This compact little documentary includes more graphic, original footage and photos than you could imagine.

James Plath's picture

This one is for history buffs, and you know who you are. You disdain re-enactments and fluff-ball narrations laced with speculation, preferring instead original footage, photos, and a non-nonsense narrative that gives it to you straight.

Well, if a picture is worth a thousand words, "The American Gangster," a 1992 documentary put together by Ben Burtt (an Oscar-nominated director who, as a sound man, came up with the unique whrrrzzzzzt! sound of the "Star Wars" lightsabers), is the equivalent of an unabridged dictionary.

You heard about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre? Well, in this 48-minute documentary that's so crammed with facts and vintage visuals that it looks like an overstuffed Chicago ballot box, there are actual photos of the corpses that were found in the garage that Sweetheart's Day. Bugs Moran? A photo shows him slumped over, dead, at his restaurant table. Bonnie and Clyde? You get actual footage of the shootout and a pan-and-scan look at the bullet-riddled car afterwards. John Dillinger? His half-naked body is stretched out on the morgue table. Bugsy Siegel? You see his toe-tag, up close and personal.

There's some speculation about who pulled the trigger on some of the hits--after all, we're told that more than 400 gangsters were killed each year in turf wars during the Roaring Twenties--but for the most part this is pure history, barely filtered through interpretive narrative. A history buff's dream.

The narrative itself isn't as much of a revelation as the archival materials that provide a look at real mobsters and real situations. There's nothing glamorized here, and filmmaker Burtt does a good job of letting newsreel, press conference, and psa talks by people of the times tell the story, rather than relying solely on voiceover. And when there is a voiceover, Dennis Farina ("Law and Order," "Get Short") handles the chores in a matter-of-fact way that complements the concise, factual tone.

"The American Gangster" begins with shots of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, with Farina telling us that between 1900 and 1910 nine million immigrants came to the United States. We learn the years that the film's three main subjects-Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, and Meyer Lansky-arrived and are told how these three watched their parents get prematurely old trying to make it in rundown New York ghettos like Jewtown, Hell's Kitchen, or Little Italy. They joined gangs and were soon fighting over territories for the privilege of stealing from warehouses or shaking down local business owners for protection money. Then came the 18th Amendment, and prohibition was an enabler for organized crime. There's rare extended footage here of the interior of a speakeasy with dancers performing, and behind-the-scenes footage of gangsters' bootlegging operations.

In this documentary you'll meet Arnold Rothstein, "Mr. Big," the one who taught Lucky Luciano how to dress and think big--and the man whom many think fixed the 1919 World Series. You see vintage photos and newspaper headlines of how Big Jim Colosimo ran Chicago . . . and was gunned down by a hood who trained in New York but fled to avoid charges. The hood's name? Al Capone, and the day after the killing he got 25 percent of the operation that Johnny Torrio took over. You'll see footage of Mayor La Guardia taking a sledgehammer to a slot machine and watch a barge full of them hauled out to the sound and dumped overboard. And you'll hear how three small-time hoods grew to become big-time players in organized crime. From numbers rackets, loan sharking, floating crap games, and prostitution, you'll also get the scoop on how the mob planned for the end of prohibition and how, when the heat got turned up a little too high in New York, Meyer Lansky would head south for Florida and Havana, while Bugsy Siegel would go to Hollywood to reestablish connections with tough-guy actor George Raft, and then tried to start a gambling Mecca in the desert.

Siegel would never live to see the Flamingo become a whopping success, but his instincts were right, and as with the rest of this film, vintage footage and still photography helps to tell the story, ending with the demise of the band of killers Walter Winchell dubbed "Murder, Incorporated" in 1939.

It's a fast-moving, artifact-packed documentary that really gives a good overview of organized crime in America-which is surprising, really, given that the film is only 48 minutes long. Without a doubt, though, what makes this successful and a real treat to watch is the enormous amount of vintage newsreels and still photography. It's pure history.

"The American Gangster" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, probably because it relies so much on newsreels that were shown in that format. This is archival stuff, all black and white, but while some of it is a little rough, most of the visuals look really good--considering their age and the circumstances of their filming.

The audio is a simple Dolby Digital Mono, again, no doubt devised to blend more seamlessly with the newsreels that form the narrative for most of the film. Again, given the age of the source materials, the quality is quite good. No complaints here.

There are no bonus features.

Bottom Line:
If you're a fan of history or gangster movies, this compact little documentary includes more graphic, original footage and photos than you could imagine. Everything is vintage except for an occasional artist's rendition, and those have the feel of a courtroom artist's work. "The American Gangster" is a history lesson that ends with a chilling statement from Luciano himself. If he had it to do all over again, would he do it differently? Yeah, he says. It's the same, whether you do it illegally or do it legit. He'd get the papers and do it legit, and the operation would be just the same. For a society built on capitalism, those are hardly comforting words for American dreamers.


Film Value