Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
ThinkFilmIn its way, American Gangster pulls its audience up on to the screen
along with its characters. This violent picture would never have
been made unless the makers thought the audience wanted to be in
it. Audiences have always been thrilled by vicarious lives of crime
for a couple of hours--those swaggering thugs done by James Cagney
and Edward G. Robinson!--but we had an escape hatch for our errant
the gangster always crashed at the end, and we could slide back into
our orderly, lawnmowing lives. Now the gangster crashes much less
often; and we no longer feel--anyway not so insistently--the need
to see the bad guy punished.
Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, murderers both, enlist our
near-envy in their dark lives, and, imaginatively at least, we can
forget the lawnmowing. Almost fifty years ago Robert Warshow
published a celebrated essay called "The Gangster as Tragic Hero."
It seems dated now. No tragedy inhabits the genre, no inverse
heroism. The gangster is now just another entrepreneur, a rogue
capitalist, blood-soaked perhaps, but, well, everybody has
That view can certainly be deduced from American Gangster. In the
very first scene a man named Frank Lucas and a pal are facing
another man tied to a chair. They soak him with gasoline, then
Frank tosses a lighter at him. While the man incinerates, Frank
fires a couple of bullets into him to put him out of his agony.
(Frank has heart.)
He is played by Denzel Washington. Here is a first-rank film star
committing these acts to begin his performance, obviously not
afraid of losing our sympathy. Then for the next two and a half
hours we follow Frank as, beginning in 1968, he builds a drug
business in Harlem. (The story is factual in the main: there is a
Frank Lucas.) The racket becomes a multi-million-dollar empire.
While he is lawbreaking and brutalizing, the soft-spoken Frank
brings his mother and numerous brothers up from the South to a
mansion in the suburbs. He takes his mother to church on Sundays.
Then, out with his brothers in a restaurant one day, he sees an
enemy in the street, goes out, shoots him in the head, then returns
to lunch with his kin. The brothers seem impressed. (No one, police
or otherwise, comes near him at lunch.) Frequently he mouths
business principles to his associates as if he were heading General
Foods. Also, he has a personal life: he falls in love, marries,
buys his wife jewels and furs. He is quietly dressed and fearless.
So the role is designed to make him both civil and fiercely
criminal, utterly captivating to the viewers who want to be up
there with him.
A contrapuntal role is interwoven. Richie Roberts, played by Russell
Crowe, is a New Jersey detective who works on drug cases. He is in
bad standing with his fellows because he found $1 million in cash
that was intended for police payoffs and turned it over to the
authorities. Nonetheless, clean in character, sloppy in dress,
gum-chewing along, he keeps after drug dealers and finally zeroes
in on Frank. (Richie, too, is given a "life": his wife is suing for
custody of his small son whom he loves, and he studies law at
night.) New York cops dislike Richie's occasional sorties into
their terrain, and in one flare- up Richie, who wears a Star of
David around his neck, is called a kike. (The story does not really
make anything of the fact that he is a Jew.) But on he goes until,
after a long traversal, he nabs Frank, and they have the face-to-
face talk in jail toward which the film has been moving.
So this screenplay, by Steve Zaillian, offers us two different men
for sympathy--cannily, because the filmmakers knew which one we
would find more attractive. And there is a third major element,
important in the atmosphere of the time: the Vietnam War. Radio
reports cite the large percentage of U.S. soldiers who are on drugs
out there, while Nixon mouths words of progress in the military and
drug war. Frank, alert and clever, scents the breeze and makes his
way to a South Asian country, where he sets a deal for large
quantities of the purest possible heroin. The drug is shipped, with
the help of a well-paid U. S. Army officer, to New Jersey on Army
planes, sometimes in the company of coffins. (In a particularly raw
moment, Richie and friends, armed with a warrant, break open some
of the coffins looking for a shipment, which eventually they find.)
This whole story about the government's war on drugs takes place
against the Vietnam background of acknowledged drugging and
American Gangster is thus about more than one gangster. Brimful of
depravity in persons and politics, in essence it is a report of
acceptance, with Richie as the one constant objector. At the end we
are told that the real Frank, Frank the incinerator, having served
a relatively short prison sentence, is now living in Westchester.
Prominent in the cast, along with Washington and Crowe, is Armand
Assante as a mafia don with whom Frank is involved. Assante is used
to this sort of role and spins it off knowledgeably. Washington has
played unsavory men before, but he intensifies matters here. He
knows that earlier stars who played criminals relied on the
audience's fascination with evil daring. It's no longer quite the
same. Nowadays the attitude toward sufficiently outrageous criminals
has altered. No iota of daring is needed. Obviously Washington
relished that opening scene as a lurid backdrop against which to
play a family man and a square business dealer, a contemporary mix.
He brings it off almost sickeningly well.
Russell Crowe has a tougher job because not many viewers want to be
Richie. Still, he does a bit better than we might expect.
(Especially in Frank's trial near the close, in which this tyro
lawyer handles the prosecution in a key case. ) Possibly this was
because Crowe was working with Ridley Scott, the director with whom
he made Gladiator. Scott, now seventy years old, is predictably
dexterous. Yet as the film moves toward its end, it disappoints. It
was apparently intended as a sort of epic, which doesn't quite
arrive. American Gangster lacks the evolution in stature that even
an epic about a monster needs. (See Richard III.) Scott and
Zaillian have only supplied the ingredients: they are not fused
into an evil monument.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead may also have had comparable
large-scale ambitions in the line of a Greek tragedy built on
family violence, but the screenwriter, Kelly Masterson, overlooked
something. Though he stuffed two hours with family killings, he
omitted the deep racial-tribal motives that caused the troubles in,
for instance, the Atreus clan. All the troubles in Masterson's
picture derive from a robbery scheme--a thin and hardly credible
Andy, married, is a smooth and slick accountant in New York who
cooks up a plot to get money by robbing his parents. Comfy though
he seems, he has money needs, and he has always disliked his
father. The parents run a jewelry shop in Westchester; Andy figures
that the place would be easy to rob on a Saturday. Only an aged
assistant will be there, and the insurance will cover his parents'
loss. He persuades his younger brother, Hank, a much less
self-assured fellow, to do the job, and of course as soon as the
plan is set we are sure that it will go wrong.
Hank, nervous, knows a quasi-hood named Bobby and persuades him to
come along and do the actual heist while Hank keeps the car ready.
Bobby breaks into the shop, but this morning it is Hank's mother
who is there. Because of mishaps, she is shot, and she then shoots
Bobby. Soon we see Andy and Hank, accessories to the shooting of
their mother, at her hospital bed with their father. On a doctor's
advice, the father agrees to let life supports go: mother, too,
Andy wanted cash for his lifestyle, which includes visits to a male
hooker and lots of drugs, and has already stolen money from his
firm. Now he is desperate. Hank is being blackmailed: the
brother-in-law of the murdered Bobby threatens to expose Hank's
part in the robbery. (Apparently Masterson shoved in Bobby as the
actual killer so that Hank wouldn't have to murder his own mother.
Euripides wasn't that timid: Orestes does the job himself.) Even
more cobbled complications follow.
The flimsy base of the story and its tenuous ramifications are
(partially) bearable because of the cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman,
now pot-bellied, makes Andy smugly commanding--so much so that it
is hard to believe this smart man would cook up such a faulty
robbery scheme. Ethan Hawke, as Hank, has a difficult time. He has
to be high-strung and jittery from beginning to end, but Hawke
manages it. Albert Finney plays their father with a conviction that
almost convinces us. Lovely Rosemary Harris, a theater treasure of
the past, plays the small role of mom, and has to crawl across the
floor of her shop, bleeding, until she reaches the pistol and
shoots the robber. What a part for Rosemary Harris.
In charge was Sidney Lumet, now eighty-three, who is one of the best
of American directors. But the man who made Dog Day Afternoon and
Murder on the Orient Express and The Verdict is not visible here.
His new picture is of course competently done, but it has none of
the cinematic ingenuity of (for instance) The Verdict. His best
contribution here is in his work with his actors. They respond to
the Lumet touch.
The title comes from an old Irish line: "May you be in heaven for
thirty minutes before the devil knows you're dead." It has no
relevance to the film.