It’s somewhat fitting to be writing about mob movies only a few short miles from where Al Capone’s South Side Chicago gang once ran a bootlegging empire through brute force and backroom politics. And it’s downright surreal and disturbing to be only a short stroll from where the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred in 1929 — allegedly Capone’s bloody blueprint for settling gangland scores.
Capone died nearly 70 years ago, but you still can’t mention his name in Chicago without perking ears and sparking imaginations. He’s as iconic in this town as Barack Obama, Ernie Banks, or Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. An amalgam of historical figure, favorite son, and folk hero — a combination that speaks to something remarkably peculiar about the types of characters (both real and fictional) who capture our imaginations.
The strangest feeling when watching a mob film comes when you pause for a moment, acknowledge that the character you’re rooting for is a murdering sociopath, and immediately shrug off that realization. How do we so cavalierly rationalize the fact that we’re often pulling for a villain — something we’d never do while watching, say, a superhero movie? Wait, both sides are villains in this movie. Yeah, but I’m rooting for the good villains. Partly, we’re living out fantasies through onscreen bosses and button men who follow a code that, while often brutal, seems to get results far more efficiently than the avenues available to the rest of us legit schmucks.
But more so, the mobsters we’re allied with as viewers — from Vito Corleone to Tony Soprano — tend to be incredibly likable. They’re family men, loyal friends, funny guys, and often “respected” members of their communities. It’s these same qualities, then, that make it all the more terrifying when that switch flips and a fella who looks like the type we’d invite to a poolside barbecue at our house starts practicing amateur dentistry on another guy using pliers and a parking meter.
I think that’s the appeal of many mob movies, really. We’re simultaneously captivated and terrified by the violent, heinous acts committed by men who seem like good enough fellas — if you ignore the body in the trunk. Sure, sometimes the shock of a mob hit stems from sheer brutality or pints of blood donated to the surrounding walls. But just as often it’s the sudden jump from a world we understand to an underworld we can barely fathom, our favorite gangster morphing from nice guy to wiseguy in the time it takes to say fuhgettaboutit.
These are the mob hits that shock us several viewings and, in some cases, many decades later. If you have other shocking hits you’d like to rat about, feel free to spill them in the comments section. And if you don’t agree with us, just remember: It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.