Art and Craft of Writing

“In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success.”

Robert Warshow

This is a quote from the famous essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”, a “classic example of film criticism and cultural analysis”. The essay was published for the first time in 1962 in Robert Warshow’s book “The Immediate Experience”. In it the author examines some of the generally accepted conventions that most gangster movies follow and draws conclusions from them about the reasons and the way this genre appeals to the audience.

The quote represents one of the main ideas of Warshow’s argument – it shows the attitude of the mass public towards success. According to Warshow, we need to be able to “acquiesce in our failure”. He says that we have one intolerable dilemma: “failure is kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is – ultimately – impossible”, and the resolution of this dilemma by the gangster’s death makes us feel safe. He also argues that the gangster is doomed “because he is under the obligation to succeed” and claims that “he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become”. The author gives us the reasons for the inevitable failure of the gangster. These are “the very conditions of success”. He states that success is established by imposing the individual on the others, by drawing himself out of the crowd. And what dies is not some anonymous man but “the individual with a name, the gangster, the success”. The gangster is doomed for his attempt to be something more, to be above the others, above the crowd. But the general public is “the crowd”. Most of us are ordinary people with everyday lives. We all dream of being successful but in most cases we are not. And that’s why we need the gangster. To help us cope with our failure. He exemplifies the impossibility of success. Now “we can choose to fail”.

One of the best illustrations of this view about the gangster movies is Brian DePalma’s 1983 remake of “Scarface”. In it Tony Montana, portrayed by Al Pacino, who starts from being kept in a camp for Cuban immigrants, gradually becomes one of the biggest mafia bosses with enormous million-dollar profit. But then follows the inevitable failure. He has a break up with one of his partners who send people to kill him. He kills his best friend and his sister for having an affair. Even his wife leaves him. At the end we see him alone against the whole world. At the end he fights alone and dies alone – a typical Warshow type of gangster.

There is one particular scene that exemplifies the beginning of the end. After this scene we all know that Tony Montana is doomed. It takes place in a fancy restaurant. He is shown drunk and on drugs. First he has a fight with his wife and she leaves. Then he overturns the table and addresses the people in the restaurant, who watch him astounded and appalled:

“You’re all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don\'t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That\'s the bad guy.” So - what\'s that make you? Good? You\'re not good. You just know how to hide… how to lie. Me, I don\'t have that problem…I tell the truth even when I lie.”

These words perfectly support the ideas Warshow is defending. Tony Montana is addressing not only the people in the restaurant, he is addressing the audience. He is addressing “the crowd”, the people who want to punish him for his success.

Not only “Scarface”, but all the classic examples of gangster movies follow the concept set by Robert Warshow. Movies like the “Godfather” trilogy, “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, “Carlito’s Way” are all maintaining the idea that in modern society all means of success are unlawful and one is punished for success. They show the attitude of the audience, the experience of the gangster, universal to Americans.

But there