Organized crime buffs might want to take a cursory look at The American Gangster, a 1992 documentary chronicling the various bootleggers, bank robbers and syndicate crime bosses of the first half of the 20th century. For the casually interested, however, this overloaded doc might feel more like homework.
Narrated by Dennis Farina, the briskly paced documentary details the heavyweights of American organized crime: Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin "Bugsy" Seigel, Al Capone and such Depression-era desperados as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. That's an awful lot to cram into a modest 48-minute running time, and, indeed, The American Gangster teeters from the exhaustive to the exhausting.
The story begins with the influx of immigrants to New York in the early 1900s and the slums that gave rise to Italian, Irish and Jewish street gangs. In that hardscrabble environment, three young men -- the tough, calculating Luciano; diminutive and brilliant Lansky; Siegel, a charming but volatile ladies' man -- joined forces to build what would eventually be a criminal empire that stretched across the nation.
While the three benefited from the mentoring of gambler Arnold Rothstein (said to have fixed the 1919 World Series), their greatest gift came from circumstances beyond their control. The 18th Amendment's prohibition on alcohol opened the floodgates on bootlegging. Luciano, Lansky and Siegel flourished in the booze business -- as did the decidedly less-refined Al Capone in Chicago. By the time Prohibition was finally repealed, the Depression had set the stage for other illicit pursuits such as loansharking and the numbers racket.
It is tough to sap the juice out of this kind of pulp nonfiction, but, sadly, The American Gangster nearly does so. The problem certainly isn't lack of ambition. Director Ben Burtt bombards the viewer with information -- faces, mugshots, dates and the like -- but precious little panache. Where is the storytelling? The film notes most of the Mob touchstones, from the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre to Bugsy Siegel's creation of Las Vegas, but the doc's arid, just-the-facts presentation is more apt for a police blotter than a true-crime treatise. The chief exceptions are a few similes comparing crime to a cancer or "a virus on the body national." There are some astonishing, vivid stories to be had here, but Burtt's version is weirdly tasteless.
While it seems obvious that the doc's DVD release is a shameless attempt to cash-in on the Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe flick of almost-the-same name, The American Gangster nevertheless still deserves a look for some nifty newsreel footage. We see legendary New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia taking a sledgehammer to heaps of confiscated slot machines. We hear from Siegel's gun moll, Virginia Hill, testifying before 1950's Congressional Kefauver hearings on organized crime. If only such captivating images were in a more captivating film.
In full-frame 1.33:1, The American Gangster is comprised of black-and-white newsreel footage, still photographs and a few color illustrations. Much of the footage dates back to the 1930s and is subject to the scratches and grain you would expect to see. All things considered, however, the picture is remarkably good.
The voiceover narration and the sound of gunfire dominate the 2.0 audio mix -- and both are clean and clear. The disc includes optional English subtitles for the hearing-impaired.
A mixed bag. As documentaries go, The American Gangster is short, but far from concise. In encompassing more than 30 years of organized crime in the U.S., it spits out information without giving audiences a real flavor of the events and people behind this fascinating chapter of 20th century American history.