Gangster movies are back in style. ''Once Upon a Time in America'' and ''The Pope of Greenwich Village'' have arrived soon after Brian De Palma's updated remake of ''Scarface.'' Next will come ''The Cotton Club,'' by Francis Coppola.
What's behind this wave of mobster melodramas? I think producers are still lured to the genre by the lingering glamour of the ''Godfather'' movies, which were enormously popular despite their inflated treatment of basically conventional material. And some directors find the gangster format useful for exploring social and personal issues.
In the current American Film magazine, editor Peter Biskind restates a widely held theory about such movies: that gangsters represent all of us, ''playing out our ambivalent love-hate relationship with the American Dream of success.'' But he perceptively notes that ''Scarface'' takes a new turn, making the bad guy so evil we must hate him thoroughly. The film thus reflects a current American tendency to see the world as a big struggle between good and evil, friends and enemies, us and them - a tendency that leads easily to racism and xenophobia.
It remains to be seen whether future gangster films will share this attitude, or return to more conventional outlooks. One current exercise in cops and robbers, ''One Upon a Time in America,'' is closer to the ''Godfather'' pictures than to either the new ''Scarface'' or the old Hollywood classics. The film, set in New York between 1921 and the late '60s, groups its antiheroes into a surrogate family - venal and crooked, yet sort of heroic as they blast and con their way through a society that's at least as corrupt as they are.
In the hands of director Sergio Leone, the granddaddy of the Italian-made ''spaghetti westerns,'' this might have made for a complex and resonant drama. The subject is as sweeping, the characters as archetypal, as those in his most respected pictures, ''The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'' and the operatic ''Once Upon a Time in the West.''
Yet his first nonwestern is murky and unsatisfying. Probably much of the blame should fall on its American distributors, who chopped its running time by nearly 90 minutes, to about 21/4 hours. In any case, few scenes show much evidence of Leone's special touch, a blend of bold stylization and brutal naturalism. The film as a whole lurches from one segment to the next, with little logic or poetry to its development. The shattering violence and lurid sex jump into harsh relief, given the weakness of their context.
Even in these sad circumstances, though, good things happen. Robert De Niro gives a nicely restrained performance as a hood with failed dreams, especially in his old-man scenes near the end. James Woods has something of his usual intensity as the leader of the mob. Joe Pesci and Burt Young are vivid in brief supporting roles, and Elizabeth McGovern brings some poignancy to her appearance as a local waif who makes the big time.
Still, this ambitious epic - in the form seen by American audiences, at least - is just a shadow of what we might have expected from a director as audacious and original as Leone at his best. (The full-length version will have its United States premiere at the New York Film Festival this fall, and may move to commercial engagements if it is well received.)
''The Pope of Greenwich Village'' is a more modest and less interesting failure. The main characters are a couple of small-time hoods who pull off an ill-chosen burglary and find themselves in trouble with the mob.
Their relationship has family overtones: They stick together like brothers, even when there's good reason to split up or despise one another. But the screenplay cares more about ethnic conflicts within the New York crime scene. Just as ''Once Upon a Time'' deals specifically with Jewish characters, ''Greenwich Village'' deals with Irish and Italian cops and robbers, who are at one another's throats for reasons of nationality as well as greed and sheer nastiness. Since this situation is exploited rather than explored, though, it adds up to very little. Ditto for the strained outbursts of violence, torture, and anguish that punctuate the action.
Indeed, the only energy in the picture comes from its performers. Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts make a strong team, with Roberts almost ready to inherit the intensity crown that's currently worn by James Woods. There is also good supporting work by Burt Young and Geraldine Page, among others.
However, it's too bad director Stuart Rosenberg didn't film Rourke and Roberts more cleverly. He follows an old movie convention by showing them in separate shots at first, then grouping them together on screen near the end. This is a good strategy when you want to show the increasing closeness of two characters, but it's all wrong in this movie, where the characters are meant to be very close from the start. In the early scenes you yearn to see these inventive actors work intimately with each other - and the editing gives you just the opposite, isolating them and deadening their momentum. A pity.