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'Loyalty and Betrayal': An Inside Look at the Mafia

July 25, 1994|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel and "The Godfather" pretty much encompass your mythical idea of mob lore, you will be sharply awakened by the gripping candor of former capos and underbosses who talk about their life in organized crime on the four-hour documentary "Loyalty and Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob."

It's a racy but ultimately smart plunge by the Fox network, which has little history making long-form documentaries. These mob chronicles, ranging from the extortion of push-cart vendors on Manhattan's Lower East Side early in the century through labor racketeering in the Depression to the drug wars of the '80s and '90s, are hard to resist.

Archival photos, early newsreels, mob home movies, recent video footage (notably a grinning John Gotti) are sandwiched around the production's real strength and the reason to watch this show: the number of remarkable interviews with ex-Mafiosi recorded after they "flipped" and talked about the mob--essentially, according to the show, destroying it.

"The mob's Golden Age is history," reports narrator Ron Silver in what might strike some mob watchers as slightly premature. But the broadcast does give ample evidence that "organized crime in America will never be the same."

Be forewarned: The material is lurid and grisly. Dominick Montiglio, former Gambino family member whose testimony put his uncle Nino away forever, routinely describes a mob hit, complete with disembowlment, severed head and the cadaver hanging upside down from a shower head.

Buoyant period music and flashes of old Hollywood gangster movies lightly counter the blood and mayhem. But that is all the better to set you up for the serious point: that merely being a gang doesn't constitute organized crime.

What makes crime organized, we hear, "is contacts with legislators and politicians"--suave Frank Costello, for example, "the most politically powerful gangster in America."

Director/editor Gary Weimberg and writers Nicholas Pileggi, Bill Couturie and Robert Malloy create the sense of slime creeping through every avenue of 20th Century America. They also include material about the mob's thrust into Hollywood and how crime bosses shook down the studios in the mid-'30s and early '40s, muscling the very studios that were glorifying them on the screen.

* "Loyalty and Betrayal: The Story of the American Mob" airs tonight and Tuesday at 8 on Fox (Channels 11 and 6).

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