A brief history of Prohibition in the movies

Ben Affleck’s Live by Night continues a long Hollywood love affair with this crime-ridden era.


William Carroll

When literary critic William Taylor described 1930s and ’40s America as having an “underworld complex”, he probably didn’t anticipate this national obsession with double-breasted, double-barrelled gangsters surpassing not simply the Broadway decades but the century itself. Hollywood has enjoyed a seemingly indefinite love affair with the Prohibition Era since men like Al Capone and Dutch Schultz met their end, but what is it about this violent, dangerous period in American history that keeps filmmakers and filmgoers alike so enthralled?

Brian De Palma’s 1987 gangster epic The Untouchables is, for many, a benchmark in pure Prohibition romanticising, with Kevin Costner’s clean cut, straight-shooting Elliot Ness providing the surrogate for all the would-be vigilantes and justice bringers sitting in the cinema. The line, “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word,” is seared into our collective cinematic conscience, and Robert De Niro’s intimidating, albeit somewhat dull, Al Capone is portrayed with an elusiveness equal to that which he enjoyed in real life.

De Palma’s film equates patriotism, and a sense of American history, with pinstripe suits, an oil-black revolver and a trilby. It’s the archetypal elegy to an era perhaps unworthy of its cinematic celebration. But The Untouchables does more than simply suggest it’s cool to be a gangster, it directly paints the Prohibition Era with the same strokes as the Wild West. The centrepiece of the film, the shootout on the Canadian-American border, is hugely reminiscent of railroad shootouts in Leone’s oeuvre and the prairie shack that the eponymous gang shelter in may well as be Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like the Old West and the Frontier, Prohibition marks a period where American reality meets myth and legend.

Perhaps less jingoistic than De Palma’s film, which Ennio Morricone’s score decks out in full stars-and-stripes regalia, is the Coen brothers’ gangster masterpiece Miller’s Crossing from 1990. Gabriel Byrne’s scintillating performance as Tom Reagan is a world apart from squeaky clean Elliot Ness, as he navigates a world built on double-cross with even darker aces up his trench coat sleeve. Miller’s Crossing is a far more nuanced return to the bootlegging back alleys than what De Palma offered; there are no token warehouses stashed with crates of moonshine or federal agents busting down doors with Tommy Guns akimbo.

Instead, the Coens’ set the action in smoky upstairs offices, and in quiet backwoods. When Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) is ordered to be killed by Tom, he is taken to the eponymous stretch of woods to be shot: “Your first shot puts him down, then you put one in his brain.” The solitude of the wooded clearing, and the mythic reputation it holds as a place where bad men are buried, is inherently tied to the Old West. It may be less obvious than De Palma’s treatment of it, but the Coens are similarly placing their Prohibition story in a much wider American tradition. Guns and violence have always met in those woods, whether it’s cowhides or whiskey that’s being smuggled through it’s the same highwayman waiting round the corner.

Nowhere, however, is the American West and the rain-swept streets of Prohibition married together more overtly than in Edward Zwick’s 1994 film Legends of the Fall. This generational story tells of the Ludlow family dealing with their rustic homestead life in Montana, the family’s three sons fighting in World War One, and lastly their foray into bootlegging, showing an America that works in cycles. The blood of the frontier runs in the veins of men like the Ludlows, and the war is simply a recoloured backdrop to a life their ancestors already knew.

It’s fitting, then, that Brad Pitt’s Tristan Ludlow, the rightful heir, carries the family torch back to the homestead during Prohibition in which he becomes entangled with gangsters far greater than his glorified stable-boy persona. Underscoring it all is John Toll’s Academy-Awarding cinematography, which captures the rolling plains of the West and the illicit warehouses of the bootlegger with equal beauty. Edward Zwick glorifies two eras that are eerily alike in Legends of the Fall, and while the film often sinks beneath the weight of it’s twee western theme it still manages to show an America symbolically soaked in blood.

Are we supposed to view men like Al Capone in the same light as the likes of Jesse James and Billy the Kid? With Robert De Niro, Ben Gazzara and a whole host of Hollywood luminaries portraying these infamous wanted men, how can we not allow a sense of awe, even admiration, to creep into our reading? Just as when Brad Pitt gave a charismatic edge to his portrayal of Jesse James in Andrew Dominik’s stunning biographical western from 2007, it’s less a question of not being able to see the wood for the trees as it is not being able to see the bodies for the bad guy. We love to follow antiheroes, we root for them, and the Prohibition Era gives us a more recent touchstone than the Old West to these larger-than-life characters.

America’s history is stepped in violence, but this particular period of conflict and crime offers something deeply alluring to a modern audience. We wonder about the weight of those Tommy Guns in a gangster’s hands, or the feel of a well-tailored three-piece suit. We wonder what it’s like to have our names appear not simply in papers, but on the lips of the inhabitants of major cities. It’s a horrible world, a violent world, but that doesn’t mean we want to stop seeing it.

Published 11 Jan 2017

Tags: Ben Affleck Coen brothers Prohibition

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