“Those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”
These are the words of none other than Henry Hill, one of the most fascinating gangsters to ever live. He is both a very real person and the quietly ironic, flawed antihero of Martin Scorsese’s biopic “Goodfellas.” The film was adapted, often verbatim, from “Wiseguy,” Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfictional chronicle of Hill’s life, remaining largely true to the man’s experiences. I’ve always loved crime stories, especially those about the intricate inner workings of a sprawling organization or with the charming wit of a film like “Goodfellas.” But it wasn’t until I read the film’s source material that I started to question the relationship between organized crime and the importance of its filmic parallels.
Surely, the two are not mirrors of each other. But in the case of “Goodfellas,” much of the heart, shaky morality and general tone remained identical from the nonfiction book to the dramatized movie. The thing about organized crime in film, however, is that there isn’t simply one brand of it. For as long as I’ve been watching crime stories, I’ve noticed just how eclectic they can be, a range of different stories based on the different locales, ideologies, backgrounds and values. I want to take a deeper look into the differences among these stories to more completely understand what they say about our daring and our flaws. This is the first installment in a series where I’ll examine several of the varieties through which organized crime manifests onto film.
The first lens I’ll glance into is a cultural one. How exactly does ethnicity and region affect the structure, process, and idiosyncrasies of a criminal organization? It’s no easy question to answer, so for simplicity’s sake, we can narrow our focus to three films.
To start with, “The Departed” is probably the most iconic Boston crime story, showcasing a largely Irish mob. It is distinct from its genre siblings in its small town feel, ruminations about identity in crime and detachment from the narratives that govern similar stories. Next, I’ll examine the pinnacle of Italian crime sagas and the modern standard for American cinema, “The Godfather” series. What these films do best in the light of cultural meaning is to construct a living, breathing world where the complex and hierarchical structure of the mafia exists naturally and understandably to any audience. Both “The Godfather” and “The Departed” won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1973 and 2003 respectively, but the equally iconic film that completes this unholy triumvirate of modern American crime stories was infamously snubbed for the Oscar in 1991.
There’s no better example of a film that combines these two culturally disparate depictions of organized crime than “Goodfellas,” with Hill himself being half-Sicilian and half-Irish. From there, the options to explore are as numerous as the term “organized crime” is amorphous. There’s not just one kind of crime, and there’s certainly not just one kind of crime story.
“The Departed,” at its essence, is an exceptionally smart movie about cops and criminals saying incredibly inane things to each other. Saturated with more than its fair share of quotable one-liners and snarky moments, the movie is an equally intellectual story of the police and the mob sending traitors into each other’s organizations. While identity in “The Departed” can play a crucial role in accruing authority or hiding motivation, a conflict of identity is also the downfall of many of the film’s characters. The result is a tense and often muddled relationship between the perpetrators and the persecutors of crime.
Key to this dichotomy, as stated throughout the film, is the concept of being Irish. Vera Farmiga plays a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts State Police Department and delves into this cultural contradiction. At one point, Matt Damon’s character, Collin Sullivan, realizes the struggle she faces, admitting to her, “You’re up shit’s creek with a client list full of Mick cops.” The film continually reinforces the Irish as having a tendency to veil their emotions, tying this theme to the conciliatory nature of the criminal and police enterprises. Not only do the Irish in the film value reservation and stoicism as a part of who they are, but they find that these traits become necessary for survival in a underworld of shadows, calculation and betrayal.
Another distinctly fascinating feature of the film’s Irish mob is that criminals are not singularly concerned with power or hierarchy. Of course, there is a head to the organization, Frank Costello, played by an entertainingly overacting Jack Nicholson. But other than him, none of the other gangsters care much about the control they wield. They seem more concerned with the money and the sheer joy of recklessness. During one conversation, Leo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan says to Costello, “I probably could be you. I know that much. But I don’t wanna be you, Frank.”
On the other hand, the police force is more akin to other criminal organizations in film, with a cutthroat structure and a web of secrets. “Work hard and you’ll rise fast with the best possible position in the department,” announces Alec Baldwin’s Captain Ellerby, near the film’s start. Those who succeed in the department, such as Sullivan (the mole), do so through deception and less-than-legal practices. For example, Sullivan impersonates a convict’s lawyer to extract information from him. In the ambition to associate cops with criminals, Martin Scorsese actually portrays the Massachusetts State Police Department to a mob-like organization, perhaps even more so than the mob itself. The director’s fascination with moral ambiguity is not unique to this film, but might just display itself most brazenly and effectively here. The result is a brilliant twist on the typical dynamics of crime stories and a mockery of the prescribed identities we assign to government institutions.
“The Departed” is all about paradoxes. The paradox of Irish reservation and sculpting identity, the paradox of committing and preventing crimes, the paradox of deep narrative complexity and the curt dialogue of wise guys. It’s an ordeal of oxymorons, but one that manages to hold distinct place in the canon of organized crime films.