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Researcher studies a century's worth of gangsters in film, TV

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

LAWRENCE – From Rico of “Little Caesar" to Nucky Thompson of “Boardwalk Empire," a University of Kansas scholar has studied Americans’ fascination with gangsters in film and television.

The gangster genre allows audiences to experience an inversion of the American Dream, said Ron Wilson, a lecturer in the Department of Film & Media Studies.

“It’s an American success story, but it’s not part of the Puritan ethic of perseverance and working hard. The gangster circumvents that by illegitimate means,” Wilson said. “But the whole crime doesn’t pay metanarrative still applies. You don’t expect the gangster to become completely successful. We expect some kind of retribution for his activities.”

In December, Columbia University Press will publish Wilson’s book “The Gangster Film: Fatal Success in American Cinema.” Wilson’s book covers nearly a century’s worth of gangster films from “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” a 1912 silent film that was the first of its kind, to Martin Scorsese’s classic “Goodfellas.”

Along with the inversion of the American success story, Wilson claims that Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque is appropriate to the analysis of the gangster in American culture. Often, gangsters live in a “topsy-turvy world,” Wilson said. The genre features imagery of overconsumption, such as the wedding banquet scene at the start of “The Godfather” and sites of debauchery, such as the nightclub Bada Bing in the “Sopranos.” The Prohibition Era, the setting for many classic gangster films, epitomizes a time of misrule and indulgence.

“You have these tropes that identify the gangster as a transgressor, which we can vicariously experience without becoming a gangster ourselves,” Wilson said.  

Among the gangsters that Wilson has studied closely is Nucky Thompson of “Boardwalk Empire,” which is set in Atlantic City during Prohibition. Nucky is based on real-life political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. The critically acclaimed HBO show is in its fifth and final season and will end Oct. 26.

Wilson’s research on “Boardwalk Empire,” will be featured in a chapter in the book “Bad Men and Damaged Women: Gender and Violence in 21st Century Television.”

“Boardwalk Empire,” is unique in the gangster genre, Wilson said, in that the main character, Nucky, straddles the line between wanting to be seen as a legitimate public figure while also being a major player in the criminal underworld.

In the very first episode, James Darmody, who regards Nucky as a father figure, tells him that he can’t be “half a gangster.”

“That whole dynamic is going on throughout the series. He has a legitimate side as county treasurer, and he has this illegitimate side. And, as he sees the end of Prohibition coming, he is trying to find a way to get out of that illegitimate side,” Wilson said.

Another twist, Wilson said, is that while Nucky Johnson has never been portrayed in the gangster genre, many of the other historical characters in “Boardwalk Empire,” such as Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky and “Lucky” Luciano, are well-known figures in American culture and frequently seen on film.

History already tells us what will happen to some of the major characters in the show, Wilson said. But, he said, so do the typical conventions of the gangster genre.

“You have narrative expectations for there to be retribution and justice somehow and certain characters to be offed,” he said.


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