Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in 'The Irishman'
On Cinema

The gang master

Martin Scorcese’s new Mafia movie is the culmination of a great career

It has taken Martin Scorsese almost a decade to develop and make his latest film, The Irishman, a Mob epic in the vein of two of his earlier movies which are widely regarded as masterpieces, GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Being a cheerleader for film preservation, a champion of the cinematic experience, and a cinephile who has done so much to promote world cinema to as wide an audience as possible, he would want you to see it in a cinema, naturally. Chances are, however, that most of us will watch it on Netflix, where it will be released at the end of November following a brief 26-day theatrical window.

That is because, in return for agreeing to let the film be streamed, Scorsese was given complete freedom from interference and a budget of sufficient size, at $160 million, to pay the salaries of several big-ticket actors (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel) as well as the CGI technology required to de-age them for the scenes that take place when they are younger men. The cheaper, more old-fashioned alternative would have been to cast younger actors and use latex and make-up to convey the passage of time.

Based on the bestseller I Heard You Paint Houses by ex-investigator Charles Brandt, this is the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a WWII veteran who became a stone killer — a Mob hit man who cannot be a member of the Mafia because of his non-Italian heritage. The title is a euphemistic reference to the redecoration of interior walls in various shades of red blood spatter. Although it is essentially a moral tale of male melancholy, the film is also a meditation on US history, the post-WWII swathe that the Mob cuts through the body politic and which sees Philadelphia boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) hire Sheeran to act as bodyguard, and later as nemesis, to the overreaching Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

Should we be on masterpiece alert? Will Marty win an Oscar at last? Certainly the film has achieved a score of 100 per cent Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the American review-aggregation website, based on the published critical reviews so far, the highest score ever achieved by a Scorsese film (Taxi Driver [1976] scored 98 per cent.) At three and a half hours long, this far exceeds the two hours and ten minutes at which studio mogul Jack Warner declared Bonnie and Clyde to be a “three-piss” movie as measured by the tolerance of his old man’s bladder.

Word of mouth reports are dividing between those who regard it as long, boring and derivative of Scorsese’s earlier movies and those who regard it as a career-capping monument and a sage re-examination of themes that have long fascinated him — mortal sin, betrayal, guilt, the wages of violence and corruption. For this critic, his best films are Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980) and GoodFellas. I also harbour a robust admiration for the TV series he produced for HBO, Boardwalk Empire, another crime epic, in this case about Atlantic City during Prohibition. Scorsese invented the non-diagetic soundtrack that uses 45 rpm pop records instead of a composed score and his films typically contain fluid camerawork, expressionistic touches, ironic voiceovers, characters voicing asides to camera, vibrant editing (courtesy of his longstanding collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker) and a signature visceral energy.

Another of his undoubted masterpieces, The Age of Innocence (1993), his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, concerns the fine sensibilities of New York society in the 1870s and is a stark contrast to another period movie, Gangs of New York (2002), a grimy, brutal tale of slum warfare.

Scorsese’s career has contained three major strands: American violence and corruption; documentaries about cinema and rock music; and movies about the spiritual urge, including The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, and Silence (2016), about Jesuit missionaries to seventeenth-century Japan.

He was brought up in New York’s Little Italy district. “I was raised with them, the gangsters and the priests,” he once said. “And now, as an artist, in a way, I’m both a gangster and a priest.” Scorsese has always mythologised rather than glamorised gangsters, emphasising their role in the underbelly of the American Dream. As Henry Hill, protagonist of GoodFellas, puts it: “To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.”

Nor is he done yet. In pre-production are Killers of the Flower Moon (about the murders of Native Americans for their oil leases in early 1920s Oklahoma) and a biopic of Theodore Roosevelt to star Leonardo di Caprio. Before that, though, an Oscar for Best Director beckons. As De Niro’s character says in The Irishman, “Yes, I’m available.”

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