Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Existentialist Gangsters

The protagonists of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Massacre at Paris are obvious fictional models for their close contemporary, Gerolamo Vano. A more anachronistic prototype is the twentieth-century existentialist gangster, hero of films like Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1954), Jean-Paul Melville's The Red Circle (1970), and more recently Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).[1] These films depict a world in which women are deeply threatening to male moral autonomy, and relationships between men are the only real source of value and meaning. Moreover, that meaning resides in restraint and control, in what you refuse to say or reveal, but instead communicate indirectly through the subtext of a gesture or phrase. It is no accident that each of the three films I just mentioned has at its core a long, virtually silent sequence depicting highly concentrated, co-ordinated (and criminal) actions carried out by groups of men. Conspiracy is their version of intimacy.

According to Jerry Palmer, the thriller lionises

a personality that is isolated and competitive and who wins because he is better adapted to the world than anyone else. This superiority is incarnated in acts that are deliberately and explicitly deviant, and yet justified. The individuality, the personal worth of the hero is presented as inseparable from the performance of actions that in any other circumstances would be reprehensible.[2]

Palmer is writing from a Marxist perspective, perhaps with films like Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) in mind. The heist movies referred to above work differently. Although they too assume a conflict between individual and society, they, like Vano and game theorists, are deeply fatalistic. The individual always loses. The protagonist’s idiosyncratic morality is pointless and ultimately self-destructive, or even self-sacrificial.

There are very obvious ways in which Vano is not an ‘existential gangster’. He is certainly deadpan, but hardly reticent, and his reports entirely lack the focus and momentum of a modern thriller. It is not an accident that we know little of his inner life, and Vano's silence on such matters does not constitute a refusal - or rather a renunciation, and therefore a choice - in the way that the studied blankness of Alain Delon in The Red Circle does.

To use such an anachronistic frame of reference is therefore a calculated risk. It balances possibilities for greater insight against possibilities for misunderstanding. It both stimulates the imagination and offers false solutions. But, if used deliberately and self-consciously, it does not suppress difference. Rather, it invites comparison.


[1] Robert Warshow, ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’, 1948, sets out some of the genre rules and assumptions.
[2] Quoted in Tony Barley, Taking Sides: the fiction of John le Carré, 1986, p. 7.

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