Film: Looking Back with Fondness

American Gangster mines late 1960s and early 1970s cinema but still feels contemporary

Nov 7, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Universal Pictures

Denzell Washington (left) and Russell Crowe star in American Gangster.

Technically, Ridley Scott's American Gangster should be called a "period crime drama." It stars Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a real-life Harlem heroin dealer of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Not unlike, say, Brian DePalma's The Untouchables, which was set in Al Capone's Prohibition-era Chicago but released in 1987, or Barry Levinson's 1991 Bugsy, which meticulously re-created the way Bugsy Seigel and his organized-crime associates created the gambler's paradise of Las Vegas in the 1940s. And yet, outside of the automobiles and some references to a 1974 Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden, American Gangster doesn't at all play as a period piece. It's amazingly contemporaneous.

The reason isn't because it's such a towering cinematic achievement, either — American Gangster is a good but flawed movie. It's because no genre has held up so well or seems so timeless as the late 1960s/1970s crime thriller. That goes for the movies made at the time — Bullitt, The French Connection, Klute, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and more — and those made now but set in that period. One of this year's best movies is David Fincher's Zodiac, about an actual serial killer who terrorized San Francisco at that time and has remained a mystery long afterward.

American Gangster's Washington and Russell Crowe — who plays the police detective Richie Roberts trying to arrest Washington's Lucas — also give 1970s-style performances.

But in different ways. Crowe likes to burrow inside his characters and let his ego vanish. Washington less so, especially in this film — he uses his own intense aura of dignity to give a restrained portrayal that works against drug-kingpin stereotype. That ends up aiding the film's sense of naturalism, since the real Lucas was a cautious, conservative gangster.

Zodiac has some intentional throwbacks — Robert Downey Jr. plays the kind of hard-drinking, editor-baiting newspaper reporter who went out of fashion long ago. Cigarette smoking is prevalent. The cars are old. And, in one scene, newspaper cartoonist/Zodiac chaser Jake Gyllenhaal attends a premiere screening of Scorpio, a 1973 movie that was not one of the era's most enduring efforts. There's a Dirty Harry poster in the lobby and another reference late in the film.

But it, too, has a contemporaneous feel. Partly it's because San Francisco, always a hilly walking city, will never change that much. Partly also it's because the film moves forward with a methodical, serious-minded attention to detail that plays like a documentary or like the best, no-nonsense police dramas on TV today.

The American films of the late 1960s and early 1970s created cinematic modernism — especially the crime thrillers. Beginning with 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, American films adopted the youthful French New Wave techniques and aimed to break through the wall of rules and expectations that protected moviegoers from being too startled by what they saw on screen. There were experiments with editing, frame speed, camera movements, gritty and/or unromantically mundane location shooting and depictions of violence. And these films were unafraid to feature anti-heroes and darkly ambiguous endings.

At the same time, older directors up from 1950s-era television like Sidney Lumet and Robert Altman made movies that were human-scale rather than melodramatically grandiose in their plots and character motivation. In the Watergate-era early 1970s, when crime — from the White House to the street corner — seemed to permeate a glum nation, all these filmmakers were in the right place at the right time. They told it like it is — a rare occurrence for Hollywood, the Dream Factory.

Both American Gangster and Zodiac respectfully use many of the techniques pioneered by the films of that era, especially the gritty and mundane look. (They don't go overboard with the kind of already dated, post-MTV hyperactive flashiness that undermined Spike Lee's Summer of Sam.) Much of Zodiac features journalists talking in a drab newsroom or in late-night meetings — similar to the setting of one of the great (political) crime thrillers of the 1970s, All the President's Men.

But beyond their breakthroughs in technique, the other thing that makes the crime thrillers of the late 1960s and early 1970s so timeless is their subject matter. Hard drugs and murders on city streets. Serial killers and sexual predators. Police corruption. Civic alienation. We started living with that then; we still have it today. So new crime thrillers set in the era feel like they're set in today's America, too.

And the films of that era also had a belief that crime is just a twisted variation on how capitalism works in America. That latter point is what propelled the single best movie to come out of the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II. (It was, ostensibly, a "period drama.") American Gangster aims to share that view, from the portentous title to drug lord Lucas' declaration that he's just trying to succeed in America.

And then there is another parallel. Today's Iraq looks like yesterday's doomed intervention in Vietnam.

In American Gangster, Lucas smuggles Southeast Asian heroin into the U.S. via troop flights back from Vietnam. It's a dramatically metaphoric way of showing that when our government fights a war without broad domestic support, our values and sense of civility collapse at home. We lose respect. American Gangster seems like it's not just released in 2007, but also set in it. ©