…when “what are you, a wise guy?” was a phrase of serious confrontation and admonition. As in “what are you, a smart ass?” Or “you wanna start somethin’, asshole?” But that was a while back. Decades.
There’s a moment in 1948’s Key Largo when Harry Lewis‘s “Toots” Bass conveys that he’s angry at Thomas Gomez‘s “Curly” Hoff when he eyeballs him and mutters “wise guy.” There’s a moment in On The Waterfront when one of the big apes who work for Johnny Friendly, Tony Galento‘s “Truck” or Tami Mauriello‘s “Tillio”, delivers the old “what are you, a wise guy?” to Pat Henning‘s “Kayo” Dugan. When I interviewed Charles Durning in the early ’80s he casually mentioned the “glint of madness” in the eyes of wise guys he knew when he was young. And in 10th or 11th grade I was called a “wise guy” by a seriously angry gym teacher who was around my father’s age.
The lore of Nick Pileggi aside, the term is extinct now. It belonged to the gangsters of the ’30s and ’40s, and the tribal street bulls of the ’50s and ’60s.