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A&E Home Video presents
The World History of Organized Crime (2001)

"If you were willing to do things, such as menace people with weapons, you could make a living."
- Mark Jacobson, journalist

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: May 10, 2002

Stars: Roger Mudd, Miguel Ferrer
Other Stars: Richard Martin, Giovanni Falcone, Louise Shelley, Alexander Stille, Leoluca Orlando, Howard Abadinsky, Pino Arlecchi, Umberto Santino, Giuseppe Cipriani, Felicia Impastato, Keith Prager, Stephen Handelman, Robert Levinson, James Finckenauer, Jeffrey Cohen, Edward De Robertis, Pablo Victoria, Rosso Jose Serrano, Joe Toft, Bruce Bagley, Pat Schmidt, Don Reno, Jim Goldman, Dian Murray, David Ownby, Pinki Virani, Shebha De, Hrithik Roshan, Rakesh Roshan, Parama Roy, William Sleeman
Director: Scott Alexander

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 03h:39m:01s
Release Date: January 29, 2002
UPC: 733961704006
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
C+ B-C-C C-

DVD Review

Poor Roger Mudd. CBS passed him over for Dan Rather decades ago, and he never seems to have recovered. He's giving it his best effort here, though, as he hosts these five hour-long documentaries produced for the History Channel and yoked together for this two-DVD set. (If I were a pedant, I would point out that the title on the case is not the same as the one on the feature, which is Organized Crime: A World History. But nobody likes a pedant.)

It's not really a world history, for one thing, but a week's worth of TV programming—it's a look at some elements of organized crime in five countries. And perhaps it's unfair (but it's also inevitable) to look at a venture like this from the post-September 11th perspective: how could a documentary purporting to be a definitive look at international illegal activity fail to make a single reference to al-Qaeda? (Osama bin Laden is mentioned once, briefly, when an Indian mob boss meets with him in Afghanistan, but blink and you'll miss it.)

The formula at work quickly becomes clear. Each installment begins with a recent appalling bit of violence perpetrated by organized crime, and interviews the authorities responsible for the apprehension of the guilty parties. You start to get the feeling that it's easier for the producers to follow the blueprint and have each episode conform, instead of addressing each set of circumstances on its own terms—if it was done that way, where would the commercial breaks go? Divvying up the duties into chapters like this also misses the opportunity to draw obvious connections between the various criminal organizations, or to reflect more profoundly on just what it is in human nature that inevitably gives rise to organized vice. What becomes clear is that an organized crime syndicate of even limited sophistication has its tentacles in many countries, and doesn't respect national borders in the way that the producers of this documentary series seem to. In fact, each episode has a figure that seems to follow the same archetype: the illiterate, vicious, violent social climber, eager to get ahead and willing to use any means and kill anybody. This is a familiar figure from the movies, ranging from Paul Muni in Scarface to Al Pacino in Scarface. But the lack of sociological or psychological content in the series limits the possibilities and the depth of the portrayals.

DISC ONE

Sicily

"The Mafia has no goal other than to enrich itself, and get power."
—Richard Martin, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney

It comes as no shock to any self-respecting gangster movie fan that the first installment in this series is about Sicily, about the old world in which "blood and honor meant everything." The narrative begins with the 1992 mob assassinations of two crusading prosecutors—first Giovanni Falcone, then his successor and childhood friend, Paolo Borsallino—whose status as folk heroes for daring to take on the cosa nostra led to their martyrdom. (Alexander Stille is especially good on these circumstances; his fine book on the subject, Excellent Cadavers, was the basis of an HBO movie of the same name.) There is a trove of fun facts here—for instance, at one point the crime rate in Sicily was ten times higher than in the rest of Italy. The narrative goes back for a sketchy retelling of the origins of Sicilian organized crime, and the seriousness of omertà, the blood oath of silence taken by made men. And the men of respect were listened to in their time: "When he says the marriage must take place, there will either be a marriage, or a funeral."

The U.S. Army comes off particularly badly—Mussolini and the mob were fierce antagonists, and after World War II, looking for anti-Fascists, the Allies blithely appointed well-known Mafiosi to top government posts. Things come undone, of course, most colorfully in a mass trial of 450 or so Mafia defendants in the 1990s—the specially built courtroom was ringed in the back by dozens of prison cells, each of them filled with dozens of mobsters, baying at the proceedings like packs of rabid animals.

Russia

"We do not have borders. That's the way I understand the business."
—Ludwig Feinberg, Russian Mafioso

A handful of names are given for Russian organized crime—the Red Mafia, for instance—but my favorite is unquestionably Redfellas. And they're a charming bunch, as you might imagine—one FBI agent says that "the Russian mafia is the most fearsome, most treacherous, most violent of all the organized crime groups." In other words, these boys know how to have fun.

The roots of Russian organized crime go back to the days under the Czar, and up through today—that is, they were there before the Communists came to power, and survive long after the Party is over. They even managed to get the best of Lenin on occasion—he was robbed by a bunch of highwaymen after seizing power—but Stalin was having none of this. As he did with so many others, Stalin rounded up as many Mafiosi as he could and shipped them off to the gulag; some of them even got suckered into serving in Stalin's army during World War II, thinking it might be the way to freedom. But right back to prison they went, where they were dubbed "the bitches." Maybe this is juvenile, but the name makes for some unintentionally hilarious, overly somber narration: "Ostracized, the bitches created their own society." And there's a whole lot about the prison Bitch Wars, 1945-53.

The dysfunctional Soviet economy and the corruption of the Communists made the Brezhnev regime a field day for the Redfellas, and in the post-Communist world, the Red mob poster boy is Ludwig Feinberg, who flourishes as much in Brooklyn's Little Odessa as he does back in the old country. The episode ends with an astonishingly vast bootlegging scheme—American distilleries press cheap, strong grain alcohol, which is then dyed blue and shipped to Russia as windshield wiper fluid, avoiding high tariffs. The blue dye is then removed, and the ratgut is passed off as vodka to unsuspecting Russian consumers. Bottoms up!

DISC TWO

Colombia

"I think there are very few people in the history of the world that were able to accomplish what Pablo Escobar did in terms of intimidating a country, basically controlling a country."
—Joe Toft, DEA, ret.

This is less an overview of organized crime in Colombia, and more the rise and fall of one man: drug lord Pablo Escobar. His operation could serve as a sort of satanic B-school model of vertical integration, from the fields producing coca plants right up to the crack for sale at your local street corner. (Depending on your neighborhood, I suppose.) Escobar fancied himself a sort of Robin Hood, and even got himself elected to the Colombian Congress, but he was some vicious piece of work—not only would he routinely kill reporters who wrote things that didn't sit well with him, he would preface the hit by sending the reporter an invitation to his own funeral. The Medellìn cartel was formed in the 1970s, and came to supply 80% of the world's cocaine; before long, there were ten murders a day in that city as a matter of course. Escobar died Butch and Sundance style, in a shootout with the authorities, and the episode pays brief lip service to Colombian organized crime after his death; but this installment particularly is plagued with repetitions and the lack of much historical perspective.

China

"The gangsters didn't buy off the police. They were the police."
—Frederick Wakeman, historian

Thousands of years of Chinese history must be full of tales of organized criminality, but this episode is almost more about immigration than it is about crime. Desperate, poor Chinese are stowed away in shipping crates by illegal alien smugglers, known as snakeheads. One low-wage job in the U.S. can support an entire Chinese village: "Even the worst conditions here are better than the best conditions there." These stories are heartbreaking, but given the mission of this documentary series, the fact that there aren't organized crime bosses on hand is a little disappointing.

The episode gallops through the millennia, stopping off to discuss the Heaven and Earth Association, which became known in the West as the Triads, the group to which the contemporary Chinese mafia can trace its roots. Much of the history is vague: organized crime may or may not have started in Fujian province, and the founders may or may not have been a group of Shaolin monks, who may or may not have invented kung fu. There's also a good amount of attention paid to the city of Shanghai, which in its day was the den of iniquity: "Every vice was catered to, and that is no exaggeration."

As with the Russian installment, the latter portion of the action takes place in the U.S.—specifically, in New York's Chinatown, featuring Nicky Louie, an especially hardened Chinese mobster who became a role model for a generation, sort of an Asian John Gotti.

India

"Crime is completely institutionalized all over the country, especially in Bombay, where it's very, very hard to differentiate as to who's the criminal, who is the police, and who really is the politician."
—Pinki Virani, journalist

Hooray for Bollywood—the bulk of attention here goes to the links between organized crime and the Indian film industry, in which gangsters demonstrate a level of control that would make Bugsy Siegel's mouth water. The refusal of India's socialist government to grant the film business "official industry status" meant that producers and studios couldn't get lines of credit, or financing from banks; so instead they turned to the mob, who made them an offer they couldn't refuse. Extortion of stars and producers seems to be a matter of course—there's an interview with Rakesh Roshan, a producer and director whose son is his leading man; he was attacked by amateur-hour gunmen, demanding a piece of the action. The brazenness is something—can you imagine Tony Soprano or his henchmen taking a shot at Russell Crowe?

Assassins roamed the Indian wilds as far back as the 14th century, and their ancient hits are re-enacted—strangulation was their method of choice. A good amount of time is lavished on Sir William Sleeman, 19th-century Englishman, who, as part of the exercise of Empire, set about eradicating the thugs roaming the wilderness—depending on one's perspective, Sleeman was either cleaning up a messy business, or using the cloak of law to get rid of Indians who were making themselves problematic for Her Majesty's government.

Finally there's D. Sivanandan, the Bombay police commissioner, who is compared to Elliot Ness. But again, it's hard to determine if he's making the streets safe once more, in a Giuliani-like crusade, or if he and his subordinates are simply shooting first and asking questions later—in a short period of time, they kill 85 "alleged criminals." Alleged by whom? By their killers, that's who. You gotta problem with that?

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: B-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Picture quality is workmanlike, though the DVD transfer seems to have been a little careless. Colors tend to be uneven, and the resolution is frequently poor; much of the new interview footage has been lit sloppily, and the unintentional glare is often a distraction.

Image Transfer Grade: C-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The stereo track is sufficient, but the dynamics are a little buggy—it seems as if narrator Miguel Ferrer was viciously overmiked, or the bass was jacked up in the mix, because even at a moderate volume, his voice here can rock the furniture in your house.

Audio Transfer Grade: C

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Packaging: 2 disc slip case
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Timelines for each segment
Extras Review: Each episode has six chapter stops, which seem pegged to breaks for television commercials. There's also a timeline for each of the five nations under discussion, a two- or three-screen recap of the principal events described in the documentaries. Nothing especially new on hand here.

Extras Grade: C-

 

Final Comments

These episodes are fine on their own, but the title of the series overpromises, and the shows don't deliver the goods. They are useful first looks at some organized crime syndicates in five nations, but that doesn't constitute a world history. The shows themselves are modestly entertaining, but this series is pretty old fashioned in its manner and never really ignites, despite the literally explosive material it has to work with.

 


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