Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Martin Scorsese's Film World of Crime

In the opening scene of The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-Winning film, Jack Nicholson gives a speech to his young criminal aspirants. With facial expressions and motions perhaps more suited to a warlock than a South Boston hoodlum, Nicholson tells his students that when he was a kid he was told that he could become a cop or a criminal. He then asks them, when someone is facing you with a loaded gun, what’s the difference?

Well, Scorsese himself noted the difference in his 1990 film Goodfellas. When Ray Liotta, portraying small-time hood Henry Hill, is backing out of his driveway, a loaded gun is placed behind his head and a man yells for him not to move or he’ll get his head blown off.

In the voice-over narration, Hill relaxes and says it must be a cop, because if it were a criminal – a Goodfella - he would not have heard a thing. He would be dead.

That, Mr. Nicholson, is the difference between a cop and a criminal with a loaded gun. The cop arrested Hill, whereas the criminal would have given Mr. Hill the proverbial two behind the ear.

It is insulting to believe that working class kids from neighborhoods like Irish South Boston, or South Philly’s Little Italy, where I grew up, have only the two choices in life. Although it’s true that most of the mob guys as well as many cops come from South Philly - including one who went on to become the police commissioner and mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo - there were and are many other job paths available.

Including, I might remind The Departed's screenwriter, Bill Monahan, writing and filmmaking.

The stereotype, I suppose, is that cops and criminals are both violent and gun-crazy, but that notion is pure nonsense. I grew up with guys who went on to become criminals and guys who went on to be cops (as well as electricians, doctors and postal workers). Those who became criminals never stood at a fork in the road asking themselves if they should apply for the police department or rob a warehouse. Usually, they already had criminal records that would preclude them from becoming cops. But beyond that, the criminal, unlike a cop, has a bent mind. They are generally sociopaths who have no empathy for their victims.

Cops, on the other hand, generally have a sense of justice and duty, and/or they like the idea of a good job with benefits and a pension. Cops rarely use their guns and when they do, they are buried in an investigation that will determine their future as a police officer. Cops and criminals may come from the same working class neighborhoods (as well as from the suburbs) and there have been aberrant cases of bent cops, to be sure, but the two groups are as different as night and day.

That criticism aside, I’m genuinely happy that Martin Scorsese finally received an Oscar for one of his films. But I don’t think The Departed is in the same league as Goodfellas, which I rank as one of the greatest crime films ever made. Scorsese’s Casino (1996) and Raging Bull (1980) are also superior films in my view.
I enjoyed The Departed when it came out last year and I recently watched it again on cable TV. I think it is a good film. Scorsese offered a grand showcase for some fine acting from Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin and Mark Walberg. Ray Winstone (who was also brilliant in Sexy Beast) energizes the film as a criminal henchman and Martin Sheen gave a fine, understated performance as the police captain who oversees the undercover cop portrayed by DiCaprio. His calm demeanor is a counterpoint to Walberg’s angry young police Sgt.

Understated is not exactly the word I’d use to describe Nicholson’s performance, although to be fair, he was portraying a flamboyant crime boss based in part, I’m sure, on Boston’s own Whitey Bulger, a vicious murderer and FBI informant who is now one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted.

James "Whitey" Bulger was a notorious Boston criminal that ruled in the 1980s and early 1990s. He went on the lam in 1994 after he was tipped off to an arrest warrant for a variety of crimes including murder. Bulger, who is suspected of 21 murders, was the leader of the Winter Hill gang. The gang included a cold-blooded killer named Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi and an assortment of demented and violent criminals.

Bulger’s Irish-American gang competed with the Italian-American Patriarca crime family. In this joust, Bulger was aided by his brother, William "Billy" Bulger, who was president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and an FBI agent named John Connolly.

Although Billy Bulger was never convicted of a crime in connection to his brother, local observers believe that the brothers used each other’s power and influence to get ahead. Connolly, who grew up in South Boston and had a long connection to Whitey Bulger, placed him on the FBI’s payroll.

The FBI was hot to bring down the Patriarca crime family and Bulger, despite the "Southie Code," became an informant – a rat, in criminal parlance – for Connolly and the FBI. Bulger cleverly used the FBI to wipe out his competitors and to shield him from prosecution from federal and commonwealth authorities.

As the Italian mob guys were rolled up thanks to Bulger’s inside information, Bulger assumed their criminal enterprises. Connolly, thanks to Bulger, looked good to his FBI bosses.

Eventually, Bulger’s murders, narcotics dealing, extortion and other crimes became so vast and violent that he went beyond the protection of his brother and the FBI. Connolly was later convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for crossing the line in aiding Bulger.

I’ve visited Boston many times and I know the city fairly well. Boston reminds me in many ways of my own city, Philadelphia.

If you would like to know more about Boston crime and Bulger, there are several good books on the subject and I recommend Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, and The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century by Howie Carr.

Although the Bulger/FBI storyline is an added twist to the story, Scorsese's film is based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, which in a way, I wish I had not seen before I saw The Departed.

Infernal Affairs, which I saw in Chinese with English subtitles, was an interesting film. I visited Hong Kong many years ago when I was in the Navy and I vividly recall the crowded streets, the neon lights with Chinese symbols and the hustle of the people. When I read that Scorsese was filming a remake, I wondered what his vision of this story would be.

Like the original film, The Departed tells the tale of two young men who go undercover. The story is very similar, merely exchanging Chinese gangs in Hong Kong for Irish-American gangs in Boston. One of the undercover cops is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, who goes undercover to infiltrate Nicholson’s Irish mob and the second, portrayed by Matt Damon, is a criminal protégé of Nicholson’s who becomes a cop and infiltrates the Massachusetts State Police.

I’m not too crazy about DiCaprio. I did not buy him as a street tough in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and although I loved the film and the otherwise stellar cast of Daniel Day Lewis (who was also brilliant in The Last of the Mohicans) Liam Neelson (also brilliant in Batman Begins), Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson and John C. Reilly, DiCaprio’s unbelievable performance lessened my enjoyment of the film. I also think DiCaprio stunk up Scorsese’s The Aviator. I just could not buy him as Howard Hughes.

DiCaprio, thankfully, was not nearly as front and center in The Departed, and I have to admit that he gave a good performance. His performance sucking up to former Vice President Al Gore at the Academy Awards ceremony is another matter.

I’ve been a Scorsese fan since Mean Streets came out in 1973. I was a young aspiring writer at the time, hanging out at a bar in South Philly that was the same type of bar that Scorsese portrayed in Mean Streets.

The characters in the film, based on people he knew from the Lower East Side of New York, had their counterparts in South Philly. Replace New York’s tenements with South Philly’s row homes, and you had the same type of neighborhood and people.

One weeknight at the bar, the bar’s owner called me over. He had seen Mean Streets and knowing that I was a film buff as well, asked me if I had seen the film. I said that I had and that I loved it. We laughed as we pointed out our own "Johnny Boy," "Michael" and the other characters from the film.

Inspired by our conversation, he promptly closed the bar, told customers to come to the movies or go home. About a dozen of us went to see Mean Streets.

I later read The Playboy Interview with Scorsese and he mentioned a story about another crew that had flocked to see Mean Streets. He said that while filming Goodfellas, Henry Hill told him that he and Paul Vario’s son had seen Mean Streets and loved it. They saw Paul Vario, who was a capo in the Lucchese crime family, and urged him to see the film. Vario, who rarely went to the movies, gave in and saw the film.

Vario, who would years later be portrayed by Paul Sorvino in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, called his crew together and instructed them to see Mean Streets. Vario, a man of few words, simply told his astonished crew, "It’s about us."

If you have not caught The Departed yet, I recommend that you see the film on DVD or on cable. It is not Goodfellas, but it is still a pretty good crime film. You might also want to revisit Scorsese’s other great crime films.

Bulger is still at large today, walking around with his millions. There have been sightings of Bulger leaving movie theaters showing The Departed.

Note: The column originally appeared in the Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2007.

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