Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, heroin kingpin
Harlem, Spring 1970
Film: American Gangster
Release Date: November 2, 2007
Director: Ridley Scott
Costume Designer: Janty Yates
Tailor: Leonard Logsdail
Frank Lucas was a gangster and heroin kingpin that amassed millions of dollars during the Vietnam War importing pure heroin in the caskets of deceased servicemen.
We did it, all right… Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier’s coffin? Ha ha ha… We had him make up 28 copies of the government coffins… except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up with six, maybe eight kilos… It had to be snug. You couldn’t have shit sliding around. Ike was very smart, because he made sure we used heavy guys’ coffins. He didn’t put them in no skinny guy’s [coffins]…
With the help of Ike Anderson, a soldier known as “Sergeant Smack” to the DEA, Frank became one of the richest criminals in American history. Although his claims of making a million dollars each day was later found to be an exaggeration, he had nearly $600,000 cash in his home at the time of his 1975 arrest, and he owned property across the country, from apartments in New York, L.A., and Miami to offices in Detroit and a giant cattle ranch in North Carolina in addition to his grand home in Teaneck, NJ, which he shared with his Puerto Rican beauty queen wife.
Although he was at the top of his game for nearly seven years, Lucas’s story was relatively unknown until Ridley Scott directed American Gangster in 2007, starring Denzel Washington as Frank and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the special investigator who brought him down.
What’d He Wear?
After importing his family up from North Carolina, Frank takes them on a tour of his territory. He dresses to look good, wearing a light sandrift brown suit that balances the line between businessman and gangster. Frank further states the importance of this after his cousin Huey does the exact opposite:
That’s a clown suit. That’s a costume, with a big sign on it that says “Arrest me”. You understand? You’re too loud, you’re making too much noise. Listen to me, the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.
The suit jacket is single-breasted with straight peak lapels and a 2-button front, which Frank typically wears properly with just the top button fastened. The hip pockets are flapped and the breast pocket gently slopes inward with a brown silk display handkerchief poking out to match his tie.
The jacket has a generous fit, allowing Frank to move freely and easily conceal a handgun underneath. It has natural sloping shoulders, a darted front, and a long single rear vent.
Frank’s suit trousers are flat front and are worn beltless, exposing the extended waistband when he opens his jacket. Not much else of the trouser waist is seen, so it’s not clear if there are adjustable side tabs or if the pants were just tailored to fit. Like the suit, they have a large fit down to the plain-hemmed bottoms, which have a full break over his shoes.
Frank wears a pair of brown medallion toe balmorals with dark brown socks. I believe this is the first appearance on this blog of the medallion toe, an ornate style of plain toe shoes with perforations and a stitched design on the toecap. They can be a very busy-looking shoe and can be too casual for some suits, but Frank’s choice fits with his persona as an understated – but still proudly conspicuous – gangster.
Some might say that Frank isn’t conspicuous and tries not to look like a gangster. This is true in some scenes, but in this particular scene, he shoots a man in the head in broad daylight in full view of dozens of witnesses. Let’s call him conspicuous here.
His shirt continues the earth tone theme of the suit; it is pale yellow with a point collar just large enough for 1970. The shirt also has a breast pocket and white buttons down the front placket. Through the French cuffs, Frank wears a pair of plain gold rectangular links.
Frank’s tie is dark brown woven silk and is wide enough to be fashionable during the decade without reaching the extreme width of a disco tie or a kipper tie.
Frank wears the same gold watch throughout the film, with a white square face on a gold case attached to a gold bracelet.
Go Big or Go Home
Although he has remained relatively restrained up through this point in the story, Frank is approaching a crossroad. He’s been making plenty of money through his Golden Triangle heroin connection and has earned enough to move his family up from their impoverished state in North Carolina, placing them in a countryside manor. Now, his brothers and cousins are joining him in the new “family business”. However, he’s been facing some competition from
Stringer Bell Tango and needs to settle it.
After giving his family the “look how great I’ve been doing and here’s some naked women who work for me” tour, he takes his brothers out to a local diner. Naturally, he’s a king in his territory now and they’re seeing it. Frank spots Tango, the last opposition to his totality, across the street. Without a second thought, Frank gets up from the diner and his family watches as he finally takes total control with a single gunshot.
There are nicer ways of showing your family how successful and powerful you are. Maybe instead of killing a guy on the street, you can send flowers to your mum every week.
If you need some background music, American Gangster anachronistically chooses The Staple Singers’ 1972 feel-good funk hit “I’ll Take You There”. The song is incredibly popular, showing up in films from Casino to Children of a Lesser God and was ranked #276 when Rolling Stone determined the 500 greatest songs of all time in 2004. I believe the first time I heard it was in the late ’90s during a Chevy ad. It’s been covered at least ten times since its release, but the original is the one you want to hear.
How to Get the Look
Frank looks more like a successful businessman than a ruthless kingpin as he walks the streets of Harlem, but the suit has enough character that he would stand out just enough to peg him as a sharp guy who knows what he’s doing.
- Light sandrift brown suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted jacket with peak lapels, 2-button front, 4-button cuffs, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, natural shoulders, and single rear vent
- Flat front trousers with extended beltless waistband and full breaking plain-hemmed bottoms
- Pale yellow shirt with large point collar, white buttons down front placket, breast pocket, and double/French cuffs
- Dark brown woven silk tie
- Gold rectangular cuff links
- Brown medallion toe balmorals
- Dark brown socks
- Gold wristwatch with a white square face
- Brown silk display handkerchief, folded into points in the jacket breast pocket
The gun that Frank uses to dispatch
Stringer Bell Tango is a Fegyver és Gépgyár PJK-9HP. In case you have no idea what I just said, Frank carries a Hungarian version of the popular Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol. Fegyver és Gépgyár – or FÉG to be refreshingly short – is a Hungarian firm that supplied weapons for its military and police during the Cold War.
The particular FÉG pistol, serial #F19049, used in American Gangster by Frank Lucas was a chrome-plated PJK-9HP with wooden grips, converted with a “solid plug” for blank fire for the safety of the actors. The barrel was blocked to allow it to be fired close to Idris Elba’s head without any sort of Brandon Lee-type accidents.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. began importing FÉGs and they naturally started showing up in film and TV productions. The first major appearance of a FÉG in an American production was the use of the FÉG PA-63, a Makarov clone, in the 1988 film Red Heat with Arnie and Jim Belushi. The designers at FÉG weren’t very original guys, so most of their weaponry is a clone of something else. The PJK-9HP is a clone of the Browning Hi-Power, the Belgian-produced and Browning-designed “big 9” that was one of the first mass-produced handguns to carry a large-capacity magazine, with 13 rounds of 9×19 mm Parabellum.
The original Browning Hi-Power was introduced in 1935 and quickly gained a reputation for reliability and badassery, especially once it became famous as “Serpico’s gun”, so it’s only natural that FÉG would pick up on it and design their own. The Hi-Power (and the FÉG) weighs 2.2 pounds with a total length of 7.8 inches and a barrel length of 4.7. Like the M1911, a similar-looking pistol to the uninformed, it has a recoil-operated single-action system.
According to IMFDB:
There was only one FÉG pistol rented for the production, so the same gun can be seen on screen in every shot. It can be matched by the wood grain of the grips and small scratches on the frame.
The weapon can be found at the NRA Museum site with a brief description detailing its use in the film. According to Legends of the Screen, where the above image was found, it was recently sold for £4,349.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
See, you are what you are in this world. That’s either one of two things: Either you’re somebody, or you ain’t nobody.
I own a Browning Hi-Power, and it really is a terrific pistol.