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The Mob Boss Is Scarier

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"No one's gonna tell you nuthin'. They're wise to your act. You got rules. The Joker, he's got no rules. Nobody's gonna cross him for you."
Sal Maroni explains this trope to Batman, The Dark Knight

Everyone has watched enough crime dramas to know that one of the easiest ways to bring down a Big Bad gangster is to catch one of his mooks doing something illegal and threaten the mook with a ton of jail time for it. After spending some time thinking about what it would be like to spend 20 years or so in jail, the mook breaks down and tells the cops what they want to know. The cops arrest the mook's boss, the mook testifies, and everything ends happily ever after.

Sometimes, though, things don't go so smoothly. Sometimes the boss is so fearsome that the prospect of the boss looking to get revenge on the mook (or their family) means the mook will gladly take anything the law can throw at them rather than that. Bonus points if the Big Bad is either a Torture Technician or keeps one around just for this purpose.

Naturally, this can also apply to the general public, although in this case, it may be a more general fear and unwillingness to get involved that is the motivation. Tends to be particularly common in poor countries where the criminals may have more control than the government.

This is often the result of the Big Bad using Outscare the Enemy and I Control My Minions Through... (Fear). It's particularly likely to happen if the villain is The Dreaded or the crime organization in question happens to be Ruthless Foreign Gangsters.

A common variation has police threaten to make it look like the perp is cooperating with them so that they'll be targeted anyway, and their only hope is to take their chances with the police. Other times, the police may just resort to being really fucking scary in their own right.


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Clone Wars Adventures: In "Life Below," the leader of a Separatist spy ring commits suicide rather than surrender to Quinlan Vos and risk the wealth of Darth Sidious.
  • Iron Fist (1975): Chaka Khan makes a stab at becoming the crime lord of New York, and is so terrifying Iron Fist finds people running away from him rather than try to help. Danny has to undermine his powerbase before going after the man himself.
  • In the Lucky Luke book "Billy the Kid", everyone is too scared of him to testify when he's arrested.
  • Common in Diabolik, with mooks and even ordinary citizens being often too scared by mob bosses to testify against them. To Ginko, the only thing more frustrating than this when dealing with them is their tendency to piss off Diabolik, resulting in the worst criminal of Clerville either killing them or giving Ginko the evidence he needs.

    Fan Fiction 
  • Mass Effect: Human Revolution: Whoever Shepard's killer is working for, Harkin thinks their wrath would be worse than anything C-SEC could do. Considering double-crossing the Alliance Black Ops could result in a bioroid ripping his head off, himself being replaced by one, or both, it's very justified.
  • Megami no Hanabira: The Flock, despite being cornered, outnumbered and outgunned against Mai and her friends, fight like absolute animals out of fear of what Phillips would do to them if they didn't. Sara attempts to talk them down, and for a moment it seems to get through to them, but then an ominous rumble of thunder in the distance intimidates them so badly they begin attacking. Then Phillips zaps them all to death when they lose anyway.

  • Alpha Dog: Frankie is very reluctant to carry out Johnny's order to murder Zack, but Elvis convinces him they have no choice, saying that if they disobey him, they are risking retaliation from Sonny Truelove, Johnny's father and supplier. Ironically, Sonny is completely against the idea and intervenes to try to stop it, not least because Johnny and his gang are already on the police's radar as prime suspects.
  • Marty Peters in The Harvey Girls has a reputation as a difficult customer. He shot the previous blacksmith after his horse threw a shoe. Chris has just been made the new blacksmith.
    Alma: It's all based on circumstantial evidence.
    Chris: No witnesses?!
    Alma: Well, no one actually saw the bullet leave the gun.
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy:
    • Sal Maroni spells this trope out for Batman in The Dark Knight. Everyone, from ordinary citizens to hardened criminals, is more afraid of the Joker than of Batman. No one is going to give Batman information on the Joker, because everyone knows that doing so would invite utterly horrific reprisals, things that are far worse than what Batman would do. What makes this even more notable is that The Joker isn't even a mob boss. In fact, the mob thinks that he's working for them, but they are still too terrified of him to give him up. Although eventually this trope is subverted when the Joker creates so much havoc and chaos that Maroni does give the police information to try to help them catch him.
    • This also pops up in The Dark Knight Rises. Selina Kyle is arrested by Blake, and he wants to know what she knows about Bane, who Selina just saw break Bruce's spine. He offers her protection in exchange for information, but Selina just gives him a look of "Really?" that tells him it'd do no good. This turns out to have been entirely justified on her part, as shortly afterward Bane is able to completely outmaneuver and neutralize the police, and then seize control of the city.
  • Taken to the extreme in Marked for Death. One mook is so sure that his boss can't be taken down and so scared of him that he jumps out a window to his death when cornered by John Hatcher rather than act as The Stool Pigeon. It's brought up even earlier in the movie, when Screwface asks his mooks "Who do you fear more, him or me?" Their wordless reaction makes the answer perfectly clear.
  • A Bronx Tale has the Innocent Bystander version. When the protagonist Calogero witnesses the neighborhood Mafia boss kill a man right in front of him at age 8, he doesn't tell the police anything both because of the street ethic of his neighborhood and out of fear. Later, at confession, he refuses to even tell the priest any details. When the priest encourages him not to be afraid because no one is more powerful than God, Calogero responds by saying "Your guy may be bigger than my guy up there, but my guy is bigger than your guy down here." The priest reluctantly concedes the point and gives up asking.
  • The first Once Upon a Time in China movie also used the Innocent Bystander version. When Wong Fei-Hung beats the crap out of a powerful gangster and some of his men, all the people around applaud and cheer for him. Fei-Hung then says that he's going to turn the gangster in and asks for someone to testify in court. Everyone in the crowd that had gathered around promptly leaves.
  • Notably averted (or possibly inverted) a few times in Payback. Several people tell main character Porter (an Anti-Hero who verges on being a Villain Protagonist) that the Outfit will kill them if they talk to Porter. Porter's response is always the same: "What do you think I'm going to do to you? Worry about me." note 
  • Idiocracy: Rita constantly lives in fear of being found by her pimp Ugrayedd, despite the fact that she spent 500 years in cryostatis, and he would've been dead by now. In the post-credits scene, Upgrayyed actually was in suspended animation, and gets out to search for her.
  • Early in The World Is Not Enough, a character fears Renard so much that she commits suicide rather than be arrested.
    Bond: We can protect you!
    Her: Not from him!
  • In Timecop, one of the Big Bad's accomplices refuses to talk to the Time Police, because the worst they'll do to him is execute him as he is now, while the Big Bad can and will have him and his whole family Ret-Gone if he talks.
  • The Turning Point (1952): Neil Eichelberger, the leader of the local criminal syndicate, has no qualms about intimidating or murdering anyone who would testify against him.
  • This seems to be the case in The Usual Suspects when Kujan brings up Keyser Söze and Verbal reacts with stark terror. Subverted at the end when it's revealed that Verbal is Keyser Söze.
  • Vitals: Organ Theft ringleader Kaliyah posits that he poses far more of a threat than the police force, and that calling the police will only cause the deaths of multiple officers.
  • A Walk Among the Tombstones. One character does talk, but then kills himself immediately afterward, for fear of the punishment he'd face.
  • John Wick: Subverted. Viggo seems like the scariest guy around, and his son Iosef lords his position over everyone else. But after Iosef steals John's car and takes it to Aurelio's shop to get new plates, papers, etc., Aurelio recognizes the car, freaks out, and punches Iosef in the face before telling him to get the car out of there. Iosef threatens to tell Viggo about this, but when Viggo calls Aurelio to ask why, Aurelio simply says, "He stole John Wick's car and killed his dog." Viggo immediately understands, drops the subject, and goes to berate Iosef for his stupidity.
  • In Star Wars, this was The Empire's plan to control the entire galaxy after having dissolved the senate, by using the Death Star and its threat of delivering an Earth-Shattering Kaboom to any planet fool enough to stand against them. It backfired immensely as when they destroyed Alderaan it wholesale pissed off the entire galaxy and prompted tons of people (even including a number of imperials) to join the rebellion. Then the Death Star was destroyed and, with the threat gone, the rebellion ballooned into an out and out galactic civil war.

  • Where the Shadows Have Gone from Harda Horda anthology plays it for laughs. Noah is a necromancer, who takes a job to deal with a particularly weird and dangerous occurences in a haunted manor house. Not only he never seen anything like the ghost dance ball going perpetually in the manor, but he also knows that the previous necromancer sent to deal with it bailed on the job and returned the money, not wanting to touch it. Still, Noah has a debt to a Loan Shark with a reputation far exceding an unknown, wholly new supernatural phenomenon.
  • In MYTH Inc. in Action, Guido needs to ensure that the shipments he's sending out from a warehouse arrive but are either wrong or late. (It Makes Sense in Context.) To get slower deliveries, he decides to hire some teamsters, despite his limited budget. When negotiating with them he threatens to arrange an audit, and they laugh at him. Until he mentions it won't be Royal Inspectors doing the auditing, but Don Bruce.
  • Slow Life in Another World (I Wish!): Ward boss Darwin puts the fear of God into entitled fop Dardarill by his mere presence, putting an abrupt end to his feud with Itsuki. He proves to have a sense of honor, settling up with him and Reinrich for the damage his underling did to the Alchemist Guild by buying Itsuki a nice house in the town, but it's strongly implied that he executed Dardarill for his misbehavior.
  • In The Hate U Give, ordinary people are hesitant to "snitch" about anything that the King Lords do. Finally, people are willing to speak up to the police after the leader of the King Lords tries to burn down Mav's store with his kids inside it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This is a recurring problem for the cops on The Wire and with good reason, as many characters who decide to become witnesses end up dead. This is particularly evident in season 2. Bird Hilton, a Barksdale enforcer who is on trial for shooting a witness who testified against D'Angelo Barksdale. The only way to ensure Bird's conviction is for the prosecution to have Omar Little, a criminal with a grudge against the Barksdale group after a group of their members (including Bird and Wee-Bey Brice) tortured and killed his lover Brandon, give an obviously false testimony because all the actual eyewitnesses are unwilling to testify and risk being killed for it.
  • H/JACK: The Big Bads of the series are Edgar Janssen and John Bailey-Brown, two internationally feared crime lords who are in charge of the Cheapside Firm, an organized crime syndicate based in London that runs throughout Europe, and the group behind the flight KA-29 hijacking. However, Edgar definitely seems to be the more dreaded of the two, as he victimizes numerous families of people throughout their local community to get them to work in his schemes, whom he then kills afterwards anyway, due to being witnesses. His ruthlessness even scares the hijackers, most notably Terry, as he experienced first-hand what it's like to do a job for them.
  • The Mentalist: One Victim of the Week is the son of a mob boss who is dying of cancer. The boss is on record as planning to kill the person responsible. Cho goes to investigate a possible suspect, who got beaten by the son's goons over a bar dispute. The suspect loudly says that the victim was a great man and he had no problems with him. Then he quietly tells Cho to come back after the old man dies & he might have a different story to tell.
  • Police Procedural shows like Law & Order and NYPD Blue utilize this trope a lot when dealing with organized crime. Russian mobsters are portrayed as being especially intimidating, with a willingness to wipe out employees, witnesses, and families of same.
    • In the Law & Order episode "Old Friends," Stone gets a recalcitrant witness (who was nothing more than secretary who overheard key conversations) afraid of this very thing to testify by threatening to publicly announce her cooperation, then place her in a cell with a known female Russian Mafia assassin. The secretary testifies and makes Stone's case, but then is killed by an anonymous Russian hitman. Overcome with remorse, Stone resigns.
  • One episode of Psych was only resolved in a crowd scene where the bystanders were shamed/encouraged to come forward and start testifying about the behaviors of the gang in their midst. It was a Christmas Special.
  • An epsiode of CSI had a hitman refuse a deal to name the man who hired him in exchange for not facing the death penalty, figuring he'd live longer on death row.
  • In Justified, a corrupt FBI agent working for mob boss Nicky Augustine chooses to kill himself rather than be arrested because he believes that merely being arrested will cause Nicky to have the agent's family killed. Nicky later threatens Raylan's family in order to get Raylan to give up a federal witness. Raylan believes him and knows that if he arrests Nicky, Nicky will make good on the threat. Instead, Raylan gets a rival mob boss to kill Nicky.
  • In season 3 of Dexter, the police catch on to the identity of a killer when a witness who had previously begged not to be deported away from his family does a complete turnaround at the mention of the man's name. They eventually secure his cooperation by tricking him into thinking that the killer is targeting him anyway.
  • An episode of Castle has the former prison mate of a suspected serial killer wary of cooperating for fear of reprisals that the man can secure through his prison connections (which seem justified when he gets beaten in the yard). It turns out that the prisoner is the serial killer, and manipulated the suspect and the police in order to get himself out of prison.
  • In the first episode of Lexx, an admiral in service to His Divine Shadow orders his ship to follow the Lexx into a Fractal Core as per His Shadow's orders. When his subordinate warns him that doing so would likely kill them all, he replies that since he's never gone through a Fractal Core before, he does not know that with certainty. On the other hand, the admiral does know with certainty the fate of those who disobey His Shadow's direct orders. So into the Fractal Core they go.
  • Wiseguy. Johnny Coke Bottles is arrested by FBI agent Frank McPike, but jumps out the window rather than testify against Rick Pinzolo. The FBI makes the best of a bad situation by pretending that undercover cop Vinnie Terranova murdered Johnny to prevent him from talking, thereby increasing his Villain Cred with Pinzolo.
  • Zig-zagged in Elementary with Moriarty. After being arrested, Sebastian Moran provides occasional assistance to Sherlock in search for his mysterious employer. However, in a later episode, Moriarty tricks Sherlock into delivering a coded message to Moran, threatening Moran's sister if Moran doesn't kill himself. Moran goes back to his cell and smashes his head at the mirror repeatedly until he passes out. He gets a brain hemorrhage and is not expected to wake up. In this case, Moran wasn't afraid for himself, figuring he was tough enough to handle anyone Moriarty might send after him, but he did not expect the mastermind to find out he had loved ones.
  • Arrow. Laurel Lance actually manages to flip this trope around. An arrested gangster initially refuses to give the cops any information on his boss for exactly this reason, so Laurel threatens to charge him with the murder of another gangster who worked for a different mob boss. The charge will never hold up in court, but it doesn't have to: the prison he's being sent to is filled with members of the murdered gangster's gang; they'll kill him long before his case gets to trial. He's soon telling Laurel everything she wants to know.
  • Zig-zagged in Daredevil (2015). Matt Murdock subdues John Healy, a low-level hitman that he and Foggy just defended for murdering a gangster with a bowling ball, and gets the man to reveal that he works for Wilson Fisk. Immediately upon saying this, Healy is terrified of what Fisk will do when he finds out that Healy gave up his name that he immediately commits suicide by impaling his head on a fence spike.
    John Healy: You think this is still about you? I gave up his name. You don't do that, not to him. He'll find me and make an example, and then he'll find everyone I've ever cared about and do the same to them, so that no one ever does what I just did. You should have just killed me, you coward.
  • New Tricks:
    • Exploited to get rid of a Dirty Cop working for a mob boss. Knowing that the guy would never be prosecuted, Jerry instead frames him for double-crossing the mob boss and warns him to get out of town while he can. The Dirty Cop is too slow to leave and gets killed by the mob boss.
    • In another episode, Jack lies about the source of information while questioning someone, specifically to avoid a potential witness having to testify and having this problem.
  • The Cold Case episode "Cargo" has a driver working for a human trafficking ring refusing a deal that would reduce his prison time (or eliminate it altogether) in exchange for naming the people he's working for.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • Justified in The Darkness II and doubles as an example of Asskicking Leads to Leadership. Jackie Estacado is not only the don of the most powerful mob in New York City, he's the host to a demonic Eldritch Abomination, whose main powers include sprouting fanged tentacles and tearing people to shreds with them.
  • There's an amusing scene in Max Payne 3 when the hero, still clueless as to how law enforcement works down south, suggests they just arrest the corrupt politician dealing dope and selling organs. Gee, why didn't the DEA think of that?
    Max: So, you're here to bring him down?
    Da Silva: [chuckles] Yeah. Because I want to lose my wife, and my children, and get killed myself. All that, after watching him walk free.
  • In an overheard audio diary in BioShock, a smuggler caught and tortured by the Rapture police says, "...Whatever Ryan thinks he can do to me, Fontaine can do double!". Considering that you find said diary on his bound, electrified corpse, that's pretty damn impressive.
  • Shadowrun Returns: Hong Kong: Going into your team's composition would mean too many spoilers, but they're the kind of outfit that takes on armies and topples nations. However, none of them will raise an untoward eyebrow towards Kindly Cheng, Yellow Lotus 432 (Straw Sandal, middle manager) completely normal, non-cybered, non-mage human and your Fixer. Even a pair of Token Evil Teammates who regard Qian Ya, The Queen of a Thousand Teeth as only just making Worthy Opponent status are careful around Kindly Cheng.
  • In World of Warcraft, Nalorakk, a powerful troll warrior with the essence of a god inside him, lampshades this trope when siccing his minions on players in Zul'Aman.
    "Guards, go already! Who you be more afraid of, dem or me?"

    Web Videos 
  • ProZD loves this trope and features it in many of his skits, especially "Mob Boss Doesn't Know how to Play Poker but His Goons are Too Scared to Tell Him" and "Mob Boss Whose Accent is Too Thick to Understand". Occasionally he subverts it, such as with "Mob Boss with a Non-Scary Voice".
    Boss (in a high-pitched falsetto): You think you can come into my territory, and take what's mine?
    Citizen (laughing): Are you serious? What is this?
    Boss (same voice): All right, you'll be swimming with the fishies!
    Citizen (laughing harder): "Fishies"?!

    Real Life 
  • A recurring problem in Mexico's Drug War: ordinary citizens are reluctant to cooperate with the police and army for fear of retaliation by gang members.
  • Barrier troops as a desperate measure. Stalin characterized his implementation of them at the critical moment of the war along the lines: "A soldier shall be choosing between a probable death ahead and a certain death behind."
  • One of the theories about the Serial Killer known as the Monster of Florence is that the man who was incarcerated for his first murders, Stephano Mele, knew his identity but was too afraid to say it.
  • Likewise, there is a theory that the reason the convicted murderers of Marta del Castillo won't say the location of her body is that they don't actually know it, because they trusted a third person to get rid of it, and they are too afraid to out him.
  • While hiding in Mexico after pulling off the infamous Loomis Fargo heist in 1997, David Ghantt eventually realized that his accomplices back in the States preferred to keep all the loot rather than continue to send him funds and had decided that he'd outlived his usefulness, causing him to (rightly) fear for his life. The story goes that when a group of men suddenly surrounded him one day, he turned to the nearest one and said, "Please tell me you're an FBI agent!" He was.


Sunset Paradise Pilot

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