Like "Lucky" Luciano, Judge Victor Valdivia wanted his daily life to be immortalized with a catchy nickname. Sadly, "The Numbnuts of the West" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
As a pre-History Channel documentary about gangsters of the early 20th century, The American Gangster gets the job done reasonably well, even if it is rather short. It should be noted, however, that its release date appears to be a fairly cheap ploy to cash in on the DVD release of a certain crime drama.
Facts of the Case
The American Gangster (not to be confused with the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe film of the same name) is a short, concise history of gangsters during the age of Prohibition. Narrated by Dennis Farina (Manhunter), it tells the stories of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Al Capone, and many other hoods from the 1920s and 1930s using photos, old footage, and paintings.
At the turn of the 20th century, the new waves of immigrants that landed on the shore from Europe would include the families of three men who would change crime in America forever. Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel started off as common street punks before they were schooled in the fine points of racketeering by legendary gambler Arnold Rothstein (the rumored brains behind the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal). That education, along with their natural cunning and callousness, allowed them to use Prohibition to become the kings of New York's crime business. What was significant about Luciano and Lansky in particular is that they had an unusually far-reaching vision. Prior to their rise, Italian-American gangsters only dealt with other Italian-American gangsters, and even then Italians from different regions (like Sicily and Naples) would frequently go to war with each other, while also battling Jewish and Irish gangsters. Because Luciano had run in the streets with Lansky and Siegel, both of whom were Eastern European Jews, he didn't share the same outmoded prejudices of older Italian gangsters. In Luciano's view, it mattered little where a man was from or what his religion was; what was far more important was his cleverness, ruthlessness, and talent for crime. Luciano, Lansky, Siegel, and other gangsters of their generation looked on the older Italian gangsters as dinosaurs clinging to an outdated view that cost money and power and also helped law enforcement break the Mafia's ability to conduct business.
Luciano's and Lansky's response was to start a national organized crime syndicate that would carefully arrange who was in charge of what, divide and assign territories, and settle disputes. First, Luciano deposed the old hard-line bosses, using treachery and violence. Then he called a meeting of all the various Irish, Jewish, and Italian hoods of his generation who agreed with his views and assembled the Commission, the national ruling body on organized crime. They would control the rise of bootlegging, gambling, loan sharking, and prostitution during the 1920s and 1930s. Their power was absolute, but would eventually crumble as Prohibition was repealed and hotheaded, greedy mobsters like Siegel and Al Capone (who started as an associate of Luciano's before leaving for greener pastures in Chicago) embarked on a wave of needless violence and corruption that led to a public backlash against organized crime. By the end of the 1940s, the Commission was limited to just controlling New York, and Italian gangsters once again battled with each other and other ethnic gangs for territory and money.
The American Gangster does a reasonable job of telling this story. Directed by Ben Burtt, best known as the sound effects designer for the Star Wars series, this documentary was released on home video back in 1992, presumably to cash in on the buzz surrounding the film Bugsy. In those days, before the History Channel emerged and began to chronicle the lives of gangsters in far more detail, this release was a way for moviegoers to learn a little about the people and stories in that film. The American Gangster is reasonably paced and assembled and it's definitely loaded with information. At times, it's almost too much, as various names and dates are thrown about so rapidly that it's easy to lose track. If you're not quite concentrating on the film, the dense amount of facts mentioned will confuse you. One arty touch is that the documentary eschews reenactments of events that are not filmed. Instead, somewhat abstract paintings are used to depict these. It can be a bit distracting, but once you get used to it, they become less so. Hardcore crime fans will note that some famous photos are not used in favor of sketches and paintings, for whatever reason. The best feature is Farina's narration. Farina was a Chicago cop before becoming an actor, and his gruff voice and thick accent fit the material like a silencer on a .38.
The American Gangster does sag somewhat in the middle. It interrupts a fascinating segment on what happened when Prohibition was finally repealed to suddenly divert into a brief tangent on Midwestern bank robbers and holdup men like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Baby Face Nelson. This segment is far too short to treat these stories in anything other than a superficial basis. What's more, it diverts from the actual story at hand. These gangsters had nothing to do with the multi-ethnic criminal empire Luciano and Lansky envisioned, nor with the Prohibition or gambling rackets that led to the kind of street violence that plagued big cities like Chicago and New York. There are many interesting stories about Capone, Lansky, and Luciano that are omitted in favor of this rather irrelevant segment, so such a diversion is truly pointless. Nonetheless, this is a minor flaw and doesn't detract from the overall film, which is a satisfactory overview of this time and place.
The effort that went into the disc is minimal. Because the film uses old footage and photos, along with shots of paintings and sketches, the cinematography and audio are no better than your average History Channel show. There are no extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At a $14.94 list price, this is a bit pricey for a DVD that lasts less than an hour and has no extras. For the same price, organized crime buffs could pick up A&E's two-disc set Mafia: The History of the Mob in America and get a far more detailed and better organized look at the stories and people seen here. More egregiously, by re-releasing this 15-year-old documentary just now with a misleading cover, it's obvious that Sony wants to confuse consumers who rush into stores eager to pick up Ridley Scott's American Gangster on DVD into mistakenly grabbing this instead. Such shamelessness smacks of the worst corporate greed and this reasonably assembled film doesn't really deserve that.
Even serious students of organized crime will enjoy The American Gangster, and newcomers who know nothing about the roots of the Mafia in America will find it a good primer. Viewers shouldn't pay too much for it, though.
The American Gangster is acquitted as a pretty good documentary and the court grants special commendation to Dennis Farina, who should narrate every Mafia documentary from now on. However, the court finds Sony guilty of crass marketing techniques designed to take advantage of careless and poorly informed consumers and sentences the company to the maximum security wing of Alcatraz.
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