SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL Jews are not thugz, an assumption only affirmed when they commit crimes of financial-sector greed (Bernie Madoff). Jews involved in violent Godfather-style mayhem? That flies so against cultural-cliché winds as to seem inherently ridiculous.
Yet Jewish gangs battled Irish and Italian ones for turn-of-the-19th-century Manhattan turf. During Prohibition, they became more businesslike, expanded reach, and powered hitman outfit Murder Incorporated, even brokering syndicate cooperation between hitherto rivalrous “yids and dagos.”
Needless to say, such activities embarrassed mainstream Jews, providing ammo to anti-Semites. But movies seldom portrayed that reality. Hollywood has traditionally been reluctant to embrace the J-word or identity, despite Jewish artists and entrepreneurs’ huge industry contributions from earliest days. The same studio heads who imitated upper-crust goyim lifestyles and Anglicized Jewish stars’ backgrounds were disinclined to let their rare screen representations encompass machine guns and shakedowns.
Curated by former programming director Nancy Fishman, “Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film” reprises a few times that policy of polite cinematic omission was lifted. Two features showcased are familiar: Howard Hawks’ original 1932 Scarface is included because it “would have had a Jewish subtext” for audiences familiar with star Paul Muni’s Yiddish theater work. Barry Levinson’s 1991 Bugsy has dithery Warren Beatty as pioneering Vegas mobster Siegel, in a soft-focus biopic with swank but little danger.
Two more, however, are seldom-revived B flicks providing pulpy fun. Pre-Fugitive TV star David Janssen plays a real-life gambler-bootlegger in 1961’s King of the Roaring 20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein. His Rothstein grows up poor and rebellious (dad blames “a dybbuk in him”) alongside BFF Johnny (Mickey Rooney), whom he eventually betrays because winners don’t drag losers up the success ladder. There’s a steep fall for both.
Lepke (1975) has Tony Curtis in one of his edgier roles as Louis Bechalter, sole U.S. mob boss to be executed. A union racketeer turned mob assassin, he gets married in a formal “Heeb wedding,” as Italian-American gangster pals put it. There’s also a scene placing bizarre emphasis on bagels. Uninspired but entertaining Lepke was a relatively prestigious endeavor from Israeli director Menahem Golan, later the ledger-shuffling Cannon Group tycoon responsible for such marvels as 1984’s Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. This series asks if Jewish gangster films are “good for the Jews.” Was Golan? Dunno, but he’s been great for cinematic camp.