Friday, July 10, 2009

On DVD: "The Mafia DVD Set"

What is it that fascinates us so about the Mafia? The personalities and business of organized crime have inspired some of our finest films (The Godfather, GoodFellas, Little Caesar, Public Enemy, Donnie Brasco, both versions of Scarface, The Departed, White Heat, Point Blank, Miller’s Crossing, The Untouchables) and arguably the greatest TV drama of all time (The Sopranos), to say nothing of a cottage industry of true-crime books and documentary films. But why are we so drawn to their stories? Why, so often, do we find ourselves rooting for what are, by all accounts, common criminals? Often, it’s about the background—since so many of those who rise to power in crime families come from the streets, clawing and scratching and working their way to the top, theirs are frequently the classic “American success stories.” There’s also something admirable about their old-world values and codes of honor and silence—even though those codes are seemingly broken as often as they are upheld (if they weren’t, we wouldn’t know a thing about these guys).

Whatever the case may be, we can’t get enough of gangsters in culture—on television, in books, in film, in music. To that end, A&E Home Video has collected over ten hours of related programming from their own network and their sister History Channel for The Mafia DVD Set. Spread out over four discs, the set includes the entire five-part American Justice series “Target: Mafia,” in addition to several stand-alone biography and crime programs.

“Target: Mafia” takes up the first two discs of the set; this 1993 show, hosted by Bill Kurtis, presents a fairly comprehensive history of the Mafia in America. Part one, The Prohibition Years, goes back to the turn of the century, tracing the roots of the organization to the immigration and urbanization of east coast cities, and showing how the tremendous opportunities for illicit income provided by the 18th Amendment helped transform these petty criminals into organized businessmen. We also witness “the beginning of the rise of the Italian Mafia” and the ascent of Al Capone. Much time is spent on Capone in part two, Birth of the American Mafia, and on Capone’s Chicago (which boasted an unbelievable 10,000 speakeasies), as well as the rise of the Young Turks and Murder, Inc. The links between gangsters and show business figures are also explored (with the help of some terrific vintage footage).

Joseph Kennedy is mentioned in the early episodes as one of the many who profited from the business of bootlegging, and that background comes into fuller focus in part three, The Kennedys and the Mob. This intriguing show investigates how Joe’s mob ties may have helped get JFK elected, and how organized crime figures were then irritated by John and Bobby’s aggressive investigation of them once he was in office. The show also discusses the alleged Mob plot to help wipe out Castro, the shady dealings of Carlos Marcello, and theories about possible Mafia involvement in the Kennedy assassination (particularly in relation to Oswald and Ruby’s Mob ties).

Disc two begins with part three, Unions and the Mob, delving into 1930s labor racketeering and the by-the-numbers business of intimidation. The episode includes an exhaustively detailed account of Murder, Inc.’s takeover of the New York docks, the Mob takeover of the stagehands’ union, and the shocking story of the Ford Motor Company’s union-busting hatchet man Harry Bennett. Empire of Crime focuses on Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel, and how they transformed the Cosa Nostra’s income source from bootlegging to gambling (first in Sarasota Springs, then in Cuba, and finally in Vegas). It also tells the peculiar story of the fire on the Normandie and how that led to “Operation: Underworld,” the odd collaboration between the Mob and the U.S. government during World War II.

Overall, “Target: Mafia” lives up to the expected A&E/History Channel level of quality: it utilizes a treasure trove of terrific newsreel footage, still photos, radio recordings, and movie clips, while using a reliable assortment of interviews from authors, historians, law enforcement, and more. The music is monotonous and the series is a little dry in spots, while the Kennedy episode feels somewhat shoe-horned into the proceedings (it doesn’t flow in and out of the other episodes). But it is undeniably fascinating.

The trouble with The Mafia DVD Set is one shared with A&E’s The 60s Megaset--namely, they’ve thrown together several disparate programs, with little regard to repetition. If it were just the first two discs (the “Target: Mafia” series) it’d be fine, but the second pair of discs feature a number of programs that recycle the same information, stills, footage, and sometimes even the same interviewees. Disc three includes three biographical shows ( “Lucky Luciano: Chairman of the Mob,” “Meyer Lansky: Mob Tycoon,” and “Bugsy Siegel”), but all three men are covered generously in the Empire of Crime episode of “Target: Mafia”, to say nothing of the disc’s fourth special, “Genovese: Portrait of a Crime Family,” a Biography episode focusing on “the Ivy League of crime families,” of which the three men were members. However, this show does go into greater depth, particularly regarding the fate of the family after the Luciano era, including the stories of Frank Costello and Vito “The Oddfather” Gigante (who avoided persecution by claiming to be, and acting, mentally ill). But even this episode tells many of the same stories as the earlier show and the biographical hours, which themselves share a great deal of information (if I had to hear one more time about the formation of Murder, Inc. or about the connection of Lansky’s mentor to the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, I’d have screamed).

Much of the Capone material returns in “Al Capone and the Machine Gun Massacre,” a 2006 episode of the History Channel show Man Moment Machine detailing the 1929 “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” that brought Capone great power and notoriety. This is a newer, slicker show than the others in the set, and while the sharp editing and fast pace are welcome, it also includes some unfortunately cheeseball recreations—complete with bad dialogue (“I need you to take care of it, Al.” “Consider it done, boss.”) delivered in shaky Chicago accents. The format of this show is also a bit of a buzz-kill, dwelling particularly on the intricacies of the gun and including a silly demonstration of its power in the hands of the show’s smug host. Next up is the 2002 special “America and the Mob: Wartime Friends,” which delves into the strange story told in Empire of Crime, though this show has more of a military-history slant (which keeps it from seeming like too much of a retread).

Aside from “Target: Mafia,” the best doc of the set is probably “The Gambinos: First Family of Crime,” a longer look (it runs 90 minutes, compared to the 45-50 minutes of the other shows) at the kingpins of a later era. The show focuses on the famed New York family through the stories of its three primary bosses: Carlo Gambino, the soft-spoken but ruthless don responsible for the famous barber-shop hit on rival Albert Anastasia; his brother-in-law and successor, Paul Castellano, whose ineffectual and disastrous tenure led to unrest in the ranks; and John Gotti, the ambitious “Teflon Don” who put out the contract on Castellano to ensure his rise to power. This ambitious documentary utilizes a wealth of FBI surveillance videos, photos, and tapes, as well as testimonials from numerous reporters, attorneys, friends, and cops. Riveting and well-assembled, “The Gambinos” helps The Mafia DVD Set go out with a bang.

Viewers like me, who love documentaries and are fascinated by gangsters, will eat The Mafia DVD Set up with a spoon; in spite of the unfortunate recycling of material from one disconnected special to the other, there’s still a wealth of good stuff here. More casual viewers, however, will probably just want to fuggedaboutit.

"The Mafia DVD Set" hits DVD on Tuesday, July 28th.

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