Thursday, May 19, 2011

Partners in Crime

Tom Hanks took his interest in organizational life in new directions through a series of movies that looked at crime, punishment, and their relationship to each other

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

At the turn of the new century, Tom Hanks continued to deepen his inquiry into the nature and problems of institutional life with a set of films – The Green Mile (1999); Road to Perdition (2002); Catch Me if You Can (also 2002) and The Ladykillers (2004) – from a new angle: crime and punishment. Mile (based on a serialized Stephen King novel) and Catch Me (based on the memoirs of master criminal Frank Abignale) depict the surprisingly symbiotic bond between law enforcement officers and those they pursue and/or incarcerate as conjoined members of a larger criminal justice system. In the case of Mile, we have a community of cops and death-row convicts at a Louisiana prison in the 1930s. That community is hardly idyllic; the title of the film refers to the long path convicts take on their way to the execution chamber where they will be electrocuted. But there is nevertheless a measure of normalcy in the lives of these people and small acts of decency, notwithstanding the malice of two characters, one a cop (Doug Hutchison) and the other a murderer (Sam Rockwell) who disrupt the lives of all around them.  The compassion of corrections officer Paul Edgecombe (Hanks) finds its foil in the character of Coffey (Michael Duncan Clarke), the African American inmate who may or may not have been rightly condemned to death for the murder two little girls. An unusual case of a Hanks movie with supernatural content, Coffey cures Edgecomb of a painful urinary tract infection, brings a dead mouse, named Mr. Jingles, back to life, and goes on to cure the cancer of Melinda Moores (Patricia Clarkson), wife of warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell). For all its gothic qualities, The Green Mile is at heart a sentimental story, with what is by now a tiresome trope of benign black Americans conferring literal or figurative grace on white ones, one that can be viewed as racist in the way it insists on continuing to view black people as somehow essentially different. But it is nevertheless a useful snapshot of Hanks’s ongoing interest in participating in stories about institutions that do not define their identities solely on the basis of paid employees.
In the most obvious sense, Catch Me If You Can, which reunited Hanks with Steven Spielberg, is story about a child prodigy of fraud, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Hanks, who took second billing to his co-star, plays an FBI agent who repeatedly fails in pursuit of his quarry. But their relationship is not that simple. As the movie makes clear, DiCaprio’s dysfunctional behavior is patterned on that of his father (Christopher Walken), a figure he loves but whose failures as a husband and productive member of society become increasingly impossible to ignore. As we’re told, Hanks’s character is also a failure as a husband and father, deficiencies that are implicitly depicted as part of the man’s commitment to his career. Yet over time, Hanks becomes something of a father-figure to DiCaprio, his very commitment to his job a form of male role modeling that turns the movie into a quest for redemption and rehabilitation. It’s significant in this regard that the film is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s; although DiCaprio’s character is not really a hippie, his countercultural behavior is a form of permissiveness run amok that can only be corrected by a straitlaced man who belongs to a large and powerful establishment. As such, Catch Me If You Can becomes one more example of Hanks’s cultural conservatism that can be traced at least as far back as Forrest Gump.
For the second set of these movies, Road to Perdition and The Ladykillers, Hanks chooses the role robber rather than cop. These are two very different films; Perdition is a family drama set in the 1930s; Ladykillers, a remake of an old British Ealing studios movie of the 1950s, is a comedy directed by the Ethan and Joel Coen – a rare case of Hanks making a foray into the realm of independent filmmaking perfected by the Coens. But in terms of this discussion, both become cautionary fables about how personal weaknesses comprise the integrity of organizations.
In Perdition, Hanks plays the role of 1930s Chicago-area mob enforcer for the legendary Paul Newman, in his final movie role. Newman’s character regards Hanks’s, a family man with two sons, as family. The problem is that Newman has an actual son, played by Daniel Craig, who is a n’er do well. When Craig does Hanks irreparable harm and blood proves thicker than water, he finds himself on the run with the older son. They make their way to the Windy City, where Hanks’s character seeks the intervention of Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), the real-life lieutenant of Al Capone. But Nitti is unwilling to intervene on Hanks’s side in this family quarrel, leaving him to fend off the hitman (Jude Law) Nitti and Newman put on his trail. Hanks is desperate to avoid his son paying the price of his choices, and in this he succeeds. But there is nevertheless a price to be paid, less for crimes we never quite see this gangster commit (a way in which the film pulls its punches; Hanks is never fully credible as a gangster) than his casting his lot with an less than fully organized crime outfit that lacks the integrity to properly police its own members.
Hanks is a far sillier character in Ladykillers. He presents himself as a foppish Southern professor at the Mississippi home of an elderly black woman (Irma P. Hall), who has a room he asks to rent, along with requesting the right to use the basement for rehearsals of “recitals” of his musical ensemble. This ensemble is in fact a group of criminals who hope to tunnel their way into the nearby vault of a casino. The band of crooks encounters a series of complications, which includes their own ineptitude and internecine quarrels. But their biggest obstacle proves to be the old lady, who discovers their ruse and vows to tell the police unless they return the money and repent their sins. Perhaps not surprisingly, their response is a plan to kill her, which goes comically awry. In the end we see not only a set of people who fail because they lack sufficient camaraderie, but also an object lesson in the power of a woman who is securely grounded in her community and has the resources, institutional and otherwise, to respond to malfeasance.

Coming soon: Recent Hanks films