How “The Sopranos” Foreshadowed the Death of Gangster Cinema

“The Sopranos” is the pinnacle achievement of the gangster genre – and on the horizon of potential successors, there are none in sight.


23 March 2024

Year 2007, psychiatric center in New Jersey. One of the patients at the facility is Corrado “Junior” Soprano, former boss of the DiMeo mafia family, now suffering from worsening dementia. Abandoned by his family and subordinates, Junior sits silently in the hospital garden, with a cat on his lap and a dead gaze fixed somewhere in the distance. This scene from the sixth season of The Sopranos visually references the final shot of The Godfather Part II, in which Michael Corleone, just after ordering the assassination of his own brother, contemplates his moral downfall in solitude. The situation of both characters is emphasized by the melancholic autumn scenery surrounding them. While in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, the mentioned scene constituted the tragic culmination of an almost Shakespearean drama, the sequence in David Chase’s series rather resembles the punchline of a cruel joke.

The scene with Junior is one of many moments in which The Sopranos engages in a dialogue with the classic gangster cinema. In telling the story of Tony Soprano and his mafia family, David Chase had to somehow fit into the long-standing genre tradition of organized crime films. However, as the above example shows, the gangster series from New Jersey approaches this convention from an exceptionally down-to-earth perspective. The Sopranos is both a continuation of the “gangster” cinematic tradition and its profound deconstruction, replacing genre excesses with a focused observation of the mundane everyday life of contemporary gangsters.

The characters in the series are aware of the legacy weighing upon them – both historical and pop-cultural. It’s no wonder that their quotes from The Godfather or Goodfellas abound. Tony Soprano and his associates would like to see themselves as the heroes on screen, but David Chase continually exposes the absurd comedy of their aspirations. The series is filled with more or less explicit allusions to gangster classics – from Scarface and Public Enemy No. 1 to the works of Martin Scorsese – yet they usually serve as sardonic commentary on the protagonists’ life situations. While Tony, with all his psychological complexity, remains a character with a Shakespearean spirit, his story lacks the mythologizing aura we remember from Coppola’s trilogy. Although the series contemplates the fleeting heritage and the vanity of life, they lack the poetic contemplation of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Finally, although The Sopranos continues the demythologizing direction taken in Goodfellas, Chase eschews depicting the deceptive glamour with which Martin Scorsese saturated his film.

The vision of the mafia world in The Sopranos is permeated with absurdity. The gangsters on screen are primarily a bunch of frustrated men, grappling with both “professional” dilemmas and (perhaps primarily) personal ones. The tension in Chase’s work arises from Tony Soprano’s dualistic nature, constantly maneuvering between two families: the role of a father and husband, and that of a mafia boss, aware of ubiquitous danger. Meanwhile, the surrounding gangsters, in their tendency towards banal cruelty, are alternately comic and repulsive. The characters populating the world created by Chase follow genre patterns, but at the same time, they escape stereotypes.

The series’ play with “gangster” tropes is perhaps most visible in its narrative structure. In short, the genre expectations of both viewers and characters constantly collide with mundane reality. On-screen violence often erupts without warning, and threads that in “classic” gangster cinema would lead to a dramatic resolution are quietly closed here, almost on the narrative margins. In Tony Soprano’s world, even a character portrayed as a significant player can end up shot by his fiancée during a domestic argument or die of a heart attack in a filthy bathroom. However, all this is a result of the specificity of the gangster profession – dangerous, conducive to paranoia, and ultimately leading nowhere.

Episodicity and narrative meandering replace the classic narrative structure in the series. Instead of the noble drama of its cinematic predecessors, The Sopranos offers an existential insight into the psyche of its characters. This dissonance between genre schematics and banal reality is perhaps best expressed by Tony’s nephew, Christopher. Enthralled by screen classics like Goodfellas, torn between dreams of becoming a screenwriter and ambitions to climb the ranks of the mafia hierarchy, the character begins to question the role he is supposed to fulfill in the narrative. At one point, the screen echoes with significant words: “Where’s my arc?”

Christopher’s character is yet another tool for genre deconstruction. Both he and Tony’s psychotherapist, Dr. Melfi, serve as quasi-“viewer surrogates” for Chase. It’s significant that actors known from Goodfellas were cast in these roles – Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco. Through Christopher, Chase shows how fascination with the gangster world clashes with brutal reality. The character tries to live up to expectations shaped on one hand by cinema and on the other by his idols, Tony and his deceased father. However, mafia advancement is associated with the breakdown of the psyche and disruption of private life, with crossing further moral boundaries. Therefore, Christopher from the final episodes of the series is merely a shadow of himself from the early seasons. Meanwhile, in the character of Dr. Melfi and her relationship with the unconventional patient, the viewer’s reaction to Tony Soprano’s actions is reflected – like the therapist, we are alternately fascinated and repulsed by the character. And yet, we can’t look away from him.

Although The Sopranos turned 25 this year, David Chase’s series remains the ultimate incarnation of gangster cinema; a work in which all previous and subsequent representations of this genre converge. Of course, we’ve seen successful cinematic attempts to return to mafia poetics in recent years, with Scorsese’s The Irishman leading the way, but Tony Soprano’s story remains unmatched. Moreover, even David Chase himself failed to match its success in The Many Saints of Newark – the cinematic prequel to the series, which turned out to be a mere shadow of the outstanding original. The Sopranos is thus the pinnacle achievement of the gangster genre – and on the horizon of potential successors, there are none in sight.



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