There is a key scene in Ridley Scott’s riveting crime epic “American Gangster” that speaks volumes about the personal code that drives one of the film’s principal characters. “Look at the way you’re dressed,” says the impeccably groomed and tastefully attired 1970s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in disgust, to his ostentatiously pimped-out brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), “…it’s a look that says: ‘arrest me’. Remember, the loudest one in the room is also the weakest one in the room.”
It’s one of the axioms Lucas picked up while paying his dues working as a driver for his mentor, an old-school Harlem crime lord (Clarence Williams III). By the time his boss keels over from a heart attack, Lucas has been thoroughly schooled in the shrewd business acumen of how to remain a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”; no matter how venal your methods are for getting to the top and maintaining your position, if you’re able to swing it while maintaining a respectable public appearance, everybody will still love you.
Scott’s film is all about “appearances”; judging a book by its cover, if you will. When we are first introduced to the film’s other main character, New Jersey police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), we’re not sure if we’re observing a cop and his partner serving a warrant, or if we’re watching a disheveled street thug and his pal pulling a B & E on someone’s apartment. While his personal grooming habits may be questionable, it is apparent that his integrity is of the highest order. Not only is he an honest cop in a department that is swimming in corruption (he’s sneered at as a “boy scout” when he turns in nearly one million dollars in cash discovered in a dealer’s car), he is also diligently studying to pass the bar exam so he can prosecute criminals in court as well. Ironically, he is concurrently entangled in a messy child custody battle with his ex-wife.
Lucas, on the other hand, maintains the outward appearance of an upstanding citizen; while surreptitiously operating on the opposite side of the law. He has prospered via an ingenious Southeast Asian heroin pipeline that bypasses any pesky “middlemen”. He buys an estate in the suburbs and sets up house for his brothers and his mother (played by the great Ruby Dee, who we don’t see enough of these days). He marries a beautiful Latina (Lymari Nadal) and ingratiates himself as a pillar of the community, mingling with the hoi polloi and contributing to charitable causes. Most interestingly, Lucas is also able to “hide in plain sight” due to the fact that during this era (the early to mid 1970s), it was literally beyond the ken of the law enforcement community to consider that such a sophisticated, large-scale drug operation could be helmed by an African-American.
Steven Zailian’s screenplay is based on true events; the story takes place in the same seedy 70s N.Y.C. milieu that inspired films like “The French Connection ”, “Serpico ” and “Prince of the City ”. There are numerous references made to the real-life French connection case, as well as the police corruption that was depicted the latter two films.
Scott uses a trick that worked well for Michael Mann in the similarly structured “Heat”. He builds a considerable amount of dramatic tension by keeping his two powerhouse stars apart for the lion’s share of the film, while steadily teasing on the inevitability that the two men’s professional paths are destined to cross. When Washington and Crowe finally do share a scene together, it proves to be well worth the wait (when you see it, watch closely for the coffee cup prop that becomes a proxy chess piece; it’s a masterstroke of gesture from both actors) Also, like the Mann film, the parallel character studies are drenched in irony. My favorite scene contrasts the manner in which the two men spend their respective Thanksgiving holidays. Lucas stands at the head of his table, in the opulent dining room of his sprawling mansion, surrounded by raucously cheerful family members, as he carves the bird in a veritable Norman Rockwell painting come to life; Detective Roberts sits alone in his dingy apartment, eating what looks like a peanut butter, pickle and crumbled potato chip sandwich while he catches up on his paperwork.
Scott utilizes his patented ultra-slick visual style, although a grittier look might have served the story better. Despite the deliberate pacing for the first 2 hours, something about the denouement feels curiously rushed (sorry, can’t elaborate-potential spoiler!) Those nitpicks aside, I would still recommend this film for fans of the director and crime drama buffs. The performances by Washington and Crowe are superb, as always. Also, honorable mentions need to go out to Josh Brolin, for his full-blooded performance as a corrupt Special Investigations Unit cop, and Armand Assante as a mob big shot. I liked the period soundtrack as well, although we need to declare a moratorium on Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”. It’s a great song, but it’s now been used in three films!
You’ve likely heard by now that Norman Mailer has passed on. I’ll let the literary critics debate his legacy as an author, but I feel duty-bound to recommend a couple of memorable films that Mailer had a hand in creating.
Believe it or not, Mailer had four films to his credit as a director. I can’t speak for “Beyond the Law” (1968), “Wild 90” (1968), or “Maidstone” (1970) because I’ve never seem them (they’re pretty obscure), but Mailer’s fourth and final directorial effort, from 1987, happens to be one of my personal cult favorites.
If "offbeat noir" is your clarion call, “Tough Guys Don't Dance” is your kind of film.Ryan O'Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving "black widow" for a wife, who experiences five "really bad days" in a row, involving drugs, kinky sex, blackmail and murder. Due to some temporary amnesia, however, he's not sure of his own complicity (O'Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes "Memento" by 13 years.) Veteran film noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years BEFORE Tarantino thought of resurrecting him for "Reservoir Dogs") is priceless as O'Neal's estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it's worth the price of admission alone to hear Tierny bark "I just deep-sixed two heads!"). Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer's "lack" of direction has been roundly criticized, but his minimalist style actually works perfectly for the story, giving his movie a David Lynch feel (although that might be due to the fact that Isabella Rossilini is in the cast and the soundtrack is by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti).
Also worth checking out:
“The Executioner's Song”-A star-making turn from Tommy Lee Jones helped make this dramatization of the Gary Gilmore case one of the best “made for TV” films ever. Mailer adapted the teleplay from his own book (BTW-I would put the book up there with “In Cold Blood” as a bonafide true crime classic.)