The 1990s also saw innovative interpretation of law enforcement's role in the perpetuation of organized crime. One of the most notable examples is L.A. Confidential (1997), in which corruption has reached so deep into the Los Angeles police department that two seemingly unrelated criminal investigations both lead to the police chief. The genre also proved its adaptability and continued appeal with Heat (1995) and Carlito's Way (1993); both films starred Al Pacino, and Heat brought Pacino together with De Niro in two of the most memorable scenes in the pair's careers.
Prior to 1999, however, the gangster genre had not successfully expanded to television. But in January of this year, HBO's the Sopranos debuted with considerable critical acclaim. Again, the emphasis of the Sopranos, directed by David Chase, was upon realism. One of the most powerful appeals of the series was the portrayal of the delicate balance the main protagonist, Tony Soprano, works to maintain between life at home, and his life as an organized crime member. Like the Godfather and Goodfellas, the Sopranos take the biographical approach to the gangster genre. By working this methodology into television, the Sopranos is often credited with initializing a trend of bringing significantly more artistry to television dramas; many of the HBO series that followed -- such as Oz, the Wire, and Deadwood -- continued this trend of complex plot lines combined with authenticity and violent realism.
Organized crime films, on the other hand, have seen something of a subsidence in recent years, but have continued to show their resilience, and reflect the seemingly limitless interest American audiences have in the criminal element. One of the most original contributions to the crime film was Sin City (2005), which was a comic book style adaptation of Frank Miller's urban gothic stories. Though crime films in general have not slowed down to any reasonable extent, it would seem that the influence of the Godfather, Goodfellas, and more recently, the Sopranos has made filmmakers wary of approaching the bio-epic approach to American gangster stories, for fear of falling short of the immense success of these pieces of work.
In many ways, these three gangster-based film/television adaptations are very similar. The most obvious similarity is their apparent concern for creating realistic characters and situations. All three attempt to accomplish this by firmly establishing the cultural setting in which Italian organized crime has survived for the better part of a century. This should not be altogether surprising since all three directors -- Scorsese, Coppola, and Chase -- are all of Italian descent and, in many ways, have been exposed to the underpinnings of organized crime through much of their lives. Accordingly, the audience is not presented with the mythic, bigger-than-life characters who dominated the gangster movies of the early portion of the twentieth century. Instead, the very human and relatable qualities of these characters are juxtaposed against their oftentimes violent and reprehensible actions as gangsters. The protagonists are neither clearly heroes nor clearly villains; this makes them, in many ways more compelling, and certainly more complex. This also reflects the increased level of sophistication among American movie goers and television viewers; they expect to be presented with characters and storylines that are believable because, after all, the existence of organized crime has remained a very real facet of American life for generations. So, of course, bringing an understandable element to this lifestyle aids viewers in comprehending how such violent individuals can actually exist.
The Godfather movies clearly represent a turning point in the method of the biographical approach to crime films. Prior to the Godfather, gangsters had rarely been treated with much empathy in the movies, and their characters had not been granted any significant levels of psychological depth or feeling. Coppola broke with this tradition, and attempted to represent the organized crime families of the United States as operating in a way similar to a feudal society. From this standpoint, the Corleone family was depicted as something of a royal family within the mafia underworld; in this way, the violent actions of the main characters and, particularly, the transformation of Michael Corleone from a "civilian" into the Godfather, were characterized as being at least partially results of matters of family honor and pride. With this interpretation of Italian-based organized crime, Coppola made his characters decidedly more relatable than past filmmakers had attempted.
Coppola was not the first choice as director of the Godfather. Although he won the 1971 Academy Award for his screenplay for Patton, he was a relative unknown as a director. Furthermore, he was apprehensive about taking-on the task of depicting the mafia in America (Hughes 126). However, he was given the right to work on the film adaptation of the book -- which was originally written by Mario Puzo -- along with the original author. Coppola's earlier works as a director had been Dementia 13 (1963), Finian's Rainbow (1963), and the Rain People (1969). Despite this rather inauspicious resume, and skepticism of the project, once assigned to the Godfather, Coppola immediately began to shape it from the vision Paramount executives had for the film, into the picture of the Italian mafia that he believed the film should be.
The fundamental theme of the Godfather is that there are essentially two sides to the Don. Publicly, he is the smiling friend to everyone and the gentle father. But this facade stands in stark contrast to the dark and secretive office in which all of the Don's shady schemes are hatched. This is a theme that we see reflected in the more modern the Sopranos. This stands as a necessary component of humanizing a character that might otherwise be difficult to comprehend; after all, he is a man who possesses deep loyalties to his family, but who also is unafraid to commit heinous acts of murder and violence. Coppola's interpretation of the mafia underscores the idea that this violence is truly a consequence of family loyalty, and that this is a carryover from long-established Italian social organizations.
However, Don Vido also functions as something similar to an unofficial member of royalty; he exists as a form of justice that, somehow, the ordinary functioning of United States society does not possess. Accordingly, the Don's position as an organized crime figure positions him such that matters of honor and injustice can be addressed in perhaps more violent or morally questionable ways than the American justice system will legally allow for. This theme is reflected in one of the first scenes of the film -- which happens to be the first scene of the novel -- in which Amerigo Bonasera asks the Don to take revenge upon two men who have beaten his daughter, and escaped the sort of justice that he believes they deserve. Bonasera defends his actions by saying, "I believe in America," (the Godfather 1972). However, it is clear that there is a point where the authority of the American government ends and the authority of the old Sicilian regime begins.
Of course, one of the major reasons Marlin Brando won an Oscar for his performance is that he plays the family side of the Don equally well as the side that coldly orders men's deaths. In a scene that is crucial to the development of the family side of the Don, he plays with his grandson in the garden before suffering a heart attack. This reveals that he is a man capable of tenderness, but primarily only to those who are members of his family, or to whom he owes a certain amount of respect. Otherwise, anyone is fair game in the aims of "business." Meanwhile, the family and extended family of the Corleones weaves a web of plot and subplot that reflects the dynastic culture that the Italian mafia is supposed to represent: "Aside from the male members of the family's numerous business meetings, the clan is depicted domestically as a normal family, almost of soap opera dimensions," (Hughes 131). Overall, although the common morals of American culture may not directly apply to these individuals, they are depicted as possessing an obligation to family first, and accordingly, they are justified in their own minds in being a portion of the criminal element in the United States.
It is this obligation to the family that initiates virtually the entire plot within the film. This is largely why it is essential for a character like Michael, played by Pacino, to exist within the Corleone family. By joining the armed services, Michael attempts to both distance himself from the criminal foundations of his family and identify with a different cause -- that of mainstream United States society. He is ridiculed by his brother for such a choice, and is, for a time, left out of the day-to-day workings of the family. Michael, after relating a violent story…