expression of their unlimited reign. 'Uneasy lies the crown,' Nicholson says later in the movie, misquoting Shakespeare, probably on purpose. What he means is he has never had a moment of unease in his life, but he knows how the story goes. The real point of the crown is that your psychosis has the world to itself.
LRB 16 November 2006 | PDF Download