This film is closely linked to the Godfather, and in some ways its unsuccessful, ridiculous, younger brother. The novel by Jimmy Breslin followed Mario Puzo's 1969 "the Godfather" novel by nine months. It made it to the best seller list, although nowhere as successful as "the Godfather" which lasted 67 weeks on the list compared to 27 weeks for "Gang." It followed "The Godfather" to the screen in 1972, opening four months later, but it flopped, while "the Godfather" was the biggest grossing movie of 1972.
Ironically, Al Pacino had been cast in the lead supporting part of Mario when he won the part of the Michael Corleone in "Godfather". Pacino went for the "Godfather" role and was replaced by little known actor "Robert Deniro" who had flopped his first audition for the Godfather. After "Gang" Deniro won critical acclaim for "Mean Streets" and "Bang the Drum Slowly," and ended up in "Godfather Part 2".
While "the Godfather" glamorized organized crime as good family men doing whatever was necessary to rise in the capitalist world, "Gang" made fun of the same world, showing it as filled with violent imbeciles. It invites us to laugh at the same kind of exploits that "the Godfather" made so thrilling.
While the acting is uniformly fine, two performances stood out. Jerry Ohrbach is simply hilarious as the Kid Sally (based on historical gangster figure Joey Gallo) the punk gang leader looking to rise and take over. Jo Van Fleet, who was fabulous in "East of Eden" and "Cool Hand Luke" in small parts also is hysterical as Kid Sally's brutal mother "Big Momma". Instead of wanting to protect her children from violence, she demands that they torture and kill for the family's honor.
Leigh Taylor Young as Ohrbach's Mafia Princess sister, gives a rather thoughtful and subtle performance, which is surprising considering how outrageous she was in "Alice B. Toklas". Lionel Stander gives a broad performance as Godfather "Baccata" that is as funny as Brando's was dramatic.
Robert Deniro plays Mario, a bicycle rider from Italy who steals and pretends to be a priest in order to stay in America. It is a quirky, naturalist performance.
A lot of the humor is slapstick and some of the humor is so New York, 1960's specific that not many people alive today will get it. For example, the police hold off a raid until a news channel can get its news truck there. The joke is that the channel turns out to be WABC, channel 7, which for many years in the 60's had the lowest rated television news show in New York and the lowest budget. Later, it adopted an "Eyewitness News" format and became number one in N.Y. news shows.
There's a lion roaming around which really sets the flavor for the movie and tells us what the movie really is: a 1970's screwball comedy just like "Bringing Up, Baby," or "What's Up, Doc," but one inside a realistic Gangster World.
In the Godfather, there is an outsider character, Michael Corleone, who allows the audience as outsiders to discover the Gangster World. Unfortunately, there is no parallel character to introduce us to this world. The real life news reporter, Sandor Van Oker kinds of plays that part, but as a television reporter, the audience doesn't identify with him at all. Because, we are just thrust into the middle of these mad characters without any reason for being there, the film has a major problem. There is really nobody for the audience to identify and root for. Even Robert Deniro's Mario who is not a part of "the family" is too crazy and bizarre, for us to identify with. The way to get into the film, I think, is to imagine yourself as the writer Jimmy Breslin. You have just seen "the Godfather" glamorizing and making heroic a bunch of vicious stupid jerks and punks that you have known all your life. You are going to tell the truth about them.
Once you approach the film this way, I think you will enjoy it. Although crazy, this is probably a more truthful picture of Italian Gangster culture than anything Francis Coppola gave us in all three swings.
Note, the screenplay was written by Waldo Salt. He wrote this after "Midnight Cowboy" and before writing "Serpico". The three films form an amazing trilogy of life in New York in the late 1960's.