Grown men don’t wade into swimming pools, wearing dressing-gowns, chasing ducks. Well, not unless they’re psychologically disturbed mob bosses searching for meaning in a dangerous world. HBO’s award-winning The Sopranos is a Masterclass in virtuoso performance, with only a hint at the outset of the drama to come. From the opening titles and the mesmeric theme tune, we’re hooked. Who can this gentle soul be? Cigar in one hand, wading slowly through the water, clearly enchanted by the migratory pattern of these cute, feathered creatures that have landed in his pool. As we find out soon enough, there’s more to Tony Soprano than feeding ducks.
The Mafia came to America around the turn of the last century, via the immigation centre at Ellis Island. Hailing, predominantly, from the back streets of Italy, and (crucial to its adopted hierarchy) the outlying towns and villages of Sicily, the early pioneers carved out a niche for themselves in the greatest free market in the known world. Names like Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia and Al Capone soon became by-words for criminal ingenuity, a new breed of businessman perfectly capable of adapting themselves to an unfamiliar culture, and more than willing to exploit its weaknesses.
Why the continuing obsession with these hoodlums, men you really wouldn’t want chasing you for outstanding payments on the loan you took out to get through Christmas? Most of us lead quiet, law-abiding lives with an in-built fear of consequences. Parking tickets and speeding fines are the extent of our misdemeanours. But the appeal of series like The Sopranos indicates a subconscious desire to break out of conventional roles and do something, well … appalling now and again.
The on-screen prominance of Organised Crime can be charted pre and post Godfather. Long before Director Francis Ford Coppola cast Al Pacino in the iconic role of Michael Corleone, we had James Cagney and Edward G Robinson playing grim-faced button men destined for Sing Sing and the electric chair. Audiences loved the desperation, the glamour and the machine-gun bullets. Enter Marlon Brando and the familia Corleone and the seduction was complete.
The mob don’t advertise for employees. They may well benefit from a pro-active marketing campaign, but, for obvious reasons, they don’t need the exposure. Imagine the queues forming outside Jimmy’s Clubhouse in downtown Manhatten. ‘Come join the gang – we don’t pay taxes! or ‘Having problems with that noisy neighbour? Our community liaison officer can help.‘ But first the delicate matter of your lineage. If you can’t trace your ancestors back to the Old Country, the deals off!
The origins of crime go way back. Biblical parables tell of murderous sons and vengeful fathers, breaking covenants and dividing loyalties to further their own cause. The Mafia, with its sinister, family oriented base, purports to be honourable and paternal, offering security and income to its members. The opening scene in The Godfather reveals the extent of Don Corleone’s largesse, as he grants extravagant favours to grateful underlings at his daughter’s wedding. We get the picture. The austere and benevolent face of real power, presiding ultimately over life and death.
All men are flawed. Even mob bosses. Al Capone was sent down for tax evasion. John Gotti was imprisoned on similar charges after a flamboyant term of office in the Gambino Crime Family. The point is, for those of us less inclined to buck the system, the law always wins – sooner or later. To be a criminal is to make your own laws, to follow a code that appears reprehensive to the majority of people. And yet, somewhere in the human psyche is the identification with and celebration of the underworld. The power. The glamour. The exhileration of settling disputes with a loaded gun.
The Sopranos works in a way that no other mafia screenplay before it did. Intercut with scenes of brutality and murder, are glimpses of warmth and humanity, the bonds of friendship and love of family. Tony Soprano is a soul in torment. He has panic attacks, sees a psychotherapist, and yearns for a mother’s love denied in childhood. His path through life is strewn with the kind of obstacles that would make a lesser man crumble. And yet, his resilience is equal to diversity, his integrity matched by the courage of his convictions.
Like it or not, we all belong to the chaotic, sprawling human family that covers this globe. We might not share the same language, but we understand rage, grief and discontent, just as we recognise love, happiness and release from fear. Screen archetypes like Tony Soprano play out the melodrama of our own lives, impacting on our consciousness with great profundity. We know the struggle. We feel the tension, the conspiracy, the injustice.
And so to the protagonist, the colossus … Tony Soprano. Perhaps the old adage applies. Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. Or, swum the odd length in his swimming pool.