Gangster Dialectics

Tony McKenna

May 30, 2022

The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead are all examples of what one might loosely call the "gangster movie" genre. They are extremely different in style and scope and yet taken together they represent a series of moments in a dialectical unfolding. The Godfather offers up the power of the abstract universal, the force of all-encompassing destiny forcing the individual life into its mold, whereas in Pulp Fiction the universal moment passes into its opposite – any broader, overarching fate collapses before the caprices and idiosyncrasies of a group of isolated and atomized subjects whose lives are drawn together in the most random and haphazard of ways. This piece will argue how – in classically Hegelian terms – it is Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead which provides the pinnacle of this movement; for in it objective universality and individual subjectivity are brought together in a higher unity; one which hints at a more concrete form of self-determination for the protagonist, and it is the aesthetic evocation of this that lends to the film its most compelling, powerful and tragic aspect.

1972 was a pinnacle year for the crime-cum-gangster movie, in as much as perhaps the biggest and most influential mafia film of all time made its screen debut. The Godfather, based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, went on to win a slew of awards including the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The eponymous lead is played by the lugubrious Marlon Brando in a soft-toned, mumbling performance that marks a chilling and meticulous study in the sinister. The story involves the way in which the Godfather ‘Don’ Vito Corleone’s ‘family’ is propelled into a conflict with another crime syndicate, the Tattaglias, who are looking to expand their business and powerbase by cornering the market in heroin. Eventually, brooding tensions explode as the five most powerful mafia families are pulled into a brutal, bloody civil war.

The film and its much-vaunted sequel are also films about the deep imprint of parenthood, the sins of the father visited upon his sons, and the way in which the next generation struggle to forge their own identities under a weight of patriarchy and tradition. Don Corleone’s male heirs, Sonny, Michael, and Fredo, will all be marked indelibly by their father’s legacy – the implications of which will continue to rip their bonds and their familial life apart.

For all of this, The Godfather has a certain antique charm, both decadent and mythological. Don Corleone himself is something of an elegant anachronism; his soft-toned, belabored speech holds the promise of the old country, the sibilant, sidling whisper of the blood feud and vendetta, an echo from a time defined by age-old tradition and rural hardship. When we are introduced to Don Corleone at the start of the first film, the year is 1945 and the war has just ended. We are perched on the cusp of a new epoch – a modern era that will see a world economic revival, the creation of a global aviation network, the development of the first mass-produced microchips, the proliferation of nuclear technology, and the planting of the first man on the moon.

Nevertheless, the film’s opening gives no indication of any of this. We hear that haunting, timeless theme, the soft rolling drawn-out notes of a single melancholy coronet peeling across the blackness. We are introduced to the godfather in a dimly lit room laden with antique furniture, the light from the window blotted out by dusty, wooden blinds. The setting itself seems impervious to time. Corleone is being visited by a man from the neighborhood, an Italian father whose daughter has been attacked and now seeks recompense. He speaks to the godfather in much the way a villager might once have approached a powerful landowner in 19th century Mezzogiorno, desperate to secure some form of patronage when the forces of an underdeveloped state have proven too corrupt or too inadequate to provide justice. This scene wreaks of intimate desperation and is capped off with sinister, old-world finality when the godfather embraces the man and agrees to his request, but with the ominous, infamous proviso: “Someday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me.”

The writer and revolutionary Leon Trotsky once described how the past never truly dies, how it lives in the midst of the present in a thousand and one small details:

Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of t