Martin Scorsese’s American Gangster Trilogy

Martin Scorsese is perhaps the most admired living filmmaker in America. His works continually strive to reflect his unique vision and often appeal critically and commercially to audiences. Some of his works are also thematically connected, such as the spiritual struggle in works such as Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ. Other works stand as vastly different in his oeuvre such as Kundun and The Age of Innocence, which demonstrate the breadth of his talent is not limited to a specific genre. However, three of his films bear significant parallels. Scorsese has stated that he finished his purported “American Gangster” Trilogy that began with Goodfellas and was followed up by Casino and finished by his latest masterpiece The Wolf of Wall Street. All three of the films follow the story of a corrupt man’s rise and fall. All three films focus themselves inside the insular world that the protagonist inhabits. All three protagonists have a close friend who reflects the worst about the protagonist as well as each having a tempestuous marriage. All three stories reflect a perverted version of the American Dream, and each show the draw and consequences of the criminal world.

Part of the fascinating element in Scorsese’s trilogy is that many do not immediately regard his final entry as a gangster film. The Wolf of Wall Street has the glamorous façade of being in the legitimate and supposedly respectable business. The criminal nature of Wall Street is made clear in the early monologue by Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey). His description of the broker business is comparable to describing the life of a drug dealer. Hanna states that the goal of a broker is to hook the supposedly super-rich into forever coming to the broker for chances to become even richer. The world in The Wolf of Wall Street is completely and utterly corrupt. Yet there is an air of supposed respectability that is able to cloak Hanna and Belfort from recognition as the criminals they are. The corporate mask of Jordan Belfort is an intentional attempt to dupe people into thinking that his pump-and-dump company is not a criminal organization.

The false air of “respectability” in Stratton Oakmont is a key element of the thematic continuity in Scorsese’s American Gangster trilogy. In the beginning of GoodFellas, Billy Batts is stabbed and shot in the trunk of a car before Henry Hill narrates that he always wanted to be a gangster. Hill admits that he wanted to be a criminal, and is proud about his occupation. Part of the immediate draw and likeability of Hill in comparison to the protagonists of the other two films is Hill’s unabashed honesty. He knows he is a criminal, he is drawn to the glamorous aspects of being a gangster, but he is also not in denial about what he is. In contrast as Scorsese continued with his two “sequels” the criminal world is transferred into more “legitimate” enterprises and the characters revel in their legal stature. Casino’s protagonist, not hero, Sam “Ace” Rothstein is a man who is living in perpetual denial about his identity. Rothstein was originally a talented handicap runner for the mafia, but his skills in gambling made him the ideal for running a casino. In the casino the skills that made him a crook are celebrated, he narrates, “Here I’m Mr. Rothstein.” Part of the charm and folly of Rothstein is that he seemingly attempts to ignore his criminal past and continuing work with the mob, instead trying to focus on managing his casino. Rothstein is unambitious and wishes to be a legitimate businessman, but the casinos themselves lack the redemption or vindication that Rothstein craves. Casinos are still seen as dirty business in the eyes of the world and Rothstein himself is viewed as an outsider. Despite all that Rothstein does for the city, he is never welcome and is eventually banished.

Each of the films offer a supporting character who reflects the worst about the protagonist. Tommy DeVito of Goodfellas reflects the volatile nature of Henry’s lifestyle, his pride leads him to be even more violent and confrontational then Henry. Henry’s pride in being a gangster is brought to its peak in Tommy, who simply cannot accept being considered anything less than a powerful man. At a moment Tommy switches from being friendly and jovial to deadly. In the iconic scene, Tommy demands to know how he is funny to Henry. It is stunning to see how an innocuous remark is a near death sentence. Tommy reflects the mobs curious combination of crushing feelings of inferiority and uncontrollable rage. Tommy cannot swallow even for a moment being mocked and responds with lethal force when Spider or Billy Batts take Tommy down a few notches. Tommy serves as the demonstration of Henry at his worst and the darkness inside Henry. Tommy reminds Henry several unpleasant times that his lifestyle is truly one that ultimately leads to your own doom.

Similar to Tommy in Goodfellas, Donnie Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street is a dark reflection of the protagonist. While the scumbag Jordan Belfort delights in squeezing out money from anyone and getting high, Azoff eggs Belfort to go farther. Azoff’s depravity is reflected in an incessant need for both instant gratification (reflected in masturbating upon sight of Naomi) and lacking any moral scruples in marrying his cousin. Azoff’s is Belfort’s enabler and gives Belfort crack and Qualudes five-times as potent as the ordinary drug. Azoff even more so than Belfort is a dirty scumbag who cannot fathom avoiding drugs or hookers.

Joe Pesci’s character Nicky Santoro of Casino is much more of a practical man to the “cowboy” lifestyle of Tommy DeVito. Nicky is a decent father and is able to distinguish business from personal issues. But at the same time, Tommy does not share the delusion of respectability that Ace clings to. Tommy is an unabashed gangster and harshly reminds Ace several times that he is only working in Las Vegas for the sake of the mafia. Tommy reflects Ace’s gangster background and is the constant reminder that Ace can never escape this criminal history. Each of the protagonists in Scorsese’s American Gangster trilogy have a protagonists greatest faults reflected in their closest friends.

The key aspect that unites Scorsese’s trilogy is the story of the perverted American Dream. The gangster genre almost always tells a story of the rising in the land of opportunity. But because these heroes follow illicit means to rise from humble begins they eventually must reap the consequences of their lifestyle. Scorsese greatly embraces this idea of the American Dream as the central crux of the rise and fall of the characters in his trilogy. Henry Hill, Ace Rothstein and Jordan Belfort all made a name for themselves out of essentially nothing. Although, ironically, it is in the mafia itself where Henry can never rise to anything beyond a soldier. In the “legitimate” world criminals like Ace and Jordan can rise to the top. Jordan is the official leader of his “respectable” company and featured on the cover of Forbes. Hill is not angry about being a middle man as he has an incredibly rich lifestyle. Hill and Belfort are insistent on perpetuating their lavish lifestyle and begin to commit acts that attract greater attention from legitimate authorities. The curious irony though, is that despite each character’s rise, they are never respected in their community. Ace is regarded as an outsider and is eventually banished from his beloved city. Belfort despite being a self-made millionaire is loathed by Wall Street. Each character is able to rise from nothing, but craves a measure of respect in their community and eventually each fall because of their greed. Scorsese crafted a trilogy of films that followed dark protagonists who reflected a corrupted American Dream. Scorsese provides an insight and sincerity in exploring the mob world as it slowly moves from illegal acts to the legitimate world.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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