“Gangster Squad”: No Academy Award, but, ooooh, we our love our criminals!

Seen the new Sean Penn film Gangster Squad about the end of mafia member Mickey Cohen’s crime career.

Scheduled to be released last fall, Gangster Squad‘s release was held back until this January because of the Aurora shooting. January being a traditionally poor month for openings, along with the initial bad reviews, might well keep it from getting next year’s Academy Award. That in mind, you might not believe what I’m about to tell you!

Set in the late 1940s, Gangster Squad is a “True Crime” film based on the LA Police Department’s “Gangster Squad unit” that set out to get Cohen. Box Office Mojo defines “True Crime” film as “movies based on real crimes or criminals.” Box Office Mojo rates Gangster Squad NUMBER 6 on its list of the top 47 True Crime movies from 1980-Present. This is by sales, but still, despite some negative reviews (and some were pretty bad!) Gangster Squad ranks up there with such hits as Goodfellas and American Gangster.

Why, oh why, do we love anything and everything about organized crime? And why another B-movie about the mob of long ago and this psychopath Mickey Cohen?

Easy. Because we love royalty and organized crime is a kind of perverted royalty, with all royalty’s lineage, pedigrees and idiosyncrasies. Cohen was mob royalty—of a sort—tracing his lineage to New York mobster kingpin Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein was accused, though never convicted, of orchestrating the infamous Black Sox Scandal, the fixing of the World Series of 1919. Because of the Black Sox Scandal, organized crime rocketed from being fascinating to being a full-time obsession for Americans.

Rothstein came from a wealthy business family and used Prohibition, which started in 1919, to make crime a major American industry. He was vilified and glamorized in the press. He was so well-known that, when F. Scott Fitzgerald thinly disguised Rothstein as the racketeer Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, everyone knew Fitzgerald meant Rothstein.

“King” Rothstein had many knights at his crooked round table—gangsters such as Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello , Joe Adonis and Mickey Cohen. Rothstein was deeply involved in illegal gambling in the East. In the 1920s, he brought Lansky, Costello, and Adonis to Saratoga Springs, where they eventually controlled most of Saratoga’s illegal gambling casinos. One was Piping Rock Casino, which I feature in my historical mystery novel, The Burning of The Piping Rock. Rothstein was gunned down in 1928 and his proteges split up his empire and “blossomed.” Lansky became regarded as the financial brains of the mafia. Mickey became an enforcer.

America was deeply split over crime in the 1920s. While Americans voted for Prohibition, they lived evading it. While they condemned lawlessness, they found “little crimes” weren’t considered all that bad. Very soon “bigger crimes” weren’t considered all that bad, and quite quickly many criminals became celebrities. In the 1920s, people devoured the endless newspaper coverage about rum running, gambling, rival mobs and violent crime. Cities like Chicago became crime havens. Many magazines and books also featured true crime stories and detective fiction. In the late 1920s Hollywood started a decade-long string of films about racketeers, the underworld, and the mob. When the “Talkies” entered in 1929, audiences saw and heard mobsters speaking and their sub-machine guns blazing. They idolized Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart portraying demented murderers and thugs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Damon Runyon began publishing his humorous stories about gangsters in the 1920s. Those left a legacy of a gentler, even kinder gangster. Think of Sky Masterson, as portrayed in Guys and Dolls.

Of Rothstein’s many proteges, Meyer Lansky could be considered as the respectable type of gangster. Mickey Cohen definitely could not. Cohen came to crime as a child, barely avoiding his first arrest in 1923 at age nine for selling illegal alcohol for his older brother. With the exception of his years spent as a professional boxer, his career was all crime, all the time. Cohen ended up working for Lansky and Lou Rothkopf. They sent Cohen to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s to watch over Bugsy Siegel, another Rothstein protege. Cohen helped Siegel establish the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, a hotel Siegel managed. It is said Cohen murdered Siegel, following mob orders.

By the late 1940s Cohen had come to “own” crime in Los Angeles. This is the period of Cohen’s life described in Gangster Squad. The City of Los Angeles and the US government delivered Cohen a one-two punch. In 1949, the LA Police Department set out to destroy Cohen’s empire. In that same year, US Senator Estes Kefauver started his “United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce Committee”—the Kefauver Committee. America watched the Kefauver Committee hearings on TV (a first) as it grilled mobsters, crooked politicians and police, and anyone else involved in organized crime. By 1951, Kefauver had severely crippled the mob in America, shattering its  kingdoms, including those of Rothstein’s knights—Cohen, Lansky and others. Cohen spent four years in jail; Lansky a few months.

But the mob’s crime dynasty survived and has lived on—along with our fascination of it. From the 1950s on, there have been thousands of books, TV shows, and movies about the mob, some True Crime,  some fictional. The pendulum has swung back and forth between glorifying law enforcement officers (The Untouchables) to glorifying the mob (The Godfather).

And now, for good or ill, we have Gangster Squad. Why? It’s the power organized crime possesses. It fascinates us, just as we’re fascinated by other centers of human power—politics, religion, corporations, or royal families. Think of Shakespeare. He turned Richard III into a monster. Gangster Squad tries to turn Mickey Cohen into a human. Where’s Shakespeare when you need him?

The mob will probably always be with us, like death and taxes—or, as Mickey Cohen might have said, “like death and protection.”



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