L. Rhodes


Gangsters and Wolves

The following contains detailed discussion of the plots of Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

Originally published at https://medium.com/@lrhodes/gangsters-and-wolves-90fa72f40879

“I think it’s amazing somebody like Martin Scorsese is still making films that are vital and talked about,” Leonardo DiCaprio told Variety back in January. “We grew up watching his films and he’s still making stuff that’s punk rock.” He offered that appraisal in response to criticisms directed at Scorsese’s latest, The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio, who also produced, stars as the eponymous wolf, Jordan Belfort. A boom-era stock broker who defrauded thousands of investors while running penny stock boiler room, Belfort pissed most of his profits away on sex, drugs and bling before the FBI and SEC stepped in to seize most of what remained.

Much of the controversy surrounding the film comes in response to its lengthy accounting of that debauchery. Some have argued that it ends up glorifying, rather than cautioning us against, the excesses of the 1990s financial market. The director’s unwillingness to moralize directly may, in fact, be the soundest argument for linking The Wolf of Wall Street to the ethos of punk. Otherwise, “punk rock” might strike us as a pretty curious way to describe the aesthetic of a filmmaker whose twisty narratives often stretch on for upwards of three hours.

There’s something to be said for Scorsese as a figure of defiance, though — defiance being the one consistent thread woven through the history of punk. When Goodfellas hit box offices in 1990, it kick-started a decade of film-making characterized by an eagerness to bend cinematic convention, sometimes beyond the point of breaking. For a generation eager to test the boundaries (alumni include Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avery, Bryan Singer, John Singleton, and Danny Boyle) the crime genre provided not a blank canvas, but rather a set of traditions in need of breaking. Leaping back and forth through its own chronology, introducing multiple narrators, finally obliterating the fourth wall, Goodfellas cleared the ground for much of what was to follow.

For all of its stylistic flourishes, though, the movie’s most remarkable innovation has always been significantly harder to place. Hollywood has told gangster stories almost since the medium’s inception, but Scorsese wanted to tell a gangster story of a different sort, requiring a cleverly modified narrative structure.1 Working closely with the writer Nicholas Pileggi, on whose book Wiseguys the screenplay was based, he built out a sequence of events designed to subvert the most fundamental expectations of the genre.

Twice since then, Scorsese has adapted that fundamental structure to other stories. The first was another Pileggi adaptation, Casino, which Scorsese brought to the screen in 1995. With The Wolf of Wall Street he has turned it to the purpose of examining a different brand of organized crime. Acknowledging what Scorsese has achieved by all three means understanding how that narrative functions.

Getting Away With It

The narrative arc of the classic gangster story can be told in three acts. The first act surveys the social landscape as the protagonists embark on a life of criminal enterprise. The second depicts their rise to prominence, along with the headaches that attend the crown when success is measured by the naked exercise of power. The final act depicts their desperate plight as the agents of justice — usually the legal authorities, but occasionally agents of justice in a more poetic mode — set about dismantling their kingdom.

Those tropes were largely set by the popular entertainments of the late 1920s and early 30s, when real life mobsters like Al Capone and George “Baby Face” Nelson appeared as often in the news as they did on the screen. Dramatizing the violent ascendance of their fictional analogues, films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both released in 1931) debuted at a contentious moment in American history. There had always been a lurid streak to the film industry, but several scandalous releases in the early 20s had attracted the attention of grandstanding politicians, who used their influence to pressure Hollywood into self-regulating lest the government step in.

To ward off the establishment of a federal censorship office, the studios established its own trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), and installed Presbyterian elder and former U.S. Postmaster General William Hays as its president. The MPPDA’s function was to issue recommendations to filmmakers, ostensibly in the interest of reforming the industry’s licentiousness. More often, it served as a palliative for politicians with a vested interest in playing to the Puritan outrage of their constituents.

In 1927 — the same year that Josef von Sternberg’s seminal Underworld kick-started the rage for gangster flicks — the MPDAA published a set of standards defining acceptable content in movies. Later revamped as the Production Code, those standards were initially advisory only. The association could demand, but neither directors nor producers were bound to abide, save where state-based censorship offices backed the Association. In 1932, Hays’ office demanded that director Howard Hawks re-shoot the ending of Scarface with scenes showing the title character brought low by the legal system. With little binding the film’s producer, Howard Hughes, to accede to the demand, the film played with the original ending intact. It was a box office sensation.

In the year that followed, mounting political pressure, particularly from watchdog groups like the Catholic League of Decency, led the industry to replace the MPPDA with a more authoritative regulatory body, the Production Code Association (PCA). The regulatory change had done little to staunch the popular demand for stories about criminal life; Hollywood obliged its audience, but was forbidden by the PCA from depicting the fleeting glamor of successful criminal enterprise without providing “compensating moral values.” Typically, they took the form of disapproving stock characters and scenes depicting the ultimate triumph of the law. Movies that failed to win the PCA’s stamp of approval were barred from distribution.

For nearly 35 years, the character of the crime genre in American popular cinema was shaped by the strictures of the Production Code. When enforcement of the Code disintegrated in the 1960s, Hollywood rushed back to its violent roots, picking up right where Scarface had left off. Late 60s directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn used slow-motion to let violence linger onscreen, perforating the bodies of their characters with exploding squibs.

The national character had changed a great deal in the interim, and with it, the archetype of the Hollywood gangster. The crime cinema of the 60s still concentrated in the main on the lawless figures of the pre-War era, but repackaged them for a generation with its own concerns. For Scarface’s Tony Camonte and Little Caesar’s Rico Bandello, the rewards of crime were power, respect, a lavish nouveau riche lifestyle. Arriving on the heels of the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression, those early gangster archetypes were easily construed as disaffected folk heroes, scrambling to win the American Dream by any means necessary.

Hawks and Sternberg had worked against the backdrop of Prohibition and Depression. By contrast, the new wave of crime directors rose to prominence in the shadow of Vietnam and clashes between riot police and Youth Movement protestors. What their protagonists won by their civil disobedience was a temporary reprieve from the constraints of society, which freed them to form unusual bonds of love or loyalty. Repositioning them as doomed iconoclasts, the movies turned the conceit of compensating moral values into an indictment of the very status quo the Production Code had fought to preserve.

Yet the narrative structure remained mostly unchanged. By insisting that films punish their characters for their criminality, the PCA had changed how gangster stories played to audiences, but the primary narrative features survived the Production Code. What changed from generation to generation was not the central narrative arc, but rather the resonance that a nimble director could give it. As in pre-Code gangster flicks, the doomed losers of the 60s claim their prize in the second act and march inexorably toward their downfall in the third.

Held up against that historical background, the most striking feature of Goodfellas may be the way its third act plays the downfall trope. Tommy’s murder signals the definite end of Jimmy and Henry’s upward trajectory — as the only partner of full Sicilian descent, their aspirations hinged on the prospect of Tommy getting “made.” When Henry gets pinched by the DEA, it seems all but certain that Paulie will order his death next. Instead, Henry agrees to inform on his associates in exchange for relocation and a new identity. There is no hail of bullets to imbue him with the aura of an outlaw martyr, just the indefinite span and domestic repose of the suburban everyman.2

I recapped the history of gangster cinema in hopes that you’d see how radical that anticlimax is by way of contrast. Free of outside interference, and standing as far from the end of the Production Code as Hawks’ Scarface stood before it, Scorsese opted to soften as never before the narrative trope of the anti-hero’s downfall. “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook,” Henry tells us, but he gets to live — many of his genre predecessors did not — and with hardly less liberty than the rest of us. In their implication that justice could be swift, severe and final, even crime stories filmed during the height of the Production Code were harder on their protagonists. By comparison, the law in Scorsese stories is a slumbering dragon, roused to action only when the hero’s enormities grow too large to ignore, and contented when the criminal’s ambitions are reduced to practically nothing.

As though to emphasize that swerve away from crime film tradition, Scorcese gives more conventionally vicious conclusions to secondary characters. In both Goodfellas and Casino, Joe Pesci stands in for the traditional gangster. His characters (Tommy and Nicky, respectively) meet bloody deaths of the sort normally reserved for the protagonist. The switch is even more pronounced in Casino, which flirts with giving Ace (Robert De Niro) the sort of pyrotechnic end we expect, only to save him from an attempted hit.

The curious thing about the survival of both Henry and Ace (or, rather, about fans of the genre when confronted with them) is the effect it has of draining away much of the glamor that gangster stories typically accumulate around the criminal lifestyle. The perks — sex, money, power, respect — are attractive enough that even a brutal downfall often fails to tarnish their shine. So long as it’s mercifully brief, death may even enhance their allure. The fallen gangster, we feel, has eluded the worst consequences of their criminality.

Nothing characterizes the narrative form Scorsese first developed for Goodfellas quite so much as its stubborn refusal to deliver on that count. His direction plays so forcefully against expectation that first-time viewers often complain that the final third drags. What’s more likely is that their familiarity with the conventions of the genre have betrayed them, causing them to lose the narrative thread. Rather than recalibrate their attitude toward the more conventional middle act, many opt to simply forget the anticlimax that concludes it.3

Raucous and Irredeemable

The Wolf of Wall Street also ends on an ambiguous note. Belfort spends the third act under house arrest, then playing tennis in the prison equivalent of a country club. Upon release, he’s barred from taking part in financial trading, but allowed to pursue a lucrative career as a motivational speaker. To contemporary audiences freshly acquainted with institutional fraud in the wake of last decade’s Great Recession, that seems a rather meager brand of justice.

Despite following the narrative steps of ambition, ascension and downfall, though, Wolf is as important for how it differs from Casino and Goodfellas. By focusing on stockbrokers rather than gangsters, it functions as a test of the flexibility of that narrative form, and the answer it provides to the question of whether it can be used to tell stories outside the gangster genre is emphatic. The measure of that achievement can be taken by asking another question: How else might Scorsese have told the story?

Earlier movies offer a narrow range of answers. The 2000 film Boiler Room provides a relatively close analogy. Writer and director Ben Younger reportedly based that film’s fictional brokerage firm, J.T. Marlin, on Belfort’s real Stratton Oakmont brokerage.

For its first two acts, Boiler Room seems to follow the familiar crime film trajectory from ambition to ascension. Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) goes from operating an illegal casino out of his rowhouse apartment to holding his own accounts on the selling floor of a shady, off-brand brokerage. While Seth does ultimately fall from grace, the film emphasizes a slightly different arc. The FBI are steadily closing in on J.T. Marlin, but the dramatic action of the final act centers on Seth’s need to make amends, both to an everyman investor he has defrauded as well as to Seth’s own disappointed and estranged father.

That’s an intensification of themes previously rehearsed by Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, an influence that Boiler Room wears on its sleeve. There, too, a scrappy young upstart (Charlie Sheen) is shepherded through the ranks of a financial brokerage, and there, again, we’re confronted with an underlying struggle between an upstanding father (Martin Sheen) and an unscrupulous mentor by the improbable name of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). While the sequence of events mirrors, in some regards, the classical gangster narrative — ambition moves the story, and a precipitous downfall concludes it — the story’s deeper concern is with redemption and the nature of the mentor relationship.

Despite the similarities in subject matter, that pattern distinguishes both Boiler Room and Wall Street from the narrative arc that drives Wolf of Wall Street. All three movies begin with the trope, common to the gangster genre, of a young upstart propelled by world-conquering ambition. Rather than ascending to the head of their own empire, though, the second act of each depicts the protagonist’s seduction (like the eponymous heroes of Trilby or Oliver Twist) by mentor-figures who already occupy the throne. Their eventual downfall arrives not as punishment, but rather as an opportunity to redeem their moral waywardness — usually by ensuring that their mentors are likewise brought to justice.4

One by one, The Wolf of Wall Street repudiates those precedents. It, too, produces a mentor-figure, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), but lets him drift free of the narrative before the second act. Belfort’s father (Rob Reiner as Max) also plays a role, but he’s less the voice of conscience than a meager antidote to excess. Even Belfort’s bid for redemption is confused — in a reversal of Boiler Room and Wall Street’s cooperation scenes, he tries to warn his partner, Donnie, that he’s wearing a government wire. When discovered, that small measure of loyalty among thieves hastens his downfall.

As a morality play — the kind where we atone for our criminal education by ensuring the downfall of the Fagins of the financial market — The Wolf of Wall Street fails utterly. Yet, its roots are every bit as medieval. They tie it back to the sort of raucous comedy that has largely fallen out of fashion in modern times, populated almost entirely by grotesques, like some contemporary “Punch and Judy.”5 Some critics have lamented that the film lingers on those grotesques to the exclusion of a closer look at their victims. There’s a structural explanation for that omission, whatever other reasons Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter may have had for it. There are narrative forms that lend themselves to taking the sympathetic view, but this isn’t one them.

Identity Thieves

So what is it good for? At least in the trio of stories it has allowed Scorsese to tell so far, its strength is in building up identities and breaking them back down again. Sure, there are attractions to the lives the main characters lead: money, power, sex, pleasure. Above and beyond those perks, though, each character is motivated by a desire to claim some identity for themselves.

“As far back as I can remember,” Henry declares in the opening minutes of Goodfellas, “I always wanted to be a gangster.” That confession is the opening line of a disquisition the film delivers episodically each time Henry is allowed to narrate. His voice-overs perform many of the functions of traditional narration: They give context to the action, fill in the details, explain the whys and wherefores of events captured by the camera. More than that, though, every time he speaks directly to the audience, he’s explaining what it meant to him to be a gangster. In doing so, he turns the first two acts into the story of a man building those meanings into an identity for himself.

For Casino’s Ace, the critical issue is love, and you win it by putting yourself at the center of a dream. Soon, the role you play in manufacturing that dream becomes your identity. “Anywhere else in the country,” he admits, “I was a bookie, a gambler, always looking over my shoulder, hassled by cops, day and night. But here, I’m ‘Mr Sam Rothstein’.” Here, of course, is the Las Vegas of old, presented as a kind of billion-watt bug zapper surrounded by the night-shrouded desert where Ace and Nicky bury their problems. When the Nevada Gaming Commission moves to cut him out of the casino business, Ace retreats to the deeper dreamworld of television, attracting the sort of mass love usually reserved for demigods like Johnny Carson.

Similarly, Scorsese’s Belfort is driven not solely by the promise of material gain. There’s greed to spare in The Wolf of Wall Street, but in the case of Belfort and his Sancho Panza, Donnie, it’s an vice learned in the pursuit of an identity. At one point, Belfort suggests that money is a drug, and many reviewers have latched onto that diagnosis as a kind of thesis statement. For Belfort and Donnie, though — particularly Donnie (Jonah Hill), who is at pains to hide his Jewish heritage behind a façade of WASP-y country club affectation — the value of money is not only that you can spend it, but that the ability to make it gives you value. The goal of wealth is to make one wealthy. The ritual excesses just caulk around the edges of that identity.

Thus, in a comedic tour de force that serves as the film’s centerpiece, a batch of particularly potent Quaaludes reduces Jordan and Donnie to mumbling, crawling invertebrates, as much challenged by stairs and cold cuts as they are by their own lack of moral fiber. Above and beyond the brutalities the characters enact upon one another, their punishment is the way they make themselves something markedly less than human. That their stumbling, choking antics are put in motion by the tightening net of a criminal investigation signals the beginning of the narrative downslope. There may be no compensating moral values fit to satisfy the Production Code or the victims of the real Jordan Belfort, but that downfall is perfectly matched to the movie’s concentration on self-made identities.

In each of these three stories, then, the modified pattern is this: A fresh recruit (attended by a wildcard partner) builds an identity for himself while learning the ropes of an organized criminal enterprise. They make their reputation with a precipitous rise to one dubious peak or another — the Lufthansa heist, television fame, the Steve Madden IPO. Finally, helped along by the recklessness of their partners, the gradual machinations of the law bring them low. Never so low as death, though. Death, after all, would finalize their development, effectively sealing each character into the identities they had built for themselves. The appropriate low is the one that denies them the identities they divorced themselves from polite society to attain.

The real turn of the blade is that the narrative makes them the agents of their own undoing. Ignoring Paulie’s warning, Henry expands his drug operation, thus attracting the attention of the DEA. Both that investigation and the loose end it makes of him drives Henry to turn state’s evidence. For a character whose entire story has hinged on his ability to spin an identity out of gangster fraternity, there can be no more desperate turn. He saves his life at the cost of draining it of the meaning he spent a lifetime accruing.

Similarly, as the man in charge of skimming the profits, Ace, of all people, ought to recognize when the cards are stacked against him. Yet, it’s his blind infatuation for the hustler and former prostitute, Ginger (Sharon Stone), that ultimately undoes the empire he’s built around the Tangiers casino. By the time the narrative catches up with the car bomb from the opening scene, his old dream is already dead. Lacking the means to build a new one, he lives to see the waning of Vegas’ Old Strip, and ends the story as a handicapper in San Diego, right back where he started.

Of the three protagonists, Belfort actually comes closest to escaping the consequences of his behavior. After the Quaalude episode, he resolves to step down as head of Stratton Oakmont before the authorities close in once and for all. More sharply than nearly any other scene in the three movies, though, his farewell oration to the brokers pinpoints the motivation that drives all three characters. Halfway through his tearful goodbye, Belfort’s resolve falters. He has every reason for walking away satisfied with what he’s won, but it’s clear that he doesn’t know who he’d be without the sport. His sudden about-face — “I’m not going anywhere!” — signals the extent to which he’s invested his whole identity not in the lifestyle that wealth has allowed him, but rather in the carefully managed perception that he generates wealth, either for himself or others.

When the demands of laundering nearly kill him — in a scene that enlarges on the vehicular spectacle of Casino’s car bomb, his ship capsizes on the way to Monaco — Belfort finally trades the brokerage for infomericials and motivational speaking. By the film’s end, his image as a wealth-maker is practically his only commodity. It’s no surprise to find him marketing that as well, probing a seminar audience for signs of some instinct for the hard sell. The camera looks with him into faces which could well have been our own.

What we have in the place of Belfort’s victims, then, are his analogues, the law-abiding masses who nevertheless hunger for the talent he possesses. The knack for conjuring wealth is a common dream, after all, just as the dreams in Goodfellas and Casino are crushingly ordinary. Henry wants respect, and ends up one of us, the schnooks. Seeking love, Ace succumbs to the allure of Vegas and late-night television, the popular entertainments of the hoi polloi whose ranks he must rejoin once the dream is over. Each character stands out from the masses of their fellow citizens only by their willingness to step well outside the legal and moral boundaries in order to achieve those temporary peaks. Their aspirations, their disappointments, the identities they briefly assume — those are distinctly American.

  1. It’s easy to forget just how diverse Scorsese’s career has been. He’s often spoken of a director of gangster stories, but he’s also made psychological thrillers (Shutter Island, Cape Fear), dark comedies (After Hours, The King of Comedy), religious epics (Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ), historical romance (The Age of Innocence), documentaries and the video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”↩︎

  2. That pace accords with the legal process as we find it in the news. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine of a more precise example than the arrest last month of Vincent Asaro, charged with participating in a 1978 robbery at New York’s Kennedy Airport. The Lufthansa heist, as it’s popularly called, figures prominently in Goodfellas.↩︎

  3. Dear reader, I was one of those first-time viewers, bewildered by the anticlimactic turn the movie had taken. Much of what I’m writing here is the result of significant reappraisal.↩︎

  4. Also: the 2010 sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which put Shia LeBeouf in the archetype previously inhabited by Charlie Sheen. While we’re at it, we may as well include Jason Reitman’s 2009 adaptation of the novel Up In The Air, which may be the most nuanced application of the mentor-redemption narrative pattern to the subject of American corporate life.↩︎

  5. The closest modern equivalent would be the films commonly referred to as “dark comedies.” If The Wolf of Wall Street has often been identified as a comedy, but rarely as a dark comedy, that’s because it lacks many of the conventions associated with film noir. It is no coincidence that the best known purveyors of dark comedy, Joel and Ethan Coen, continually reference noir authors like Chandler.↩︎