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Paddy Wacked: A Review of Black Mass (2015)

The truth is, we Irish Southie kids went straight from playing cops and robbers on the playground to doing it for real on the streets. And just like on the playground, it wasn’t easy to tell which was which. – Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons)

Based off the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’ Neil, Black Mass dramatizes the cooperation between FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) and Irish gangster Whitey Bulger (Johnny Deep) to eradicate the Mafia in South Boston.

Scott Cooper, director of Crazy Heart (2009) and the underrated Out of the Furnace (2013), has a movie which starts off solid, but slowly fizzles. Told from the perspective of Bulger’s former gang members: Kevin Weeks (Plemons), Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), and Johnny “The Basin Street Butcher” Martorano (W. Earl Brown), Black Mass starts off good enough. When we are introduced to Bulger, it is haunting. His darkened, disgusted face fills the screen as he growls to Martorano to stop licking his fingers while eating peanuts at a bar.
WARNING: "SPOLIERS!" spoilers below
As the film progresses we see Bulger commit a number of grizzly crimes, which includes strangling Flemmi’s young stepdaughter, Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple), to death because he suspects that she is an informant.

In Hits, Wacks, and Smokes: The Celluloid Gangster as a Horror Icon, Catherine Don Diego argues that “some of the most terrifying realist horror offerings in the cinema are better known as gangster movies.” Diego argues that the mayhem and murder portrayed on screen in a gangster movie is far more frightening than a supernatural based horror movie because it is based in reality. That is what I feel Black Mass is trying to do, but never ultimately succeeds. Despite us seeing Bulger strangle people to death, including a young woman, the film never really builds the cult of personality that Bulger had in Boston. At the time he was in power, he was almost like the boogeyman.

One of the opening shots of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2008), which is loosely based off of Bulger, captures what Black Mass fails to. A first person shot of Irish gang boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) walking into a diner/drug store almost makes him seem like a murderous celebrity; someone who is instantly recognizable, but at the same time feared and avoided. That seems to be the biggest problem of Black Mass; it fails to capture the world of South Boston. This one shot from The Departed captures more of the spirit of Bulger, and his reputation with the people of Boston, than the entire film of Black Mass does. Black Mass also fails to capture the underworld of South Boston. The film fails to mention the Irish gang wars of the 1960s, which Bulger was conveniently in prison for, and created the vacuum which would lead to his rise in power. The film also breezes over, and in one scene, unrealistically depicts Bulger’s relationship with the Boston Mafia.

The sins of Black Mass would be more forgivable if it didn’t have an amazing cast. Compared to his body of work over the past few years, Johnny Deep does gives a good performance. Before this, I never really was sold on Johnny Deep as the tough guy. This really worked to his advantage in Donnie Brasco (1997), where he played an FBI agent pretending to be a mobster, but worked to his disadvantage in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), where I feel he was a tad too effeminate to play John Dillinger. But in Black Mass, Depp does give a solid performance as Bulger. One major criticism of Deep’s performance, is that it’s not accurate to the real Whitey Bulger. Both Deep and Cooper refused to consult with the now imprisoned Bulger, or any of his former gang members. While this may give them the moral high ground to sleep better at night, this may have contributed to the film less than authentic feel. Both in Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Scorsese consulted with real mobsters for both movies.

Joel Edgerton, who plays FBI agent John Connolly, is wasted in the movie. Edgerton, who is an amazing actor, seems to be the victim of a poor script. There is no conflict with Connolly, who is painfully one dimensional. The same with Benedict Cumberbach as William “Billy” Bulger; Whitey’s brother and a member of the Massachusetts State Senate. There is little build in the relationship between the two brothers, which makes the scene at the end of the film between them unwarranted. For me, the star of the movie is Rory Cochrane as Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, one of Bulger’s henchmen. Chochrane’s somber, calculated performance of a psychotic hitman steals the show for me. He is a great contrast to Deep’s animated, almost over the top portrayal of Bulger.

While I may seem hard on Black Mass (I usually am on gangster movies), I did enjoy it. It is filmed beautifully, the shot behind the car when the guns are being handed out is one of my favorites, and it’s a grim, brutal portrayal of Bulger and his gang. I liked that the film included Bulger’s willing participation in the CIA’s MKULTRA program while in prison to get a reduced sentence, his participation in smuggling weapons to the IRA, and his infiltration and embezzlement of World Jai Lai.

Joining the amazing The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Departed (2008), and Kill the Irishman (2011); Black Mass is a good enough addition to the list of Irish gangster movies where the criminals cooperate with the police.


For further reading on Bulger, the Boston Mafia, and the FBI, I recommend G-Men and Gangsters: Partners in Crime by Dominick Spinale. The documentary Whitey: United States of America vs James J. Bulger (2014) is also a great companion piece to Black Mass.

"Money won is twice as sweet as money earned."

Should Have Left the Lights On: A Review of New Orleans After Dark (1958)

Canal Street, quiet now after dark. Downtown from Canal, the old world French Quarter, just beginning to wake up. Through the heart of the quarter runs Bourbon Street, home of the strip joints, the honkey tonks, Dixieland, and the blues. Tinsel sin for the tourist trade, but just another night beat for plain clothes car 53.

This is the opening voice over monologue for John Sledge’s New Orleans After Dark (1958), which chronicles detectives Vic Beaujac (Stacy Harris) and John Conroy (Actual New Orleans police Capt. Louis Sirgo) on their French Quarter beat following the murder of a local showgirl. The detectives eventually discover that deported mob boss Nick Livorno (Wilson Bourg) has snuck back into the country, and is dealing heroin through the quarter by hiding it within cigars.

Seeming to be a composite of a few episodes of N.O.P.D. (1955-1957), a Dragnet rip off which also starred Harris and Sirgo in their respective roles, New Orleans After Dark at first glance may look like a film noir, but is far too hokey to be labeled as one. The characters are painfully two dimensional, and the biggest moral quandary that one of the detectives faces is Conroy constantly telling his son that he can’t go fishing with him; which heartwarmingly gets resolved at the end. Even Stacy Harris, the only real actor on set, just seems to be doing an exaggerated deadpan impression of Joe Friday (Harris appeared in Dragnet, but as a Mickey Cohen-esque gangland boss, rather than a detective).

Worse than the film’s two main characters are its villains. Mob boss Livorno, “the Mad Killer and King of Bourbon Street”, is anything but. The dreary performance lacks any kind of charm or menace the archetypal film gangster should possess. Just as bad as Livorno are his boring henchmen: Pete (Bob Samuels), Blackie (Steve Lord), and Solitaire Bates (Frank Fiasconaro). The only henchmen that’s the least bit interesting is Omega Rivetti (Louis Gurvich); a heroin addicted hitman dubbed “The Cowboy Killer” by the press. In the best shot scene of the movie, the majority of the cinematography is unimaginable as the characters, is when Omega kills a potential witness in a crowded French Quarter music club.

Though it has many faults, New Orleans After Dark is not a complete waste. Filmed entirely on location in the French Quarter, it’s interesting to see the bright signs of actual Mafia controlled bars, like Peter Marcello’s Sho-Bar and Marcello bookmaker Sam Saia’s Felix’s Bar, in the background to help set the atmosphere of the movie. It’s also just a treat to see the French Quarter in the 1950s, especially bars that are still open today, like Pat O’ Brien’s.

Obviously, the character of Livorno is loosely based off of the career of Orleans Mafia boss Sylvestro “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla. During the course of the film, it’s mentioned that Livorno served time in prison for violating the Harrison Narcotics Act and was eventually deported by the United States government. In 1936, Carolla would serve a five year sentence for violating the Harrison Narcotics Act, and would eventually be deported in 1947. Livorno snuck back into the country almost immediately after his deportation to establish a trans-Atlantic heroin smuggling operation. Carolla was caught in a “luxurious hideaway” in Slidell, Louisiana, along with Salvatore Guarneiri, in July of 1950; and was quickly deported (Carolla would later sneak back into New Orleans to stay. The press discovered him in New Orleans after he was hospitalized for a heart attack in 1970. He would remain in the crescent city until his death in 1972.)

Another thing that New Orleans After Dark has going for it is that it’s eerily prophetic.The film predicts the deportation troubles that Carolla’s successor, Carlos Marcello, would face once he became boss of the New Orleans Mafia. Marcello was also no stranger to selling drugs. Between 1930 and 1938, he was arrested six times for selling marijuana. On April 4th, 1961, Marcello, as an illegal alien, paid his tri monthly visit to the INS office on St. Charles Street. Marcello was quickly told that he was going to be deported to Guatemala (where his fake birth certificate said he was born), and two INS agents quickly entered the room and handcuffed him. Marcello was not allowed to make any phone calls, was put on a plane, and was transported to Guatemala. Marcello spent two months in exile before he snuck back into the United States.

The strangest connection (or coincidence, depending on how one looks at life), is the name of one of the women murdered in New Orleans After Dark: Mary Sherman. In the film, Mary Sherman (Kathyrn Copponex) is the roommate of a murdered prostitute, who has the potential of becoming a witness. This is what leads to her being killed by Rivetti. The 1964 murder of Dr. Mary Sherman became, and still is, one of the most notorious unsolved murders in New Orleans history. Far from just being a show girl’s roommate, Dr. Mary Sherman was an orthopedic surgeon and a leading cancer researcher at Tulane Medical School.

Dr. Sherman’s charred, dismembered body was found under a burning mattress in her St. Charles Ave apartment. Her liver, intestines, and lungs were exposed; she was also missing her right arm and torso (Crime scene photos are available online, and are obviously difficult to look at).

Conspiracy theories surrounding her murder are many. Some claim it was Carlos Marcello, after Dr. Sherman uncovered a narcotics smuggling operation where Latin Americans wrapped in casts were coming into Oschner Clinic and dropping off drugs. Other theories implicate Dr. Alton Oschner, the CIA, and Sherman herself working on mutating monkey viruses to be weaponized for the CIA to infect Cuban leader Fidel Castro. While working on the secret project, there was an accident, and Sherman was badly burned. Unable to take her to an emergency room, one of her colleagues killed her to keep the plot secret, then staged the murder in her apartment. You can read more about these theories in Edward T. Haslam’s Dr. Mary’s Monkey and Judyth Vary Baker’s Me and Lee.

The biggest problem with New Orleans After Dark is the source material that it’s ripping off. At a time where the N.O.P.D. was anything but (same with Dragnet and the LAPD), these officers are portrayed as straight laced, by the book, and largely uninteresting. The use of locals as actors in the film is a double edge sword; with flat, boring performances on one hand, but authentic jazz musicians on the other. But while saying that, it is impressive that Capt. wasSirgo on set during the day and worked homicide during the night through the run of N.O.P.D. Locals of New Orleans, or South Louisiana, would probably be the most interested in New Orleans After Dark purely for the novelty of seeing a French Quarter that doesn’t exist anymore. But if you’re looking for a gritty, hard hitting film noir that takes place in the Crescent City, skip New Orleans After Dark and watch Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950). Kazan also used locals as actors in his film, to some greater success (Wilson Bourg, who played Nick Livorno, appeared as a sailor in Kazan’s noir). If you’re also looking for an overdue gangster movie that takes place in the French Quarter, unfortunately, you have to keep waiting.

New Orleans After Dark isn’t the end of the adventures of Detectives Beaujac and Conroy. They both return in Four for the Morgue (1962). Unfortunately, as of yet, the full film isn’t available online


A Review of Live by Night (2016) and the Current State of the American Gangster Movie.

Sometimes bad things happen to good filmmakers; that’s the best way I can describe Ben Affleck’s Live by Night (2016). Affleck’s period gangster movie starts off good enough, especially with a short montage of gangland assassinations which includes a cameo of Affleck favorite Titus Welliver getting shot in the back of the head while in a barber chair. Caught in a prohibition-era Boston gang war between Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Sicilian gangster Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) detests organized crime, and would just prefer to stay an unorganized criminal.

Thought Coughlin can’t stay away from the establishment of organized crime for long, as Mafia boss Pescatore plans to inform his gangland rival of Joe’s confusingly public affair with his wife, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Before he can leave town with Emma, she lures him into a trap where White viciously beats Joe, and Emma, we are told, is inconsequentially killed. Being defeated by Pescatore, White flees to Florida to re-establish his rum running business. That’s when Joe decides to join forces with Pescatore and is selected to stretch his rum running operations into the South to with compete White, prompting Joe to take revenge against him.

That’s where the mess of Live by Night begins. What confuses me, is that Joe is reluctant to become a gangster, but as soon as he just decides to become one out of spite, he is automatically put in charge of the Mafia’s smuggling operations in Tampa; there is no rising thought the ranks with this movie. The confusion doesn’t stop there. As soon as Joe sets up shop in Tampa, he instantly clashes with the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan. The most interesting plot of Live By Night (there are many) is tossed aside in the first 40 minutes of the movie with the quick decimation of the Klan in a series of gangland style assassinations. I couldn’t have been the only one who wanted to see an entire feature film based on the first part of this movie.

But the sins of Live by Night don’t stop there; the majority of the cast is wasted. Affleck shouldn't have been cast in the lead role. Besides being too old, Affleck is obviously buffed up for the next Batman movie and is oddly misshapen in every suit that he wears; to the point where he's a walking triangle. Dressing gangsters/criminals in clothes that don't fit isn't unprecedented. It was done to Paul Muni playing Tony Comonte in Scarface (1932) to make the character look subhuman, and the hulking Sterling Hayden barley fits into his suit playing Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). But while those examples were done purposely, I don't think Affleck's unflattering wardrobe choices in Live By Night were.

It doesn’t get much better for the rest of the cast; Zoe Saldana's talent is squandered, Brendan Gleeson is unfortunately quickly tossed aside, Sienna Miller plays her part well, Chris Cooper is solid (as usual), Elle Fanning's role is confusingly useless, Robert Glenister as Irish gang boss Albert White is fantastic, and frankly, he deserves his own gritty and realistic 1920s Irish gangster film, Remo Girone is a snore and should have been recast, Chris Messina is good, and lastly Max. Casella,"Benny" from The Sopranos, basically plays "Benny" from The Sopranos, but in the 1920s

The most confusing casting choice is the admission of Joe’s brother, who left Boston to become a Hollywood screenwriter. The character is mentioned soo frequently through the story, that one would think that he would eventually make an appearance (Scott Eastwood was actually cast for the role), but the only thing we get to see of Joe’s brother is his name in the credits of a movie Joe sees during the fourth act (Bonus High Sierra (1941) when Affleck is outside of the theater).

Now, Live by Night wasn’t all bad. The change of scenery from the slums of Boston to the cigar factories of Florida did me good; we don’t have enough gangster movies that take place in the South. Again, the first 40 minutes is a solid gangster movie, and should just be shut off after that.


It seems for the past decade that the American Gangster movie has been struggling, with brief moments of quality. We had a brief surge with high caliber Irish gangster movies with Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) and the underrated Kill the Irishman (2011). We’ve had auteurs Ridley Scott and Michael Mann contribute to the genre with American Gangster (2007) and Public Enemies (2009).Then the gangster movie got political and mirrored the dismal economic climate with Andrew Dominick’s unappreciated Killing Them Softly (2012). The same year we got a superb hillbilly bootlegger/gangster movie with Lawless (2012). I thought the genre would only get better with Black Mass (2015) and Legend (2015) coming out, but they just contributed to the sharp decline of the genre. The stock in quality gangster movies seems to have bottomed out with the release of Live By Night. The future of the genre also looks shaky as we have Kevin Connolly’s The Life and Death of John Gotti and Sylvester Stallone’s Gregory Scarpa biopic on the horizon.

The most disconcerting news to the future of the genre is that it took Martin Scorsese, who ushered in a fourth cycle of gangster movies with the release of Goodfellas (1990) and his follow up of Casino (1995), over a decade to get his newest contribution to the genre, The Irishman, made. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the script, which you can read my thoughts on here. It’s disappointing that a caliber director like Scorsese had that much trouble getting a gangster movie made.

But for all the doom and gloom I’ve been toting, I think the genre will eventually bounce back. I believe the gangster genre is a highly cyclical one, and we are just at the tail end of a fourth cycle.

The first cycle started with the quick release of Underworld (1927), Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). It ends twofold with the dawn of the Hayes code with the FBI’s focus on Depression Era “Public Enemies” like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, and the subject of the gangster movie shifting from the career of the gangster to the social ills that created him in the first place.

You can see the shifts from urban gangsters to rural bank robbers with Humphrey Bogart’s Dillinger-esque character Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forrest (1936), James Cagney switching sides of the law in G-Men (1935), and the release of Dillinger (1945). The class and social issues that spawned the gangster can be seen in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Dead End (1937), and Invisible Stripes (1939). You certainly had films that paid homage to the early "classic" films towards the end of the first cycle, like Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939).

The second cycle starts with the beginning of the Film Noir genre, where the gangster retreats to the background, but is still prominent in films like Kiss of Death (1947), Key Largo (1948), and White Heat (1949). You can see this start to happen in certain first cycle movies like Bullets or Ballots (1936) and King of the Underworld(1939).

I would argue the seeds of the third cycle were planted with Blast of Silence (1961) and Murder, Inc (1960), again bringing the gangster (or hitman in these cases) character to the forefront, but was saved by and surged with the release of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974). As the 1970s came to an end and the 80s began, the American gangster film started to pay homage to the “classic” period with a remake of Scarface (1983), and Sergio Leone’s Prohibition epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

The genre then started a fourth cycle with the release of the documentary style authenticity of Goodfellas and Casino, which completely influence the genre into the new millennium with the release of The Sopranos.

The M Effect: How Fritz Lang’s M is the original Godfather.

When The Godfather came out in 1972, it not only changed cinema, but crime as well. Francis Ford Coppola’s films not only changed the way that the American public looked at the Mafia, but changed how mafiosi viewed themselves. While Italian and Sicilian gangsters have always been part of America’s 20th Century criminal underworld, they now saw themselves as something more. The Mafia was romanticized. Instead of being seen as cold blooded racketeers, they were seen as “men of honor”, and that “mafiosi were members of a respected, benevolent society of deserving superior people.” Federal Agents often heard mobsters mimic the film, and looked to it as a way to conduct themselves (1).

In the very opening scene of The Godfather, an Italian immigrant goes to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to deliver the justice that the American justice system has denied him. Though the beginning words of the film are “I believe in America.”, the scene is a clear indictment of the American judicial system. The sudden inflated ego of mobsters was identified in a 1977 Times article as "The Godfather Syndrome." It should be noted that not all mobsters felt this way. When asked what he thought of The Godfather, New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello responded with:

Dat Stuff? It’s like one of them fairy tales. Like Sleepin Beauty and de Seven Dwarfs.(2)

The Mafia may not have been the first criminal organization to enjoy an inflated sense of self worth because of a movie. Fritz Lang’s M (1931) could have had a very similar effect.

While there was no Mafia in Germany’s post WWI Weimar Republic, there was organized crime. Criminal syndicates known as the Ringvereine or Ring Associations operated in the backstreets of Berlin (3). The harsh post-war reparations which the Allies demanded from Germany strangulated its economy. This economic hardship would not only give rise to organized crime, but it would also lay the foundation which would allow the Nazi Party to come into power.

The origins of the Ringvereine can be traced to the late 19th Century, when clubs and associations became popular in Germany. Acting as sports associations, these clubs actually were made up of ex-convicts which would serve as a front for organized crime. These clubs would take part in prostitution, the narcotics trade, and protection rackets. Much like the American Mafia, only men were allowed to join these clubs; which would look after a member’s family when he was sent to prison or was killed (5).

Also like organized crime in America, there was a violent incident which brought the Ringvereine into the public’s eye. On December 28, 1928, members of the Immertreu (“Always Local”) and Norden (“North”) Ringvereine crime syndicates, dressed in coats and top hats, entered a pub near Berlin’s Silesian Station. The gangsters were there to confront a man named Schulniess, a leader of a group of Hamburg carpenters, who had stabbed a Ringvereine member an hour earlier. The leader of the Ringvereine, who was known as “Muscle” Adolf, demanded a large sum of money for the injured gangster’s medical bills. After Schulniess refused, a pub brawl began. In Christian Goeschel’s, The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin, he describes the battle:

“The carpenters, helped by the bricklayers from the same construction site, attacked the top-hatted men with their tools. Muscle-Adolf and his men fought back, but were forced outside. Schulniess was severely injured. Someone called the police who briefly restored order. As soon as the police left, Muscle-Adolf’s men alerted other Ringvereine, who arrived almost at once. A street battle erupted, involving some 200 men. A bricklayer was beaten up so badly that he later died in the hospital. Eyewitnesses heard between twenty and thirty gunshots.”

Muscle Adolf, and eight other members of the Immertreu syndicate were arrested, and admitted to their part in the fight, but denied killing the bricklayer. For fear of retaliation, the public was hesitant to testify (6).

Released one year after the Nazi Party’s land slide victory in the Reichstag election, M was a social criticism of the crumbling Weimar Republic (4). The authorities not being able to do anything about a series of child murders has disrupted the business of the underworld so drastically; the organized criminal rings of Berlin decide to start their own manhunt for the killer. Distrust of the state and its ability to deliver justice is a common theme that M shares with The Godfather. At the end of the movie the criminals capture the serial killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), and put him on trial in front of a kangaroo court; which shortly demands his death. Before the sentence is carried out, the police conveniently interrupt the proceedings and arrest both Beckert and the gangsters.

Both film’s distrust of the state can be further seen with the portrayal of authority figures. In The Godfather, besides the FBI agents seen at the beginning of the film, corrupt Irish cop Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) is the only law enforcement character we see in the film. On the payroll rival gangster and drug pusher Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the first impression we get of McCluskey is brutish; punching out Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) after he fears there will be another assassination attempt on his father. In M, law enforcement is criticized with ineptitude with the overweight and gluttonous Inspector Karl “Fatty” Lohmann (Otto Wernicke).

Besides the distrust of the state and the extension of it with authority figures, the criminals in both films feel the need to protect children. Though this need to protect children is an extension to protect profit. At the end of The Godfather, the fictitious Mafia organizations from around the country gather to talk about the newly sanctioned narcotics business. Detroit Mafia boss Giuseppe Zaluchi (Louis Guss) says:

I also don’t believe in drugs. For years I paid my people extra so they wouldn’t do that kind of business. Somebody comes to them and says,”I have powders; if you put up three, four thousand dollar investment, we can make fifty thousand distributing.” So they can’t resist. I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don’t want it near schools! I don’t want it sold to children! That’s an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.

In an effort to profit off of the drug trade, the Mafia believes it is shielding society by keeping narcotics away from children and schools and selling it to what they see is an undesirable caste of the population. The only reason the gangsters in M join the manhunt for the child killer is because police raids across the city keep disrupting business.

But did M have the same effect on the Ringvereine as The Godfather did on the Mafia?

The Weimar Republic’s morbid fascination with criminals and serial killers mirrored America’s fascination with gangsters (7). Goeschel’s study of the Ringvereine supports this thesis; in which he claims that after the release of M, the Ringvereine was seen as “a self-policing crime syndicate, maintaining law and order instead of the inefficient police force (8).” Though they may have had a very similar effect on romanticizing organized crime; there is a huge difference between M and The Godfather.

Goeschel claims Muscle Adolf advised Lang on the inner workings of organized crime, and also made actor Gustaf Grundgens, the charismatic leader of the gangsters in M, an honorary member of the criminal brotherhood. This shows that the Ringvereine fully endorsed their portrayal in M.

When The Godfather was being made, Joe Colombo, boss of the New York Colombo Crime Family and the leader of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, was able to threaten Paramount Studios into omitting the terms Mafia and Cosa Nostra from the film. Paramount, mindful that the Mafia’s infiltration of labor unions could threaten production, complied (9). Even though The Godfather was the best PR the Mafia could have ever received, in the beginning it lacked the criminal endorsement which M received. This could be because while the Mafia was a secretive society, while the Ringverine clubs were officially registered under the Reich Association Law (10).

Despite its positive portrayal of criminal syndicates, M contributed to a dissatisfied attitude that many Germans had of the Weimar Republic, which in the long run, would negatively impact the organization.

Among those that agreed M was an indictment of the ineffectiveness of the Weimar Republic were the Nazis. Future Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, welcomed the film’s message. The Nazis would make the elimination of crime a major political issue. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, several sever laws were passed on the prevention of crime. The Application of Preventive Police Detention of Professional Criminals allowed the SS to arrest many Ringvereine members, who were thrown in concentration camps (11). Since all the Ringvereine members were registered with the government, identification and targeting of members was very easy. These crackdowns would climax in 1937 when thousands of gangsters, social, and racial outsiders were arrested in raids. Though the Nazis claimed that they eradicated crime under their regime, Goeschel suggests that the arrest of Muscle Adolf in a post WWII Germany proves that some of the crime syndicates survived the Nazi reign of terror (12).

During production of The Godfather, the before mentioned Joe Colombo was shot while giving a speech at an Italian-American Unity Day Rally on June 28, 1971. The assassination attempt failed, it left Colombo a vegetable . The man responsible for Colombo’s attempted assassination, the renegade mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo, was himself assassinated on April 7 1972, while celebrating his birthday at Umberto’s Clam House. While The Godfather had only been playing for a few weeks, the Colombo-Gallo War was over (13).

The problem with The Godfather is that it made the Mafia popular. Though it would enjoy the zenith of its power in the 1970s and the early 1980s , its downfall would soon arise. In 1985, based on evidence gathered by FBI, United States Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani brought the heads of the Five Families in New York on trial. Using the RICO (Racketeering Influence Corrupt Organizations) Act, Giuliani was able to get a 100 year sentence for each of the bosses of the Five Families (Paul Castellano – Gambino Crime Family (assassinated before his prison sentence) , Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno – Genovese Crime Family, Carmine Persico – Colombo Crime Family, Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo – Lucchesse Crime Family, Philip “Rusty” Rastelli – Bonanno Crime Family) (14).

While the Ringvereine is extinct, and the American Mafia is in steady decline, both films that portray these two criminal organizations are still considered cinematic classics.

*While I am aware that M was remade in America in 1951, it failed to have the impact on both cinema and crime that both the original M and The Godfather had.

RATING (of M):

(1) Rabb, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2006. 196. Print.
(2) Davis, John H. Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989. 542. Print.
(3) Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. 379. Print.
(4) Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(5) Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(6)Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(7) Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. 134. Print.
(8)Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(9)Raab, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2005. 189. Print.
(10)Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(11) Wachsmann, Nikolaus. Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004. 167. Print.
(12)Goeschel, Christian. “The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin.” History Workshop Journal 75 (2013): 58-80. Print.
(13) Rabb, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2006. 197. Print.
(14) Rabb, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2006. 197. Print.

A Gangster Whose Last Name Doesn't End in a Vowel: A Review of Public Enemies (2009)

With such crime films as Thief (1981), Heat (1995), and Collateral (2004) under his belt, director Michael Mann does not disappoint with his new film: Public Enemies. Johnny Depp starts in an Oscar worthy role as John Dillinger, the charismatic depression-era bank robber whose escapades landed him on the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. The film also stars Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the FBI Agent charged with bringing Dillinger to justice, and Marion Cotillard, who plays Dillinger’s gun moll, Billy Frechette.

Aside from great acting all around, the cinematography is one of the better parts of the film. Some scenes of Public Enemies not only makes you feel like you are standing behind Dillinger and his gang while shooting it out with G-Men, but a few first person shots make you feel that you yourself are wielding a Tommy gun, running through the streets of Chicago.

Mann adds to the reality of the film by shooting at the actual locations where shootouts took place. Mann shot at the Crown Point Jail, Little Bohemia Lodge, and the Biograph Theater, where Dillinger was assassinated.

In the ongoing debate between “HD vs. film”, Public Enemies may prove to be the ace in the hole that settles the argument. There are just some things that look better on HD rather than on film, and one of those things is scenes that take place at night. Several scenes, especially the Little Bohemia shootout, are beautifully crafted at night, thanks to HD.

Composer Elliot Goldenthal, who also scored Michael Mann’s Heat, returns with a beautiful score that carries the film.

And in one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie, where Dillinger is at the Biograph watching his last film, Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Mann actually puts in real footage of the film; which makes the scene unforgettable.

Now that I’ve totally sucked this movie’s dick, let me tell you a couple of things that bothered me about it.

First is the total lack of development of Christian Bale’s character, Melvin Purvis.

Christian Bale doesn’t have nearly enough screen time in this film. In a film with a similar formula to Heat, one would think it would be filmed in that matter. I’m not saying he has to have the exact amount of screen time as Depp, but just enough for the audience to really give a **** about his character. I’m not blaming Bale for his character being a little uninteresting; I’m sure if he had more time to work with the role on screen it would have been an award winning performance. When we finally learn the fate of Melvin Purvis at the end of the film on a title card, unless you are familiar with the history of the time period, you don’t really give a ****. There is a great rise and fall story that could have not only been told with Dillinger in the film, but also Melvin Purvis.

Another problem I have with the film is its historical accuracy. I realize that it’s impossible to adapt a true story into a film and be 100% accurate, I get that. But the movie goes out of its way to be historically accurate in some places (like Ana Sage not wearing red, Purvis not being one of the agents that shot Dillinger, and Frank Nitti’s character. Take that The Untouchables (1987)), and goes out of its way sometimes to be historically inaccurate. Like:

(Just to grab a frame of reference, John Dillinger died on July 22nd, 1934.)

-The first gangster shot in the film by Purvis, before Dillinger’s death, Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), in real life died onOctober 22, 1934, three months after Dillinger.

-In the film Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) both died in/shortly after a car crash that takes place before Dillinger’s death. In reality Baby Face Nelson died on November 27, 1934, and Homer Van Meter died on August 23rd, 1934, after Dillinger was shot.

-Harry 'Pete' Pierpont (David Wenham) was also killed before Dillinger in the film. Where as in real life he was captured by authorities and was executed on October 17, 1934, again after Dillinger was shot.

Seeing a pattern here?

-The film also suggests that Dillinger, and other bank robbers as well, had a relationship with Phil D'Andrea (John Ortiz), a member of the Chicago Outfit who worked for its post Capone-era boss, Frank Nitti (Billy Camp). The only bank robbers who had any kind of relationship with the Chicago Outfit were both the Barkers and Alvin Karpis.

-The film also fabricates a long term relationship between Alvin Karpis and John Dillinger, which didn’t happen.

-Dillinger also received plastic surgery shortly before his death, (which the film leaves out), which started the controversy rather it was actually Dillinger who was shot at the Biograph, or someone else.

And I’m not saying that all the historical interpretation is bad.

I liked that fact that the film suggest that the Mafia had a hand in Dillinger’s death.

I was surprised with the direction Mann took with the film. While he had a chance to make a truly epic story about the genesis of the FBI, the Kansas City Massacre, the first good, then disastrous relationship between Melvin Purvis and J. Edgar Hoover, and the stories of other Public Enemies, Mann chose to focus on just the exploits of John Dillinger alone.

I’m also surprised that one of the characters in this film never got his own movie.

The character Giovanni Ribisi plays in the film, Alvin Karpis, has one of the most epic stories ever told. Not only was he a bank robber/kidnapper with the Barker Gang, but he himself has come face to face with Chicago Outfit boss, Frank Nitti. He was also the last “Public Enemy” to be captured. He was arrested by Hoover himself in New Orleans on May 1, 1936. After that he was thrown in Alcatraz from 1936 to April 1962. After Alcatraz was closed in 1962, he was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington.State. Karpis was released on parole in 1969 and deported to Canada.; he moved to Spain and died on August 26, 1979.

Just as he was the last “Public Enemy” to be captured, he was also the last one to die. He out lived all of his former peers at the time, and he even lived to see the death of J. Edgar Hoover.

Even though not 100% percent accurate, I don’t let that get in the way of me liking Public Enemies.


Nazi Enforcer: A Review of Riphagen the Untouchable (2016)

Among the grey German uniforms of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the intelligence branch of the SS, and the black uniforms of the complicit Dutch police, navigates a man in a bright blue suit and a tan overcoat and fedora; this is Dries Riphagen (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge). Being a prominent enough figure of the Amsterdam underworld to have the nickname “Al Capone”, Riphagen collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation of the Netherlands in WWII; exposing resistance groups, and hunting down and blackmailing Jews that had gone into hiding.

Unlike the traditional “rise and fall” gangster film, Riphagen the Untouchable (2016) starts with Riphagen at his zenith. After an SD officer addresses the Dutch police, offering bounties on Jews that have gone into hiding, Riphagen approaches the policemen and presents them a better deal if they turn over the information straight over to him. He can be seen wandering in and out of the police department, sliding dollar bills to officers in exchange for information. But Officer Jan van Liempo (Kay Greidanus), who is secretly working with the Dutch resistance, takes an instant disliking to Riphagen, quickly putting out his cigarette and telling Riphagen he doesn’t smoke when he asks for a light.

In some ways this is one of my biggest problems with Riphagen the Untouchable, we really don’t see much of the titular character in traditional criminal circles. Unprovided are all the ways that gangsters are seen making money: prostitution, gambling, drugs, etc. The only hint of the criminal underworld that we get is when Riphagen socializes with others criminals at different gambling clubs. It’s clear from how the other criminals treat him that Riphagen has some sort of pull in the underworld, but we’re never told how much. But the crimes we do see Riphagen commit are diabolically cruel. Offering hiding Jews safe passage for their belongings, and eventually themselves, Riphagen cons them into handing over their valuables, like diamonds or jewelry, which he will hold for them until the war is over. Riphagen keeps the con going long enough until the Jews he has fooled refer other Jews to Riphagen, and he amasses a nice payday. He kicks some of the goods up top to the SD (everybody wants a piece of the action), but in the end Riphagen keeps the lion’s share for himself, turning in the names and locations of his victims to police when he has bled them dry.

Officer van Liempo is present at one of these arrest, and the old Jewish woman that Riphagen crosses feels so betrayed and guilty (she giving the names of other Jews for Riphagen to help has signed their death warrants) she brutally commits suicide on the spot by stabbing herself several times in the stomach. Van Liempo’s obsession of distaste with Riphagen is magnified when the resistance group he is working with is compromised due to a Jewish informer working for Riphagen, and his comrades are murdered by police. Van Liempo’s hatred becomes so focused, eventually one of his fellow resistance members asks him “There are plenty of traitors in this city, what’s so special about him?”

But Jews aren’t the only people that Riphagen ends up conning. A chance meeting with a waitress named Greetje (Lisa Zweerman), who is filling in for her sister at a diner that Riphagen frequents, causes him to show up at her house with flowers. When she answers the door with tears in her eyes, her drunken father can be heard screaming in the background. Riphagen barges into the house and not only beats and subdues him, but allows both Greetje and her mother to sock him in the face. The two are in love and soon married after that, but Greetje is aware about Riphagen’s association with the SD. When asked, he lies and says that he is only working with the SD so he can help save Jews.

Riphagen’s criminal empire starts to crumble when the Nazi empire is penetrated on D-Day by the Allies. At this point, van Liempo has put Riphagen on a “death list” with resistance members. When his criminal associates ask him to lighten up on his Jewish victims, sensing a turning of the tide in the war, Riphagen realizes that his fate will be similar to the Nazis if captured, and he tells his associates that if he goes down he’s taking all of them with him. As the Allies get farther into Europe, Riphagen attempts to flee East, but not before he is shot in the leg by van Liempo. Believed to be dead, Riphagen returns to Amsterdam to go into hiding, where suspected Nazi collaborators are being murdered by resistance members in broad daylight.

At this point, the crippled Riphagen is very reminiscent of Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello from Little Caesar (1931). Rico (Edward G. Robinson) is forced into “…the gutter from which he sprang” when the cops turn up the heat on his organization. His fall is sudden and sharp, as Rico is seen from staying in the most lavish of apartments to hiding out, face full of stubble, in a flophouse. Rico is soon gunned down by police while hiding in squalor, his last words famously being “Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?” As if his ego is stunned he could be killed in such a fashion.

Riphagen moves from place to place, cane in hand, while in hiding. Much like Rico, he is also seen from living in the most luxurious of apartments, which he stole from a Jewish family he informed on, to sleeping on cots in backrooms. He even has to embarrassingly stay with his father-in-law, who he emasculated at the beginning of the film. But Riphagen doesn’t share Rico’s fate. While Rico’s temper and ego was his undoing while under the pressure of a manhunt, this is Riphagen at his most cunning. As the war winds down, and resistance members move into government and law enforcement positions, Riphagen plays them against each other to escape justice. He claims that it was van Liempo who betrayed resistance members, and Riphagen continues to plead his innocence. He is able to manipulate leaders of law enforcement, now in charge of hunting down Nazi collaborators, into bringing him across the border.
WARNING: "Riphagen" spoilers below
While waiting for his wife, van Liempo exposes Riphagen for the monster he is, and she gives up his location. Van Liempo surprises Riphagen face to face with a British Sten Mark III, intending to finish the job he started when he only wounded Riphagen in the leg. But, Riphagen eventually gets the drop on van Liempo, and chokes him to death, leaving his body in the street as he drives to freedom; abandoning his wife and newborn child.

WARNING: "Riphagen" spoilers below
The film ends with Riphagen fleeing Europe, but his story doesn’t end there. He would travel from Spain to Argentina, where many Nazi war criminals escaped to, and became acquainted with President Juan Peron. He settled in Buenos Aires, where he ran a photography press, and worked for President Peron’s secret service on the side. After Peron was overthrown in a coup in 1973, Riphagen returned to Europe, and would die of cancer in Switzerland the same year.

At its heart, Riphagen the Untouchable is a gangster film. The use of the word “untouchable” in the title brings to mind Al Capone, whose wardrobe style Riphagen adopts through the movie. In Hits, Whacks, and Smokes: The Celluloid Gangster as a Horror Icon, Catherine Don Diego argues that “some of the most terrifying realist horror offerings in the cinema are better known as gangster movies.” Diego argues that the mayhem and murder portrayed on screen in a gangster movie is far more frightening than a supernatural based horror movie because it is based in reality. There can be no better example than Riphagen, where a monster among monsters in a blue suit roamed the underbelly of Amsterdam; stalking and toying with his prey.

Spanning three episodes in Germany, the only version with American subtitles is currently streaming as a two hour movie on Netflix.


A Gangster Whose Last Name Doesn't End in a Vowel: A Review of Public Enemies (2009)

Really enjoyed reading your review of this film. Even though I'm a big Johnny Depp fan, I have never really been interested in seeing this film until reading your review and will be adding it to my watchlist.

Really enjoyed reading your review of this film. Even though I'm a big Johnny Depp fan, I have never really been interested in seeing this film until reading your review and will be adding it to my watchlist.
Thanks, Gideon58! You flatter me! Please let me know what you think once you've seen it!

The Economy of Crime: A Review of Killing Them Softly (2012)

Based off the novel by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, a mob hitman who is tasked with tracking down the three men that conspired to rob a mob protected poker game. Directed by Andrew Dominik(The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)), Killing Them Softly takes place in the most dismal of locations in a post-recession city.

One issue I take, not with the film, but rather with several of its reviews that have come out saying that this story is set in New Orleans. Being filmed in New Orleans, of course, there are several locations that look very familiar to a current resident, like myself. But to somebody who has never visited New Orleans before, these locations could be the slums set in any city. While some locals and reviewers may fault Dominik for not capturing the particular essence that New Orleans has to offer, I argue that Dominik kept the locations as non specific as possible.

For example, Roger Ebert says:

"Killing Them Softly” begins with a George V. Higgins novel set in Boston in 1974 and moves its story to post-Katrina New Orleans in 2008..."
"Killing Them Softly” continues as a dismal, dreary series of cruel and painful murders, mostly by men who know one another, in a barren city where it's usually night, often rainy and is never identifiable as New Orleans — not even by the restaurants."
Ebert's full review can be found here:

Unlike Ebert, not only do I not think that Killing Them Softly takes place in New Orleans, I don't think it takes place in any specific city. The location remains undisclosed, so that the viewer could think that this story could possibly happen anywhere. But there is one factor that I don't think Ebert took into consideration in assuming that the movie takes place in New Orleans: legalized gambling. Gambling is legal in New Orleans (sort of), making mob run poker games obsolete. Even if one would argue that underground poker games still existed in New Orleans, which there is no evidence of, why would anyone run the risk of going to an underground poker game, when they could just gamble at a legal establishment? Harrah's casino in New Orleans is so large, it would take a legion of armed gunman to rob it.

Another point in the story that makes it impossible for it to take place in New Orleans, is that it seems that the entire underworld economy focuses on these card games. Even when underground gambling existed in New Orleans, under the reign of mob boss Carlos Marcello, and while illegal gambling played a very large part of his organization's income, it wasn't his organization’s only income. His entire organization wouldn't collapse if one of his gambling houses was raided. Again, since gambling is legal in New Orleans, it would be impossible for a criminal organization to exists solely on the profits of underground card games.

The movie starts with low level thieves Frankie(Scoot McNairy) and Australian junkie Russell(the underrated Ben Mendelsohn) being hired by an equally low level underworld figure, Johnny Amato(Vince Curatola, who is a pleasure to be seen on screen again in a post-Sopranos gangster role), to rob an illegal poker game that is run by Mark Trattman(Ray Liotta). The only reason that Amato is attempting the robbery in the first place is because Trattman's game has been robbed before. Trattman was in on the robbery, and drunkenly confessed it to his underworld colleagues one night. One offset of the card game being robbed is the complete collapse of the underworld economy. Since one of them was robbed, all of the card games in the city were shut down and nobody was making any money. While one may think that Trattman would be killed because of this, he is so liked by everyone, he gets a pass. Amato figures that if the card game is robbed again, the underworld would immediately suspect Trattman and he would be disposed of, ending the investigation there.

The robbery goes off without a hitch. Jackie Cogan is then contacted by a man just referred to as "The Driver"(Richard Jenkins),who is a spokesperson of the leaders of the underworld, to investigate who robbed the poker game. It's explained in the film that Cogan's superior, Dillon(Sam Shepard) received a life threatening stab wound, and is unable to work, so Cogan takes his place. Cogan immediately suspects that Trattman is innocent, but he must be killed anyway to keep up appearances. Another problem with Ebert's review(I'm not trying to pick on him, I swear) is that Ebert can't understand why Trattman had to be killed.

Ebert says:

Here is where the Catch-22 comes in: Now that Markie has claimed credit for knocking off his own game, another one of his games is stuck up. Does it now seem inevitable that he, too, becomes a marked man? Not to me. Who with any common sense would think he was that dumb? There's some of the Higgins brand of humor in a conversation about how badly he should be beaten up." The reasoning why Trattman must be killed, even though he is innocent, is because everyone else in the underworld would just assume that he ripped off his own card game again. If Trattman gets another pass, then what would stop anyone from robbing mob protected card games if there are no repercussions? After being beaten up to get a confession out of him, in which he pleads his innocence, in a beautifully shot scene, Trattman is killed by Cogan in a passing car.
It is then revealed that the junkie Russell has bragged to a friend about the robbery that he and Frankie took part in. That is when Frankie, Russell, and Amato become marked men.

Cogan then asks "The Driver" to spring for a second man, Mickey(James Gandolfini), because Amato knows Cogan, and would be aware of his fate if the two would cross paths. Times and resources being tight because of the underworld recession, "The Driver" is reluctant to bring in a second man. When he does agree, he issues one ultimatum for Cogan: "Fly Coach." Another problem, although it being a very small one, with Ebert's review is his "classification" of Mickey in the underworld.

Ebert says:

A high-level mob boss named Mickey (James Gandolfini) arrives in town, hauling his in-flight luggage through the airport like a traveling businessman." This may seem like splitting hairs, but Mickey is not a "mob boss." The whole point of being the boss of a criminal organization is to insulate yourself from as much exposure as possible. The very notion that a mob boss would be flown in to commit a murder is ludicrous. Mickey is just another hitman, like Cogan. The two have a history of working together, and that's why Cogan wants to recruit him.
WARNING: "Killing Them Softly" spoilers below
Even though Cogan had a professionally high regard for Mickey, he is not the man he used to be. Mickey is now caught in a downward spiral of alcohol and hookers. Cogan being disgusted by the man he has become, actually sets up Mickey to be arrested at a hotel after he gets in a fight with a hooker. Mickey is on parole and is not supposed to be out of New York, so his arrest and departure would get him out of the picture.

Now that he can't count on Mickey, Cogan decides to take care of the murders himself. Russell is arrested by police on drug possession, so he is now out of Cogan's reach. Cogan confronts Frankie in a bar, where he forces him into driving to the location where Amato is going to be that night. Frankie reluctantly agrees, knowing that if he doesn't cooperate, he will be killed. Later that night, Amato is violently gunned down by Cogan. When Cogan and Frankie return to drop off the car they stole to kill Amato in, Cogan shoots Frankie.

The hits being complete, Cogan meets "The Driver" in a bar to collect his cash. Cogan is upset because he is only paid $10,000 a hit. "The Driver" says that is the "recession price" that his boss, Dillion, accepted from the mob bosses. Cogan then reveals that Dillion died that morning, and that now he is working for the organization , and it's going to be expensive. That is when Cogan says to "The Driver": America's not a country. It's a business. Now ****ing pay me.

Gangster movies often mirror the business climate. Gangster films set during the “Roaring Twenties” portray gangsters as the ultimate capitalist, as businessmen whose illicit profits are on the rise. Classic gangster films like The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface(1932), and The Roaring Twenties (1939) gangsters are flashy and flaunt their wealth to the world. The economic climate being in the gutter that it is today, Killing Them Softly takes a more cynical view of life in America. Throughout the movie, speeches by President George W. Bush and Senator Obama can be heard in the background. News broadcast about the economic crash can be heard in car radios, and a billboard advertising both Obama and McCain’s campaign is shown in the opening scene. The ending scene in the movie shows Obama’s election as President and part of his victory speech. The speeches given by these politicians, who are suggesting things will get better, are juxtaposed to the rotting infrastructure of the inner city. On the eve of Obama’s victory, Cogan can be seen walking past people setting off fireworks, celebrating his election. When Cogan walks past the celebration, he is the only character in focus, as if he is the only one that realizes that things will not get better.

The gangsters in this movie aren't flashy. They don’t live in big houses or drive expensive cars. Most of the scenes in the film are shot in concrete wastelands or urban slums. Mirroring the economic crash of the economy of the United States, the underworld economy is also in crisis. It seems that the desperate criminal syndicate operating in this city only has one source of income left: gambling. No other crimes that generate income are shown. There is no extortion, no drug trade, no other rackets shown that support this criminal organization.

But maybe the reason no other rackets could be shown is because the film just focuses on the lower levels of the underworld. The highest ranking person in the film shown is “The Driver”, who is a spokesperson that acts as a buffer between the lower criminal element and the boss(es). “The Driver” is the most well dressed person in the film. He drives the nicest car. Could it be that the higher level gangsters are keeping more of the profits for themselves? Maybe not. “The Driver” hesitates granting any money at all to Cogan to get the job done. When Cogan asks him to pay for Mickey to come in from New York, “The Driver” tries to assure Cogan that the boss(es) will not spend more money on another man. Trattman, though well dressed, lives in a small, run down house in the middle of an urban slum. In a flashback, he is shown living in a small trailer. Amota could represent the struggling small business owner. Suggesting that he spent some time in prison, Amota is trying to start up his criminal business again. His office is not in a bar or a club, but rather a run down, shabby looking dry cleaning shop. Not much is known about Cogan’s personal life, except that he thinks that $30,000 for three hits is well below the regular market price. Frankie and especially Russell live in poverty and squalor. In the beginning of the film, they can be seen traversing gutted neighborhoods, where most of the houses are either abandoned or demolished.

Overall, Killing Them Softly is beautiful. The eroding infrastructure that only post-Katrina New Orleans can offer sets the perfect tone for the movie. What Dominik did for the western with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he does for the gangster movie with Killing Them Softly. He is able to make an art film without it feeling pretentious. The dialogue is darkly humorous. The acting is fantastic all around. Seeing Gandolfini and Curatola in criminal roles again after The Sopranos is satisfying. While the soundtrack compliments the film immensely, with Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around playing with the introduction of Pitt’s character and Petula Clark's rendition of Windmills of Your Mind playing when Frankie discovers that his identity as one of the robbers is known by the underworld, the film lacks in its score. After being unjustly ignored for his score in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I was hoping that Nick Cave would do another score that was as haunting as Jesse James was. Cave not returning for Dominik’s second major feature, results in a score that is easily forgettable.

With all that being said, Killing Them Softly was one of my favorite movies of 2012.


I Believe In America: A Review of Lucky Luciano (1973)

The famous first lines of The Godfather (1972) are “I believe in America”; while seeming patriotic, the opening scene of Coppola’s genre classic is an indictment of the American judicial system. Francesco Rosi’s Lucky Luciano (1973) is a film which echoes the same attitude, by portraying the system of power in Western governments walking hand in hand with organized crime.

Lucky Luciano begins with its titular character, played by Gian Maria Volontè , boarding the SS Laura Keene, being freed from prison and deported to Italy after aiding the Allied war effort during World War II. While Luciano’s underworld entourage, big names like Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, and Vito Genovese, gather on the [i]Keene [/I ]to bid him farewell, Federal Narcotics agent Charles Siragusa (played by Siragusa himself, a former narcotics agent who worked on Luciano’s case) “freezes his balls off” in the back of a van filming the whole affair, as dockworkers loyal to Luciano keep the press back with meat hooks.

It’s the beginning of Lucky Luciano that racks up the body count, all in flashbacks. Just as Luciano boards the Keene, he pauses to reminisce about the assassination of Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria at the Nuova Villa Tammaro restaurant on Coney Island. Not long after, while Luciano is eating and drinking with friends on the Keene, a quick montage of brutal assassinations plays, a flashback to the (historically mythical) Night of the Sicilian Vespers; the elimination of the old “Mustache Petes”, the old Mafia guard, around the country, leaving Luciano, Lansky, Genovese, Costello and other mobsters to take power and form the modern American Mafia.

When Luciano reaches the small Sicilian village of Lercara Friddi, where he was born, he visits his family’s burial plot. Rosi decides not to focus on Luciano’s family during this scene, but rather on the graves of other, younger Sicilians whose markers advertise them dying from “an infamous assassin”, or “brutally murdered by an unknown man” or “a victim of a tragic and inevitable destiny.” Rosi purposely drags out this scene to demonstrate that the establishment of underworld order that Luciano incorporated in America is lacking in the blood soaked Sicilian underworld. Luciano then travels to the more cosmopolitan Naples, where he finishes a cigar and enters a small restaurant for dinner. When a waiter takes Luciano’s order, he requests spaghetti with marinara. This causes the waiter to assume that Luciano is an American, and when asked he responds with “I suppose so.” Then, when asked by the waiter how he likes Naples, Luciano responds with “It’s gonna take a little while.”

This is one of Volontè’s finest moments in the film; the sadness in his voice from the “I suppose so” line is able to capture the pain of being a man exiled from the country he loves, while being considered a foreigner in his motherland. The “It’s gonna take a little while” line echoes the same sadness, but soon turns to something more sinister as Luciano smiles, indicating that he has plans for establishing a new criminal order in Naples, with himself on top.

The film then fast forwards a few years to 1952, to the United Nations International Conference on Drug Traffic. This is where Lucky Luciano snags its best cameo with the great noir actor Edmond O'Brien (The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), and D.O.A. (1950)), as the first Commissioner of the Bureau of Federal Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger, or as Luciano later refers to him, “Ass Slinger”. The scene starts with Anslinger chastising the Italian government for not doing anything to hinder the new heroin network that Luciano has established while in exile, with the majority of the heroin flowing into the United States. Anslinger further suggests that the Italian government is at worst complicit, at best indifferent, towards this drug network. The hostile Italian representative then reminds Anslinger that during World War II, Colonel Charles Poletti chose mobster Vito Genovese, who was hiding out in Italy from a murder charge when the war broke out, as his right hand man and driver (this is historically disputed).

The film then flashes back to after the Allies have freed Italy from the grip of fascism and Col. Poletti (Vincent Gardenia) flanked by Genovese (Charles Cioffi) with a group of prostitutes enter the U.S. Army officer’s club. Col. Poletti goes on a long speech on how he wants to give the Italian population “cigarettes, food, gas, the works, that’s what freedom is all about” to bring democracy to Italy, the same way that Luciano will bring his new criminal order to Italy. When Col. Poletti, Genovese, and his entourage of officers enter the club, it’s a scene out of a gangster movie. A table is brought out, and chairs are moved out of the way so they may have a table up front by the band. Though Col. Poletti plans to obliterate the black market, making sure supplies coming to Italy go to the people and not the crooks; the immediate next scene is Genovese using U.S. Army trucks to peddle goods out of a warehouse to sell on the black market. The film then cuts back to the United Nations, and the hostile Italian representative again attacks Anslinger and the U.S. government for releasing Luciano in the first place. Defeated, Anslinger’s only comeback is “Don’t forget all the help we gave you with the Marshall plan”, and the meeting ends in an uproar.

Soon after, we’re introduced to Gene Giannini (Rod Steiger), a flashy drug dealer who comes to Italy to visit Luciano. While in his hotel room with a countess he’s having an affair with, Giannini is visited by Agent Siragusa, and it’s revealed that Giannini is feeding information to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Rosi’s choice to cast Siragusa as himself was a bold one, but his acting alongside veterans like O'Brien and Steiger exasperate his already stiff performance. After visiting the ancient brothels of Pompeii with Luciano, to see how their ancestors plowed vice, Giannini is arrested by the Italian police. It’s during this time in prison that Luciano finds out that Giannini has been feeding information to the feds.

After serving 10 months in an Italian prison, Giannini is sprung by Agent Siragusa, who forces him to fly back to New York to give evidence at a trial. This is where Editor Ruggero Mastroianni shines. The following voice over, read by Frank Adonis (who would go on to have bit parts in both Goodfellas and Casino), is played over real footage of Mafia informant Joe Valachi’s testimony before the McClellan hearings:

“In around the beginning of September, 1952, Gene Giannini was back from a trip to Italy, he’d done 10 months in jail over there. Tony Bender sent for me, for the biggest contract I ever got from Cosa Nostra.”

Though Valachi wouldn’t testify at the McClellan Committee until 1963, making the footage of Valachi’s testimony playing over the voice over an historical anachronism, Valachi’s image is appropriate in cementing that Giannini is a rat, and is going to testify before some court or committee in New York. Also interesting is the namedrop of Tony Bender in the voiceover. Anthony Strollo, whose nickname was Tony Bender, was a capo of the Genovese Crime Family crew that Valachi was apart of. Shortly after his testimony, Strollo would disappear; his remains never being found.

The raspy voice over of the hitman continuing to describe the way he plans to murder Giannini is reminiscent of Allen Baron’s masterful Blast of Silence (1961), and this is where Lucky Luciano starts to resemble the traditional gangster film with familiar shots of the New York skyline, smoky bars, and seedy back alleys. It’s in this environment where Giannini is gunned downed in the street by assassins.

Though Luciano organizes a large meeting between the Sicilian and American Mafia to establish a more coordinated transatlantic smuggling operation, Agent Siragusa is told by his superiors to lay off his investigation. Siragusa later remarks that his superiors think that he’s getting “too close to something”, suggesting that a portion of the American government doesn’t want Luciano captured. When Rosi was interviewed by French film critic Michel Ciment for his massive book on Rosi named Le dossier Rosi, Rosi commented on how Siragusa felt about his halted investigation: “He feels like the victim of a conspiracy he can’t quite comprehend, that someone or something is stopping him from carrying out his work the way he wants to.”

Though the American government has given up on capturing Luciano, a massive drug bust by the Italian government puts a frail looking Luciano in the office of some law enforcement bureaucrat (we’re never specifically told who). While grilled about his connection to certain mobsters (New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello gets an unexpected name drop here) and land deals, Luciano’s weakened state is revealed by a coughing fit.

After getting a fresh haircut, Luciano goes to Naples to meet film producer Martin Gosch about making a film based on his life. Luciano quickly collapses, dead of a heart attack, as the public looks on Luciano’s body sprawled out on the floor. The film ends with a voice over of a political conversation Agent Siragusa and Director Anslinger had earlier in the film about being demonized by the powers that be in Washington. Playing as a crowd gathers to see Luciano’s corpse, when Agent Siragusa asks what he should do now, Anslinger responds with:

“You keep on chasing Luciano, Dewey will keep on chasing us, Keaufver will keep on chasing Dewey. When all this running around is over, everybody will find themselves back at the same god damn place where he started.”

Released in 1973, between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Lucky Luciano isn’t as revered as its more romanticized counterparts, but deserves more recognition in laying part of the foundation for the comeback of the gangster genre in the early 1970s. In style, Lucky Luciano is less like The Godfather movies and more like the documentary biopic style of Scorsese’s gangster movies that would follow it (Scorsese often said that Rosi’s Salvatore Guliano (1962) is one of his favorite films).

But while different in style, Lucky Luciano and The Godfather films share the same indictment of the American government. In The Godfather, the corrupt American justice system fails the immigrant, forcing him to go to Don Corleone for the justice the government has denied him. The Mafia is the only safeguard against the establishment. In Lucky Luciano, the American and Italian governments are complicit in the crimes of the Mafia, often blaming each other for legitimizing criminals. In a scene at the UN, an Italian representative yells “You basically gave him a metal!” to Director Anslinger, referring to the U.S. government freeing Luciano after World War II. Later, Director Anslinger admits: “Dewey let loose a flow of drugs in this country when he got Luciano sprung from jail” and “the Mafia makes no distinctions about parties. They have no party. They are on the side of whoever is in power. Back in the day, they were backing Truman while Dewey was fighting them, now Dewey has the power, and now Keaufver is fighting them.” Luciano himself reminisces later in the film to an Italian bureaucrat that playing politics in Italy is too small, in America he was “face to face” with President Roosevelt. Throughout the whole film, Agent Siragusa is the only person trying to put away Luciano; the rest of the government agencies are either blaming each other or using Luciano and the Mafia as a torpedo to sink political rivals.

The pacing of Lucky Luciano may be alienating to some, but diehards of the gangster genre will find it one of the better gangster films of the 1970s. As elusive as Luciano was to authorities, he is in the film; there are prolonged scenes where he isn’t seen, but his name is uttered, his presence is felt, like some kind of demon. But at the same time, Rosi makes the character feel insignificant, like he’s just another cog (although be it a large one) in the machinations of crime in corruption. Not only does Gian Maria Volontè physically resemble Luciano, but no other actor since has played him in such a restrained, calculating manner; more accountant than gangster. Though it may seem like Rosi skips an in-depth analysis of Luciano in the film, and on the surface it does, if you take a closer look Rosi tells us what makes Luciano tick: he was a man who believed in America.


The Outsider (2018)

One part Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) rip-off, one part American Yakuza (1993), add a dash of Scarface (1932/1983), minus the incestual obsession, and you have Netflix’s The Outsider (2018).

I’m late to the game on this one. When it initially dropped on Netflix last year, the reviews were soo devastating that I didn’t bother giving it a shot. My attitude changed this past Friday when screenwriter/director Paul Schrader left a brief comment about watching The Outsider on his Facebook page. While his comment wasn’t exactly an endorsement, it also wasn’t a scathing damnation. Schrader, whose first Hollywood script was Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974), and who also wrote an amazing primer on the genre, obviously knows quality yakuza films. Schrader’s interest in the film peaked mine, and I made it a point to watch it before my weekend ended.

The Outsider begins in 1954, with former G.I. Nick Lowell (Jared Leto) being the sole American in a Japanese prison. When he saves Shiromatsu yakuza member Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano) from being hung by a rival clan, he is repaid upon his release with muscle work. After bludgeoning a racist copper tradesmen (Rory Cochrane), who refuses to work with the Shiromatsu clan, Lowell climbs the ladder of the yakuza.

While many critics fault The Outsider‘s outlandish premise of a white G.I. becoming an inducted member of the yakuza (see the equally outlandish American Yakuza with Viggo Mortensen), Jared Leto is a major problem with this movie. Pale and bland, Leto sleepwalks through his role, only showing us signs of life when he is inflicting violence. Though Leto’s drone performance isn’t entirely his fault, his character has absolutely no backstory or arc. We have no clue why he’s the sole American in a Japanese prison, much less what he did that put him there. We find out later in the movie through a run in with former squad mate Paulie Bowers (Emile Hirsch), that Lowell may be ducking a court-martial. Whatever Lowell’s secrets are, they are serious enough for him to slit Bowers’ throat to keep them hidden.

The rest of The Outsider is filled with yakuza genre tropes: ritualistic ceremonies, body length tattoos, apologetic finger cutting, warring clans, and the betrayal of an aging boss. The rest of the actors do a fair enough job with what they’re given, but the MVP for me here is Tadanobu Asano, who people may recognize from Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer (2001). Asano plays Kiyoshi, the yakuza member that Lowell saves in prison, who later helps him navigate the Osaka underworld upon his release. There’s a smidge of tension between the two when Lowell starts sleeping with Kiyoshi’s sister Miyu (Shiori Kutsuna), but once she becomes pregnant, we are spared the Scarface-esque conflict when Kiyoshi stoically accepts the situation.

That ends up being the biggest problem with The Outsider: fizzled conflict. The conflict of an American G.I. hanging around with a bunch of yakuza in a post-War Japan is never really taken advantage of. The majority of the conflict comes from Lowell being an outsider, not because his native country dropped two atomic bombs on Japan 10 years prior. There seems to be a collective amnesia of all the characters in this story where World War II, or the great money maker for the yakuza, The Korean War, are both barely mentioned. Lowell is also accepted by the yakuza far too easily. Old, scowling Shiromatsu yakuza boss Akihiro (Min Tanaka) instantly drops all of his biases against Lowell after he performs the yakuza ritual of yubitsume and cuts off his pinky and ring finger to atone for killing two rival clan members. The non-ending of The Outsider is another example of fizzled conflict, but the inability of wrapping up a story seems to be currently in vogue.

Overall, The Outsider isn’t a complete waste of time. It’s filmed beautifully, with the neon soaked streets of Japan illuminating darkened apartment rooms. Veterans of the genre will recognize the familiar paint by numbers story (the way Kiyoshi fakes a suicide attempt to get out of prison is straight from the beginning of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity) and newcomers to the genre have far better places to start. Originally the before mentioned Japanese director Takashi Miike was supposed to helm The Outsider with Tom Hardy in the role of Lowell – one could only wish to see that version of The Outsider.