Friday, December 24, 2021

The Bad Guy Question

Sorry to have been away. It was end of semester and I lost track of my day to blog while reading student papers and getting my grades in. 

Douglas's Monday post caught my eye. I've thought a bit about The Sopranos and the bad guy question. As I may have mentioned here, I've been working on a book about the factual aspects of gangster films. The publisher asked me to do nine films and include The Sopranos as my tenth entry because of the TV series influence on popular culture.

I hadn't seen all of the episodes of The Sopranos  because I didn't have a subscription to HBO when it was on. I only caught an occasional episode when I was staying at a hotel during a conference. Even so, the show was popular enough that I was able to watch clips and read the commentary by critics and fans. With the book in progress, I decided to watch all six seasons. A daunting undertaking (86 episodes), but fascinating.

Tony Soprano and his crew presented me with a dilemma. It was the same moral dissonance that I experienced with the protagonists in the other gangster movies that I watched or re-watched. As Douglas noted about Tony and Christopher in The Sopranos, the display of humanity by characters who do really bad things can be disorienting. 

Michael Corleone in The Godfather does not intend to become a mobster. He has served in World War II and returned home planning to have a life outside the "family business". But when his father, Don Corleone, becomes the target of a rival crime family, Michael kills two men as they are dining in a restaurant. Sent off to Sicily, he marries and suffers the loss of his innocent young bride when one of his men plants a car bomb. Back home in America, his brother Sonny is ambushed and killed. Michael comes home, seeks out Kay, the woman who told he would never become a mobster, and persuades her to marry him. When Don Corleone dies of a heart attack while playing with his grandson in the garden, Michael steps into a role that his other brother is unable to assume. Michael becomes the head of his crime family.

Although many fans rate The Godfather, Part II as a even better movie than the first, I have to say that I find Michael Corleone unredeemable. He has settled too comfortably into his reign as don. He enjoys power too much. He is a dark character, ruthless, cruel. He is not a tragic hero, and I don't care about his fate. Oddly enough, Tony Soprano does worst things, literally has blood on his hands. But the life he leads give him panic attacks. He needs to see a psychiatrist to cope with his anxiety. I care about whether Tony will live or die, and still feel frustrated by the way the series ended. Was Tony dead or alive when the screen went to black?

Ray Liotta's portrayal of real-life mob soldier, Henry Hill, in Goodfellas is another riveting depiction of an incredibly violent man. But Liotta's voiceover narration is engaging. Liotta's Hill is unrepentant and jaunty. He normalizes the violence that he and the other mobsters engage in. He draws us into the subculture, makes us complicit as we root for him because he seems less vicious than other members of his crime family. 

Thinking about these two gangsters and the others in the films and the television series I've watched has been useful as I plotted my 1939 historical thriller. I have a character who is a bad guy. He cheats, he lies, he kills. But the deeper I go into his motivation, the more I understand his "why." The more I try to step into his shoes, the better I am able to understand why he is who he is. This makes my feelings about him more ambivalent. I want to be on the side of my protagonist, but I find my bad guy more complex. I need to restore balance between the two.

At any rate, Douglas's post has given me more to think about as I work on my bad guy's back story. I'll ponder the matter after I've enjoyed my Christmas dinner with friends. Speaking of food, that reminds me of the Liotta's detailed description of the meal he was preparing in between the errands he had to do to prepare his female drug courier for a flight she was scheduled to make. . . .

Happy Holidays, everyone!  I'll check in with you again in the new year. Wishing us all less stress and more joy.


Anna said...

As you say, Frankie, lots to ponder here. I am especially struck by two brief items in your post: the character who "enjoys power too much" and the mention of normalized violence. In real life we are all too familiar with both those phenomena. All the more reason for thoughtful novelists to address them face-on. So go for it --- awaiting, but do take as long as it takes.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


Thanks for the encouragement. I'm four chapters away from being done on the gangster book. My publisher took the purchase off when I was told that they had lots of manuscripts coming out of the pandemic. But I want to be done by spring so that I can move on to other projects.

Happy Holidays!


Douglas Skelton said...

Interesting view of Michael Corleone. I believe you have to factor in the effect the death of his first wife had on him. He lost a piece of himself when he killed Solozzo and the police chief, perhaps found it again while hiding in Sicily, then lost it again - and a lot more of it - on her death. He becomes cold and ruthless, but not completely uncaring. He loves his children, witness his rage in part 2 when assassins are sent to his home ("Where my wife sleeps. Where my children come and play with their toys. To my home!") and that comes to a head in the much-maligned third part (I'm in the minority in that I enjoy that one). My take is that he has seen horrors, perhaps in war but certainly at home, and they have made him cold but he wants change. He wants the rackets to become more businesslike. He wants the family to be legit. But in dealing with monsters he has become one and there lies his fascination. Can he be redeemed? Doe she want to be redeemed? Or has he been irredeemably lost? Only in the end, as his children lie dead, does he realise that he lost everything. His family. His hopes. However, as we see his grief, the silent scream on the steps of the opera house, he has not completely lost his humanity.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I really appreciate hearing your take on Michael, Douglas. It was elegantly expressed. I have to admit that the first few times I watched the trilogy I did acknowledge what Michael had seen in the war and his devotion to his family. But it was the way that he treated Kay that made me turn against him. First wife dies, comes back and seeks her out again. She certainly knew what she was getting into, and she did have an abortion and what she said to him about that must have cut deep. But he had made her promises that he knew he was unlikely to keep. And then there was the murder of his brother, Fredo. If he wanted that done, he should have done it himself rather than the task on to his personal assassin. Tony Soprano was "hands on" for much of the violence involving people close to him. The same for the mobsters in Goodfellas. Of course, using an assassin might be more realistic. And, I agree that when Michael is watching his daughter die on the steps of the opera house, his grief -- the scream you mention -- was there. And that scene was worthy of a tragic hero. But because I'm examining the character and the trilogy in the context of real-life organized crime, I need to weigh that scene against his appearance before a Congressional committee and the other episodes in the trilogy that are less mythic. I'm drawing on what has been written about the trilogy (and other gangster films) by both critics and scholars to avoid my own bias. The publisher wants a reference book that reviews the literature and looks at fact versus fiction.