Goodbye to the Goodfellas

In The Irishman, Martin Scorsese offers a stunning elegy for a distinctly American figure: the gangster.

Illustration of DeNiro at a bar
Illustration: Simon Montag; Netflix

Almost as soon as the movies could talk, they talked about crime. In 1928, five months after the premiere of The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers released Michael Curtiz’s Tenderloin, a “part-talkie” underworld potboiler that grossed almost $900,000 on a $188,000 budget. (The film has since been lost; Curtiz went on to direct Casablanca.) In 1931, Warner released Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, two films that, along with the Howard Hughes–produced Scarface in 1932, effectively invented the gangster genre. In these three movies we see every major hallmark of the genre take shape: the antihero who’s preternaturally fluent in violence; his intoxicating rise, spurred by an aversion to authority in all its forms; his sense of familial obligation, which grows fatalistic; the psychosexual dysfunction that pollutes his relationships with women; his turn to hubris and his violent downfall. Just about every major American gangster picture has contained some or all of these components.

Gangster movies quickly became one of the most vexing forms of American popular culture. Moral-minded conservatives were flummoxed by audiences’ hunger for this brand of entertainment in the same decade that John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and others were terrorizing the nation. (In 1934, the year of Dillinger’s death, the Production Code Administration expressly forbade the studios from making films about him.) “The experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans,” the critic Robert Warshow declared in a now-classic essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Most American mass culture was relentlessly cheerful and optimistic, he wrote. The gangster picture offered a rare space for tragedy: It was a venue in which ambition and material success were avenues not to fulfillment but rather to alienation and death. Warshow’s view gained new relevance in 1967 with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, in which the titular 1930s outlaws, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, were brilliantly updated to swaggering, anti-establishment icons for the high ’60s.

Martin Scorsese, a director frequently described as America’s greatest living filmmaker, released his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, the same year. He cast himself as a gangster in an uncredited cameo. In his 1973 breakthrough, Mean Streets, he did the same thing. No director is as definitively associated with the gangster picture as Scorsese: not Francis Ford Coppola, not Brian De Palma, not even Scorsese’s hero, Howard Hawks, who directed the 1932 Scarface. In the 46 years since Mean Streets, a movie that reinvented the American gangster film nearly as consequentially as Bonnie and Clyde had, Scorsese has dealt with organized crime either directly or obliquely in many of his best-known pictures, from Raging Bull (1980) to Goodfellas (1990) to Casino (1995) to Gangs of New York (2002) to The Departed (2006).

Now comes The Irishman, a three-and-a-half-hour epic starring the Scorsese mainstays Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as troupe newcomer Al Pacino. It will surely draw comparisons to all of the works listed above, family resemblances that it both embraces and transcends.

If Warshow was correct in identifying the gangster films of the early 1930s as subversive critiques of relentless American optimism, the genre’s resurgence in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as the Vietnam War and widespread mistrust of institutions of power tore the country apart, was rooted in the fact that audiences now felt at home in the movies’ cynicism. That familiarity, of course, has only intensified in recent years: As I was watching The Irishman during its September premiere at the New York Film Festival, a story was developing about the president of the United States soliciting a “favor” from a foreign government, a request that sounded an awful lot like the proverbial offer that can’t be refused. Yet the gangster picture itself now seems to be in its twilight, and its legacy—at the movies, but also in American life—is at the center of Scorsese’s deeply reflective film. The Irishman feels like an apotheosis, an elegy, and a penance all at once.

The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 best seller, I Heard You Paint Houses, which chronicled the life and deeds of the career crook Frank Sheeran. Before his death in 2003, Sheeran confessed to Brandt that he had been responsible for a staggering number of Mob-ordered killings, most notably the 1975 “disappearance” of the legendary Teamsters-union president Jimmy Hoffa. (The veracity of Sheeran’s confessions has been widely disputed.) The Irishman’s central story is the decades-long friendship between Sheeran and Hoffa, a relationship defined by mutually beneficial corruption, real love, and inevitable tragedy.

In many ways, The Irishman is a capstone work, drawing from the American gangster-film tradition at large as well as Scorsese’s own filmography. The film opens with a one-two punch of Goodfellas references. A long tracking shot through a nursing home evokes the earlier film’s famed “Copa shot,” which slowly took viewers into the Copacabana club in New York. The camera then settles on De Niro as a geriatric Frank Sheeran, before Frank’s narration quickly shifts us to a flashback, a move reminiscent of the way Goodfellas’ own narrator, Henry Hill, introduces his story. (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”) The film has the narrative zip and humor of The Wolf of Wall Street (a gangster film in spirit if not quite in content) and the sprawl of Casino and The Departed. It also has De Niro, who is in nearly every scene, calling up memories of past collaborations such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.

Yet the ancestor that stood out most to me is Mean Streets, where it all began, a film that could hardly be more formally or stylistically different from The Irishman. Mean Streets was released just a year and a half after The Godfather, and its stripped-down, jittery directness was often juxtaposed by critics with the grandeur of Coppola’s studio epic and that film’s focus on the larger-than-life don whose primary currency is respect. The Godfather was a wide-ranging masterpiece about the American immigrant experience, the Italian American family and Roman Catholic patriarchy, the social and institutional corruption of postwar America. But Mean Streets was real, or so the story went, its authenticity springing from Scorsese’s own upbringing in a working-class Italian American family on the Lower East Side. In the first sentence of her rave review of the film, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael declared Mean Streets “a triumph of personal filmmaking.”

Mean Streets was also, in many ways, a return to the gangster film of the 1930s, a movie about crime and criminals that was myopically interested in crime and criminals, and the implications of the lives they lead. At the heart of the film are two young men who are riffs on gangster-film archetypes. For Keitel’s Charlie, criminality is a family inheritance, but he is deeply ambivalent about a life of violence, haunted by a tangled relationship with Catholicism. De Niro’s Johnny Boy has no such compunction: He is a loose cannon with a violent streak and a penchant for getting himself into trouble he can’t talk his way out of. You might say he’s seen too many gangster movies.

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in 'The Irishman'
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in The Irishman (Netflix)

The Irishman, too, feels like a “triumph of personal filmmaking,” for the director and his stars. Though the film has something like the scope of The Godfather trilogy, unfolding across decades, it places the gangster at the center of its history, and its true interest is the personal and spiritual toll that violence takes on those who practice it. Near the end of the film, Frank makes a last attempt to save Hoffa from himself. He begs him to walk away from a power struggle that has brought the Mob to the brink of taking final measures. But Hoffa refuses to believe what Frank is telling him, ignoring one of the central truths of gangster life: No one is too big to be killed. It falls to Frank to deliver his friend to his fate.

Scorsese doesn’t spare us the collateral damage. We see Frank’s relationship with his daughters deteriorate as they become old enough to grapple with who he is, what he’s done, and the lies he’s told themlies that he believes were to protect them but were clearly to protect himself. To commit violence requires a sort of alienation, and over the course of the film, Frank becomes alienated in every sense.

Perhaps naturally for a film about the cost that crime exacts on the soul, The Irishman is also more concerned with religion than any of Scorsese’s gangster films since Mean Streets. The end of The Irishman features Frank developing a relationship with a priest who’s trying to get him to seek forgiveness for his sins. Frank can’t bring himself to say that he’s sorry; indeed, we wonder if the only reason he’s talking to this priest is that the priest is the only person left who will talk to him. It’s a quiet, sad, yet graceful scene, and you can’t help but feel a bit like Scorsese is wrestling with his own legacy.

Few directors have been more influential stylists of violence than Scorsese, going back to the bar-fight scene in Mean Streets, which unfolds as the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” blares in the background. The first half of Goodfellas is probably the most exhilarating depiction of the gangster life ever committed to film. Much of Casino plays like an anthology of blood-soaked music videos, Scorsese’s penchant for rock and blues needle drops stretched to almost parodic extremes. The Irishman is a violent film, but it lacks the explosive, perverse glee that’s characterized so much of his work. The scene in which Frank executes Hoffa is quick, grim, and awkward. It’s probably the most pathetic murder in any of Scorsese’s films, and quite possibly the most realistic.

At one point late in The Irishman, Frank remarks to his nurse, “You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there.” It’s a line that resonates on behalf of the film, its director, its stars, its genre, and even its audience. When it comes to gangsters, we’ve seen it all. It’s impossible, in 2019, to make a gangster movie that’s not an allusion to older ones, and the moral ambiguity and institutional cynicism that once gave life to the genre are now the air we all breathe. Crookedness has lost its capacity to excite; no one bothers lurking in the shadows anymore. The Irishman is a movie about time running out for Jimmy Hoffa’s long-lost assassin, and for one of the great mythic figures of American popular culture. But it’s also a movie about Frank Sheeran, a human being, and the collateral damage of his criminality. It’s hard to imagine a more poignant funeral for the gangster picture, or a more fitting priest.