An offer Hollywood can't refuse

The release of 'Be Cool' underscores the movies' enduring fascination with the Mafia.

John Travolta is a likable actor and he's downright lovable in much of "Be Cool," the sequel to "Get Shorty," the 1995 hit based on Elmore Leonard's novel.

But wait, Mr. Travolta is playing a mobster. And mobsters aren't lovable. What's wrong with this picture?

Nothing's wrong, from Hollywood's viewpoint, if "Be Cool" comes anywhere close to "Get Shorty" at the box office. And let's face it, moviegoers do love mobsters - on the big screen, if not in real life. Television viewers have a soft spot for them, too. (Heard of "The Sopranos," anyone?)

Why do mobsters, gangsters, crooks, con artists, and criminals have so much enduring appeal? Most of us have little contact with them - that we're aware of, at least - in everyday experience. And therein, perhaps, lies the intrigue. The movies allow filmgoers to imagine they're getting a peek inside a secret cabal with a set of unique rules and mores quite unlike anything most people follow as a moral code.

"The mob is, at base, an alternative society where forbidden things occur," says William Luhr, a professor at St. Peter's College in New Jersey and an authority on film noir and crime literature. "There's spectacle and fascination in that."

Crime movies come in all shapes and sizes, and their hold on the public imagination goes deeper than any story arc or character type can explain.

In the 1930s, spectators flocked to the likes of "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy," attracted partly by star power (Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney) and partly by Prohibition plots that recalled the violence of the previous decade. In the '40s, anxieties of World War II fueled the "film noir" cycle of dark, shadowy stories with dark, shadowy styles.

Francis Ford Coppola found a new approach in the 1972 film "The Godfather," treating the story of a Mafia family with acute psychological depth and meticulous attention to detail. He outdid himself with "The Godfather Part II" in 1974, finding explicit similarities between organized crime on one hand and organized business and politics on the other. Taken together, those movies laid the groundwork for everything from "Get Shorty" to "The Sopranos."

In "Get Shorty," Travolta's character (Chili Palmer) is a mobster who visits the movie industry on shady business and discovers that its money-charged atmosphere is remarkably similar to the cutthroat climate he's accustomed to. In the new picture, Chili heads for the music business, again using his "anything goes" amorality as a tool for success.

These films suggest that the entertainment world's emphasis on profits, profits, profits is, well, almost criminal. This strikes a chord with many moviegoers who enjoy seeing Hollywood's cockiness skewered on the screen, especially when the skewering is done by Hollywood's own. Drawing connections between crime and show biz doesn't have to be done satirically, either. One of the best-remembered subplots in "The Godfather," the 1972 epic directed by Francis Ford Coppola, concerns a filmmaker terrorized into submission by a nasty "show" the Corleone family plants in his own bedroom.

Realistic detail - even if it's the faux realism of Hollywood movies - has always been a plus for popular crime stories. " 'The Godfather' and 'The Sopranos' show there's particular interest in organized crime when it's rooted in the banality of everyday life," says Eric Myers, a New York literary agent and film publicist who deals periodically with crime-related fiction.

"Stories like these give us the frisson of knowing how close our lives could come to intersecting with those of organized crime figures, even if it rarely happens in reality," he says.

As an example, Mr. Myers cites the episode of 'The Sopranos' where Carmela, the wife of crime-boss Tony Soprano, forces her neighbor to help get her daughter into a good college. "It sent a kind of blackly amusing chill up the spines of parents all over America," says Myers.

The domestication of crime has been a fascinating evolution of the genre, says Dr. Luhr, noting the impact of "The Sopranos" and "The Godfather."

"Tony [Soprano] is evil," says Dr. Luhr, "but he also has to take the garbage out and go to family dinners. 'The Godfather' revived the gangster genre by placing [the title character] in a familial context."

A key reason for the popularity of crime stories is their depiction of a secret world with its own folkways and customs - as exotic in some respects as the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter and "Lord of the Rings" tales, but lurking closer to the world we actually live in. No element of the crime-story scene is more compelling than the notion of an "honor among thieves" code that even the most wicked crooks are supposed to follow. This is a time-honored theme, existing long before Robin Hood and still powerful today.

"I think we always like characters who live by a code, and the Mafia has one of the strictest," states New York writer Chris Grabenstein, whose crime novel "Tilt-a-Whirl" is due this fall.

"Fictional mobsters," continues Mr. Grabenstein by e-mail, "have become our real 'urban cowboys.' They fight their battles on gritty city streets ... but like all good cowboys, they defy authority, stand up for their buddies, take care of their families, and 'do what a man's gotta do.' In stories and fables, their code feels better than the one followed by the big-city fat cats (the urban equivalent of the cattle bosses) who run the world."

Ongoing influence by "The Godfather" and its ilk notwithstanding, crime movies haven't stopped evolving, and it's hard to predict what forms they'll take in the future. In recent years, Luhr points out, the rise of mob pictures has been accompanied by the diminishing presence of private eyes (and cowboys) in films and TV shows. "We used to get loads of private-investigator stories," he notes, "but now it's [mostly] procedurals ... where the central dynamic is [law enforcers] working together in groups, not lone individuals. We're also seeing the disappearance of the individualistic gangsters [who were prevalent in] the '30s."

But the genre itself hasn't diminished in popularity. Luhr believes it's because audiences are receptive to post-Watergate analogies between government and the mob.

"Don Vito explicitly said in 'The Godfather' that there's no difference between 'us' and senators, reinforcing the notion of the mob as a shadow society," says Luhr. "In our [highly polarized] age, the notion of politicians as warlords has resonance."

The top 10 mob movies

The Monitor's film critic picks the genre's most enduring, revolutionary movies (in chronological order).

Little Caesar, 1931. Mob boss Caesar Enrico Bandello, played by Edward G. Robinson, rises ruthlessly to the top. But he fails to follow the criminal code and meets a fitting end - gunned down and incredulously gasping "Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Rico?" It is.

The Public Enemy, 1931. A nasty guy makes millions from Prohibition but ends up dead on his own family's doorstep. This is the movie where James Cagney pushes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's kisser, an indelible moment in crime-film history.

Scarface, 1932. Paul Muni plays a hoodlum based on Al Capone in Howard Hawks's classic, where an X marks the spot of each murder. Remade stylishly (and far more violently) by Brian De Palma in 1983.

Force of Evil, 1948. Few mobster movies have explored the links between criminal and corporate mentalities more than this New York City thriller by Abraham Polonsky, a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. John Garfield is unforgettable.

White Heat, 1949. Cagney plays a psychopath who's fixated on his mother, a crook almost as bad as he is. The finale is legendary: "Top of the world, Ma!" Kaboom.

The Killing, 1956. Crooks bungle a racetrack heist. Sterling Hayden leads a superb cast, but Stanley Kubrick's ultracrisp filmmaking is the real star.

Touch of Evil, 1958. The story of a cop gone bad - played by Orson Welles, who also directed with style to spare.

The Godfather/The Godfather Part II, 1972/74. Francis Ford Coppola's epic, which revised and revitalized the genre. You can skip "Part III," though.

Chinatown, 1974. Crime merges with capitalism, politics, and Los Angeles history in Roman Polanski's intelligent movie. Jack Nicholson plays the detective who ultimately labors in vain.

Goodfellas, 1990. Martin Scorsese etches the mobster life with help from Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, among others, illustrating the theory that having lots of money is easy if you're willing to stop at literally nothing to get it.

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