I have to admit that I have always been a big fan of gangster movies. Surely you have caught one of these classics on late night television. This genre was particularly popular in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. The black and white stories were all written following a basic formula.
Young gangster decides to overthrow the old ruthless crime boss. Along the way he meets a beautiful platinum blonde dame who tries to talk him out of his plan. The mobster then ends up in a shootout with the rival gang followed by a blazing car chase with the police a little later on in the movie. Eventually the would-be overlord of crime gets caught and he is sent to the big house, where he is placed in solitary confinement!
These movies always have a profound effect on me. I start to walk with a little bit of a shuffle. I find myself speaking with a New Jersey wise-guy accent that James Cagney would be proud of. The desire to go out and purchase a white fedora overtakes me. If I knew what a Tommy Gun really was, I would be looking to get one on E-Bay. The worst cinematic side effect of all is that it takes every ounce of my self-restraint to keep from calling my wife “doll face!”
These film epics tend to end in the very same way. We get an overhead wide-angle panning shot of the gangster standing in court. His head is lowered as the stoic judge sentences him to life at the penitentiary, with a stipulation that it be spent in solitary confinement. The thug mutters, “I’ll get you for this! I’ll get all of you, see?” He is then ceremoniously dragged out of the courtroom by two clean-cut, no-neck policemen. Dissolve to black and run the credits.
There always seems to be a letdown as the television screen cuts over to a full color commercial. Life in black and white, even if just in movie form, just seems to have a nostalgic comfort to it. As I crawl off the couch and head to the refrigerator for a late-night snack, my mind is typically reeling. I always wonder what ever happened to the gangster after he got sent up the river. What was it like having to spend the rest of your mortal time in solitary confinement?
Picture a small room, maybe eight feet by eight feet square. The floor is cold concrete and the stained walls were once painted in stark white. Overhead there is a bare dim lightbulb hanging off a frayed cord. There is a tiny window up high on the wall; just large enough to let shards of light come through the steel bars. However, the window is positioned just high enough to prevent you from looking outside. In the corner is a small sink and a steel commode. Your meals are passed to you through a small slot in the cold metal door on the other side of the room. This is now your entire existence, for the rest of your years!
I have to wonder how a convict would keep from going insane in this kind of setting. With no external stimulus, surrounded by the same four walls day after day; how would anybody pass away the endless hours. With nothing new occurring in the present, and with no hope for the future; the only stimulus would have to come from memories.
Walking the path of your own memories can often be quite treacherous. The good becomes intertwined with the bad, all of it playing out in a surrealistic soft focus. One moment you are gently embraced by a fond past episode and the next you are jolted into a painful moment replete with tears! Eventually you snap out of the past, comforted by the fact that tomorrow you will be able to create a new volume of memories.
But what about our typecast gangster sitting in solitary confinement? He will never have the opportunity to forge new memories. He is stuck in a present that offers no stimuli and a future that is simply a repetition of yesterday. Do you pity him or envy him? Yes, he can no longer create happy memories; but then again, he will never suffer the pain of sad memories either!
All of us will eventually be sentenced to solitary confinement. There will come a time when we are left with nothing but our memories. Will yours drive you to joy or misery? Will you take pride in your past or find yourself in a state of regret? It is not too late to change things before they pronounce your sentence. Your happy tomorrows rest in the deeds you perform today! See you at the black and white car chase; fedora and all.