A Gang Story

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

23 June

John Gotti jailed for life, 1992

On this day in John Gotti, boss of the Gambino crime family in New York City was jailed for life. Look him up on Google images and you’ll probably find his mug shot, taken when he was arrested in 1990, smiling fit to bust. Known as the “Teflon Don”, Gotti clearly didn’t expect to be held for long by the police. He’d taken the top seat after organising the murder of the previous boss Paul Castellano in 1985, having risen from being a youthful member of a street gang (Gotti’s early exploits, stealing cigarettes and hijacking truck trailers have a distinct Goodfellas flavour). He gained the “Teflon” sobriquet in the 1980s, having been acquitted three times in high profile trials, largely because he’d knobbled the jury. However, the flamboyant style of “The Dapper Don” and his unwillingness to keep his head down made it a point of honour among law enforcement authorities to nail him, and they poured considerable resources into keeping him under surveillance. In 1991, they got their moment when they played tapes of Gotti disparaging Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano to underboss Gravano himself. Gravano decided to turn state’s evidence and Gotti was arrested for murder, conspiracy to murder, racketeering, obstruction of justice, illegal gambling, extortion, tax evasion and loansharking. Gotti’s defence in court consisted of insisting that the Gambino crime family didn’t exist, had been conjured out of thin air by the authorities as part of some personal vendetta against himself. It didn’t wash. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and died there of cancer in 2002.

A Gang Story (2001, dir: Olivier Marchal)

Currently being remade with Liam Neeson in the lead role, A Gang Story (known as Les Lyonnais in its native France) saw co-writer/director and former policeman Oliver Marchal shifting attention from cops (in the films Gangsters, 36 Quai des Orfevres and MR73, plus the TV series Braquo) to robbers.

Though based on the real-life memoir of gang boss Edmond Vidal, it’s a familiar story in many senses, the decades-long rise from petty thievery to extreme brutality, with the spoils going to the least squeamish, the most nearly psychopathic. If you’re looking for snatches of The Godfather or Goodfellas or other 1970s gangster movies, Marchal is happy to oblige, as he tells the story of young guys – one a Roma, the other French, another Greek – whose early purloining of a box of cherries, and subsequent arrest for it, forges a bond that would in later life push two of them to the top of Lyon’s most famous crime outfit. And then later still, test that bond with a dramatic late-stage cry for help.

Marchal takes a flashback approach, as the guys we have become acquainted with in later life, iron grey and iron hard, creased and tanned, look back at the road they’ve travelled. But it’s no idle structuring device, this flashback, Marchal is trying to make several points: about age dulling the senses and the appetite; about the absolute importance over time of loyalty when there is no recourse to law; and about how easy it is to be a gangster when it’s just you, how much harder when there’s a wife and children to factor into the equation. Plus the fact that being an outlaw is all very well when you’re young and in the moment, but that, over time, the sheer plodding bureaucracy of the lawmakers will track you down.

The casting is, as ever with Marchal, totally on the money – Gérard Lanvin as the older but still brutally handsome Gypsy Momon, on whose cool the entire film is built, Tchéky Karyo as the Frenchman Suttel, while Dimitri Storoge and Olivier Chantreau play the men as young men on the make.

Jean-François Richet’s more expansive Mésrine is a point of comparison, both being true stories anchored to a time in French history when organised crime, the apparatus of the state and European terrorism movements would form uneasy and fleeting co-operative alliances. And as in Mésrine full rein is given to production designers keen to do things with their 1970s mood boards of brown, taupe and orange. The drive-by shootings and killings are handled in a stylish, carefully orchestrated way and again we’re reminded that there’s a lot to be said for the Citroen DS as a getaway car. Yes, a familiar story, but cool, well told, deliciously dressed and with something to say.

Why Watch?

  • Since Bob Le Flambeur at least, the French have made superior gangster films
  • Gérard Lanvin and Tchéky Karyo’s tough, charismatic performances
  • A gangster film made by a former cop
  • Boris Piot’s production design

A Gang Story – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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