Dying To Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood & Hong Kong – By James L. Neibaur

Martha P. Nochimson, associate editor for Cineaste magazine and author of, among others, an exceptional book on David Lynch’s work, insightfully examines various levels of the crime film in Dying To Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong. According to the author, the approach is to “consider the core tensions in Hollywood and Hong King gangster films between immigrant reality and the deeply cherished central fable of modern democracies that promise immigrant (and other) outsiders that they can become social insiders….”

Hong Kong gangster films, helmed by the likes of John Woo and Billy Tang, came into prominence in the late 1990s, while their American counterpart dates back as far as D.W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) where the director first discovered how much more menacing his central characters could be if shown in a scowling closeup. American gangster films reached their peak during the Depression-era 1930s when real life bank robbers such as John Dillinger became perverse folk heroes, as did the central figures in such popular films as Public Enemy and Little Caesar.

Approaching this sub-genre in the first place is commendable, in that gangster films are represented by some of the finest American movies from any era, including such diverse efforts as Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Naked City (1948), Pickup on South Street (1953), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), and GoodFellas (1990), all the way to the seminal HBO series The Sopranos, which carries us into the 21st century.

Dismissed in some circles for creating antiheroes in the same manner that bank robber Dillinger was lauded by Depression-era mortgage holders, the American gangster film includes consistent cinematic themes that have successfully inspired imitators throughout the world. However the author argues, using concrete examples, that the European and Japanese gangster films have their own perspective despite a discernible American influence, while the Hong Kong films of the 1990s and after present key similarities to the Hollywood example.

With her chapters, author Nochimson examines the Hollywood and Hong Kong examples by discussing such factors as identity and material success. Even in the more recent episodes of The Sopranos there is a real communal feeling among the gangster “families” where the honest working-class are dismissed as outsiders. In a chapter entitled “Dark Laughter at the Materialist Illusion,” the author points out how the Hong Kong movie gangster’s mission is to “assert his identity as a code warrior” and to “pierce the illusions of place created by the eerie insubstantiality of the materialist environment.”

The final chapter appropriately presents how the Hong Kong and American gangster movie styles meet in the 21st century by each going in directions that had been generally unexplored.

Few book-length studies take the time to examine this most fascinating cinematic sub-genre, and its impact on audiences. Nochimson does so with careful understanding, and with an Afterward that presents how the obligatory positive voices in gangster movies, from Pat O’Brien’s priest figure in Angels With Dirty Faces to Lorraine Bracco’s psychiatric example Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos appear incapable of changing or even stabilizing behaviors, despite enjoying both affection and respect from the protagonist. From the Hong Kong example we have Anthony Wong Chau Sang’s performance as Superintendent Wong in John Woo’s Internal Affairs who acknowledges “the failure of absolute morality and law in the modern world….”

The Sopranos may have been the catalyst to inspire Nochimson’s study, in that she makes reference throughout the book to this series, and includes an appendix featuring her interviews with the show’s creator, David Chase.

Dying To Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong successfully adds to the scholarship of cinema with critical insights and historical perspectives that offer a clearer and deeper examination of some of the screen’s most interesting films. Martha P. Nochimson should be commended for what is perhaps her finest book to date.