From Shakespeare’s Kings to Scorsese’s Kingpins: Contemporary Mob Movies and the Genre of Tragedy

Abstract: Following a path established in Robert Warshow’s chapter on “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” this article attempts to look at connections between the ancient genre of tragedy and contemporary mob movies. On the one hand, there are structural parallels when it comes to plot, which adheres to the formula of decline, brought about by erroneous judgments. On the other hand, mobsters are often portrayed as powerful, ruthless tyrants who retain a kind of Shakespearean grandeur. Using examples from films by Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, and Ridley Scott, my argument links contemporary American crime drama to the origins of tragedy (as laid out by Aristotle in Poetics) and some canonical examples of the genre, like The Merchant of Venice. Having established this theoretical framework, I shall offer a detailed discussion of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, one of the most successful mob movies in recent years. In this film, Scorsese toys with the tragic genre both on the level of plot and with regard to his flawed characters, who struggle to overcome guilt and tragic hubris, yet cannot escape their inevitable tragic downfall.

Recent publications have been leveling harsh criticism against the depiction of criminals in popular media, prominent targets including the über-Godfather Vito Corleone, who is portrayed benevolently as a caring paterfamilias, or Tony Montana (Scarface), whose gun fetishism has turned him into a pop-cultural icon. There can be no doubt that our understanding of mob structures relies heavily on the consumption of movies,1 and even a laudable and meticulous study such as John Dickie’s history of the Cosa Nostra demonstrates that it is nigh impossible to abandon the realm of myth altogether. By segmenting historical facts into chapters featuring headings like “Genesis,” “War and Rebirth,” or “Bombs and Submersion,” Dickie’s book illustrates Hayden White’s model of narrative discourse: The history of crime proves just as much susceptible to the influence of generic schemes as any other form of historiography, since the presence of narrative capacity indicates the presence of meaning itself (White 2). Consequently, Dickie’s narrative resorts to the same patterns of rise and fall which are characteristic of mob movies and which, by extension, evoke the genre of tragedy.

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