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‘The Irishman’ Review: The Power of the Gangster Myth

Chris Sullivan reviews Martin Scorsese’ latest film, The Irishman and explores the history of the cult of Mafia films.

Chris Sullivan rates Martin Scorsese’s latest movie and explains the timeless attraction of the Mafia films.

In his latest mobster film, Martin Scorsese not only sticks to a tried and trusted Mafioso recipe that has given him both cult status and bums on seats, but also employs the very actors: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, who have played a huge part in helping him create the Mafia as a cult cinema subject.

Although it seems to follow a predictable formula, The Irishman, is an instant and essential classic.  Taken from the book, I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt, it is based on nearly five years of recorded interviews with World War II veteran, ducker, diver and chancer, Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro). As a GI, Frank often took captured Germans soldiers into the Italian woods and shot them.

I have met many real gangsters. To be successful, you have to be really horrible, have little humanity and inspire true fear.

After the Second World War, like many returning soldiers, he found difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Being 6ft 4inches tall and well-built, he slipped effortlessly into the gangster world. Frank became a hitman for the renowned crime boss of North Eastern Pennsylvania, Russell Bufalino (real name Rosario Alberto Bufalino). The film portrays his post-war struggle to acclimatise on Civvy street and eventually to his reflection and eventually regret and sadness as a sick old man who has outlived all his friends and associates.

The film chronicles the mysterious disappearance of legendary Teamsters union boss, Jimmy Hoffa. Scorsese, with help from screenwriter Steve Zaillian, vividly brings to life his unique insight into the inner machinations of organised crime, its mores, its rules, etiquette, history, rivalries, and links to mainstream politics and its influence on it.

Unquestionably, Scorsese has long mined the rich deposits of organised crime with enough aplomb to become a film brand in his own name: Mean Streets, The Departed, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, being fine examples – Scorsese certainly knows his cipolle

Born to Sicilian parents in 1942, he was raised in Manhattan’s Little Italy, an area controlled by the omnipresent “made men” who held court in the area’s little restaurants and cafes.

“I saw my first displays of his kind of power when I was about nine years old”, Scorsese explained to me in an interview 15 years ago. “One particular guy (who I believe was killed in 1968) was a very powerful Mafia figure, didn’t have to say anything, didn’t have to do anything. He’d just walk in a room and everything would stop. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Robert De Niro in The Irishman

Public’s Infatuation with the Mob – and the Backlash

Just as the film’s hero Marty Baby is infatuated with the Mob, so are the general public. Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent epic, The Godfather, was the highest-grossing film ever made at the time, taking an estimated $245–286 million at the box office, as well as hundreds of millions in video and DVD sales. Others followed. And then came one of the greatest and highest-grossing TV series of all time, The Sopranos.

Undeniably, the public can’t get enough of Mafia drama. According to Professor James Finckenauer, the author of Mafia and Organized Crime: A Beginner’s Guide, the romance began with Prohibition.

“One of the side effects was to solidify organized crime…Because Prohibition was hugely unpopular, the men who stood up to it were heralded as heroes, not criminals,” Finckenauer explains. “It was the start of their image as people who can thumb their noses at bad laws and at the establishment.” 

The attraction of the gangster myth was further fuelled by the Great Depression, when wealthy bank owners took advantage of the economic slump and foreclosed on mortgages, leaving many people homeless and unemployed. So when the likes of John Dillinger came along robbing the hated banks and men from the slums, such as, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, hit the front pages, they weren’t regarded as bad guys but freedom fighters battling the corrupt establishment.

In response Hollywood glorified gangsters in films such as Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). However, the authorities weren’t so enamoured. Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks, produced by Howard Hughes, and starring Paul Muni as a ruthless gang lord based on Al Capone, was banned by film censors in several US cities and stands as “one of the most highly censored films in Hollywood history”. 

This backlash led to the creation of the National Legion of Decency in 1936, which started a campaign for “the purification of the cinema”. This prompted Michael Curtiz to direct Angels With Dirty Faces in 1937, which firmly proclaims that crime certainly does not pay. Consequently, all gangster movies were required to show that all hoodlums came to a rather sticky end and so it continued even employing the likes of Private Dicks, Sam Spade, and Marlowe to tell us so.

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro

The Godfather Changed Brought Back Gangster Glamour

All remained the same until, The Godfather, whose hero Don Vito Corleone was a fair man, who cared for the community and his family, lived by the Mafia’s mutually agreed code of honour and conduct and only hurt those who were in the game.

Since then we’ve had countless movies with similar heroes. Many men (especially the Mafia themselves who love these movies) ape their every nuance and catchphrase. It’s really rather manly to love Mob movies and laugh at the gory bits. Beats Rom Coms hands down.

As for Scorsese, he has been criticised by some for glorifying thieves, murderers, bullies and drug dealing extortionists, while for others by caricaturing his slick-haired, hedonistic, witty, dangerous, larger than life subjects, who can boast monikers such as Jimmy Whispers, Big Tuna, Joey Clams or Louie Bagels, he is a God who presents this mythical world in which a smidgen of morality still exists.

 “I’m telling the story from my point of view, from what my perception was,” Scorsese reiterates. “For example, the very powerful point in Goodfellas [which like The Irishman is based on a real life memoir] is that these guys are trapped in that system and [The] only way he [Hill] would get out is he’s gonna be killed. And then he realised [he’d] better talk. And because Goodfellas touches on something very dangerous that younger people might admire or emulate, we showed, in the last hour of the film, that the life is anything but a good life.”

Still, the final voiceover from the protagonist, Henry Hill, in Goodfellas says: “Anything I wanted was a phone call away…..When I was broke, I’d go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had his or her hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part. Today [when he was in witness protection] …… I’m an average nobody…  I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

This is the attraction. Even though Scorsese, for the most part, bases his movies on real-life characters, the life depicted is a glamorous existence outside of society, that many 9 to 5 ‘schnooks’ desire. Many of us in our Walter Mitty moments would love to cast off the shackles and live the life of a gangster, a buccaneer or a wild west shootist. But we don’t have the cojones or wherewithal or just have too much common sense to do so.  

In truth, I have met many real gangsters. To be successful, you have to be really horrible, have little humanity and inspire true fear amongst those who have little. The most accurate character Scorsese ever created is Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas and no one would ever want to be like him or for that matter – The Irishman. 

Bada bing bada boom!

The Irishman is on at the NFT and major cinemas throughout the UK debuts on Netflix on November 27th 

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