2010s, Auteurs, Biopic, Crime/Detective, Historical, Thriller

The Irishman (2019)

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aka I Heard You Paint Houses

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian

By Roderick Heath

And then, more time had passed than anyone realised, and suddenly things we thought perpetual are lost, and the age and its titans that stood in authority became another dusty annal.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, now aged 77, stands self-evidently as a work both extending and encompassing a key portion of Scorsese’s legacy, his beloved and perpetually influential mafia movies. The Irishman reunites the director with three actors long connected with his cinema, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as bringing in a fresh young whippersnapper named Al Pacino. The sharp pang of recognised mortality inherent in The Irishman is given a special cruelty by the way Scorsese’s cinema has long seemed, even in its most contemplative and rarefied moods, like American virility incarnate. The clamour of New York streets, the whiplash effects of urban life’s furore and the human organism in contending with it, the buzz of an era bombarded with cinema and television and advertising, written into the textures of Scorsese’s famous alternations of filmic technique, whip-pans and racing dolly shots colliding with freeze-frames and languorous slow-motion: Scorsese’s aesthetic encephalograph. The Irishman has been described by many as a terminus for the gangster movie. That’s fair in some ways, dealing as it does with a basic and essential matter very often ignored in the genre, what happens when gangsters are lucky enough to get old and die, as well as simply recording a moment when a genre’s stars and a most esteemed creator are facing the end of the road, however distant still.

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But of course, movies set amongst hoodlums and lowlifes are still pretty common, for Scorsese’s bastard artistic children are plentiful and likely to populate the cinematic landscape for a good while yet. What new tricks could the old dog still have to teach? The Irishman answers that question incidentally as it adapts a book by Charles Brandt, recounting the life story of Frank Sheeran. As biography it includes inarguable factual details, like the time Sheeran spent as a World War II soldier, truck driver, and Teamster official jailed for 13 years for racketeering, blended with assertions and conjecture about Sheeran’s involvement with organised crime, most vitally the claim he personally killed Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary former head of the Teamsters union, who vanished in 1975. The tales in Brandt’s book have been disputed, but the appeal to a filmmaker like Scorsese, over and above the inherent drama in such a story, lies in the way Sheeran claims to have grazed against the mechanics of power underlying American history in the mid-twentieth century, and indeed have been part of the mechanism, the finger that pulled triggers but never the levers. The Irishman becomes, amongst many achievements, a unified field theory in regards to the concerns of Hollywood’s New Wave filmmakers, wrestling with the waning memory of a certain age in political and social life, as well as that cinematic era.

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And yet The Irishman is also a project that sees Scorsese negotiating with very contemporary aspects of the moviemaking scene, produced by online streaming giant Netflix and exploiting all the possibilities opened up by such a backer in making a film without compromise, and employing a cutting edge special effects technique, using digital processes to make his lead actors appear younger in sequences depicting their characters in their prime. It’s Scorsese’s longest film to date, a veritable epic in theme and scope even whilst essentially remaining an interpersonal story, arriving as a roughly hemispheric work. The first half, recounting Sheeran’s early encounters with the potentates of the underworld and evolution from scam-running truck driver to hitman and union boss, broadly reproduces the detail-obsessed and gregariously explanatory style of Scorsese’s previous based-on-fact mafia life tales, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), if rendered in a much cooler, less compulsive manner. The second half mimics the processes of ageing, slowing down until finally reaching a point of impotent and stranded pathos, ticking off fate-making moments of choice and consequence, contending with the ultimate consequences and meanings of a man’s life actions.

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If The Irishman’s tone and sense of mortal and moral irony suggests Scorsese’s tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), the famous epigraph of which Scorsese reiterates in direct and pungent terms, the method is more reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (1944-58), as an expansive and surveying first portion sets up a second that proves a dark and immediate personal drama about power and betrayal. The Irishman’s narrative revolves around what seems initially a scarcely notable vignette, with Sheeran and his friend, associate, and boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a cool, wary potentate of the Philadelphia mob with great resources of invisible yet definite power, and their wives Irene Sheeran (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie Bufalino (Kathrine Narducci) striking out on a road trip on the way to attend the wedding of the daughter of Russell’s lawyer brother Bill (Ray Romano) in 1975. Sheeran’s voiceover narration readily concedes there’s a definite pretext to this trip, as Russell wants to collect various debts along the way. But the peculiarly pregnant, tense mood of the journey betrays something else in the offing, a hidden source of tension and expectation, and of course when it comes into focus the implications are terrible. The road trip accidentally doubles as a trip down memory lane, as they pass the scene where Sheeran and Russell first actually met, when Russell helped the young truck driver when he was pulled over with mechanical trouble, sparking an account of their adventures in racketeering.

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The Irishman returns to a motif Scorsese touched on in Shutter Island (2010) in contemplating the mental landscape of the so-called greatest generation of servicemen returned from World War II, men playing at fitting into a suburban world whilst invested with the skills and reflexes of soldiers, all too aware, with niggling import, how thin the membrane between settled life and chaos can be. Sheeran recounts the pathetic details of shooting German POWs with nonchalance, an experience he describes as teaching him to simply accept life and death with an almost Buddhist indifference, only to make sure to be on the right end of the gun. This experience, at once brutalising and transfiguring, proves to have armed Sheeran with not just a skill set but a mindset as well, one that makes him useful to men like the Bufalinos and their associates, including Angelo Bruno (Keitel), and ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi). Sheeran gains his first contacts in the underworld via the lower-ranking Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), by letting him substitute the high-quality meat Sheeran transports for his restaurant. When a load of meat he’s carrying vanishes before he can steal it himself, Sheeran is prosecuted for the theft. Bill Bufalino successfully defends his case, although he gets sacked from his driving job. After proving himself adept at debt collecting for DiTullio, he gains a more definite connection to Russell and Angelo, who sit in mandarin judgement upon representatives of a tragically unwise world.

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As in Goodfellas and Casino, Sheeran’s narrative expostulates the arts of gangsterdom in a succession of illustrative vignettes, as Sheeran begins to make himself reliable with his army-instilled smarts for sabotage and demolition, making him handy at wiping out rivals’ sources of income and power. Such gifts are illustrated in sequences touched with a sense of the ridiculous, as when Sheeran and some other mobsters try to wipe out an opponent’s taxi fleet by laboriously pushing all the cars into the harbour before Sheeran suggests less arduous means. When he’s hired by a laundry boss Whispers DiTullio (Paul Herman) to destroy a rival laundry only to be brought before Angelo who partly owns the rival, Sheeran is obligated to make amends and shoots Whispers in the face, kicking off his new career as a hitman, or, in coded parlance, a man who “paints houses” with blood. Some of the blackly comic hue Scorsese’s long been able to tease out of such grim situations manifests here as Sheeran notes the building arsenal of used weapons collecting on a river bottom under a bridge popular with folk in his line of work to toss away their used guns. Scorsese avoids the adrenalized fervour of his earlier films, however. For one thing, Frank Sheeran is a different creature to guys like Henry Hill or even Jordan Belfort, who delighted in their status as men apart, challenging law and fate with bravura even as they proved much less tough and canny than they wished to think. Sheeran rather fancies himself as a suburban husband and father with an unusual occupation: the circumstances that eventually make him a hitman stem from the need to feed his growing family.

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Part of what made Scorsese’s canonical gangster films vibrant was the way they offered innately interesting prisms through which to encompass other, more quotidian things difficult to make popular movies about. Friendships, troubled marriages, domestic violence, gender roles, the structure of civic life and the circuits of power that often hide in plain sight. One reason Scorsese has long seemed to have a specific affinity for the genre, to a degree that tends to drown out perception of his varied oeuvre, is because the gangster in his eyes simply represents ordinary people in extremis, bound by peculiar loyalties of family and immediate community, balancing attempts to retain certain ideals whilst contending with a cruel and corrupting world. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, with a muted, greyish colour palette, gives the most immediate visual clue to the way The Irishman disassembles the template of Scorsese’s earlier gangster works, contrasting their lush, pulpy hues and baroque evocations in favour of something chillier, more remorseless, like the cancer that eats up the flesh and bones of these old bastards in the end.

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Another vital pivot in Sheeran’s life comes when Russell sets up the opportunity to become Hoffa’s enforcer, some hard muscle to back up Hoffa’s battles with rivals and powerbrokers. Sheeran’s first conversation with Hoffa over the phone sees De Niro register with beautiful subtlety the minuscule moment of shock as Sheeran realises Hoffa speaks the rarefied language of mob euphemism, conversant in the harshest facts of such life. But Hoffa manages to retain an avuncular glamour, a sense of righteousness even when swimming with human piranha, through seeming like a general engaged in a long guerrilla war, and he also crucially reaches out to Sheeran as “a brother of mine,” that is, a Teamster. Hoffa isn’t wrong to surround himself with hard men, with lieutenants nominally under his control like Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Sheeran recounts how Pro had a rival underling garrotted in a car, cueing one of the film’s most startling visual flourishes, as the murder is glimpsed as the car moves by a moving camera, yawing mouth in silent scream and struggling bodies glimpsed in a flash and then gone. Pro is just one of many creeps and thugs who parasite off the Teamster organisation, a union built to resist the violent resistance to organised labour from management, but which has required and rewarded mob support to do so. Tension builds between Hoffa and his underworld contacts however as he tries to prevent the Teamster union fund, which bankrolled their casino projects, from devolving entirely into a ready cash pool for wiseguys. When a government investigation of Hoffa sees him imprisoned, the mob becomes more inclined to see the union go on being run by more pliable figures, like Tony Pro and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba).

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Like an updated version of the same analysis in Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese considers the tribalism of politics and gangland as they form mutually parasitical relationship through their symmetry of outlook and method, disconnected from the real musculature of the workers whose ambitions and desires fuel their empires. Hoffa’s story has already been told comprehensively on film, in Danny DeVito’s overblown but fascinating Hoffa (1992), which rendered his life as an outsized romantic epic and elegy, in complete contrast to Scorsese’s dolorous and nitpicking realism. Hoffa was upfront in exploring the way Hoffa turned to the mafia for support to counter the overt and unsubtle brutality wielded by big business, where here this aspect is more implied and seen as part of an inseparable organism: wherever human energy is turned, and money’s involved, reefs of strange coral grow, and sharks come to live. The great swathe of The Irishman’s plot encompasses titanic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (Jack Huston), whose vendetta-like pursuit of Hoffa drives the union boss to distraction, and finally overt acts of petty defiance like refusing to have the Teamster flag lowered after John’s assassination, whilst it’s heavily suggested the mob arranged the assassination in revenge for the Kennedys turning on them after they helped John’s election.

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Such history also grazes minor yet noteworthy supporting players like David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), interlocutor for the Mafia support for Cuban exiles trying to retake their nation from Castro, and E. Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins), CIA agent and eventual Nixon henchman infamous for his role in Watergate, both of whom Sheeran meets delivering equipment to the Cubans. Sheeran’s encounters with such people illuminate in flashes the great puzzle of power Sheeran perceives without really comprehending. They also contain Scorsese’s winking acknowledgement of the way the film encompasses cinematic as well as political history, for Pesci played Ferrie in Stone’s JFK (1991), whilst the personages and events the film touches on have provided bone marrow for a host of serious modern American movies. Such encounters are nonetheless laced with a droll sense of individual ridiculousness and everyday farcicality contaminating all facades and postures. Hunt gets upset when he thinks Sheeran is staring at his infamously big ears. Hoffa’s unwitting ride to his end, a moment of solemn and skittish tension, is tainted by the smell and run-off of a fish his adopted son Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) dropped off beforehand for a friend, taunting all the men present with the reek of ludicrous fortune and imminent mortality. Sheeran’s proximity to Hoffa and the generational struggle he represents is the most concrete and meaningful of his brushes with renown, and even sees him write a page of history.

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And yet Sheeran’s presence is actually defined by his absence, his being the incarnation of impersonal power, his carefully maintained readiness to be erased the key to his success as a killer and functionary. There’s an aspect of the self-mortifying and self-annihilating in Sheeran’s makeup, only purveyed for worldly rather than spiritual ends. Hoffa keeps him in his hotel room so his visit to the city for strongarming is completely without record, a trick that’s eventually turned on Hoffa as it’s revealed the true purpose for Sheeran and Russell’s road trip in 1975 is to set up a situation where Sheeran can be flown to Detroit to kill Hoffa. His talents as a killer demand taking some real risks, particularly when he’s sent to take out Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), a strutting, defiant figure of the underworld who happily ignores its laws as much as the straight world’s and who’s had a potentially difficult Teamster boss killed during a rally. Scorsese nods back to the gun purchasing scene in Taxi Driver (1976) as Sheeran selects the ideal weapons for the attack and considers how to pull it off with method. Sheeran elects to kill Gallo in a restaurant, avoiding gunning down his family members about him whilst taking out his bodyguard, before chasing Gallo out to the sidewalk to deliver the coup-de-grace as he’s sprawled on the concrete. This scene captures Sheeran’s abilities as a hitman at zenith, as well as illustrating his personal myth, seeing himself as a kind of good guy according to the world he lives in, eliminating fools and scumbags and sparing the innocent. It’s a mystique eventually stripped from him in the rudest possible manner.

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Although hardly a repudiation of his bravura stylistic flourishes, The Irishman sees Scorsese and his ever-ingenious editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivering a sinuous and measured work of high style. An early shot ushering the viewer/camera down the corridors of the nursing home Sheeran’s exiled to in his dimming days has the quality of a visitation by a reluctant but curious acquaintance; when this shot is repeated close to the end, it has a lacerating effect as now it’s clear that when the camera abandons Sheeran he is left in utter solitude, deserted by all he once claimed as friends and family. Scorsese repeatedly interpolates sequences shot in extreme slow motion, in one case in portraying percussive violence as Gallo’s goon shoots the Teamster official, bullets puncturing his flesh in spurts of red blood whilst hands desperately wrap about the assassin, but in each case with a sense of languorous absurdity even when describing tragedy, like the survey of seemingly mundane but despicable visages at the wedding after Hoffa’s killing: the wistfully twanging tones of a guitar cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and some doo-wop giving such scenes with a sardonic quality, at once melancholy and mocking. Throughout the film Scorsese puts up titles identifying various characters with their nicknames and the date and manner of their death, almost only violent. In the film’s slyest joke, one man is blessed with a title describing him as “well-liked by all, died of natural causes.”

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The cumulative effect of this device is to emphasise not just the incredible brutality of the mob world around Sheehan but also his ultimate luck, which might not be luck at all, in outliving all of them; suspense is removed from the equation, and instead we’re made to understand Sheeran as a man living in a city of memory crowded with ghosts. The mob community, one that eats its own, is a perverse family that has its deep rituals of belonging and expulsion. But the rubbing out – erasure – of its members is reproduced in terms of actual family as Sheeran secures his position but with consequences. Of his four daughters, Peggy, growing from a small girl (Lucy Gallina) to a middle-aged woman (Anna Paquin), matures as the mostly silent but incessantly aware ledger of culpability. She regards Russell with suspicion, knowing him for the monstrosity he is, and remains wary of her father ever since witnessing in childhood the spectacle of him beating up a grocery store owner who treated her brusquely, an act that left her feeling less like the well-guarded princess than an unwitting bringer of violence and horror. Peggy’s gravitation to Hoffa, even idolisation of him gives special sting to the way Hoffa embodies for Sheeran a more idealised version of himself, a man with feet planted in the mud and bloodied knuckles but with the stature of a working class gladiator turned statesman.

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The shift of The Irishman from case study review to something more intimate and tragic is managed over the course of a central sequence where Sheeran’s tenure as a Teamster Local boss is celebrated. Hoffa is present, out of jail and pursuing his utter determination to win back “his” union from Fitzgerald, Pro, and the mob heavyweights who want to maintain the new status quo. Hoffa glares daggers at Russell and Salerno whilst sawing up his steak, and carefully fends off Sheeran’s mediating warnings about giving up, insisting with simple assurance that for him abandoning such a cause, so deeply infused with his sense of being and mission, would be tantamount to dying in itself. Peggy watches the play of glances and conversation as she dances, long used to divining through such tells of language and posture. Sheeran is ennobled when Russell gives him a ring that signals his induction into the innermost circle of the mob along with Russell himself and Salerno, a gesture that indicates permanency and security in terms of that family, but which soon proves to actually be a nomination and bribe, as Sheeran is being commissioned without realising to be Hoffa’s assassin.

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The vein of pitch black comedy, blended with a forlorn sense of human vileness, is particularly icy here as Sheeran is essentially wedded to Russell via the exchange of rings, a gesture that contrasts in fascinating ways both men’s relationships with their nominal wives and families. Russell is married to a princess of mob royalty, a detail noted as it makes Russell seem for all his gathered strength like someone who just lucked out and married the boss’s daughter, whilst Sheeran almost casually seems to swap his first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) for his second, a little like getting a car upgrade. Hoffa’s wife Josephine (Welker White), who gets fired from her Teamster bureaucratic job in the escalating tit-for-tat, winces and imagines a car bomb blowing her to smithereens as she starts her car before the engine roars calmly to life, just another moment in the life of a foot soldier in a game of spousal ego. Late in the film Sheeran ruminates with tragic sting on how another car, one he loved, became responsible for his imprisonment. The men in The Irishman, at least until it’s too late, tend to adopt a fiercer sense of loyalty to the measures of their social status than their human attachments, from Hoffa’s obsession with “his” union to Pro’s anger at losing his Teamster pension despite being already being rich through to that car of Sheeran’s, his personal cross with Corinthian leather seats.

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One of the wisest decisions Scorsese made in tackling The Irishman, possibly even the reason he made it, was also one of costliest and most troublesome, in offering a movie that serves as a grace note not only for Scorsese’s career but for his stars. Though he’ll surely make more movies, perhaps many more if he keeps at it like Clint Eastwood, The Irishman relies in a manner reminiscent of something like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) on emotional association with its stars and the sense of an era ending. Scorsese first worked with Keitel on his own debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967), and his associations with De Niro and Pesci, stars of several of his best regarded works, seem virtually umbilical. Scorsese spent a lot of time and effort on the de-ageing effects even as the stiff and angular movements of the actors, as well as the often plastic look of the effects, betray reality. It’s a more convincing approach than using make-up probably would have been for actors in their seventies, but the artificiality is still patent. In practice it’s clearly just a theatrical nicety, not trying to fool the audience but negotiate with our knowing in a way that Scorsese couldn’t have managed if he’d cast other actors to play his protagonists when young as is the usual practice. Scorsese needs the sense of continuity, wants us to perceive the corporeal reality of old men lurking within facsimiles of young, potent bucks, in a tale where what age does to self-perception is a key aspect of the drama as well as artistic nostalgia. The quality of the mask-like in the effects underscores Peggy’s keen capacity to penetrate such veneers, and time just as assiduously uncovers the face men carve for themselves.

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Hoffa conceives time as a literal form of wealth, a notion that provides both a thematic thesis – everyone’s time is running out – and also essential characterisation, as Hoffa’s anger is stoked by nothing quite so much as being made to wait, in part because he knows that waiting is something you only do for someone who presumes to have control over you. Which is why Pro calculatedly infuriates him by turning up late to a meeting, adding fuel to their feud. Pacino, ironically finally appearing in a Scorsese film despite being very much another Italian-American product of 1960s New York’s cultural vitality and long associated with gangster films, is particularly well-cast not only for his capacity to project potent, larger-than-life charisma but also embody in Hoffa a being who, whilst capable of speaking over the gap, nonetheless inhabits a slightly different continent to the gangsters, a man corrupt, compromised, but proud, not cynical in his authority even when cynical in many of his actions. Pesci by contrast is intriguingly cast as the most contained and calm of the major characters here after playing eruptive firebrands for Scorsese in the past, his Bufalino charged with terseness edging into easily stirred disgust, as he deals people who can’t work to the very specific rule their world demands, like an aged priest with unruly seminarians. One of the most arresting vignettes in The Irishman is also one of its most casual, as Russell orders Sheeran to hand over his sunglasses before he boards a plane to go kill Hoffa. Russell knows very well that the sunglasses are part of a killer’s uniform and shield, where he knows Sheeran needs the appearance of complete simplicity to pull off the hit, and moreover the discipline imbued by not retaining such a shield. Treachery must be entirely honest.

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De Niro’s specific brilliance, in a different key again from his two great costars, manifests in playing a man who feels no particular emotional urgency until it’s far too late for him to do anything about it. This reckoning comes in two great, mirroring moments, first as he regards Russell in silent grief and reproach even as he also plainly acquiesces to his command to kill Hoffa, and then later as he struggles to maintain a feined veneer of bewildered concern through a conversation with his family over Hoffa’s vanishing, before calling Josephine Hoffa to offer reassurances. The film’s heightened commentary on paternalistic values, where old men’s capacity to make conversation is a very obvious marker of their power and various characters ultimately reveal their foolishness and impotence by talking out of turn or too long, crystallises here as Peggy, who has noticed everything whilst adhering to the rule of being seen but not heard, rips off her father’s façade with a few pointed words, “Why?” the question that registers like the point of an ice axe into a glacier. Sheeran makes his call, an action of duplicity and false hope he’s still quietly hating himself for making as he waits around to die decades later: “What kind of man makes a call like that?” he asks of an oblivious priest seeking his confession in the nursing home.

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The most fundamental thread of Scorsese’s cinema has been the hunt for spiritual and aesthetic clarity in desperate conflict not just with the necessities of existence within a society but also with physical and emotional hungers that lead in the opposite direction from sainthood, even whilst stemming from the same impulses. Scorsese knows about such things; he took on Raging Bull (1980) as a project after being hospitalised for a cocaine overdose, and that film’s alternations of dreamy meditation and raw savagery have infused his mature oeuvre ever since. The Irishman follows Scorsese’s masterful study of cultural and religious clash, Silence (2016). Where that film seemed a capstone on a loose trilogy studying belief after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), The Irishman rounds out Scorsese’s study of mafia lore in Goodfellas and Casino, chasing their concerns to one logical end. The unexpected quality of The Irishman is that it also unites the two bodies of work. Scorsese returns to the figuration of Judas and Jesus Scorsese wrestled with so controversially on The Last Temptation of Christ in Sheeran’s treachery towards Hoffa. This comes with an inherent sense of irony – no-one here is exactly Jesus – whilst extending Silence’s contention with devotion and betrayal, the costs of adhering to a faith, with inverted propositions, and like so many of Scorsese’s films it contends with a character who eventually faces the essential situation of being left alone to do battle, Jacob-like, with their contending angels and devils.

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The ideals of religious faith, humane and yet eternally defined by individual conscience, high-flown, transcendental, necessarily defined ultimately by a person’s solitary confrontation with their conception of eternity, have always warred in Scorsese’s vision with a different brand of faith, a social devotion defined by communal ties, hierarchy, expectation, and ruthless punishment for deviation. Religious faith, which in Scorsese often bleeds into other faiths, like labour organising in Boxcar Bertha (1971) as well as in The Irishman, contends with social faith in direct contrast: religious faith is punishment of self where social faith is punishment of others. Father Rodrigues in Silence suffered just as much and met his end just as solitary and battered as Sheeran, but his retained grip on faith into the grave signalled his most vital stem of being, no matter how tortured, retained a sense of worthiness in his life mission. By contrast Sheehan is left by the end of The Irishman entirely stripped of any illusion his choices have ultimately been worth the cost, and stripped at the same time of the things that make such costs worth bearing. The Irishman could be seen as a classical winter’s tale as Shakespeare might have recognised it, even as it refuses to become such a tale. Those are supposed to be about conciliation and natural cycles, stories where the bite of the frigid season matches the gnawing proximity of death and the necessity of making peace to facilitate rebirth. The Irishman is about the consequences of rudely assaulting nature, and instead becomes something far more like King Lear, a tragedy where a once ferocious king is left bereft and pitiful and exiled from home and kin because of the long, lingering memory of his own lessons.

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Hoffa’s actual death nimbly turns from deadpan realism, as Sheeran shoots him in the head in an awkward and rushed jumble of motion, to a precisely composed renaissance pieta, as Sheeran leaves the arranged corpse and gun lying in the foyer of an empty house. Scorsese lingers on the sight after Sheeran leaves, the weight not simply of violence and crime but of dreadful absence, the negation of Hoffa’s presence and will, forces that compelled the world. The hit excises a roadblock to easy business but also echoes as an act of violence that consumes the men who committed it. Sheeran is forever excommunicated by Peggy, refusing to speak to him again even as he shambles after her in withered age in a bank where she works, whilst the destabilisation of an equilibrium vibrates through the mob world, with authorities prosecuting and jailing everyone they can, including Sheeran and Russell. Their figurative marriage becomes more like a real one as they’re left only with each-other in a cold and cheerless old age, withering within prison walls, two men who quietly despise each-other for the compromises forced and the implied lack of forgiveness in return, chained together in a caricature of amity into the halls of prison and then the grave.

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The viewer must watch with both a touch of scorn and half-willing sympathy as Russell, dying, reveals he’s turned to religion as he’s pushed away in his wheelchair for treatment, as if he’s found a way to mollify the big boss. No major American director has dealt so sharply with imminent old age, the reduction of the human form and mind by the entirely natural predation of ageing, although in taking up such a theme in what’s nominally supposed to be a true crime thriller recalls Eastwood’s similar evocation in J. Edgar (2011). Sheeran’s corrosive experience of solitude and humiliation even after being released from prison sees him fending off two calls for purgation by confession, from the priest (Jonathan Morris) and federal agents, whilst he picks out coffins and resting places, still hunting a last echo of worldly status even into the grave. But the framing suggests Sheeran is confessing to someone, perhaps the audience, a surrogate for Brandt, a craned ear hungry for forbidden lore. All these legends lose their immediate meaning as their actors die off, even as the labour they’ve been part of, equated with both the society they comprised and the movie they appear in, persists, carrying lessons that cut many ways for those who follow. Sheeran recounting his story is one last attempt to leave a certain mark, to give experience any form of meaning. Scorsese grants him no absolution, but does offer a small consolation.

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1970s, 1990s, Crime/Detective, Drama, Thriller

The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather Part II (1974) / The Godfather Part III (1990)

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Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenwriters: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Robert Towne (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Mario Puzo was a journalist and sometime novelist who, frustrated by his lack of publishing success and tired of being in debt, set out with determination to write a bestseller. Puzo drew on his years of experience as a journalist working for pulpy magazines to present an anatomy of the most notorious branch of the American underworld which had been partly illuminated by investigations in the past two decades. This worthy ambition paid off in spades when his novel The Godfather, released in 1969, became a runaway hit and one of the most popular fiction works ever published. Puzo had sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures even before the book was done, who made it the test case for a new way of making movies that has since become the essential lynchpin of the movie business: the tent-pole blockbuster, a big-budget movie based on a popular property released with saturation acts of promotion. The rest, as they say is history.

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Although the first The Godfather film is getting on for a half-century old, the series’ impact and influence has probably never been more pervasive in pop culture. It’s passing obvious to note that, with their savvy in blending plot with strong yet unobtrusive style, and obsession with antiheroic protagonists who simultaneously compel and repel, the Godfather films stand as an essential blueprint for ambitious contemporary television more than current Hollywood film, save for a few revivalist tyros. More immediately, Coppola’s films permanently changed the look and sound of the gangster movie to the point where talents as diverse and individualistic as Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Brian De Palma, and Abel Ferrara all made their separate peace with its influence. Only Michael Mann successfully defined another path for the genre. From today’s perspective, it seems both inspiring and surprising just how many chances the studio was willing to take with their great money-spinning proposition, although the film’s production was contentious for just that reason.

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This was the Hollywood of the early 1970s, still desperately finding its feet after two decades of upheaval, trying to work out what a young audience in particular wanted and looking to young talents for the answer. One whizz-kid, studio boss Robert Evans, employed another as director in Francis Ford Coppola, because the Italian-American impresario in his early 30s could bring authenticity to the project and also would work for cheap. Coppola, scion of a cultured family as far from Puzo’s hoods as it seemed possible to get, initially balked at the proposition of making a film about the Mafia, but soon clicked with the material as a mode of exploring capitalism and the uneasy relationship of constituent populaces to power in the republic. Coppola in turn ruffled feathers by hiring the waning, industry-reviled star Marlon Brando and the barely-known stage actor Al Pacino for the two crucial roles. Evans also had the sense to assign the canny and disciplined producer Albert S. Ruddy to keep a tight leash on the production. All quite fitting for a film deeply concerned with the fraught dialogue between age’s hard-won wisdom and youthful prospect, and a study in square pegs cruelly shaved to fit in round holes.

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Puzo abandoned his more literary ambitions for his novel, offering a flatly recounting writing style that made for a quickly consumable pulp treat, but also offered up a substantial basis for dramatic enlargement, the arrival of the age where the successful pop novel was more than anything a long movie outline. Pauline Kael was rarely more accurate when she called what Puzo and Coppola accomplished with the film as alchemy. Puzo’s smarts as a constructor of grand narratives that could link the microcosmic with larger mythmaking, which would also later be exercised effectively in providing the story for Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), connected with Coppola’s interest in characters struggling to be more than the world wants them to be. These concerns Coppola had struggled with in his mainstream film debut, Dementia 13 (1963), made for his industry mentor Roger Corman, and his attempts to break out in the electric late ‘60s movie scene with the hipster comedy You’re A Big Boy Now (1967) and the melancholy drama The Rain People (1969). His one big studio excursion prior to The Godfather had been the backdated musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968). His best claim to fame however was winning an Oscar for co-writing Patton (1970), where his imagistic notions included the iconic opening scene of the prickly protagonist standing before a colossal American flag.

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The opening moments of The Godfather have a similar aspect blending theatrical directness and an emblematic quality close to what business lingo calls branding. Nino Rota’s sad and elegant trumpet fanfare heard of a stark black-and-white title gives way to funeral director Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) speaking to the camera in accounting both his faith in America whilst also requesting punitive action in an old world fashion from his feudal overlord. This stark episode of fatherly anger and yearning sees Bonasera asks Don Vito Corleone (Brando), the self-styled spiritual patriarch to a corner of New York’s Italian-American community and head of a crime family with fortune and influence far beyond that community’s borders, to punish the young American boys who viciously assaulted his daughter. Immediately the Godfather series’ essence is spelled out in the most concise verbal and visual terms. The dialogue evokes the faded theatrical tradition of the soliloquy: we’re in that exalted realm of drama detailing people who roam corridors of great power, sad stories of the deaths of kings and all that.

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The images, drenched in grainy shadows with warm fleshy tones, feel mindful of the bygone Expressionist style in cinema. But there’s also a purposeful echo back much further to old master painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, with a similar concept of the world is an inky zone of violence and pain where the human is both inescapably corporeal and spiritually intense, extremes of physical experience linked intimately with extremes of moral straits. There’s also the association with Renaissance Italy with all its surreal disparities of grim savagery in power and street life and beauty conjured for posterity. Coppola’s work with cinematographer Gordon Willis utilising underexposure created this look, and it became the defining expressive trait of the series. Amidst the darkness, warm hues, fleshy tones, bright and colourful electric lights, intimate places. The Godfather’s universe is a place of safe abodes from savagery, where the barbarians are ever at the gate.

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The trilogy charts the Corleone family’s travails from 1945 to 1979, with flashbacks to Vito’s childhood in Sicily and his fortunes in New York in the early century. Vito was chased out of Sicily by a vendetta, but rose by the end of World War II to a state of vast influence and authority. His eldest son Santino or ‘Sonny’ (James Caan) is the prospective inheritor, whilst the youngest, Michael (Pacino), is a college-educated and decorated former soldier Vito hopes will transcend the family trade. Middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is generally dismissed as untalented and dozy, whilst adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), a former street kid Sonny brought into the fold, has become a shrewd lawyer and gains the post of consigliere or counsellor. Vito’s refusal of a proposal by Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri) to bankroll him in drug trafficking, puts the Corleones on course for war with the other heads of New York’s crime syndicates, the so-called “Five Families,” because they want to annex the political and legal protection Vito has built up as they exploit this lucrative new trade. Solozzo, with the backing of rival Dons Barzini (Richard Conte) and Tattaglia (Victor Rendina), has Vito shot down in the street, obliging Sonny to command the family whilst Vito recovers in hospital. Michael steps up and kills Solozzo along with his pet police guardian Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Michael flees to Sicily to hide out and marries young local girl Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), only for her to die in a car bombing, so when he returns to the US marries his college girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton).

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After Sonny’s brutal slaying and Vito’s death by natural causes, Michael arranges the assassination of all his foes, including his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) husband Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), who helped set up Sonny’s killing. Michael then moves the family to Nevada to profit from Las Vegas gambling. Part II, taking up the story few years later, sees Michael’s attempts to forge a partnership with aging rival Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in exploiting Cuba as a cash cow see Roth instead try to rub out Michael, manipulating Fredo’s feelings of resentment and implicating him in the plot. The Cuban Revolution foils all plans and Michael sees off an attempt by a Senate committee to brand him as a gangster using former family soldier Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) as a witness. Michael has Roth killed and Fredo executed soon after, whilst Kay permanently foils her marriage to Michael by confessing to an abortion and is cast out of the family, leaving Michael lonely and haunted. Part III, opening in 1979, sees Michael, immensely enriched by the casino business and now legitimate, aiming to become an international force by using his leverage over the head of the Vatican bank, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), to gain a controlling share of a valuable corporation, Immobiliaire, off the church. Michael accepts his nephew, Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent (Andy Garcia), as his streetwise heir. Vincent has an affair with Michael’s cherished daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) whilst Michael tries to make peace with Kay. Soon all of them are caught up in the ensuing chaos as rivals try to shut down the sale, including Italian political heavyweight Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), a slyly smiling, bespectacled mandarin who lurks in the shadows, and aided by Michael’s wise elder and supposed friend Don Altobello (Eli Wallach).

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The Godfather quickly earned many comparisons to Gone With The Wind (1939) as an epic film where the fortunes of a focal family are intimately tied to progressing national history, and as its inheritor in zeitgeist-defining success. There’s obvious accord between Michael Corleone and Scarlett O’Hara, as both are the second-generation representatives of families who have prospered in the New World through willingness to exploit others, and who become determined to restore familiar fortunes through means fair and foul, but eventually decimate their private happiness to accomplish their end. Even the basic structural motif of the three Godfather films of commencing with a long sequence depicting a celebration that brings together many different players in the unfolding drama feels patterned after the Twelve Oaks barbecue sequence of Gone With The Wind. But the opening wedding scene of The Godfather is also a catalogue of Coppola’s new approach to the epic, as the scene shifts jarringly from Vito’s office to the Corleone estate outside where guests mill, musicians blare out traditional tunes, and the various players in family melodrama and subcultural conflict converge to be carefully mapped and categorised by Coppola’s camera.

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Take the way Barzini is introduced, calmly having a photographer who’s snapped his picture detained long enough to strip out the film from his camera, contrasted with the way hot-headed Sonny assaults another photographer, smashes his camera, and confronts and insults the FBI agents hovering outside the estate. The difference in temperament and method of the two men is described with perfect efficiency whilst also declaring a basic theme of the series: power and character are immediately established as unforgivingly intimate bedfellows. Other vignettes are less consequential although they speak much of the dynamics of this brood, like Sonny’s dash for a quick tryst with bridesmaid Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero), whilst his wife (Julie Gregg) boasts about the size of her husband’s penis to her pals but notices her husband has left and why, and Tom gives an indulgent grin as he comes to fetch Sonny. Surrounding such episodes are general, raucous scenes of celebration that manage to seem like they’re happening entirely by accident, straying into the filmmakers’ shots, channelling documentary-like energy into a film that’s actually anything but haphazard. We see the Corleones as above all an Italian-American family, obeying mores and responding to cultural cues as natural as breathing but about to be tested. Only Michael, recently returned to the family orbit after a long excursion, seems truly uncomfortable, the product of two world-views and social definitions, harbouring his store of dark lore with guilty boding.

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Michael serves as tour guide for Kay and the audience, identifying people not just by name but by function in the family apparatus – Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) is not just a heavy but a juicy anecdote. The desire to belong to the world of Corleones is provoked, and its deviant aspects have fiendish appeal – a friend like Vito at the fore, a pet dragon in the corner like Brasi, to make problems and enemies vanish with a few well-chosen words and a little firearm brandishing. Part of the original film’s success lay in its cunning at playing this two-faced game. At once the Corleones are offered as the archetype of Mafia life but also get us to root for them as the best of a bad lot, fighting to stay alive and maintain rules of engagement. Almost all of the characters killed by Corleones in the course of the first film are either foes or traitors who endanger the family’s lives: their only innocent victims seen on screen are the unfortunate Khartoum, and one woman in bed with one of Michael’s whacked enemies. Vito’s sense of morality forbids him from turning the family to the drug trade whereas he regards gambling, liquor, and prostitution as essentially honest vices. Vito has an aspect of the folk hero, an aspect even the sequel doesn’t despoil, as a man who operates in a manner not dissimilar to the way Sherlock Holmes was once characterised, as a last court of appeal operating above and beyond mere legal and government institutions. The legendary vignette that follows the wedding scene illustrates the ruthless intelligence in the Corleone method. Tom flies to Hollywood to try and convince producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) to cast one of Vito’s favourite pet projects, the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), in a war movie Johnny thinks will revive his career. After Woltz aggressively refuses Tom’s offers because he’s furious at Johnny for seducing one of Woltz’s prized starlets, the producer wakes to find the severed head of his hugely expensive stud horse Khartoum tucked into his bed.

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Another spur of The Godfather’s success was the way vignettes like this fed public interest at the time for portrayals of systems and confirmation of hidden truths behind official facades. Puzo immortalised barroom rumours about Frank Sinatra and the like and blended it with familiar factoids about the great crime bosses, with many ready analogues, including Bugsy Siegel stand-in Moe Green (Alex Rocco), who gets rubbed out by the Corleones to subsume his great creation called Las Vegas, and Roth, patterned after Meyer Lansky. The film’s many moments of verbal and behavioural specificity and quirkiness, often bordering on black comedy in their sharp juxtaposition of normality and easy acceptance of deadly extremes, provided a plethora of catchphrases – “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” – and electric images, particularly the head of Khartoum in Woltz’s bed, all retain a similar buzz of forbidden lore. It’s easy, even essential, to be a touch cynical about the way The Godfather films walk a line between outright valorising and deploring of its criminal clan. Small wonder that The Godfather is only outpaced on the Internet Movie Database’s user-voted greatest movie list by The Shawshank Redemption (1994), another film that describes the same cherished macho fantasy, that with just a little bit of cleverness and dedicated amorality all forms of authority and impediment might be circumvented. Coppola himself, disturbed to a certain degree by popular revelry in the original’s glimpse of the underworld, worked to undercut the vaguely chivalrous aspect of the Corleones in Part II through such touches as replacing the horse’s head with a slaughtered prostitute.

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But it’s also fair to say that depicting efforts to retain something like a code whilst squirming in the muck is interesting territory to chart. Precisely this theme, this question of where and how to draw lines of fair play, drives the trilogy, as Michael is pushed constantly into new and dizzying abysses of behaviour; by the time he’s obliged to kill Fredo, the ideal of defending family has become a mockery, whilst Kay has detonated the rigid parameters of marriage. Kay’s complaint that “senators and congressmen don’t have men killed” is met by the archly cynical proposal that she’s being naïve and that all public life operates, to a greater or lesser extent, like the Corleones. Coppola and Puzo take the inherent tension between the Mafia clan’s view of society and the outsider’s view of the clan to a logical extreme in Part III where Michael finally finds himself up against the forces that originally gave birth to the Cosa Nostra in the first place, the entrenched and respectable yet utterly merciless potentates of Italian political and religious regime who posture in palaces but have their heavies in the streets too. The Godfather hardly invented the gangsterism-as-capitalism metaphor. But it did extend that notion into a metaphor for family and social life in general, describing a purely Darwinian sense of social dynamics where only the walls of the family castle stand in contradiction.

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The oft-repeated slogan that subordinates personal feeling to business is obviously ironic as business is only ever deeply, urgently, and dangerously personal in this world. Cagey old Roth gives a lengthy speech noting that he never targeted Michael for revenge after the death of Moe Greene because it was “the business we’ve chosen,” but this is coloured by both men’s awareness that Roth is trying to kill him anyway for reasons that patently have little to do with business sense and everything to do with ego and denial. Michael makes his first foray into criminality to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey nominally to keep them away from his father but also delivers, despite his protestations, some heartfelt payback for their treachery and brutality. The saga dramatizes a dynamic notion of masculine duty, onerous and inevitable, with the detectable corollary that the level of power and danger the Corleones court in some ways delivers them from having to reckon with the modern world, a world that slowly breaks in regardless. Vito is the ideal old-school, old-world patriarch, a man who’s used raw muscle and genius of a kind to arrange the entire world for the sake of prosperity and peace that shelters his loved-ones.

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Soon Michael steps up to replace his father and brother and take on the responsibility of “saving” his family. “You can act like a man,” Vito barks furiously at Johnny when he shows feelings of weakness, and soon chases it with the assurance that “A man who spends no time with his family can never be a real man.” This highlights Vito’s certainty that it’s the capacity for loving rather than brutality that makes a man, although his cruel schooling as a youth has taught him the two can only ever be entwined. But just how one keeps the living stem of one’s emotional life growing whilst nursing the gift for annihilation is a deep and abiding enigma Michael never solves as he slowly becomes his own golem. The Godfather’s story laid claim to territory mapped out by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby whilst struggling with its basic question as to whether Americanism could make good on the promise of self-invention and an ahistorical spree severing past from future (a kinship Coppola surely recognised, having penned an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s book that would become the 1974 version). The film’s release at the wane of the counterculture era perhaps gave it some of its signature punch in this regard, offering up a story where identity wins out over idealism and the promise of generational revision, as youth wearily steps up to the plate in the name of cold realism. Not at all coincidentally, modern cinema’s other great original myth, created by Coppola’s pal and protégé George Lucas, revolved around a similar terror of becoming one’s father. Michael’s semi-sheepish protestations to Kay that his father is “no different to…any other great man” has the unmistakable tone of philosophy at one hastily erected but also long-nursed as an internal reality.

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Before writing The Godfather, Puzo was saddened that his previous novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, strongly inspired by his tough mother, had gained little attention, and so he transcribed her character as Vito, finding success by concentrating on manly business. And yet emphasis on the criminal world as a redoubt for masculine dominance is subtly but steadily eroded by the choices women make, and by the menfolk’s hypocritical failings in regard to them. Vito’s wife (played by Morgana King and as a younger woman by Francesca De Sapio) is the model Mafia wife, capable of maintaining a hard and functional border between her domestic zone and the rest of it. She’s just as much the last of a breed as Vito; her reward is to be buried with the honour of an ideal, and spared seeing one of her sons kill another. Michael gets Apollonia and Mary killed simply by being close to them, and by his self-deluding desire to annex their innocence. Connie evolves from collateral damage decrying her “lousy, cold-hearted bastard” of a brother to his supporter and then a rising neo-Borgia who sets about supporting Vincent’s rise and ordering and performing hits. Connie’s assault and battery by her husband following a raging domestic breakdown is in a way the most violent scene in the first film, a searing evocation of what Michael will later pompously call the “things that have been going on between men and women for centuries,” whilst Sonny’s infuriated protectiveness conflates with his bullishly insensate streak, a trait that’s so predictable his enemies play on it to destroy him.

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By the climax of Part III Connie has bought into the legend of the Corleones on a much more fundamental level than Michael ever did, savouring opportunities for intimate punishments and righteous muscle-flexing. Even Kay reveals something of a gangster’s aim for where it hurts when she deliberately targets Michael’s family man pride by confessing to getting their child aborted, going so far as to tell him “it was a son and I killed it because all this must end!” Kay is soon cut out of Michael’s existence, not quite as finally and coldly as Fredo but with a similar act of erasure. The door he closes in her face echoing the end of the previous film, fulfilling its promise and threat, whilst also marking another step in Michael’s self-defeat, confirming the price he’s paying for his acceptance of duty is ossification. Puzo’s fondness of The Brothers Karamazov is plain in the first film, not just in the structural and character affinities with the Corleone boys mimicking the Karamazov clan’s conception as a troika of traits, but also in the distinctly Dostoyevskyian journey Michael commits himself to. The trilogy as a whole could be the closest thing cinema has ever offered a Confessions of a Great Sinner, as Michael experiences the fall in terms of several different faiths – in religious terms, of course, but also from immigrant aspiration to assimilation and prescribed prosperity, from the religion of family, from the cult of community.

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Michael breaks with each in the name of an unstated hierarchy of priorities, each nesting in another, until he finds there’s no bottom to his plunge. That plunge is ironically charted in a constant social rise until by Part III he’s angling to become a pan-Atlantic CEO, even as some people can still spot “the map of Sicily” on his face, the rough and lumpy look of someone who’s had his face punched in and his soul turned inside out by drawing his will to a hard and lethal edge for survival. The costs Michael pays and the spurs that drive him are unstintingly stated. His picture-perfect traditional romance with Apollonia ends in an instant of fire and blood. His father and brother are riddled with bullets. He stalks halls of a deserted hospital in increasingly grim awareness of vulnerability as he realises his father has been set up for another hit; nothing, not even the humdrum business of a New York hospital can ward off cosmic corruption, only two scared men pretending to be resolute centurions. Death haunts Michael’s every step, and he fights back with every tool at his disposal. Rites of passage recur: Michael getting his jaw broken by McCluskey seems to have happened to his old man at some point. Vito’s husky drawl and pouchy cheeks, both of which deepen as he recovers from being shot six times in the street, are charts of pain and rage echoing back to another land.

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Scenes of Part II depicting Vito’s rise squarely place him (played as a boy by Oreste Baldini and as a young man by Robert De Niro) in the great immigrant tradition of the United States in scenes intensely evocative of a wistfully recalled past squalid in its moment but loaned a gloss of romanticism by time and longing for dispelled certainties. Vito, fleeing ahead of murderous wrath, arrives at Ellis Island only to be quarantined because he has scarlet fever, leaving the Statue of Liberty as an emblem beyond the grill of his cell’s window, to be admired and yearned for but never gained. In a present-day episode of the same instalment, Michael is told in no uncertain terms by a WASP Nevada Senator, Geary (G.D. Spradlin), that he despises their pretensions and ethnic traits. Vito’s ambitions for Michael highlight him as an aborted John F. Kennedy figure, doomed by his background to be unable to erase his past in the same way the other war hero son of a bootlegger could. Coppola, who had ambitions to being an empire builder himself as he tried to set up his own film enterprise, American Zoetrope, surely identified most particularly with that aspect of the Corleone tale, fighting not just for a foot in the door but for his own corner of the world. The ironic brand of ethnic pride that informs the Godfather films is balanced by awareness of the limits of empathy such parochialism can instil, particularly in the gross racism members of the Mafia underworld display: “They’re animals anyway so let them lose their souls,” declares one mob boss as he proposes only selling drugs to black communities. But the films spoke to a multiplicity of outsider identities regardless, including as style guides for hip-hop’s ardour for outlaws.

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Coppola eagerly exploited the new absence of punitive censorship for depicting the brutality inflicted by and on the Corleones. Part of the first film’s particular cunning and art lay in the way he carefully varied scenes of bloodletting in the way he shot and conceived them. The slaying of Vito’s treacherous driver Paulie (Johnny Martino) in a car parked on the Long Island shore conflates hard irony and dreamy meditation, with the swaying rushes lending muffling music and the distant, looming form of the Statue of Liberty indifferent to the scene. Vito’s bulbous lieutenant Clemenza (Richard Castellano) waters the earth with his piss as his button man waters it with blood; that’s how a homeland is made. Most other ferocious scenes are more direct and confrontational. Even the non-lethal, entirely quotidian moments of violence, like Connie’s battery by her husband and Sonny’s attack on Carlo, are gruelling spectacles. The first death in the film, Luca’s, and the last, Carlo’s, both come by garrotting, a terrible and intimate dealing of death Coppola shoots with cold regard, particularly Carlo’s end which sees him kick out the windscreen of the car that’s also his hearse in his death throes. This is achieved in one, fixed, utterly transfixing shot from the hood, the revving engine counterpoint to the desperate struggle, a flourish Anthony Mann might have been proud of. Sonny’s death is an orgiastic consummation a man as strong and virile as Sonny requires and understands, his entire body a canvas of erupting blood and pain, under the overkill fusillade of Tommy guns aimed his way – his enemies need to annihilate Sonny in a way that so contrasts the more targeted and precise Corleone method.

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That method is described in all its intricacy and unforgiving force in the first film’s climactic sequence, where Coppola cross-cuts between assassinations whilst Michael is made his niece’s godfather at her christening. In quick succession Barzini, Tattaglia, Greene, and other foes are gunned down in moments of vulnerability and surprise by a foe more patient and devious than them, all the Byzantine plotting and aesthetics suddenly cut through by the harsh report of gunfire. Coppola turns this sequence into a ritual in itself, the blaring church organ serving as funerary score lamenting the whirlwind Michael unleashes in the name of revenge and security. This sequence became another series fixture. Coppola’s reaction to a yahoo streak in the first film’s reception was to play the sequel as a far more minimal exercise in violence, although there’s still some punchy moments, particularly when Michael’s bodyguard (Amerigo Tot) tries to smother an ailing Roth in his bed only to be surprised by some Cuban soldiers who instantly gun the hitman down. Roth’s eventual slaying mimics TV footage of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby. By Part III, Coppola was back to being more indulgent again, offering up a sequence that plays in part as a miniaturised repeat of the village attack in Apocalypse Now (1979) as Zasa and his shadowy backers assault a meeting of Family heads with a helicopter machine-gunning the collection of old men, as well as a finale that turns murder into grand opera.

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Another vital aspect of the trilogy’s mystique is the way members of the little community around the Corleones is fastidiously identified, thanks to Coppola’s attentiveness to giving each a little performative space. These people fill out the margins of this created world, imbuing it with continuity and constantly rewarding the attentive viewer, and Coppola often casts people not known for acting in such parts, including the likes of Gazzo, King, and Corman, to obtain a crackle of authenticity and nail down a character quickly by exploiting a particular persona. Figures of note range from major supporting characters like the Laurel-and-Hardy-ish contrast between Vito’s top enforcers, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), down to the people who graze the family mythos like Enzo the Baker (Gabriele Torrei). Some minor but consequential characters recur through all three movies, like Michael’s resolute goon Al Neri (Richard Bright), and Don Tommasino (played young by Corrado Gaipa and as an older man by Vittorio Duse), a Sicilian crime lord and Vito’s local partner, who protects Michael during his Sicilian sojourns. When Tommasino is gunned down by the assassin hired to kill Michael in Part III, his employee Calò (Franco Citti), who long ago guarded Michael, vows revenge and sets out on a suicide mission to achieve it.

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Other characters are fated not to last through individual episodes. The trilogy’s roster of villains rarely dominate proceedings, but there’s some marvellous miniature portraits in arrogance and menace in all three films, including Rocco’s flashy and aggressive Greene, Conte’s tensile Barzini, Gastone Moschin’s strutting Don Fanucci, Vito’s quarry in Part II’s flashback scenes, and Robutti’s Lucchesi. Lettieri and Hayden make a great double act in the first film as a hood with fierce motivation who soon plainly feels the fear of someone up against the Corleones, and a vicious old coot who confesses “I’m gettin’ too old for my job.” Some of the most vivid characterisations subsist in greyer zones of motive, like the hoarse-voiced Gazzo, himself a respected playwright, as the indignant but upright Pentangeli, and Wallach’s superficially charming yet covertly serpentine Altobello. One clever aspect of the follow-up instalments is the way they generate and hinge on nostalgia for the original. A gag at the outset of Part II, as Pentangeli tries to school some musicians in playing a decent tarantella only for them to turn it into ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ illustrates how far the Corleones have drifted from the sustenance and specificity of their roots. This also taunts the audience with the same awareness: things that seemed so cosy and alluring in the past aren’t coming back. The circularity of events – births, baptisms, weddings, deaths – drag the generational frame both forward and backward in each episode, the cyclical sustenance of family and identity constantly recapitulated. The famous musical cues of the original become diegetic aspects of the Corleone legend, offered as pieces of folk music from Sicily that provoke misty-eyed longing. The climax of Part III sees Coppola intermingling shots of Michael dancing with the women in his life, Apollonia, Kay, and Mary, each one of them lost to him in one way or another.

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Brando’s turn proved an instant resurgence to respect and clout and also gave birth to one of the most mimicked and lampooned characterisations in cinema history – even Brando himself would send it up in The Freshman (1990). The remarkable thing is that his performance eternally refuses reduction despite all that. Vito’s soft and gravelly sobriety, his shows of sudden ferocity and remnant strength when he tells off Johnny and runs from his assassins, his air of melancholy and careful drip-feed of charm, truth, and affected modesty, are utterly hypnotic when on screen and register like background radiation when he’s not, even into the sequels; he is the man who creates a world and all others are forced into mere response. Brando’s careful balance of reasonable fraternity and hinted fury when assuring the gathering of fellows Dons that he won’t break the peace unless Michael is harmed, even in a seeming accident (“…or if he’s struck be a bolt of lightning, then I’m going to blame some people in this room!…”), is one of the great pieces of screen acting. De Niro had a hell of a task stepping into his shoes to play the younger Vito, almost entirely in Italian no less, and yet he also turned in a master class in performing, not just depicting Vito’s nascent mannerisms but building on them, portraying a man whose quietness and thoughtfulness register as more interesting and dynamic than other men’s frenetic actions. His Vito watches and listens, the cogs of his mind all but visible as they turn over responses to situations. Rarely were the Oscars the two men won more justified.

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But it was Pacino who was destined to become the series’ axis and mainstay, and the trilogy charts not just Pacino maturing but also finding his feet as a screen actor. I find him a touch ill-at-ease in certain moments in the first two films, although he’s never less than an obvious star and hugely talented actor. Pacino was almost entirely new to the screen – he had only been in Panic in Needle Park (1971) before, playing a squirrely addict perhaps more in his Method comfort zone – and he failed his screen test repeatedly, but Coppola kept faith in him. The slightly clumsy, theatrical feel of Michael and Kay’s rupture in Part II betrays the way both actors were still learning to project effect and manage their bodies in a new medium; suddenly we’re back in the actor’s workshop under Strasberg’s watchful gaze. But for the most part the callow hue to Pacino’s performance was a strange bonus, giving flesh to Michael’s slow evolution and accumulation of pain and air of forced and premature solemnity. One of his best moments in the first film comes as he works up the nerve to gun down Sollozzo and McCluskey, his eyes jumping about like his pupils are fleas, offering those men a façade of thoughtful attention whilst we all but feel his pulse galloping, his nerves drugged by the oncoming moment of irrevocable action. When he returned to the role for Part III, Pacino was only just picking up his movie career after a few years recalibrating following the poorly received Revolution (1985). By this time Pacino was a man in total control of his craft and the medium, whilst the struggle with disillusion he’d been through off screen gave deep conviction to his portrait: Part III is very possibly Pacino’s greatest performance. The 60-year-old Michael as a man who’s obtained something like his father’s ability to coexist in two zones simultaneously, with a certain wry and crusty charisma balancing his weariness with the ways of the world, and he sets about courting Kay’s understanding and forgiveness with a needy streak.

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Coppola was too much of a cineaste to entirely detach himself from the classic American gangster movie. Midway through the film he offers a montage of newspaper headlines and photos in a typical old Hollywood expositional ploy, predicting his later efforts on The Cotton Club (1984) to more fully immerse himself in that style. The expanse of the narrative and attempts to make a statement about the criminal’s place in the broader sweep of history had some precursors, particularly Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). But The Godfather perhaps represented the first time since the early 1930s that Anglosphere film audiences had been exposed to a major film as vitally influenced by non-English-language cinema as by Hollywood norms, through Coppola’s borrowing of effects from the likes of the Italian neorealists, particularly Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The music score, provided by Nino Rota who had scored films for many of the major Italian directors, gave the film a haunting lustre that was also unmistakeably rooted in this cultural background. The narrative unfolds as a restless and relentless arbitration between plot and character obeying familiar Hollywood storytelling ideals, but with Coppola’s carefully worked style used to render the film an aesthetic avatar for the experience of its characters, as a hybrid of methods and sensibilities, the meditative weight of the old world influence inflect the hard and punchy necessities of American life.

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Perhaps the strongest influence, Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), dealt similarly with a Sicilian family assailed by changing times, although nominally with the social opposites of the Corleones as protagonists. If the opening wedding takes Gone With The Wind as its narrative model, it’s the climactic ball scene of The Leopard that’s the template for how Coppola shoots it. Coppola’s tendency to let his camera stand away back and allow many shots to drink in panoramic detail cut against the feverish grain of much filmmaking at the time, often placing important gestures and highly dramatic moments in the distance in his framings, like the way Vito’s death sees an out-of-focus figure collapse whilst his uncomprehending grandson remains centre-frame. Coppola’s discursive evocations of emotion are perhaps most brilliantly illustrated by the key scene in the saga where Michael realises that Fredo is a traitor. Coppola goes in for a close-up that registers Michael’s cognition of the fact, but his private squall of grief and rage that follows is then thrust into the background of the next shot.

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The context of the revelation is just as noteworthy, a ribald excursion into Havana nightlife to a live sex act with a woman “sacrificed” to a man with a colossal penis, an outsized mockery of the social dynamics of both the potency-obsessed gangland and strongman-dominated pre-revolution Cuba, and with the act of revelation itself a gag before it suddenly becomes high tragedy. Cazale, an actor who made his debut in the first film, had a potentially thankless task in his role as the family stooge, trying to make the most dispensable man in his clan a worthwhile figure. His best moment in the first film comes when Fredo fails to ward off his father’s attackers, fumbling his gun and left weeping over Vito’s bleeding form, having faced the kind of moment of truth requiring action that defines manhood in his world and utterly failed in it. But Cazale’s highpoint, and perhaps that of the series, comes in Part II when he delivers a portrait of feckless despair, as Fredo confesses his sins to Michael, at once crushed by the weight of his guilt and vacuousness but also suddenly electrified by finally expressing his resentment and frustration. His bleating protestations – “I’m smart! Not like everybody says! I’m smart and I want respect!” – become the lament for every loser in the world. Suffering utter humiliation and exile, and with perhaps the underlying sense that his days are numbered, Fredo is later seen striking up a friendship with Michael’s son Anthony, all fire doused, exhausted and acquiescent to fate.

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Coppola readily admitted to taking on the project to make money and leverage more personal work. And yet, once more in affinity with Michael, he found The Godfather was destined to remain the cornerstone of his reputation, an ideogram of his art – small wonder Part III hinges on the rude bastard offspring becoming the embraced and accepted heir. The Godfather gave his career and directorial stamp definition he hadn’t really been able to give it before that, as the material allowed him to express so many of his creative talents at once, and most of his later films are rather permutations of the various facets found here. The protagonists of his juvenilia, wayward folk seeking a place in the world and a certain sense of self, evolved through Michael into the kinds of antiheroes littered throughout the rest of his oeuvre, Harry Caul to Willard and Kurtz, Motorcycle Boy and Tucker and Dracula, titanic figures who contend with their own dark and self-consuming sides whilst chasing their illusory goals. The painful romanticism and nomadic nostalgia of Rumblefish (1983), One From The Heart (1982), and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) are prefigured by Coppola’s efforts to portray marital strife and the relentless tug of a remembered, idealised past. Apocalypse Now would take up the attempts in the Godfather films to conceive personal, psychological strife as an extension, or rather wellspring, of larger social and historical travails.

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Coppola’s most important characters experience their most cherished and transcendent truths – love, creation, loyalty – as mortifying events that torment and wrack rather than free, whilst also conceding the blessed pain of having something to care that much about and suffer for is as much part of the life drive as pleasure. As he became more of a formalist, Coppola also became more interested in the dialogue between reality and fantasy, usually worked through in the tension between cinematic artifice and raw emotionalism, although the aesthete could win out in works that are little more than rampant exercises in stylisation (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992). The dominating style of The Godfather maintained a balance: the trademark photography style successfully evoked the past through shadows and saturated colours but also allowed a fine-tip realism. The first film is dominated by the use of doorways as a constant visual motif, from Michael and Enzo taking up station at the hospital entrance to the final, famous shot of the door closing on Kay’s face with all its intimations; Coppola’s compositions so often take a squared-off, rectilinear stance in regarding buildings, facades, and corridors, that reduces the universe into two states, within and without, and correlating these to various forms of power and autonomy. Water dominates the second film with similar immersive import, the lapping waves of Lake Tahoe glow gold at night under electric light and sparkle in the sun, but become cold iron grey as Fredo meets his end out there, prefigured by the rain that sheets down the glass as Fredo makes his confession to Michael.

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The ending of the first film rings so true and plangently because it captures the way subterranean certainty underpins agreed facades. Things will be swept under the rug, silences maintained, happy illusions forcibly preserved. By contrast, Part II, for all its determined gravitas, dedicates itself to finding a new and circumlocutory way of recapitulating the old message that crime doesn’t pay in a way that cuts against the grain of the original’s indulgence of violent power successfully articulated. Michael stills wins the great game but defeats himself in the fights that mean something to him. The series obeys Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate, but it could also be accused of illustrating character type as melodramatic function. Sonny’s temper and Fredo’s weakness are their broad defining qualities, scarcely complicated. Kay represents the goggle-eyed fascination and then punitive judgementalism of white-bread society. Only Vito and Michael might be called truly complex figures. The alternations of timeframe in Part II contrast father and son on both a personal level and on a sociological one. Vito’s relationship with community is organic and outward-directed, recognising that community as a group of people who, like himself, have experienced uprooting and exile and who all have, in their way, some ideal of revenge in mind, even if it’s only against a creep landlord. His charitable and amicable streaks are laced with self-serving, but Vito clearly learns how to work people as well as work with them, a quality that Michael, who tends to reduce everything to either a threat or a profit source, clearly misses, as much as he tries to act the cool and concerted businessman.

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Vito’s struggle is with the world without, climaxing when he finally returns to Sicily and slays crime lord Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato), who killed the rest of his family, but by then only a pathetic old cripple. Michael rather contends with the inner natures of himself and the people around him: he, Fredo, Roth, Kay, and Pentangeli all are driven to self-destruction by little voices that won’t leave them alone. Michael’s world tends to shrink inwards, sheared of context and community. The mall the Corleones control in the first film, a carefully contrived semblance of suburban normality, gives way to the walled and remote compound by Lake Tahoe. At times I’ve grouchily referred to the present-tense sequences of Part II as “Gangsters In Mid-Life Crisis.” I recognise and appreciate the episode’s attempts to make overt the tragic undertone of the saga, but I still feel a touch of frustration with it. Part II is purposefully a much less gratifying and plot-driven than the first film, but some of the knit-browed self-seriousness feels strained. It also has story elements that fail, particularly the subplot of Pantangeli, which might have had more resonance if the character had been Clemenza as originally planned, but still doesn’t really go anywhere. Michael is so often so sullen and gloomy in this episode he threatens at times to become a nonentity; only his flashes of anger at Fredo and Kay wake him up. Coppola’s recreation of the look and sound of the Kefauver Hearings as seen on television is studious but dramatically inert. The episode gives Tom very little to do except for one graceful moment of instructing Pentangeli to kill himself under the cover of an historical anecdote. The scene of Kay’s leaving Michael comes abruptly and refuses to feel convincing.

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Where Part II works brilliantly is in the exchanges between Michael and Roth – Pacino’s respect for his old acting mentor Strasberg converts intelligibly into the cautious patience of one master gamester for another – and in the downfall of Fredo, which obeys the logic of Greek tragedy. Fredo’s character, or lack of it, drives him to make stupid decisions he can’t undo, just as Michael’s drives him to make smart decisions he likewise can’t undo. The scenes in Cuba are laced with a mordant sense of gangster capitalism fused with state oligarchy, illustrated with sublime humour as Michael and other tycoons are feted at a presidential banquet where a solid gold telephone is passed around. The flashback sequences are also superlative. The burnished images elsewhere are mediated here by a slightly diffused and hazy look befitting their backward-looking sense of nostalgia, nostalgia that doesn’t fend off the same confrontation with brute forces. The scene shifts from the primal rocky plain of the first shot where Vito and his mother (Maria Carta) try to bury his father only to find his older brother slain, killed in seeking a vendetta for his father’s assassination by the malignant Ciccio, to the streets of New York that teem with human industry and life, flotsam citizens of one land dashed against the brownstone shoals of another.

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Vito’s journey sees him barely avoid being slain whilst his mother is shot dead by Ciccio for buying her son time to flee by holding a knife to the Don’s throat. When the grown Vito is strongarmed by Fanucci, and the young entrepreneur, tired of being chased off and patronised, instead resolves to fight back and kills Fanucci, setting himself on a path he can’t leave but which immediately gratifies him with power. The sequence of Vito’s killing of Fanucci, carefully ambushing his foe in a grimy tenement building whilst festivities blare out in the street, has the quality of a communal dream, and stands as one of the best things Coppola ever did. The last flashback in the film is subtler, presenting a moment of totemic meaning for Michael that also again invokes nostalgia for the first film, as Michael remembers the occasion of his father’s birthday just before he went off to war, and several long-dead and disgraced characters reappear. Sonny is infuriated by his patriotic choice laced with undertones of rebellion. Fredo congratulates him. Michael is left alone at the table, anticipating Michael’s solitude as seemingly predestined whether he rebelled or became the perfect scion because of some misaligned element in his makeup.

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By Part III Michael has regained community, as the celebration of his receiving a Papal honour for charity work sees the Corleones back in their milieu, and something like the glossy, embracing feeling of a wealthy extended clan reunited has returned, in part because the processes of time has replenished their ranks, and Michael’s actions, however troubling, have bought him years of stability. Now the intruding hoods, like John Gotti stand-in Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), are notably out of place, like members of the family no-one thought would have the gall to turn up. Young Vincent is literally that, although he soon stakes a place inside the castle as a potent ally Michael sees potential in despite a temper the equal of his father – within moments of being ushered into Michael’s inner sanctum to hash out his differences with Zasa, his nominal employer, he’s tried to bite his ear off. Given that Michael’s oldest son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) has chosen to become an opera singer rather than follow him into the family business and with daughter Mary given the task of managing charities, Michael uneasily accepts Vincent as the man who will fight off the new flock of circling crows. Eventually the scene shifts from New York to Sicily as Anthony makes his starring debut in Palermo in a production of Cavalleria Rusticana.

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In between machinations of plot Part III is preoccupied with Michael’s fumbling attempts to make some sort of peace with the past in general and Kay in specific. He gives her a tour of the Sicilian landscape and tries to give her and his children new insight into his background and motives, and even manages to strike up fresh chemistry with Kay although she realises he can’t ever escape the trap he made for himself. Part III has often been dismissed as an ill-advised revisit, with some preferring to ignore it altogether. But I’ve always liked it, and feel it resolves the saga with real punch by its end. It’s easy to agree with some common complaints, including that Sofia Coppola was unequal to her role, and that it misses Duvall’s presence – after Duvall refused to return after a pay dispute, Puzo and Coppola rewrote their script so Tom had died in the interim, with his son Andrew (John Savage) now a priest and a slick and urbane creature, B. J. Harrison (George Hamilton), now Michael’s trusted legal rep. Certainly, too, its mere existence despoils the symmetry of the first two parts. The absence of so many familiar faces is however turned into a dramatic strength insofar as it focuses most squarely on Michael, whose journey reaches a cruel apogee as he fumbles a chance at redemption.

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Another of the series’ pivotal moments comes when Michael talks with a genuine and kindly Cardinal, Lamberto (Raf Vallone), who will soon be elevated as Pope John Paul I, and offers a memorable parable with a stone in a well to illustrate the lack of Christian feeling in a land long dominated by Christianity. Lamberto talks Michael into making his confession with an unerring eye for spiritual pain. Michael catalogues his crimes, building up to admitting to killing “my mother’s son,” and it becomes clear that twenty years have scarcely offered a scab over the raw wound of the deed. The sarcastic correlation of religion and mob power that informs the series from the start, the aspect of funerary rite that defines the climax of the first film and the subsuming of the role of giver of life and death by the Dons, here gives way to a more urgent questioning of just what if anything a man like Michael can ask of his nominal faith, and whether redemption, both worldly and spiritual, is possible for him. He tells Lamberto he does not repent his actions, but still seeks a form of release as he tries to turn his fortune to good works and sets out to try and save Lamberto’s life after he becomes pope. The film’s resolution suggests that the price for such redemption might be unbearably high. Keaton keeps pace with Pacino as the older and wiser Kay keeps a wary glint in her eyes and a slight smile on her face that constantly asserts her willingness to be friends and also her utter refusal to be bullshitted again. Around them is a bravura exercise in controlled style from Coppola, if also more flamboyant than its predecessors. This time around the signature sequence of cross-cutting ceremony and violence is inflated into a cinematic movement depicting the Corleones watching and performing Cavalleria Rusticana, turning the film into a meta-theatrical event. Gestures from life recur on the stage and vice versa. Identity has become as a ritualised script everyone’s doomed to read from, a passion play constantly repeated as long as humans remain so in thrall to their base drives and desires.

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As if reacting to the Michael-driven portentousness of the previous instalment, Part III offers Garcia as a revival of some of Caan’s strident force, with a new jolt of sex appeal as Vincent flirts with Bridget Fonda’s go-get-‘em journalist Grace Hamilton, who’s trying to interview Michael, a tryst that results in Grace getting caught between Vincent and two of Zasa’s goons hired to kill him. Although Michael wants anything but a new wave of bloodshed (he coins the line that serves as emblematic for so many neo-noir antiheroes, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”), Vincent, with Connie’s encouragement and with Michael out of action because of a diabetic attack, whacks Zasa. This sequence combines elements of various earlier killings in the first two films, signalling to both audience and Michael that Vincent combines talents of the Corleones but also has a hunger for the down-and-dirty side of their world he never had. Like Connie, Vincent loves the Corleone mythos, remembering his forceful but foolish father as “prince of the city.” His romance with Mary swerves into an incestuous stew befitting dynastic self-propagation, but Michael successfully buys him off by making breaking off the affair the one condition for Vincent stepping into Michael’s place as commander of the family muscle. Michael cleverly uses Vincent to gain Altobello’s trust and uncover his connection to Lucchesi, and realises that the efforts to kill off the Immobiliaire deal endanger not just the Corleone family members but also the new Pope, who signs off on Michael’s deal despite, and or perhaps because, he knows all about Michael’s dank guilt.

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Sofia’s performance as Mary got a caning from many commentators after Part III’s release, years before she’d find her real metier. She was only given the part after originally slated star Winona Ryder pulled out at the last minute, although Francis wasn’t really taking such a chance on her as she’d given a promising performance in Rumblefish. It’s definitely true that her scenes with Garcia urgently lack the crackle they need to drive the forbidden romance angle. But she offers a blowsy adolescent naiveté that suits the role to a certain extent, in keeping with Francis’ casting philosophy throughout the series. The second two films extended the original novel’s annexation of pulp paperback history blended with tart probing into the proximity of politics with money. Part III revolves around popular conspiracy theories regarding John Paul I’s short tenure as Pope, supposedly assassinated to prevent financial malfeasance and organised crime ties being exposed. The infamous, so-called “God’s Banker” Roberto Calvi, who finished up hanging from a London bridge in real life, is here represented as Frederick Keinszig (Helmut Berger), involved in siphoning off Vatican funds to Lucchesi and his pals, and killed by Vincent in his retaliatory strikes. These also see Gilday shot and dropped from a great height and Lucchesi slain by Calò, who has to approach the honcho without any kind of weapon but improvises by ramming the man’s own spectacles into his throat. Connie poisons Altobello with cannoli. But these moves fail to head off the Pope’s gentle murder by poisoned hot chocolate, whilst a roving hired assassin, Mosca (Mario Donatone), zeroes in on Michael. After killing Tommasino, who recognises him on the prowl, Mosca tries to gun Michael down as he watches his son perform.

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Mosca battles with Michael’s bodyguards, managing to avoid disturbing the performance and instead taking another shot at the target as he leaves the opera house, but instead kills Mary. Coppola’s visual hyperbole throughout this sequence, like the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now, sarcastically contrasts high culture with dirty business, whilst allowing Coppola to indulge pure artifice in a more functional way than in the odes to represented reality in One From The Heart and The Cotton Club, whilst the tension between realism and stylisation extends with shots as precisely composed as any classical art hacked through by the hard purpose of Hollywood editing. The howl of pain Michael releases over Mary’s body is at once bloodcurdling and cathartic, as it seems like the wail of protest as well as pain he’s longed to release since the death of Apollonia or perhaps even since his father’s shooting, woe and infinite regret for suffering given and inflicted and over the damned inevitability of it all, all of it fated since Michael’s promise to his father in his hospital bed. The last shot, of Michael quietly dying alone in great old age, confirms he was doomed for all his works and efforts to end up a ruined and solitary creature, nursing his ghosts and sorrows like a brood of black kittens. And yet the way Coppola shoots his end, settled in a chair in what was Tommasino’s garden, a place of placid and dreamy longings for the fallen titan, gives him more grace than his father’s slightly pathetic end. Michael leaves the world in a state of peaceful reflection in a setting of personal import, his memories of people, whether they died violently or not, now all rendered equal simply by time.

 

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1990s, Auteurs, Drama

Casino (1995)

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Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

Casino presents the rare, inspiring sight of a director pushing his capacities, obsessions, and stylistic experimentation to the limit. Scorsese’s attempts to shunt narrative and explore worlds through montage and voiceover, to fuse high and low culture, to gain panoramic insight into America, to show violence as harsh and ugly as possible—all pushed to the far edge in Casino. If The Age of Innocence is Scorsese at his most poised, Casino is Marty gone primeval. It’s a film where a shot from within a cocaine snorter’s straw, white flakes hoovered up towards the camera like a sandstorm, seems subtle. The film that erupts in its opening scene—literally, as Robert De Niro seems to be blown sky high by a car bomb to strains of Bach’s “Matthaus Passion”—becomes an opera of the sordid (the credits also represent the last work of the great film editor and title designer Saul Bass). Scorsese’s first film in 12 years without Michael Ballhaus is instead filmed in the bolder colors and light-diffusing style of Robert Richardson. Richardson’s camera drinks in a landscape of bad wigs and make-up caked faces, cocaine and blood, phony glamour and phonier humanity.

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For all this, Casino is a film about marriage—bad marriage on a Shakespearean scale undone by what kills most marriages: money, distrust, and infidelity. Casino is another logical step up from the street-level quasi-hoods of Mean Streets. It pointedly lacks the comforting blue-collar attitude of the Goodfellas crew; Jimmy the Gent, Tommy, and Paulie are lovable when contrasted with the at-all-costs obscenity of Las Vegas and its resident hoods. In its cut-up aesthetics and spurning of the subtle, Casino was Scorsese’s angriest, most punkish film since Taxi Driver and joined two other exciting films from the mid 90s—Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls —in offering a purposefully excessive take on the city of excess; like those films, though not as severely, Casino was greeted without adulation.

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But Casino is Scorsese’s great burn-it-down statement, the furthest end of his disgust and delight in everything seamy in American culture. He films Las Vegas in all its Technicolor glory and grotesquery, a symphonic swirl of lights, sex, currency, and gore. The film follows the true story of alleged mob tool Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Chicago mobsters Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, and Frank Cullotta, rendered here as Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), and Frank Marino (Frank Vincent). Sam and Nicky are boyhood friends, the closest the film gets to the “years ago back home” vibe of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. Sam is a great gambler, a scientist of chance, who has, up to the early 70s, made his living as a bookie at the behest of the mob. He leaps at the shot at managing the new Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas, theoretically controlled by developer Phillip Green (Kevin Pollak) who’s borrowed financing from the infamous Teamsters Pension Fund. This, of course, means it’s a mob-controlled development. The Mafia dons, headed by Remo Gaggi (Pasquale Cajano), won’t venture any closer to Vegas than Kansas City, the future of their cash cow requiring a squeaky-clean image whilst their finely calibrated skims bring in titanic revenue.

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Sam does his job with micromanagerial finesse and ice-cold authority. His awareness of systems— systems of control, systems of surveillance, and the systems of luck—is brilliantly spelled out by Scorsese’s ever-mobile camera. He knows that, for all the illusions the town presents, the house almost always wins, and even when it doesn’t, it can be dealt with. He can sabotage big winners, as he does with a Japanese high roller, keeping him stranded in town until he gambles away all he has won, and ruthlessly punishes cheats. One gets his hand smashed with a hammer by his partner, who is offered a choice between “the money and the hammer” or walking away. In a fashion, Sam and the rest in Casino also have chosen the money and the hammer.

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Sam enjoys his apparent acceptance into elite circles, his status, wealth, and power, which he’s never been allowed before. “Vegas was like Lourdes. All our sins were washed away.” Yet Sam isn’t a happy pawn. He wants to be legitimized, gain a Nevada gaming license—requiring years of bureaucracy and bribery—and a wife. He sets his eyes on Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the most beautiful, sexy, clever, greedy hustler in town. Sam uses the omnipresent surveillance system of the Tangiers to watch her bilking a gambler and steps in to save her when he gets uppity. Ginger is a virtual personification of the city, a mesmerizing surface over a heart of steel, greedy, dishonest, and perversely attached to sleazy beginnings. Sam proves his ardor with a nest egg of a million dollars’ worth of jewelry, which Ginger fawns over with childish glee before it’s locked in a safe deposit box at the bank. For Sam, it’s a pledge of trust and fidelity; for her it’s the golden egg from a goose ripe for the dinner table. He doesn’t marry her until they have a daughter together, Amy (Erika von Tagen), a sure way, he thinks, of binding her close.

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When Nicky arrives with his crew of heavies, including brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) and Marino, he’s been sent by Remo to protect Sam and the operation. But Nicky has a very different idea of his Vegas mission. He establishes kingpin status, robbing and intimidating left, right, and center. Nicky soon gets himself banned from every casino in town, and attracts an army of police and FBI agents, forlornly trying to catch him on something. Sam knows what the pint-sized psychopath is capable of: he has seen Nicky stab a man in the neck with a fountain pen for a flash of brusque attitude. Nicky thinks nothing of threatening bankers, working over bookies, or shooting Phillip Green’s litigious ex-business partner—a middle-aged, middle-class woman—in the head. When a gang shoots up a local diner, Nicky is ordered to punish them. He tortures their leader, eventually putting his head in a vice and popping an eyeball from its socket, before cutting his throat. He also gets up every morning to make his son breakfast and eagerly chats with cops watching their sons at Little League games.

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Sam is unable to restrain Nicky, and is even resented for his attempts to play Mr. Legit: “We’re supposed to be robbin’ this place, you dumb fuckin’ hebe!” Nor can Sam maintain authority over Ginger, who keeps a flame for her first lover and pimp, Lester Diamond (James Woods, defining “sleazeball”), who cajoles her for money whilst keeping her psyche on a short leash. He can hypnotize her over the phone by recalling the “young colt with braces on her teeth” he sold. Sam detests the man as much as Ginger pities and adores him. When Lester taps Ginger for $5,000, Sam gives it to him, but then has Nicky’s goons work him over, to Ginger’s hysterical protest. Ginger descends into drugs and drink. In her unstable, paranoid state, she convinces herself that Sam will have her killed, and begins coming on to Nicky as a potential protector, an act that can only have evil consequences.

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Cue what was voted the worst sex scene in screen history by one newspaper’s readers: Joe Pesci screwing Sharon Stone. It’s logical in this film exploring a world of sensual excess. Here, indulgence has long outstripped desire, a substitution which, consistently in Scorsese, is the worst possible sin, and one too readily tempting in rich America. Not for the first time, Scorsese dragged a career-best performance from a star, here Stone, who inhabits her half-mad minx with bodily force. In comparison, Pesci is close to parodic and De Niro’s Sam is a much cooler performance than he usually delivered for Scorsese, fittingly as Rothstein’s relative sympathy contrasts his surrounds, but with some lurches into familiar tics (“Can I trust you?…Can I trust you? Answer me, can I trust you?”). It’s also Scorsese’s last collaboration with De Niro until The Irishman (2019).

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The poisonous threesome of Sam-Nicky-Ginger sends this tale careening into insanity, but other events help, like when FBI agents, bugging the grocery store of put-upon don Artie Piscano (Vinnie Vella), overhear him bitching about his responsibilities to his curse-shy mother (Catherine Scorsese, in her last part for her son before dying in 1997). Nicky can still run rings around them. Agents watching Nicky in a light plane run out of petrol and have to land on a golf course where he and his goons are playing; they happily pelt the plane with golf balls. But Nicky has unbalanced Vegas’ stability. The casino cash-counters who perform the skimming soon begin pilfering for themselves. Marino soon finds himself piggy in the middle, having to answer questions from Remo over the dwindling revenue and whether Nicky is screwing Ginger. Worse, Sam gains far too much attention when his refusal to humor local redneck nepotism results in failure to get his license. He explodes at a Gaming Commission, rants to reporters, and gives himself a high-profile television host to justify hanging around the Tangiers.

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Sam is the only person in the film who maintains relative dignity and sympathy, for his professionalism and especially his fatherly concern for Amy, who, at one point, is tied to her bed by her mother who wishes to go out for the evening. In the screenplay, Sam was to have had Lester killed by Nicky, but this was left out of the film, perhaps because Sam is the story’s only link to common humanity. Like so many Scorsese heroes, Sam is defined by his yearning, his desire to transcend his lot and live his version of the American dream through Vegas, the institutionalized loophole in American post-puritan morality. Yet his ferocious poise in gambling and management is matched by a lack of emotional smarts, and his willingness to employ thuggery in settling a romantic rival’s hash, his unleashed loathing for an establishment of country club blazers and cowboy hats who won’t let a Jewish bookie join their ranks, all doom him.

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The recreated cocaine-stained polyester and sleazestache chic of 70s style is noxiously intense (largely responsible for the glut of 70s retro films of the late 90s), Scorsese’s culture riffing alternately playful—like the painfully exact recreation of Sam’s TV show or caricature of Siegfried and Roy—and carefully planned. Like the soundtrack’s use of three different versions of “Satisfaction”—from the Stones’ driving, declaratory original to Devo’s disintegrating, masturbatory edition—Nicky and Sam’s control dissolves in a welter of blow-induced shootings and soul-grinding jealousies. Scorsese honors his locale with typical idiosyncrasy, by casting Vegas headline comedians like Alan King, Don Rickles (as two of Sam’s casino lieutenants, Andy Stone and Billy Sherbert), and Tom Smothers.

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Casino fulfills Scorsese’s interest in the mechanics of violence, power, and criminality, and opens up territory suggested in The Age of Innocence and Raging Bull in studying not just social outsiders, but its winners, to study how often in American society that old adage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s about there being no second acts in American lives, proves true, and why. Sam, Ginger, and Nicky triumph by being the most exacting, enthusiastic, and ruthless in their fields. They are pure entrepreneurs, but their utter confusion of success with plunder destroys all three of them to varying degrees. Ginger and Nicky are seriously screwed-up people, and Sam’s offering all he has to a woman he knows is venal and untrustworthy reeks of masochism. Casino moves from Goodfellas’ true-crime black comedy to a new realm, one of classical tragedy. As in Euripides and Shakespeare, it uses the extreme lives of its colossal characters to reflect on ordinary human faults, allowed to reach an extreme through the scale of their lives. Most people only feel like the world collapses when their marriage busts up, but in Casino it literally does.

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Ginger runs off with Lester, taking Amy with her, then crawls back when Lester blows all their money. Sam, fuming, accepts her but bitterly harps on Lester’s waste and finally spits death threats. Ginger only wants to get her hands on her safe deposit box, but Sam won’t hand it over, knowing it’s the only way he can keep her around. His and Ginger’s concussive brawls and mutual abuse result in Sam dragging Ginger by her hair down a hallway and throwing her out, only to have her return in the middle of the night, their rage temporarily spent. Ginger tries to push Sam by declaring Nicky is her new sponsor, but Nicky contemptuously has her thrown out of his restaurant in her hysterical state. Sam, justifiably paranoid that Nicky’s goons will arrive, has Sherbert come with a shotgun. All they get is Ginger instead, repeatedly ramming Sam’s car in their driveway. She uses the police intervention to snatch the key to the safe deposit box, and beats Sam to the bank to make off with her treasure chest, only to be stopped by detectives.

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But they’re not after her—they’re drawing the net on the whole operation. They even try to get Sam to rat on Nicky by showing him photos of Nicky and Ginger together; he shuts the door on them. Still, Remo and the bosses, Nicky, Frank, dozens of made men,and parasites are arrested. In reply, the bosses order a bloodbath. Witnesses, weak links, traitors, and the problematic litter the landscape from Kansas to Costa Rica. Nicky and his brother, released on bail, are met in a cornfield by Frank and their crew. The boys, happy at the chance to remove the scary little creep from their lives, hold Nicky down and force him to watch them beat Dominic to a bloody pulp, and then do the same to him, before burying them both alive in a dusty grave. It’s perhaps the rawest scene of violence ever in a mainstream American film, and Scorsese finally confronts a limit here, both of what he can get away with and of the lifestyle of these people. This is what’s at the center of the onion he’s peeled, and fittingly for an angry repudiation of violence, it’s Nicky the psycho who’s the suddenly sympathetic victim. The only amusing aspect is that Frank Vincent finally has revenge for the beatings he received from Pesci in Raging Bull and Goodfellas.

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What’s left of Casino’s narrative runs out on burning sand, scored with perhaps Scorsese’s most perfect sound-vision fusion by The Animal’s version of “House of the Rising Sun.” That most iconic of blues songs—like the film—mixes cautionary tale, deterministic social argument, and ironic sensual celebration. Alan Price’s organ burns away as Ginger, as a groaning husk, drops dead in an anonymous hotel hallway, murdered with a hot dose of heroin, her fortune squandered. Sam, we find, is saved from a bomb planted in his car only by incredible fortune. Our last image of an aging, thick-spectacled Ace Rothstein, is another Scorsese Odysseus washed up on the shore, emptied of torturous passions and laden with experience, happy to be simply alive. As old Vegas collapses flames, he muses with due sarcasm about the laundering of the town; gone is, at least, the sense that the town was run by human beings, guys like himself who had risen from nothing, replaced by corporations. America’s playground becomes another place for the bedazzled and hopeful to give their money away to the giants.

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1990s, Auteurs, Drama

Goodfellas (1990)

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By Roderick Heath

My clothes may still be torn and tattered/
But in my heart I’d be a king/
Your love is all that ever mattered/
It’s everything.
– “Rags to Riches” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, performed by Tony Bennett

Knocked out in bed last night/
I´ve had my fill, my share of looting/
And now, the tears subside/
I find it all so amusing/
To think, I killed a cat/
And may I say, oh no, not their way/
But no, no, not me/
I did it my way.
– “My Way” by Claude François, Jacques Revau, Paul Anka, and Sid Vicious, performed by Sid Vicious

1990 was a vintage year for gangster films. Francis Coppola revisited old turf with the underrated, operatic The Godfather Part III; the Coen Brothers made a typically skewed visitation to the Hammett/Chandler subgenre with Miller’s Crossing; Stephen Frears tried Jim Thompson’s hardboiled milieu with The Grifters. But it was Martin Scorsese who laid down the template for a glut of gangland portraits with Goodfellas, creating surely the most stylistically influential film of the following decade. Goodfellas’ punchy aesthetic is reflected in films as diverse as Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997), Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), through to TV’s The Sopranos. Countless pseudo-indie confections made its tone-setting, narrative-driving voiceovers irritatingly popular.

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After the cacophony that met The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas must have felt like safe ground, and Scorsese was handsomely repaid with his most generally admired work. For most of its running time, Goodfellas is an experiment in sheer cinematic motion – a deeply expressive virtuosity, structured like a cocaine binge, all electric pulse and giddy thrills to begin with, concluding in sweaty paranoia and collapsed perspectives. It’s impossible to forget the impact of first watching the film and being instantly hauled along by its compulsive force, the giddy, dirty life story Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) narrates. We meet Henry during a moment of staggering brutality: his friends Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) shooting and stabbing a groaning, bloodied man in the trunk of their car.

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Henry slams the trunk shut, and Scorsese freezes frame on his pale, sweat-flecked face, to the immortal voiceover announcement, “All my life all I ever wanted was to be a gangster.” In five minutes we know all there is to know about Henry and why he ended up confronting this, and why his expression looked like he was thinking, “Well, I knew there’d be days like this.” As it happens to Henry, so the film happens to us; the logic is there, but shit happens so quickly you hardly know it. Henry’s a half-Italian, half-Irish, blue-collar boy (played young by Christopher Serrone) whose working-class life of straitened circumstances and furious belt beatings looks like excellent training for the brutality, avarice, and lordly authority gangland life offers. Henry starts his underworld career as a gofer for local Mafia heavy Paulie (Paul Sorvino) and the vibrating network of hoods, stick-up artists, skimmers, and scammers he patronises.

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In the arc of Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas was important not just for being a return to the criminal milieu underpinning Mean Streets and Raging Bull – although, unlike those films, Goodfellas is about the men on the far side of the invisible line that Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Jake La Motta danced on – but also as a return to his neo-realist inspirations. Goodfellas achieves its great impact by fusing the slickest of modern movie technical, editing, and storytelling techniques, with a carefully expostulated charting of a specific milieu utilising a flavorful verisimilitude straight from the neo-realist playbook by using real ex-mobsters in the cast and the casting Scorsese’s parents in key roles. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi adapted Pileggi’s nonfiction account of Hill’s life, Wiseguys, which was dedicated to analysing and describing just how the mob works in all its sleazy, entrancing details.

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The film warps our perspective, not just with Henry’s incessantly nasal, quick-fire patter reproducing a high-pressure salesman’s enthralling seduction of the senses whilst numbing critical faculties, with his constant phrasings (“it’s just good business,” “makes sense,” etc.) ad nauseum. Scorsese furthers the effect with tunnel-vision framing, edits, and dizzying camera movements – most famously, the single-take tracking shot in which Henry, trying to wow girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco), treats her to the alternative entrance to the Copacabana, passing through kitchens and hallways, greeting chefs, waiters, necking couples, and celebrities with easy flair, to a table summoned from nowhere especially for this VIP. She (and we) is knocked flat by the effect. Much later, as Henry descends into coked-up, paranoid hysteria, Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (this is the film credit he’ll probably want carved on his tombstone) go all out – whip-pans, flash edits, zoom shots, dollies, tracking shots, distorted sound, jaggedly intercut musical cues – in a sequence as impressive to film makers, who have hailed it as an experimental film construction in itself, as it is to ex-junkies for whom the sequence is queasily accurate.

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Goodfellas shows how crime families are just that – families consisting of people who spend all their time together, living, dying, raising families in each other’s laps. Henry’s vicious upbringing makes him drawn to the earned respect and familial trust of the mob. He and Tommy are virtual favourite nephews to Jimmy’s corrupting uncle when he’s the local dapper gent, god to all the two-bit punks. When Henry is busted for the first time, he is greeted by a celebration (“You lost your cherry!”) as affirmation he has now passed the final rite of passage for a wiseguy. As Henry sells it, the Mafia life is the ultimate refusal to kowtow to moneyed authority and the deadening demands made on working-class men – befitting the Mafia’s roots in Sicilian quarrymen’s attempts at union-building (the Italian phrase “syndicate” that has come to refer to the Mafia, also means “union”) – who earn with sweat and (literal) blood a life of luxury and authority that ordinarily would be denied them.

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That Tommy is an explosive psychopath is only of concern to Henry and Jimmy when he turns it on them – otherwise he’s the kind of scary force you’re glad to have in your corner. Tommy casually shoots a lippy waiter (Michael Imperioli) and is willing to risk assassination by their Mafia overlords to get revenge on obnoxious Bill Batts (Pesci’s old stand-up buddy Frank Vincent, getting his second beating off Pesci in a Scorsese film), a made man who teases Tommy about his childhood job shining shoes. Pesci’s signature moment – which, according to legend, Scorsese let him write and direct himself, and which did most of the work in capturing him his 1990 Best Supporting Actor Oscar – is when, in joking over drinks, he suddenly seems to take offence to Henry calling him “a funny guy.” Although he eventually realises it’s a put-on, Henry is momentarily a deer caught in Tommy’s headlights. It’s entirely possible, and he knows it, Tommy might shoot him for the perceived insult.

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But most of the time, Tommy’s their trouble-prone, motor-mouthed kid brother whose mother (Catherine Scorsese in her most indelible performance for her son) pesters him to get married, and who cheerfully takes the boys to her place and has them sit down for dinner with her whilst Batts is locked in the trunk. atts’ death echoes right through the film, both as the first true reality check and a narrative refrain at various points: when the dons look for their missing paisano, when the trio have to dig up the rotting corpse from its forest grave, right through to when Tommy gets a bullet in the brain when he’s expecting to be made a member of the Mafia fellowship he has insulted by killing Batts. It’s a thoroughly deserved death, but Jimmy and Henry weep for their comrade.

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The film’s second narrative voice is Karen’s. Bracco arguably gives the film’s best performance, sublimely communicating in body language her arc from fiery young suburbanite to a middle-aged woman addled by cocaine and cynicism. Karen is no innocent victim or clueless neighbourhood wife. She readily admits, when Henry sticks a gun in her hand, that it turns her on. Initially volatile, having been thrown together on a double date neither wanted, Henry eventually cements their relationship by beating a neighbour who molested her. It’s instantly apparent to Karen that Henry achieves the things – hard revenge, wads of cash, universal respect – most guys promise, and she swiftly lets herself be seduced by it.

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Her own ironic perspective on events – she’s middle class, Jewish, independent-minded – sees her aghast at the classless, foul-mouthed, violent mob wives like Rosie (Illeana Douglas) she’s supposed to hang with, the industrial-grade brutality, tackiness, and socially incestuous people she’s now surrounded by. But she’s fine with that as long as Henry’s handing her inch-thick bundles of bills (and not that Karen and Henry’s tastes are especially superior – when they give a tour of their newly furnished house, it’s an empire of kitsch). She loses her cool steadily in dealing with Henry’s institutionalised infidelity with Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo), a lengthy imprisonment (she puts up with years of raising kids and struggling on her own without help – the moment he gets out, taking in their crummy house, he declares “We’re moving.”), until one morning he awakens with her jamming a revolver in his face, interrogating him about his girlfriend. It’s catching, this violence thing. The pair reconciles on the orders of Paulie – the Mafia’s family values are more about the potential security breaches of busted marriages than actual emotional concern.

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Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy make most of their money through robberies, especially hijackings and skims done from the freight terminals at Idlewild/JFK Airport which is on their turf; Henry also, whilst in prison, branches out into drug dealing, which Paulie has strictly forbidden him to do. The cosiness of their lives finally shatters when they pull off one of the biggest heists in history, ripping off Lufthansa of several million dollars. It renders them the most triumphant group of criminals in the country and the most paranoid. Soon Jimmy’s got Tommy and other thugs assassinating all the noncertifiably trustworthy partners in the heist, like Stacks Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson) and wig salesman Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low), whom Henry tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to save from Tommy’s ice pick. Morrie’s the kind of guy who’s just born to be murdered, a clinging, cajoling, money-hungry schmuck; we, and Henry, cringe in defensive longing. The film’s almost unique in showing how truly dumb and loosely organised most of these people are – Henry’s drug posse includes his wheelchair-bound brother, his sexpot girlfriend (who leaves cocaine-glutted cookware around her flat), and his superstitious stoner babysitter. Only violence and codes of ethics keep this world in motion, and finally Henry realises even these don’t necessarily count for much.

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Morrie’s TV spot is a superb recreation of cheap advertising style, cementing another of the film’s strong aspects. Scorsese, always sharp with cultural reference and satire, also provided a blueprint for the increased pop cultural awareness of ’90s filmmaking, with his vividly utilised retro soundtrack and constant refrains to ephemera, like Henny Youngman entertaining at the Copa and polka king Bobby Vinton (played by his son Robbie), continually providing cultural context for the events portrayed. Early in the film, Tony Bennett’s gorgeous “Rags to Riches” blares, a height of Italian-American jazz-pop both declaring a cultural ascendency and providing an ironic counterpoint of emotional riches with the gangsters’ greed.

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After the ugly fallout from the heist, Tommy is brutally whacked; confronted with an empty room that should be filled with Cosa Nostra elders, he ejects “Oh no!” before having his brains sprayed over the tiled floor. Jimmy begins to make overtures to Henry that sound alarmingly like invitations to get whacked after he’s busted by DEA officers after his day-long crack-up. Karen calls him paranoid until she herself feels mysteriously threatened when Jimmy seems to be trying to set her up for a gang assault on the pretext of selecting some second-hand furniture. This convinces them both to flee for the cover of the witness protection program. Henry shops Paulie and Jimmy out for stiff stretches, whilst he lives out the rest of his life in squaresville suburbia, haunted by the image of a vengeful Tommy shooting at him, to the strains of Sid Vicious’ punk brutalisation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – a logical end for a steady decline from glam to sham.

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Made hugely famous by the film, Hill, now long divorced from Karen, got himself kicked out of the WPP for eagerly announcing his identity to anyone who’d seen the movie, went back to prison for a stretch, and now stars in every other cable TV documentary on the mob. (It’s an interesting job to compare the film with the TV-made film The Million Dollar Getaway (1991), about the Lufthansa heist, featuring John Mahoney as Jimmy the Gent. In the latter film, Jimmy is portrayed as a folk hero contending with the determination of his Mafia partners to kill all the good blue-collar boys who actually committed the crime and keep the dough for themselves.)

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The final shot of Tommy blasting at the camera is a direct quote of The Great Train Robbery (1902), the first American narrative film, and western, and crime flick. As well as summarizing Henry’s final mood, it makes a statement about the history of filmmaking and American society, the long drift from Wild West banditry to suburban conformity, which Henry lives out in a particularly surreal, compressed version. Scorsese also puts in a shot of Karen watching The Jazz Singer (1927), the first sound film, which is both appropriate to her character – a Jewish kid alienated from her parents like Jolson’s titular hero – and another turning point in cinematic history, continuing Scorsese’s self-conscious motif. In the course of the film, he uses just about every narrative and cinematic trick extant, and these references seem to complement his awareness that in the 146 minutes of Goodfellas, he had found the perfect material to realise his own ideal of cinema’s potential.

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1980s, Auteurs, Biopic, Drama

Raging Bull (1980)

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Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

Martin Scorsese was at his lowest ebb. The failure of New York, New York was the first big blow of his career. He indulged his cocaine habit whilst making the rock-doc The Last Waltz, and was finally hospitalized following an overdose. To stimulate his friend’s creativity and, Scorsese felt, saving his life, Robert De Niro pressed him to make a film of the autobiography of Jake LaMotta, one-time middleweight champion of the world and another Bronx-Italian prodigy. Marty, who hated sports movies, virulently declined at first, but De Niro’s continuing passion for the subject eventually convinced the burnt-out auteur to film the subject. Scorsese got Mardik Martin to pen a screenplay; Martin did months of research and turned out a regular biopic script before himself dropping out from exhaustion. Scorsese then got Paul Schrader to redraft it; Schrader broke up the structure, injected dashes of his dirty sensibility, and combined two major characters, LaMotta’s brother Joey and friend Peter Savage into one. Scorsese and De Niro then sat themselves down and spent six weeks making the script exactly what they wanted. What they wanted was described by UA executives as a portrait of “a cockroach.”

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Whatever the qualities of NY, NY, it was clearly not the future of Scorsese’s career. So he stripped his approach back to basics; Raging Bull reinvents his early style – black-and-white photograph; flatly-lit, long-take, improvised scenes; experimental film editing. It was the first time since Who’s That Knocking On My Door? that Scorsese was allowed to work with his film school chum Thelma Schoonmaker, who had been a victim of absurd union regulations. Schoonmaker’s touch is instantly, virulently, eye-catching. Raging Bull is set thoroughly in the milieu of Scorsese’s childhood (the story begins proper in 1941, the year before his birth), and details a scene, wispily remembered, of small Bronx flats with the constantly intrusive neighborly noise, marital rows, baby whines, tinny radios.

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Raging Bull has an ironic style. The distancing veneer of gleaming black-and-white offering one of the most vivid historical recreations on film, with almost every shot seeming fit for Life magazine. The elegant music with which Pietro Mascagni dreamily fills the film suggests a deep sorrow at the transience of glory, the brutal beauty of life, the dulling of youthful quality, and stands in raw opposition of the tawdry humanity Scorsese filmed. In contrast to the starkly shot personal scenes, the intricately choreographed, expressionistic, anti-naturalistic fights are almost like horror movie moments. Scorsese uses sound effects and slow motion to turn Jake, and later Sugar Ray Robinson, into prowling beasts of prey; steam and smoke weave gothic fogs.

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Jake LaMotta. Who is this brawling hunk of masochistic meat, this man who became famous for the amount of punishment he could dish out and take in a ring? In many ways he’s masculinity run amok. He fuels his abilities in the ring with resentment and sexual frustration that eventually curdles into sexual paranoia. His most admirable quality – his long-standing refusal to kowtow to the Mafia – springs from venality. “You gonna let them take my money?” he demands of his brother-manager Joey (Joe Pesci), before clobbering him in a sparring session, when Joey’s connected friend Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) comes sniffing around at the behest of local godfather Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto).

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The singular quality of Scorsese’s oeuvre, especially for an American director – his willingness to make films of less-than-admirable, even despicable people – is at its apotheosis here. Even Peckinpah tended to love his bastards; Scorsese has an endlessly unblinking eye for the hypocrisies, thuggery, betrayals, cruelties, and pathos of LaMotta’s life and of the culture that surrounds him. In the first scene of the proper narrative, we meet LaMotta, 1941 model, losing and winning at the same time – the film’s keynote of his character – when he knocks down a black boxer but loses to him on points. This provokes a riot from the fight fans; chairs and popcorn fly to the roof, punches are thrown, a woman is knocked to the ground and trampled by the blood-lusting crowd. So often throughout the film, the corners of the tapestry Scorsese weaves are crowded with evidence of some violence or sleaze; even in the legendary Copacabana (something of an icon for Scorsese, who returns to it in GoodFellas), there’s the evidence of fights just finished or just about to start.

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After the travesty of the ’41 fight, Jake, in one of the lengthy domestic sequences that anchor the film, starts an argument with his frazzled first wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax) that boils over into a painful, hilariously accurate moment of marital cacophony. She’s a hard-as-nails, standard-issue, Italian-American woman who lets duty take her only so far before she erupts. Jake, barely concerned or even interested, frets over his tiny hands, the fact he’ll never fight Joe Louis (whom he thinks is the best there is and whom he thinks he is better than), and finally eggs Joey to punch him in the face. Jake lives in a dialogue with the flesh. He understands people and himself, feels and expresses through the way he comes into contact with their meat. He subjects a young boxer, Tony Janiro (Kevin Mahon), to a disfiguring beating because his second wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty, in her film debut) called him good-looking (“He ain’t pretty no more,” Como notes), but also lets himself take a brutal beating for many rounds in another bout, to pay for a row with Vicky, before turning around and clobbering his opponent.

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The spirituality and eroticism of punishment of the flesh echoes long through Scorsese. Vicky’s kissing his bruise-riddled body has its parallel in Cameron Diaz kissing Leonardo DiCaprio’s scars in Gangs of New York. Jake is an ancient kind of human, inarticulate and foolish, macho bordering on insane – but when it comes to that language of meat, he’s Aristotle. After he retires from boxing, Jake enters showbiz, which then had a strange, symbiotic relationship with boxing. Joey, Jake’s usually stabilizing influence, says to one of his children at the dinner table, “If I see you put your hands on that plate one more time, I’m gonna stab you with this knife, d’ye hear me?” Yes, this is the familiar world of working-class fatherhood. The film’s brute honesty about what constitutes family life in this period for these men is best seen as Jake and Joey’s respective wives (Theresa Saldana is the other) sit like decorous dolls on the floor tending the children and Jake walks in and pinions his wife on the floor with kisses.

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Jake falls for Vicky when she’s a 15-year-old nymphet (Joey’s already taken her out and tried to make her), the gimlet-eyed, platinum-haired minx who promises intricate sexual possibilities and delivers them. She’s initially one of Salvy’s entourage, and for Jake, it’s partly a pleasurable, infuriating challenge to steal her away from that representative of the unseen influence that’s caging his talents. Vicky’s barely more articulate than Jake; in fact, she’s an icy, careless youth who is overwhelmed by Jake’s sheer physicality (his seduction of her is almost paternal). She enjoys provoking and indulging his sexuality, even as she grows up and finds the oppressive quality of his adoration intolerable. Jake’s desire for Vicky is identified as an illness central to this and any hypermacho culture, which delights in asserting sexual ownership of adolescent women to simultaneously leash and exploit them. Jake lives an American dream riddled with familiar American termites. Is there any more pathetic yet typical, personally apt a comeuppance, than losing his long-worked-for nightclub by mistakenly aiding sleazy businessmen get laid with two underage schoolgirl hookers?

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Jake is jailed and strains at a bleak cell, punching the wall in howling agony. He has by this time destroyed any personal support. Once upon a time, Joey put his neck on the line when he found Vicky back in Salvy’s company at the Copa; reacting to Salvy’s sheer cheek, Joey went berserk, hitting Salvy in the face with a glass and slamming his head repeatedly into a door, the height of the film’s violent absurdity. Yet later, Jake, aging, getting fat and lazy after finally gaining his title, starts off trying to fix his television, prodding Vicky over her trips out and Joey over the near-forgotten Copa incident; slowly and malevolently, Jake works himself into a jealous fury (“D’you fuck my wife?”), slapping and threatening Vicky until she spits back confirmations, “I sucked all their cocks, whaddaya want me to tell you?!”, going to Joey’s house and, in front of his family, putting Joey’s head through a door and cold-cocking Vicky. She can forgive him, but Joey can’t. If Jake can’t find a real opponent, he’ll make a shadow one. Even many years later, when Jake’s a washed-up comic, he tries to reconcile with Joey without actually apologizing; in a sticky, cringe-worthy moment, he draws his not exactly thrilled brother into an embrace. Vicky’s already kicked his butt out before the nightclub arrest over infidelities; to her chagrin, he barges into her house to gouge jewels from his championship belt to pay his bail.

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Jake breaks just about every heart to come in contact with him, but then, his is broken a few times in the film. He feels the long period when, in resisting the mob, he can’t get his title shot, as a slow, maddening torture. To get his shot, he gives into Como’s clear declarations and throws a fight to Billy Fox (Eddie Mustafa Muhammad); he can’t fake it, and afterwards is reduced to a blubbering mess. Here, and in the jailhouse, Jake’s ability to inflict suffering on others seems tame compared to the suffering he generates for himself when his clear, simple, natural capacity for violence is manipulated and betrayed. As a boxer, he’s finished off by Robinson, who, in their last bout, destroys LaMotta, aging, out of shape, having lost Joey’s counsel. Robinson crushes his nose, destroys his face, and tears him down to a bare trunk of masculinity; his flying blood decorates the judges. Still, his sliver of unbowed triumph: “You never got me down, Ray!” De Niro gained his second (and, to date, last) Oscar for his performance, probably more for his commitment to gaining and losing weight. His LaMotta is a prowling, growling, dead-eyed creature when not in the ring (he reminds you of Quint’s description of sharks in Jaws), then, in the ring, quite literally the raging bull. Only Pesci keeps pace with him; it’s amusing to watch Pesci beating the crap out of Frank Vincent (which he’ll repeat, worse, in Goodfellas) knowing that Pesci and Vincent were, before the film, working as a comedy duo; the underemployed, demoralized Pesci had to be talked into appearing in the film.

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The final scene has Jake, 1961, rehearsing the taxicab scene from On The Waterfront (the Tao of palookas) for his act, facing himself in a mirror (a scene egregiously copied by director Paul Thomas Anderson at the end of Boogie Nights. Jake has traveled the full arc of American celebrity, not most or least successfully, but most pungently typical, which is perhaps what finally made him interesting to De Niro and Scorsese. Reflected from the distorted eye of LaMotta’s tale is a grotty, tawdry culture that sups money and youth, pride and strength. As such it manages in a more sophisticated and compressed fashion than New York, New York to eviscerate the self-mythologizing fabrications of pop culture. Raging Bull, finally, is a statement of enormous cultural disgust. Scorsese would continue in this vein with his next film, The King of Comedy. With Raging Bull, deconstructing the ugly truths of American celebrity and life, Scorsese ironically reinvented himself. The film’s epilogue, suggesting a form of religious self-realization, also pays tribute to Haig Manoogian, his mentor. As for LaMotta, he had, in 1961, made a cameo appearance basically as himself in The Hustler, to which Scorsese would make a sequel, The Color of Money. He was helpful with the production, and later watched the film in the company of Vicky. Astounded and horrified, he asked her, “Was I really that bad?” “No,” she replied, “You were worse.”

Standard
1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Music Film

New York, New York (1977)

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Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

When the yellow moon begins to bloom / Every night I dream a little dream / And of course Prince Charming is the theme for me / Although I realize as well as you / It is seldom that a dream comes true / To me it’s clear that he’ll appear / Some day he’ll come along / The man I love / And he’ll be big and strong / The man I love / And when he comes my way / I’ll do my best to make him stay… – “The Man I Love,” George and Ira Gershwin

Taxi Driver’s surprise success gave Scorsese heft and fame. He was at this time tagged, along with the other young directors taking American cinema by storm—Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, John Carpenter, John Milius, Michael Cimino, John Landis, Peter Bogdanovich, and others—as a “Movie Brat,” an epithet that, like the label “Impressionist” about a century earlier, became a rallying cry. If there was a common feature of these directors, it was their argot of total cinema. Their first and almost last point of reference was earlier movies. They reinvigorated Hollywood as a commercial entity, largely due to their willingness, even love, of making genre cinema, in recreating the dream films of their youths. All of them worshipped Fellini and Godard, but Scorsese was just about the only one damn fool enough to want to be them.

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Coppola had given the generation its big breakthrough with his canny melding of the cool, studious effects of European art cinema with epic American narrative in the Godfather films. For all these filmmakers, there were differing layers of irony in their attempts to meld auteurism, art cinema, and classic Hollywood. Many of them wanted to take a shot at the total stylisation of the musical. Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Coppola’s One From The Heart, Landis’ The Blues Brothers, even Spielberg’s 1941 (which he made for the opportunity to stage a 1940s musical number), were all troubled productions, most of which flopped and dented the Brats’ domination. Scorsese went to Hollywood to make New York, New York, but remained a New Yorker. For his fellow Movie Brat directors, melding old and new, hip and square, lush and spare was a necessary and entertaining act of cultural synthesis. Scorsese, however, dedicated his new film to examining precisely the gap between life and art, old and new style, façade and critique, spectacle and honesty.

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New York, New York sets out to be, as Marty called it, a film noir musical inspired in form by such showbiz tales as The Man I Love and A Star Is Born, with a screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin. It tells, in livid, often bruising detail, of a marriage between two professional narcissists, Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Scorsese set out to create the texture of a personal, realistic film in the Cassavetes mould—virtually all dialogue improvised, which made editing the film hellish. The film’s exchanges make up in vivacity what they lack in the arch, contoured crackle of screwball style. The first half-hour of New York, New York is a virtuoso, near-continual scene. It’s VJ Day in New York, and the streets have erupted in confetti and abandon. Jimmy strips off his uniform, casts it out the window, and hits the town in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt looking for just one thing: to get laid. The jam-packed Rainbow Room, where Benny Goodman and Orchestra are playing, represented the peak of the sweet glamour of the Big Band era as well as the emotional apogee of four years of war. Jimmy tries his pick-up lines on every bird in sight. He is especially drawn to Francine, seated by herself waiting for friends, splendid in her USO uniform. When his every attempt has failed on the hostile, evasive woman, he announces a new plan: “I want to stay here and annoy you!” He does just this for the rest of the film.

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Eventually, when Francine’s fellow USO performer Ellen ( Kathie McGinnis) arrives, her date is Jimmy’s friend Eddie di Muzzio (Frank Sivero, soon a Scorsese regular), who has arranged for the four of them to hook up. Jimmy makes sure to cook Francine good before dropping her home. The next day, Francine is trying to find Jimmy to contact Ellen, who’s on the run from killers and shacked up with Eddie. She watches in amusement as Jimmy bluffs the hotel’s concierge, posing as a wounded war veteran (“Anzio!” he hollers, “I was at Anzio!”) and skipping out as always without paying his bill after being manhandled. Jimmy’s in the not-so-fine tradition of Scorsese’s keenly observed Noo Yawk flakes; indeed, New York, New York’s riskiest, most original idea is to make such a flake the hero. For Jimmy is, we learn, talented. He contrives to drag Francine to his audition with a Brooklyn club manager (Dick Miller), and shows he’s a mean tenor sax player, but too edgy and modern for the cleaned-up tastes of the time. Francine reveals she’s just as talented; when the manager expresses a desire for something like Maurice Chevalier, Francine launches into a sweet, swinging rendition of “You Brought a New Kind Of Love,” which Jimmy accompanies with contrapuntal elegance. They are fused instantly into a double act.

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Romance, or something like it, blossoms. After a gig, Jimmy won’t let Francine get out of the taxi they share to her hotel by kissing her. Francine skitters, slips, and flops about, half in the pouring rain, trying to escape his voracious mouth. Francine finds she’s been offered a gig with the touring big band of Frankie Harte (Georgie Auld), and Jimmy is also offered a slot. Unfortunately, he’s gone before she can tell him, so she packs up and goes to join the band whilst sending her agent (the great Lionel Stander) to inform Jimmy. Jimmy promptly skips town and catches up with the band. He almost gets himself assaulted by Hart when he sits in the audience, draws Francine off stage, and won’t let her return. Jimmy is simultaneously declaring his “not love. I like you very much” whilst ranting at being left behind: “You do not leave me! I leave you!” De Niro gives the greatest portrait of the artist as major-league irritant since Kirk Douglas’s Vincent Van Gogh. Jimmy’s alternately (and often concurrently) charming, funny, annoying, foolish, dishonest, angry, sullen, violent, and prone to larceny, but always propelled by a volcanic creativity and contempt for a world of schmucks, squares, and sycophants. He dances up steps in joy, throws tables in rage, play-acts, fakes out, schmoozes, assaults, and plays some mean jazz. (De Niro learnt sax technique, but the music he makes is by Auld.) He tries to sweep the world and Francine off their feet with the purity of his energy, and it sometimes works.

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Thee tour continues, endless wheeling between towns in the band bus; Harte’s crusty and boozy, but he keeps the band disciplined. He won’t give Jimmy any opportunity to play his arrangements or his bop style, but he often relies on Jimmy to lead the band. Jimmy dabbles in composition, tracing out the bare notes that will become the title tune, whilst Francine writes poetry. After eading one of her poems about him, Jimmy says, “That was it! That was you proposal, get your coat on, put your shoes on, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” and drags her to a justice of the peace. When Frankie decides he’s fed up, he concedes to Francine that Jimmy “blows a barrelful of tenor, oh, but he’s some kind of pain in the ass!” Jimmy takes over the orchestra, but appears set for a flop until Francine saves their bacon at an audition with a soulful rendition of “The Man I Love.” With Francine headlining, the orchestra enjoys major popularity, but Jimmy is quietly furious she’s getting the attention, and he jealously guards his command. One evening Francine dashes off stage and reveals she’s pregnant. She returns to New York to have the child, and the band, saddled with a far less talented singer, Bernice Bennett (Mary Kay Place), whom Jimmy beds in Francine’s absence, soon faces disaster. Jimmy signs over the band to another leader, and returns to New York to find Francine riding on a wave of good publicity, her agent having secured her recording dates; Jimmy, the arch, proud individualist, feels she’s degrading herself by kowtowing. Jimmy meets up with black musician friends and jams with them at a Harlem club (“Do they let white cats in?” “Just come in the back way.”). For the first time, Jimmy’s style is set free and wild in the be-bop milieu. Meanwhile, behind the pyrotechnics of Jimmy’s approach to life, Francine grows, quietly, from defensive doll, to urgently helpful wife, to coolly calculating go-getter who gets it. And Jimmy, without saying a word, knows he’s going to get screwed by life again. The subterranean arc of anxiety in Jimmy begins driving him crazy.

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Like many Scorsese narratives, New York, New York is a study of a macho slow burn, except that this one remains entirely interpersonal. Jimmy gets himself thrown out of a nightclub by getting increasingly soused and truculent as Francine is courted by a Decca executive (Lenny Gaines). In one of the film’s most striking images, Jimmy is manhandled along the entry hall lined by bright neon tubes, embodying the electric distress by which he is caged. He and Francine fight in their car, whereupon Francine is stricken and almost loses the baby. When Jimmy visits her in the hospital, they mouth caring statements for each other, but it’s clear what held them together has dissolved. Francine is much more a question mark than Jimmy. Minnelli often looks dazed by De Niro, appropriate to the character, yet she barely registers when not singing; her trademark acting touches feel by rote in comparison. Francine is, finally, the opportunist of the pair. Insufferable as he is, Jimmy is curiously honest even when bullshitting. Very few films paint so vivid a tale of how colliding egos and intentions can destroy relationships. Jimmy and Francine are scrutinized by the camera like a microscope on a pair of mating insects. In the space of about a year, we have one failed marriage, the kind that Francine, later a big Hollywood star, will sigh over if mentioned by interviewers.

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In the film’s epilogue, we are treated to a short film purporting to be Francine’s latest hit movie, Happy Endings, which Jimmy is watching in a theater. Happy Endings is a brilliantly made pastiche of 50s-style musicals, charting the rise of a doe-eyed usher to major star who yearns for her gentlemanly agent Donald (Larry Kerns), who disappeared just when she made it big. Happy Endings presents just such a spin on the New York, New York story that such a musical would have done. The number was originally edited out of Scorsese’s film, and this was credited with its flop; without the sequence, the film’s careful alternation of glam and grit is unbalanced. Out in the real world, Jimmy’s not doing too badly. He has a spiffy nightclub, his song “New York, New York” has, in its cool jazz incarnation, become Casey Kasem’s theme song, and Francine’s singing her mountain-leveling version in her live shows. Actually, of course, the song is the work of Kander and Ebb. (In the film, Francine’s poetry becomes the lyric, with Jimmy unimpressed: “These vagabond shoes…are longing to stray…and step around the heart of it?” he reads, nose curled up like it’s week-old fish.) Backstage after seeing her sing, Jimmy meets his son, and proposes he and Francine get together later; she agrees. But neither can finally be bothered.

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And yet the film around them is a lovingly textured dream, a paean to the total style of classic Hollywood, indeed catching how artifice can sometimes suggest reality better than reality: in the snow-crusted villages the band tours in, where Jimmy and Francine bicker and are married, or the stunning vignette of Jimmy watching, after the first night with Francine, a sailor and girl jitterbugging in the street below a railway line, suggesting an otherworldly staging by Gene Kelly of Alfred Eistenstadt’s Times Square kiss photo. The musical sequences are bravura in style. Marty’s camera (with immeasurable aid from DP Laszlo Kovacs) zooms, dollies, and glides, picking out soloists and darting in on them, then drawing back and painting rich group shots. Scorsese tips his hat to the influence of Michael Powell at several junctions: Jimmy signs into a hotel as “M. Powell;” the scene where Jimmy cracks up in the nightclub is decorated entirely in neon that glows an infernal, maddening red, a favorite signifier for both directors; and the way Happy Endings reflects, in a distinct, distorted mirror, the larger film’s story, is reminiscent of the ballet at the centre of The Red Shoes.

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The central couple’s personal separation symbolizes a vital split in American pop culture. Francine goes Hollywood—big, slick, entertaining, vital but without edge, embracing of artifice over truth. Jimmy remains New York—hip, hard, leaning to black culture, small in scale but intently creative, finally, calmly resigned to his busted dreams (“Yeah I saw Sappy Endings,” he tells Francine). The story, conceived as a variation on A Star Is Born doesn’t entirely reverse the formula; instead of having one figure supplant another in stardom, New York, New York suggests there is more than one kind of stardom, more than one kind of success. This Scorsese film obviously had a stylistic influence on such jazz-and-nostalgia-themed films that followed as ‘Round Midnight, Bird, and Henry & June. It failed on first release, but there is a happy ending; when the film was restored to its proper form, it did good business in a 1980 re-release.

Standard
1970s, Auteurs, Drama

Taxi Driver (1976)

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Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
– The Pilgrim; Chapter 33, by Kris Kristofferson

Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard were brought up in a strictly Calvinist household. Paul tells a story of how his mother once stabbed him with a needle to inform him what hell was like. Creative storytelling was one of the few household luxuries. At age 18, Schrader snuck off to see Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and instantly set himself on the path toward making movies; the deliciously sinful sensuality of cinema and the tradition of creativity lodged in Schrader were an inevitable siren call. Clearly talented in film school, Schrader made his name in publishing studies of the spiritual cinema of Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson. He worked for a time as a film critic, encountering and later loudly breaking with Pauline Kael. In a period of personal crisis following a move to Los Angeles, he left his wife for another woman, saw both relationships crumble, and wallowed in debt, drink, and a gun fetish until being hospitalized. Schrader also read the published diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot Gov. George Wallace. Combining personal emotion and this weird character premise, Schrader furiously composed the first draft of an expression of pure psychological anguish—Taxi Driver.

 

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Schrader hit the big time by selling, with Leonard, a screenplay for The Yakuza, a remarkably grown-up thriller that flopped. Paul bounced back when Taxi Driver was taken on by maverick producers Michael and Julia Phillips, who first tried to interest Al Pacino in starring and Brian De Palma in directing, before deciding on Martin Scorsese, who brought Robert De Niro with him. It was to prove an epochal mesh of talents. Scorsese and Schrader were both religiously and intellectually minded, aggressively sensual, and awkwardly, angrily progressive, cinephiliac by default. Taxi Driver was a very new kind of movie, yet a large part of the film’s energy comes from being a terminus—the most fluent depiction of “Drop Dead!” fin de siècle New York, Columbia Studio’s last film to use to the old Torch Lady logo, the dying composition of the great Bernard Herrmann, and the last great American New Wave film, at the time when the affectations of the genre were being borrowed to make blockbusters and crowd pleasers (Jaws, Rocky, Saturday Night Fever).

 

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Taxi Driver shatters the sheen of outsider chic that drove films like Five Easy Pieces, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Easy Rider by presenting an alienated “hero” whose secret life is the poisoned well of the mainstream, a manifestation of the sickest elements of the time. The sense that, say, Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea had a squall of rage in him finds its thematically final, ugliest consummation here, as does the fascination with assassination after the political violence of the ’60s, which formed part of the texture of Robert Altman’s celebratory Nashville from the previous year, and also to Network, whose famously ranting newsman has his mirror image here in a strung-out, raging black man on the street; they share a telegraph wire to the zeitgeist.

 

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Taxi Driver represents a vital intellectual and emotional severing point. Out of the volcano of this film formed the cool, ironic crystals of indie cinema, with its rejection of emotional conflation. A New York Times critic much more recently labeled the resultant film a work of “disco noir,” an evocative if reductive phrase describing the hedonist idiocy and decayed glamour of the cocaine-and-polyester scene; indeed, to many today, Taxi Driver is that scene. As a basic story, Taxi Driver follows the template of Dirty Harry and Death Wish as tales of lone white men engaged in a violent battle with a universe of moral entropy. The difference is that in the course of emptying out their own shit-caked psyches, Schrader and Scorsese analyse the mindset behind the popularity of those other film, with a judicious, but not judgmental, dissection of their racism, misogyny, and macho conflict in an age pushing feminism, racial equality, gay liberation, all that jazz.

 

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“All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” Travis Bickle muses, watching the brawling night life of New York, with its panoply of contemptible, obscene creatures dedicated to living a life of extroverted sensual expression Travis cannot take part in. Herrmann’s music swells as Travis’ vehicle fins through the night, liquid neon spewing across his windshield; Herrmann’s theme features whispers of romantic saxophone alternating with a stygian mass of woodwinds and brass, evoking a fine filament of humanity struggling through Hades and capturing the film’s driving dichotomy of Travis both as hero and devil.

 

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Travis Bickle’s desire is to transcend, to become be an angel of death and savior. We learn that Travis was a marine, honorably discharged, a Vietnam veteran, setting the mould for a future movie cliché. War trauma may be part of his trouble, but I also suspect Travis, as a returned warrior, expects himself to become a exemplar of democracy. Instead, he’s barely keeping his mind together as he roams the city, driven by insomnia, dogged with an inability to relate. His smirk for the man who hires him for the taxi company (Joe Spinell, a signal ’70s character actor) reflects his unhinged, amused contempt for the work-a-day world. He gobbles candy, a cinema staple since Psycho for suggesting the rot of arrested development. His desires—to find a woman, to accomplish fine and brave things—are mostly at odds with his impulses, which are basically to rage, kick, insult, defile, debase, and destroy.

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The tension between these two opposing states keeps him, for the first two acts of the film, in a muted, awkward, semi-normal stasis. As The Clash would succinctly describe it, Bickle is one of “those who see ghettology as an urban Vietnam.” Taxi Driver is the first true Vietnam film in that it deals with its social, intellectual, and emotional fall-out in the terms of the conflict’s experience. Travis is often described as a monster, a sick and twisted beast. But he’s an iconic monster not because he is a condensation of tropes that signify the Other, like the evil comfortably divorced from the everyday represented by Hannibal Lecter, but rather because he’s a condensation of every neurosis, embedded prejudice, latent source of rage, and antisocial impulse common to the average male in the ’70s. Travis becomes Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man remade as a savagely unsentimental anti-intellectual for the Nixon era.

 

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Although Travis quotes Kierkegaard when calls himself “God’s Lonely Man,” he utterly resists traveling down the route of philosophy (“morbid self attention” as he calls it) in an age as sentimental as it is anti-intellectual. Travis, like stations of Cross, passes through devolving forms of culture—office humor plates, Betsy’s (Cybill Shepherd) faux-intellectual quotation of Kris Kristofferson, the pseudo-advice of Wizard (Peter Boyle), through to bathing in the sublime idiocy of The Young and The Restless, soft rock on American Bandstand, and combating Iris’s (Jodie Foster) idea that her lifestyle is in some fashion “hip,” that is, self-liberating. No wonder his training regimen has an aspect of Buddhist self-abnegation. Travis wants to strip himself down to a concept of pure force, and remove himself from this realm of gibberish entirely.

 

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“Here, a man wants to die, he locks himself in a room and stabs himself in the belly,” says Richard Jordan in The Yakuza. “Back home he takes out a gun, shoots a lot of other people.” Schrader’s clearly referencing his own thinking, poured into the other screenplay on his mind, and he establishes a crucial divergence between Western and Eastern spirituality and social life. When Travis shaves his head to a mohawk, he is engaging in a primal ritual, one practiced for real by some soldiers in Vietnam when setting out on patrol. It is a timeless burial of the self into warrior guise, animal form (“Animal Mother,” Adam Baldwin’s baby-faced nutball in Full Metal Jacket, is named for a shamanistic idea of human rebirth into pure force via an animal totem. Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now all delve into the primeval devolution that fuelled the consciousness of Americans engaged on the ground level of the war). It is clear then that to be reborn, Travis needs to pass through this savage ritual and follow it to a conclusion, however apocalyptic.

 

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The taxi drivers all hang out at the Belmore Café. He listens to the make-believe sex life recounted by Wizard, who serves, by default, as a wise elder. When Travis goes to him for advice, Wizard eventually shoots back, “What the fuck do you expect from me? I drive a taxi!” Everything that surrounds Travis is possessed with some import, either sexual (like another driver who shows off a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub with its traces of legendary sexual escapades) or demonic (a menacing cohort of black pimps).

 

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Fittingly for a study of pagan impulse, Taxi Driver charts an Odyssean route, to the point where Travis journeys to Hades after meeting a goddess and a king. The goddess is personified by Betsy. Betsy works in the campaign of the would-be king, presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a populist WASP icon whose hollow rhetoric sounds uncannily like the tripe that would soon gain Ronald Reagan the White House. Betsy’s engaged in a go-nowhere romance with witty but so-not-butch co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Tom is everything Travis isn’t—easy, witty, safely asexual. In Schrader’s script, he was a standard, whitebread, pretty boy, a dully easy match for Betsy. By casting Brooks, Tom becomes the nebbishy kind of guy who makes a career out whining about not getting the girls, thus getting all the girls.

 

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Bickle encounters Palantine in his taxi. The politician’s unspecified appeal to the disgruntled finds its readymade fan in Travis, who appeals to Palantine to clean up the city with the fire of the righteous. Palantine, in a small, but telling touch, slightly curls his mouth as he exits Travis’ taxi, partly derisory, knowing he’s just met someone neither brilliant nor nice, but certainly uncommon. Betsy responds to Travis for similar reasons—his intensity and honesty, even in his clichés. Betsy’s radiant looks hide a shallow, vaguely narcissistic personality. She’s someone who’s already heard every line in the book, never expecting something as corny as “You have beautiful eyes” to be recited with such feeling. She is intrigued before being repelled. Betsy makes a perfect bitch goddess to idolize and trample, and Scorsese’s sympathetic heroines of earlier films essentially go out the window.

 

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Travis’ social ineptitude is made clear with bleak hilarity when he takes Betsy to a porn theatre, blowing the chance of romance for good—the apogee of the film’s blackly comic edge. Later, when Travis tries to call Betsy again, Scorsese moves the camera away from him to regard an empty hallway to avoid the embarrassing spectacle and to more forcefully illustrate the gaping maw at the center of Bickle’s future. To Scorsese, this was the most important shot in the film.

 

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Travis’ second phase begins. He blows up at Betsy’s workplace. The menacing score, suggesting a wakening leviathan, which first accompanied shots of Bickle’s cruising taxi, now lumbers beneath a slo-mo shot of Travis in the fab red-velvet jacket he wore with such flair to his and Betsy’s first meeting that is now a signpost of distress and a predictor of the blood that will coat him. Travis the avenging angel has broken from his shell.

 

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Travis has a grim vision of himself when one of his customers, a ranting, coked-up businessman (Scorsese, in his greatest personal performance) who spins a spell of perfect malignant energy: “You see that window with the light? The one closet to the edge of the building? You know who lives there? Of course you don’t know who lives there, but I’m saying ‘Do you know who lives there?’ A nigger lives there, and that isn’t my apartment. My wife is in there and… I’m gonna kill her…Have you ever seen what a .44 Magnum will do to a woman’s pussy? Now that you should see.” Destruction of female sex with Dirty Harry’s mighty weapon. Travis reacts to him like he’s scum, but Travis’ own warped condition registers this as a visitation by an evil demon, a harbinger, to be paid attention to.

 

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Travis arms himself to the teeth with guns brought from a cheerful get-you-anything salesman (Steven Prince, a real salesman and acquaintance of Scorsese’s) and sets about training himself for the coming war, rehearsing imagined confrontations and planning the tactics of street fighting. He kills a black kid sticking up a convenience store owner; the unpeeled loathing of the store owner, who begins beating the corpse with a baseball bat whilst promising to cover for Travis, is the most coldly brutal element in the film and one whose racism Scorsese originally wanted to back off from.

 

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Two missions appeal to Travis: assassinating Palantine and rescuing 12-year-old prostitute Ivy from her pimp, “Sport” Matthew (Harvey Keitel). Travis first met Iris when she tried to escape from Sport in Travis’ taxi. Sport bought his inaction with a crumpled bill made by some act of alchemy to resemble a soiled condom. Travis keeps it as a marker for some future rite of vengeance. Both scenarios offer electric transcendence, and the instant fame of the assassination trumps. But Palantine’s secret service goons spot him, so Travis instead goes off to kill Sport and the timekeeper (Murray Mosten) in their tenement block base.

 

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Scorsese and Schrader decided the way to play the story was to have Travis essentially become a Western hero, a brutally dissected yet still <curiously heroic example of the sort of sociopath who’s good to have on our side (Wyatt Earp). By mimicking the varmint-plugging structure of a John Wayne film, Taxi Driver retains its driving quality. De Niro, in his improvised “You talkin’ to me?” scenes, is quoting Shane, and Travis reminds us how much heroism can be divorced from moral sensibility, as he blows the concierge’s hand off, shoots Sport in the stomach without giving him a chance to arm himself, and riddles one of Iris’s johns with holes. Much like those Wild West titans, Travis is lauded for his actions by the popular press purely for being, for converting thought and impulse into action.

 

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Schrader had wanted the final impression to be surreal and garish; instead, Scorsese’s handling of the (scripted) tracking shot from out of the tenement coolly creates a voyeuristic context for the finale, as it finds corpses sprawled as they will appear in the newspaper photos, chalk outlines, with a crowd of flocking onlookers. We meet Travis again after a long cooling camera drift past his triumphantly collected newspaper clippings and the dryly caring sound of Iris’ father thanking him by letter. Travis is grinning and chatting easily with the other drivers outside the Belmore, and gets Betsy as a fare. Travis gives her a free ride, and leaves her behind, with a look through his rear-view mirror at….something, suggested by a swift sound effect quickly swallowed by Herrmann’s music and the city night. Travis will never be free of the demon singing from the back seat, but his song is sweeter now.

 

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As much as the work’s blood is Schrader’s, the muscle and flesh are Scorsese’s. Taxi Driver is a work of total style, despite the intense reek of realism. Almost every shot is skewed with a succession of editing, lighting, and camera effects (with cinematographer Michael Chapman working his butt off), bending perspective through the gravity of Travis’ perception, and only finding clear-eyed calm when Travis converses with Betsy and Iris in mirroring scenes. Taxi Driver reveals Scorsese’s potent capacity to charge objects with totemic, fetishist import; for example, when Travis cavorts with his guns and weapons, it is as chillingly clear as the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey handling bones and realizing potential. Both scenes that have become iconic for masturbatory latent violence. Scorsese’s previous heroes are lost in maelstroms of ethical and physical confusion. Travis Bickle is the first to emerge from the other side.

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1970s, Drama, Foreign

1900 (1976)

Novecento

1900-01

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

By Roderick Heath

In the mid 1970s, Bernardo Bertolucci was a figure with the financial clout and artistic eminence to produce a hugely ambitious flop. But that flop, 1900, is such a totemic work that it is impossible to dismiss, as it attempts to revive the mammoth dimensions of presound epic cinema, like Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, and invest it with a kind of socialist epic mythology. It also illustrates the schism between the standout features of Bertolucci as a director—a great portrayer of sensuality and psychology, and a committed political artist who can never quite reconcile the two perspectives.

1900-02

The film begins a huge ellipse as the Allies are winning the war and partisans are mopping up the remnants of Italian fascism. Field-labouring women scooping hay in shots framed like classical landscape artists spy the escaping Atila (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Regina (Laura Betti), and chase after them with pitchforks. The sight of this middle-aged pair crying for each other, farm implements jutting from their bodies, is horrific and demands sympathy. One of the peasant boys decides to march into the house of the local padrone (landlord), Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro) and take him prisoner. Alfredo, caught at breakfast, pleasantly agrees, “Long live Stalin!”?

1900-03

1900 contrasts Alfredo with Olmo Dalco (Gerard Depardieu). Both men were born on the night Giuseppi Verdi died (January 27, 1901), and are tied together by life on the Berlinghieri estate. Each grows up in the care of their grandfathers—Alfredo, with the grand old padrone (Burt Lancaster), and for Olmo, Leo (Sterling Hayden), patriarch of the peasants who are nightly locked in their barn. The two old bulls have a prickly friendship, united by their earthy sense of nature, sex, and socializing even as they are separated by class and resentment. Olmo never discovers who his father is. Alfredo knows his all too well—the cold, callow, money-grubbing younger son of the padrone, Giovanni (Romolo Valli). Elder son Ottavio (Werner Bruhns) has fled the estate to lead a bohemian, cosmopolitan life.

1900-04

Casting Lancaster as the padrone ties this film thematically and chronologically to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), as that film’s aspiring liberal Italy is dying. The padrone gives Alfredo a buffer from his crass parents, but hangs himself when he can’t achieve an erection in the hand of a girl. Mechanization destroys the bonds of the landlord-peasant relationship; Giovanni’s entitled greed doesn’t help. The native wisdom of Leo—he won’t let any Dalco become a priest, the ultimate freeloader—agrees with the socialist ideals that excite the labourers to strikes and revolts. He lectures Olmo in his creed as the boy marches down the long dining table, stepping over the eating families’ plates of food, a vision of the gritty vitality of communal life. Olmo and Alfredo (played as youths by Roberto Maccanti and Paolo Pavesi, respectively) taunt and entertain each other with the dirty panoply of boyish obsessions and character tests. Olmo’s great feat of bravery is to lay between railroad tracks as a train (a recurring symbol of tidal history) rushes over him, which Alfredo cannot at first manage, and no one sees it when he does.

1900-05

World War I precipitates the great rupture in Italian society that has been building. Olmo fights and Alfredo is commissioned, but kept home by his father’s influence. Olmo returns to find the number of workers reduced, machines encroaching, and the estate now run by foreman Atila, who poses as a simpatico fellow veteran. With the prodding of his personal Lady Macbeth, Regina, Atila soon becomes a fascist bigwig. Giovanni and other landowners form a fascist chapter in response to their inability to evict peasantry, who successfully resist the cavalry with nonviolent tactics. Olmo and Alfredo resume their edgy friendship, Alfredo regarding them both as free spirits, though he is torn between temptations of power and the intentions of his liberality. Bertolucci tries to demonstrate how Alfredo is a decent man imprisoned by position, his ability to force his wishes on other people incidentally malevolent. Alfredo and Olmo go into the city to visit Ottavio, and get sidetracked with a prostitute, Neve (Stefania Casini). When the three of them are in bed together, Alfredo forces Neve to drink, which sets her off in a violent epileptic fit between the two men whose penises she’s grasping.

1900-06

Olmo has a crush on Anita (Anna Henkel), an educated girl who has come to work on the estate and act as the peasant’s schoolteacher. They marry and have children, and Anna starts a community school through the developing socialist infrastructure. Alfredo meets Ada Paulhan (Dominique Sanda, tres bon), a half-French orphan (her parents perished guiding rich tourists on a mountaineering expedition; “They died as they lived—beyond their means.”) who lives with Ottavio and whom he assumes is his mistress, not yet knowing his uncle is homosexual. Ada’s a loopy, capricious poseur and muse who occasionally fakes blindness and writes awful poetry. Alfredo finds her wonderful. Alfredo, Ada, and Ottavio live out a bohemian fantasy, snorting cocaine and gaily dancing. Ada and Alfredo and Olmo and Anita drink together in bar set up in a barn, Afredo begging that the four of them will always remain the same. Two deflowerings are instantly precipitated. Ada and Alfredo screw amidst the hay bales, Alfredo stunned that Ada is a virgin. The innocent solidarity of the socialists is killed when Atila and the fascists burn the school, killing three old peasant men Anita had been teaching to read. As the communists rally, Atila, being fitted for a black uniform, demonstrates to his awed fellows the attitude required of a fascist; he straps a cat to the wall and crushes it with a running head-butt.

1900-07

Atila and Regina are the film’s nexus of evil (Sutherland managed to freak himself out viewing his acutely perverse performance). Giovanni dies and Alfredo inherits the estate. Despite Olmo’s earnest, faintly menacing warning, Alfredo cannot rid himself of Atila, a deep-rooted cancer. Regina’s crush on Alfredo (they were briefly lovers; in one scene, Alfredo tries to orgasm Regina with the butt of his rifle, a moment as ribald as it is symbolic) makes her loathe Ada. Atila and Laura’s machinations extend to murdering a woman for her house, and, at Alfredo and Ada’s wedding, drunkenly raping and beating to death a young boy. When the body is found by searching wedding guests, Olmo is close by. Spurred by Atila, they mercilessly beat him, and Alfredo won’t stop it. Is he afraid of Atila? Or glad to see his judgmental pal receive a hiding? Either way, Olmo’s life is only saved when another peasant confesses. Anita dies, leaving Olmo to care for several small children. (Even at 300 minutes, 1900 is missing pieces. We see neither Anita and Olmo’s wedding nor her death, and supporting characters in the film often disappear.)

1900-08

Ada is distanced from Alfredo—Ottavio has vowed never to return at all—because of his poor response to fascist courtship. Ada relies on Olmo for emotional support even as he resents her trying to tutor his kids. Perhaps the film’s best scene comes when Alfredo and Ada row fiercely in a skid row tavern, Alfredo accusing Ada of having an affair with Olmo, then infuriated by her calling him a fascist. Alfredo recognizes Neve when she enters the tavern; her laughing acceptance of life’s caprices briefly reunites the troubled couple.

1900-09

As Italy enters World War II, Alfredo’s attempts to fire Atila prove impotent. Atila massacres “partisans”? in a miniature concentration camp set up in the centre of the villa. Olmo goes into hiding, and does not reappear until war’s end. Atila and Regina, after the pitchforking, are both duly shot by a kangaroo court, with Alfredo to be next for his collaboration. Bertolucci tries to celebrate the victory for the Italian workers in scenes staged to resemble a ’60s happening or Stalinist rally, with narrative becomes imagistic parade. Eventually, with Solomonian wisdom, Olmo talks the partisans out of executing Alfredo because all they have to do is declare that the padrone is dead—not the inhabitant of the role, but the role, the title, the idea. Alfredo, up till now accepting and life-weary, manages a stiff-necked response to Olmo’s rescue. Just as when they were kids, they begin wrestling in enraged love.

1900-10

1900 is a structural chimera, trying to fuse Shakespearean drama, Brechtian epic theater, socialist realism, and propagandist melodrama. Bertolucci tips his hat to Visconti not only via The Leopard, but also by borrowing thematic value from Visconti’s own rise-of-fascism parable, The Damned (1969), following its lead in quoting the plots of Macbeth and King Lear, and also its portrayal of fascism as indivisible from a psychologically rooted adoration of raw force, sexual degeneracy, and gross greed. This also echoes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975). As in Pasolini’s oeuvre, 1900 contrasts free sexuality in his bohemians (Ottavio cavorting with his male models) and workers (Olmo gives Anita earth-shaking head) with the savagery of fascist sexuality, in Atila’s child rape and Regina’s voracity that conceals an incapacity for orgasm. Alfredo’s occasional displays of cruelty in bed reflect his temptation to the extreme ego-fulfillment of fascism.

1900-11

1900 is at its best when not concentrating on politics. The complexities that compile in Ada and Alfredo’s marriage, which breaks up because of her fear she will be held guilty with Alfredo at the war’s end, but already long poisoned by the spectacle of his weakness, successfully dovetails the themes. The multinational cast demanded by complex funding arrangements, but allowing a capricious pick-and-choose of international talent, meant that the soundtrack is never entirely comfortable. In the English dub (most of the smaller parts are Italian), things often go spaghetti western, yet watching the Italian version loses the original interpretations by De Niro, Lancaster, Hayden, et al. De Niro, in his career’s golden era, is at his youthful, supple best.

1900-12

The film has slow stretches, but always seems to have some virtuoso set-piece in store, from the sweeping early sequences that show off Bertolucci’s gift for camera movement (aided by the Velazquez-toned photography of Vittorio Storaro), to give a sensation of drifting through countryside and time, to that vivid final scene, both distressing and weirdly comic, a glimpse of a future where Alfredo and Olmo are old men, still fighting and sticking by each other. Olmo escorts Alfredo to his last act on earth, lying across the railroad, head about to be flattened by a train. Like his grandfather, Alfredo suicides—a tired, sympathetic remnant of a superfluous class clucked over with indulgent dismissal by Olmo.

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