By Christopher Sharrett.
It has been some time since Martin Scorsese has interested me, his achievements in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull still notable, but faded a bit with time. His work in the last twenty-five years has occasionally had virtues (The Age of Innocence), but there have been too many misjudgments like Shutter Island for me to consider him today a major contributor to film art as the medium’s importance has been besieged in the new century. His contributions to film restoration, have, of course, been most commendable.
Scorsese’s major subject became the Mafia, an organization that he knew from his early New York days; he made hits in the Nineties with the topic in Goodfellas and Casino, very needed antidotes to the operatics of Coppola’s Godfather films, but I’m not sure of the long-term worth of any of these films. Scorsese’s Mafia films are about unfettered appetite, especially Casino, and the bad taste of American décor, made only a little hyperbolic in Scorsese’s mob living rooms. No doubt The Irishman will eventually be seen as the last part of a trilogy, especially given its length (three-and-a-half hours), and perhaps because it’s the final pairing, I would think, of the director and the star he helped create, Robert De Niro; Joe Pesci, another Scorsese actor much-loved for his violent antics and cruel wisecracks in both of the earlier mob tales, seems to ensure a public attention. Al Pacino isn’t a Scorsese protégé, but he and De Niro have built careers side by side, and their onscreen appearance together, even in the short scene in Heat, draws big audience notice.
But complaints have appeared about the new film’s drawn-out aspect, with the final reel feeling overly gloomy and attenuated. In the early part of the film, Scorsese’s style is recognizable, as voiceover narrators become on-screen characters talking to us. Later, the film slows, its inventiveness fading as it relies on shot/countershot, justifying the complaints. But my own complaints are not about style as much as what this style wants to achieve; offhand, the film becomes a requiem, but for what? For the Mafia? If so, no response is needed. For an older form of American filmmaking? Perhaps, but I don’t think that Scorsese is that indulgent, nor would the audience recognize the gesture. At points the film refers to a history-laden period (the 1950s to the 80s) packed with events like the Cold War, the JFK assassination, the fall of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, and the bloody reign of the mob against the backdrop of these events. At one point the aging, eponymous mobster Frank Sheeran (De Niro) asks a nurse if she knows who Jimmy Hoffa was; she hasn’t a clue, probably the standard response of most young people to history I view as very proximate. But the meaning and value of this film remain, for me, elusive.
The film is based on a book by lawyer Charles Brandt about Sheeran, supposedly a hit man for lower-tier mob boss Russell Bufalino. The “true crime” book, which has sold quite a few copies (I came upon it only recently), contains astonishing revelations, like the mob role in the Kennedy hit (long a guaranteed-to-sell topic), and Sheeran’s startling confession that he killed his friend Jimmy Hoffa, who helped him get a major position in the Teamster’s Union. The question of who killed Hoffa – and perhaps as important, where his body is buried – has used up gallons of ink since he vanished in 1975, his remains never found (it became a common joke: “Next you’ll tell me where Hoffa is buried!”). Brandt’s book is entitled I Hear You Paint Houses, the proposed title to Scorsese’s film that appears on screen as a subtitle. The title is derived, supposedly, from mob code for “do you kill people?,” although a number of mob-savvy journalists say they never heard of the phrase. There are more problems with the tale than this, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The film opens with a recognizably Scorsesean tracking shot, taking us down corridors, in and out of rooms (those of a nursing home it seems) until we stop at a wheelchair bearing the aged Frank Sheeran (De Niro) who tells us (and, as it turns out, a Catholic priest) his life story, from his work as a trucker to his affiliation with Bufalino (Pesci), to his rise as Mafia go-to hit man, to his friendship with Hoffa (Pacino). The three actors are what we have come to expect: Pacino is the loud, growling, gesticulating screen persona we have known since Scarface, before which was a fairly reserved screen presence with a somewhat nasal delivery. De Niro is typically matter-of-fact in speech, with touches of irony and whimsy. Pesci isn’t the wild loon of the earlier mob films. As Bufalino, he plays a don, keeping his own counsel, hunched at tables to speak quietly about upcoming murders.
The murders come fast, and are both predicable and jarring, but the only real drama here are the early suspicions of Sheeran’s younger daughter that her father is a monster. Sheeran is plagued by his daughter’s alienation as he reaches old age, but what can he expect? And should we take seriously the hurt feelings of a raging psychopath? As the film slowly ends, it empties out, all the hoodlums gone, Sheeran alone at twilight, his solitude emphasized by two visiting federal agents who try to pry information from this person of interest, who, although not Sicilian nor an actual made man, holds to a strict omerta code – at least until a publisher waves money at him.
When I picked up I Heard You Paint Houses, I decided I would skim through it, looking for the juicy parts about Kennedy and Hoffa. Like most such mob books, it is poorly written and doesn’t jibe with the known facts. Having been a researcher/activist on the Kennedy and King assassinations in the Seventies, even serving as a consultant for the staff of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, 1976-79, I’ve done my homework. As with all “The Mob Did It” books, Brandt/Sheeran takes liberties with documented events, and ignores entirely the governmental role in some of the crimes Sheeran describes. People who know the Sheeran story – and Sheeran himself – describe him as an alcoholic who didn’t have the skills to carry out mob hits, nor is it likely that the mob would trust him with such assignments. Further, no investigation has placed Sheeran anywhere near JFK or Hoffa. Even Scorsese distrusts Sheeran and the source material. Although Sheeran claims he transported rifles given to David Ferrie, a notorious JFK culprit and mentor to Lee Harvey Oswald, at the time of the assassination, the mobsters – and Jimmy Hoffa – seem totally shocked and surprised. The Ferrie drop-off is shown in the film, complete with an appearance by CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, who was never known to associate personally with Ferrie, who comes and goes so fast the untutored viewer is no doubt bewildered. Still more: many people have told the same story of buying rifles to give to Oswald and confederates, including the very annoying Robert D. Morrow in his 1976 book Betrayal.
But Sheeran’s story might please many people. There are scads of assassination aficionados who hold the Mafia as the prime suspect in the Kennedy hit, including the former chief counsel to the House Select Committee, G. Robert Blakey. This sets aside common-sense questions: who took control of the evidence and told easily checked lies about it for over a half-century? Couldn’t the intelligence agencies gain major kudos and new credibility by busting a few major mobsters? As the researcher Mark Lane once said, there is a big convenience to the mob theory. No one is going to step forward and say “I’m the Mafia and I didn’t do it!” And the mob, the main bogeyman of American culture, can carry water for all sorts of people and organizations.
As for Hoffa, we might note that numerous people were executed simultaneous with the Teamster boss, some of them mobsters like Johnny Rosselli and Sam Giancana, and non-mobsters like George de Mohrenshildt, a CIA asset and Lee Oswald’s closest friend in Dallas, despite De Mohrenshildt being 35 years Oswald’s senior. The point is that these killings took place during a re-heated moment of the Cold War, post-Vietnam and Watergate, when the CIA and FBI were being questioned by Congress for a host of sins, like the killing of Dr. King, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, the 1973 coup in Chile, the assaults on Cuba – it’s a long list. The political dimension of those events – and the events themselves and their interrelationships – are almost non-existent in The Irishman. On the Hoffa murder, Sheeran has very few supporters among knowledgeable people, except for a former New York coroner once known for taking bodies home, performing autopsies on his dining room table, then having financial problems that caught the law’s attention.
I could offer precis for Casino and Goodfellas; they are horrific comedies about the American Id turned loose, films made at a time when the American role in the world became exhausted and discredited, leading us into the arms of mob rule (I mean Trump supporters, not the Mafia). I’m not sure about The Irishman. At this moment it seems a film paying homage to itself. It has a mood and credible performances, but my view of Scorsese’s decreased importance to cinema is unchanged.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.