Violence in the Movies

Jim Shepard explores the evolution of film violence and audiences’ developing reactions over time.

Violence in the Movies
Operatic gathering of tension and the drumbeat of a solemn march build, in the murder itself: young Vito Coreleone (Robert DeNiro) Killing the Don. And the fireworks explode. Photo: Courtesy of Paramout Pictures

Movies keep giving us more motion, more mayhem—which is exactly what we want. But what price that desire? Early on in David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” released in 2005, two very bad men who’ve embarked upon the kind of off-handed sociopathic murderous rampage that’s become humdrum in our movies make the mistake of terrorizing the coworkers of the movie’s hero, Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen. Displaying talents unexpected for a short-order cook but utterly expected for an action movie hero, Mortensen smashes one assailant in the face with a coffee pot, shoots the other in the chest, and then, before the first can recover, shoots him in the back of the head. We’re then allowed a visceral glimpse of the malefactor on the floor with his lower jaw shot away. The sound accompanying that image is particularly arresting: He’s choking on his own blood.

Critics celebrated that moment—as well as a lot of the squint-eyed soul-searching on the protagonist’s part that followed it—as evidence that Cronenberg’s movie was up to something a little more complicated: not just exploiting its audience’s capacity for violence, but rubbing our noses in it. By the time we get to William Hurt’s cartoonishly over the top and highly engaging turn as the movie’s villainous Mr. Big, though, we know that that’s mostly not the case. For a while, Mortensen has been preoccupied by his family’s upset at the revelation of his secret past as brutal killer, but by that point, the bad guys are showing up at such a rate that he pretty much has to go into Jackie Chan/Chuck Norris/Steven Seagal mode. Which we enjoy watching. William Hurt, endlessly deploying more cannon fodder in Mortensen’s direction, is amusing until he’s dead, and he’s killed in an amusing way. We come out of the theater having been given what we want. Though Cronenberg does provide, in the smaller touches, a sense of the perversity of extreme violence, we haven’t really been made to pay for our complicity in this mayhem. We haven’t been made to think as much as we’ve been allowed to think that we were thinking. We’ve been able to indulge in all of this violence while comforting ourselves that what we’ve really witnessed is a statement against violence. (Consider how many supposed “anti-war” movies operate that same way.)

A Brief History of Violence

Have you ever wondered what an audience in 1930 would have made of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”? Or even what an audience in 1960 would have made of Quentin Tarentino’s “Pulp Fiction”? (Film history reminds us that some audience members fainted and had to be carried from the theater during the premiere of 1931’s “Frankenstein,”as well as the groundbreaking “Psycho” 29 years later.) Film’s form has been changing—not just in terms of its avant-garde, but also in terms of what’s been accepted as mainstream—and American society has been changing along with it. Those changes can probably be generalized in at least two ways: first, as a greater and greater capacity for movement, in both kinetic and dramatic/thematic terms; and second, for better and for worse, as a greater capacity for unpleasantness, for brutality on-screen.

In terms of that first change, consider that we’ve not only come a long way from the proscenium staging and fixed camera of early silent films; we’re now also used to greater and greater elision in terms of how we construct for ourselves a film’s narrative, as well as greater and greater economy, in terms of what we find necessary to work through the progression of ideas bound up in that narrative. The good news is that that change has made us more savvy about more complicated forms. (Think of how structurally baroque a film like Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” would have seemed to an audience from 1960. And consider that “Chicago” in 2002 was so mainstream that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.) The bad news is that changes like that have made us, at the very least, more impatient. Steven Spielberg was quoted a few years ago as saying that he didn’t think “Jaws” would be nearly as big a hit today as it was in 1975, because an audience today wouldn’t be willing to wait so long to see the shark. As Spielberg put it, “We have an audience now that isn’t patient with us. They’ve been taught, by people like me, to be impatient with people like me.”

That’s what it’s come to: We’ve become an audience too impatient for “Jaws.” Which brings us to that second way I’d generalize a change. Remember when what constituted horrifying violence on-screen was Richard Widmark pushing wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in “Kiss of Death”… and our mostly only hearing her fall?

Violence and sadism have always, of course, been a staple in American film, but in a peculiarly repressed, Hays Office kind of way. The two most violent moments in 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” for example, involve metaphor: Jimmy Cagney smushing a half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face—and inference: Cagney tottering in the doorway at the end, body trussed and face marked here and there to only suggest what might have been done to him before his death.

The revolutionary changing of the guard that was about to occur in the 1970s, occasioning a renaissance in American filmmaking, was prefigured in the ’60s by a more and more explicit recourse to violence. New kinds of stories were still a little too revolutionary. But violence… well, violence the old studio heads certainly still understood. And movies such as John Boorman’s “Point Blank” and Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” in 1969, kept upping the ante. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, two of the directors who contributed perhaps the most to that renaissance in filmmaking, took full advantage. Their first hits—Coppola’s “The Godfather” and Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”—were both inconceivable without that new explicitness, when it came to violence. And both directors have since become known for the adroitness and the frequency with which they use violence, from Coppola’s Wagnerian and ravishing helicopter assault in “Apocalypse Now” to Scorsese’s expressionistic vision of the ferocity of boxing in “Raging Bull.”

But Coppola—(who, when he’s on, has displayed a much surer sense of what a mass audience desires)—has been better at delivering bitter-coated sugar pills than his younger Italian colleague. And bitter-coated sugar pills may be exactly what the Serious Hollywood Mega-hit is dedicated to delivering.

Vito and Tommy

In “The Godfather II,” we watch young Vito Corleone, only a few years off the boat, learn the ways of America: His friends can’t do business without kicking a taste back to the local gangster. This seems to Vito, perusing his hungry wife and children, unfair. He resolves to do something about it. And we watch him, during Little Italy’s San Gennaro festival, stalk the gangster en route to his first murder. The sequence crosscuts between three little narratives that are, we understand, about to converge: Don Fanucci, the gangster, making his way along the festival; the icon of the Virgin Mary being carried through the streets; and Vito, tracking Fanucci, making his way along the rooftops.

One of the most characteristic aspects of the “Godfather” movies is the controlled organization of their violence. In all three, there’s an operatic gathering of tension that’s generated by a lot of systematic crosscutting, often between at least three locations. In this case, as we cut between these three mini-narratives, we notice the music of the pageant swelling in volume and portentousness: the music building toward that violence we’re expecting, in other words. The crosscutting between the three mini-narratives is repeated five full times before Don Fanucci and Vito finally make their way inside Fanucci’s building, and the music stops. Then, as we hear the prayers of the priest before the icon, we crosscut between the priest, Don Fanucci climbing the stairs, and Vito waiting for him. This, too, goes on for longer than we expect. The effect is to make us want what’s about to happen. The excessive crosscutting, in other words, not only generates suspense; it also overprepares us for the violence, and by seeming to extend the delay, it makes the violence itself all the more cinematically satisfying.

The culmination of the violence may not always be quite what we expect-—in this case, for example, Vito shoots the Don in the cheek; the Don remains standing, at first, and it turns out that the towel that Vito has used as a silencer has caught fire; but the actual onset of violence is carefully anticipated. And to that end, Coppola never stops using sound to reinforce our pleasure, and to surreptitiously mitigate our unease about Vito’s action: The festival music, when he’s on the roof, becomes his theme music, the music of the intrepid adventurer. After that music stops, as Don Fanucci climbs closer and closer to where Vito’s waiting, we hear the band’s drums start up, alone, in an anticipatory march. In terms of the sound cueing us as to how to feel: Once the Don is dead, the music resumes and there’s fireworks and celebrating. Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Then we cut to Vito, back on his family’s stoop, having completed his killing. And a sensitive folk guitarist, apparently dropped in from the future, plays for him the movie’s theme: the famous “Godfather” theme. This becomes the background music for Vito’s announcement that he loves his little baby boy very much. This murder we realize—partially because of the sound cues—has been about family values.

Compare that to what’s probably the most famous scene from Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” the scene that almost certainly won Joe Pesci his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor: the “You think I’m funny?” scene in the nightclub, in which Pesci, as Tommy, a probably psychotic hit man, entertains the boys with colorful stories of beatings he’s endured, before switching gears and bringing them all up short, especially the protagonist, Ray Liotta as Henry Hill.

Pesci’s performance, while superb, is enhanced in all sorts of cinematic ways to maximize the revelation of his out-of-nowhere lethality. The composition is focused around him, so that he’s the central performer, the one who’ll decide what kind of story this is going to be. But Scorsese is also careful to keep the other actors visibly arrayed around him, which allows us to see their reactions, and their reactions are what tell us that things have changed. The silence that falls as Tommy starts his questioning also alters everything for us, in a visceral way. It’s not just their silence: We register that the background noise has dropped away, as well. We no longer have that cushion of ambient noise that we’re used to, and we feel the difference without realizing it. Horror films often use sound the same way.

Pesci, meanwhile, at such a moment seems to understand the expressive importance of contrast: He usually plays Tommy as all gesture and sound effect, so when he stops, the result is startling. We’ve already figured out by this point in the movie that these guys are all about noise. And when they stop being all about noise, we notice. And get worried. What’s most startling to us, though, is that Tommy’s friends don’t know whether he’s about to turn lethal. Which brings us back to where we began, on the nature of the violence in these two worlds. There’s a reason that Coppola’s “Godfather” and “Godfather II” are so beloved. Despite the amount of convincing violence that they deploy, almost all of the design in each movie is to reassure: the violence, when it happens, will be surgically directed, and carefully planned.

We notice how much more tonally unstable—and therefore, apparently uncontrollable—the violence seems in Scorsese’s movie. Sometimes it’s comic, sometimes it’s frightening, and sometimes it’s both. We’re often not sure which category we’re confronting. Just as Henry, the protagonist, isn’t. Throughout the movie, like him, we find ourselves in the presence of horsing around that may not be horsing around. Horsing around that can, on a dime, always turn less or more serious. The distinctions between play and violence are blurred, because that’s what these guys do routinely, in order to live with themselves. As Henry puts it, in voice-over narration, “Guys got whacked, no big deal.”

But “GoodFellas” continually demonstrates the consequences of those kinds of blurred distinctions: a guy getting a bottle to the face is funny, nothing to worry about. Shooting the foot of a kid who was too slow to bring you drinks is nothing to worry about. Killing that kid, when he shows some resentment over being shot in the foot, is nothing to worry about. Robert De Niro’s character, Jimmy Conway, says at that point, after having egged Tommy on to get some kind of revenge for being insulted, “I was only kidding around with you.” But Tommy answers that he couldn’t tell. And neither could we. At one point, before he stomps someone else to death, Tommy says about the guy’s joking, “I don’t know, Billy. Sometimes it doesn’t sound like you’re kiddin’.”

Their horsing around also encourages us, despite what we already know, to repeatedly underestimate what these guys are capable of, so that we’re continually shocked to see how violent they can be. Which makes for a much more unsettling film. Because it makes the transitions back to normality, for them and for us, not that easy to pull off. Poor Henry, at one point, has to go from watching Tommy stomp someone to death to spaghetti dinner with Tommy’s mom. At which point Tommy’s ability to make that transition so easily (“We’ll go get a shovel at my mother’s. Ma, can I borrow this knife?”) comes across to us as it should: not so much coolly professional as dysfunctional.

In “GoodFellas,” violence may not happen when we think it will, and it can happen whenever we relax. That’s part of what’s so memorably disconcerting about the “You think I’m funny?” scene: We’re with Henry; Henry’s our surrogate; we thought we were safe. We thought this show was for us. We hadn’t expected it could turn on us. We hadn’t expected this spectacle to have danger in it. We like to know when we’re safe and when we’re not—the way we did in the sequence from “The Godfather Part II,” and “GoodFellas” refuses us that comfort. At one point, Henry shouts after waking to find his wife holding a gun to his head: “In my own house, I gotta worry about this?”

The design of “GoodFellas,” in other words, is to make you live with the gangster’s inability to draw moral distinctions. There’s a wonderful moment when Henry narrates what he believes to be the iron-clad, unshakeable principle of their world. He tells us: “If you got out of line, you got whacked.” And then he adds, “Sometimes if you didn’t get out of line, you got whacked.” Oh.

“GoodFellas,” then, is littered with the corpses of guys who thought they were in a movie called “The Godfather” but wised up a little too late. And Scorsese knows that we’re like them: We were enjoying this ride with Henry, and then pretty soon we were ready to get off. But by then we were in a little deeper and associated with people more unpleasant than we realized. And the design of “GoodFellas” is to make us pay for that complicity and enjoyment.

This is not to suggest that Coppola stands for the selling out of one’s principles, and Scorsese for a clear-eyed independence of spirit. All Hollywood movies are in the business of delivering pleasure, finally. Which means that those movies will always be letting us off the hook, in some ways, for what we desire. The best ones, though, will allow us to glimpse ourselves, even momentarily, with clarity. And in doing so, will leave us shaken by what we’ve seen.

—Jim Shepard is the author of Project X and Love and Hydrogen. He teaches writing, literature, and film at Williams College.

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