Packaged as a series, the History Channel’s The Mafia is more of a greatest hits collection offering 13 separate television documentaries dating back to 1993 that detail the rise of the mob in America. Seeing as how the episodes were never planned to work together, many of them reheat older episodes, like the way “Al Capone and the Machine Gun Massacre” – an episode that largely focuses on the development of the Tommy gun – covers ground already covered by the earlier “The Prohibition Years”. And “America and the Mob” on the fourth disc goes into the lives of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, both of which were given their own hour-long docs on Disc 3. The material here is culled from several series, like A&E’s American Justice and History’s Man Moment Machine. The result is well reported, but often repetitive.
Discs 1 and 2 carry the most continuity, with six pieces (including the “bonus” feature) taken from the 1993 American Justice series “Target: Mafia”. Things kick off with “The Prohibition Years”, detailing how the outlaw of booze opened up the door for organized crime and gave many underworld figures their start. The series follows organized crime through the 1980s, with stories like “The Kennedys and the Mob”, which details how the Kennedy fortune was built on Joseph Kennedy’s bootlegging business, made possible by his Chicago mob ties. The bonus feature, “Mob Hitmen”, is presented mostly from the point of view of Nicky “The Crow” Caramandi, a hitman for the Scarfo family in Philadelphia. It’s well researched and presented. This is the information you’re looking for.
Disc 3 is where things start to break up a bit, with four episodes dedicating an hour each to Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, the Genovese family, and Bugsy Siegel. There’s good detail here, but these are essentially the same beats we’ve heard before in relation to these figures – their backstories, their formative years, their greatest hits. They all merit inclusion, of course, but would all play better if the best stories about them felt less recycled.
Disc 4 has its strengths but feels the most like a b-sides collection. “Al Capone and the Machine Gun Massacre” examines the popularity of the Thompson submachine gun within mob circles. While it’s undeniably fascinating to learn that this gun was built for but never used by the troops fighting in WWI, the episode seems to suggest that if Capone hadn’t had the Tommy gun, he wouldn’t have been as big a player in the Chicago underworld. “America and the Mob: Wartime Friends” focuses on the burning of the Normandie cruiseliner in 1942, a great and under-reported story from the WWII era, but again, a digression instead of a major benchmark. It is fitting, though, to wrap things up with “The Gambinos: First Family of Crime”, a story that follows the Gambino crime family from 1916 until today.
The collection is a staggering resource of Mafia information, but it’s unfortunate the episodes can’t build on each other. Had there not been so much retread of the overall narrative, even more detail could have come out. As it is, there’s no time to step back and look at the bigger picture, which leaves the work here feeling disposable, if reliably mob-y.
The episodes are presented in 4:3 and the video is what you would expect from television production. The older episodes look very much the worse for wear, but there’s nothing distracting enough to ruin the experience. Audio is Dolby Digital stereo.
“Mob Hitmen” Documentary - Not really an extra so much as another episode of American Justice credited as a bonus feature. Still a pretty interesting piece, told mostly from the point of view of Nicky “The Crow” Caramandi, a hitman for the Scarfo family. He’s a welcome voice among all of these docs, someone who knows the whole world from the inside out. (50 min.)
Despite several instances of repetition, The Mafia DVD Set is about as comprehensive a collection of mob documentaries as you’re likely to find anywhere.
A&E Televsion Networks presents The Mafia DVD Set. Running time: 650min. Rating: NR. Released on DVD: July 28, 2009. Available at Amazon.com