Now in our tenth calendar year!
PCR #485 (Vol. 10, No. 28). This edition is for the week of July 6--12, 2009.
Movies and The Mob: part 1
As far back as the silent days Hollywood has been fascinated with the gangster. With this series I plan to cover films that best represent the true crime stories of the real gangland and how they compare with the true events.
The Early Gangs
In the mid to late 19th century New York was a hotbed of debauchery, murder, and vice. Politics were controlled by corrupt officials and voting was enforced by whatever gang they hired to muscle voters into the booth to vote for their party. If you were a politician, and you wanted to win, this was just how it was done. Threatening people for votes was actually considered part of campaigning. Because of this the gangs were allowed to run rampant, especially since most of them were run by local shop owners, butchers, or volunteer firemen.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) : Not only is it the first gangster film ever it also has the distinction of being directed by the great D.W. Griffith. The story follows a man who is mugged by a gangster and then gets drawn into their world. How close is it to gangs of the day? Well supposedly it boasts to have real gang members starring in it.
Gangs Of New York: A fictional tale of two generations of gang warfare and revenge set against the backdrop of the draft riots. Daniel Day Lewis is awesome as gang leader Bill The Butcher which is very very loosely based on gang leader Bill Poole. It also includes some real gang names that actually existed back then like The Dead Rabbits, The Plug Uglies etc. It also gives us a recreation of the dreaded Old Brewery. In real life this was a abandon Brewery which stretched at least half a block and stood 5 stories high that housed over 100 people all who lived among animals, human excrement, and a death rate of a murder a night. Scorcese's depiction of this nightmarish structure is way too clean and Hollywood,but it nevertheless is a fairly decent recreation. While the movie gets historical dates incorrect and the characters are all fictional (with the exception of the mayor Boss Tweed) it gives the closest and only picture of the early New York Gangs. From the draft riots, volunteer firemen, cool B'hoy gangster dress, to the early theatre scene, Gangs mostly delivers. I just wish it had more gang fights and wasn't disappointingly anti-climactic.
The "Outfit" aka The Chicago Mob
| Al Capone|
| Elliot Ness|
The Chicago mob after Capone was always more low key than their New York partners. Oddly when the Outfit started out under Big Jim Colosimo it was completely devoid of any mafia connection. Colosimo was his own boss. However when his nephew Johnny Torrio came in from New York he tried to bring in his New York mafia connections. Colosimo didn't comply and was killed by notorious gangland hitman Johnny Yale. By the time Capone took over, while Torrio was in jail on a minor charge, he had brought it back to the Colosimo way of things and that was of course one way and one way only...his way! Torrio eventually was shot by rival Bugs Moran from the Irish North side Mob,after Torrio and Capone had Morans boss Dion Obanion killed. While Torrio survived he no longer had the energy or youth left to run the Outfit and it went to Capone. The New York Syndicate included him but even they knew Capone was a wild card. He ran Chicago his way and never in his whole term really gave in to any of the Syndicates demands. He was of course a liability. He made himself into a celebrity, even appearing on Time magazine covers, and the level of gang war and violence was out of control. While the movies make it out that he was jailed on income tax evasion by crime buster Elliot Ness the truth is that the New York Syndicate had their FBI connections put him out of business by trumping up the charges. While he was in jail the Outfit was ran by Paul The Waiter Ricca and Frank Nitti. Capone was released but by that time syphilis had eaten away his sanity and he was no longer fit to run anything. While there were many later bosses like Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo, Sam Giancana, and Joey "Doves" Aiuppa none of them were ever as public or brutal as Capone. And none have gained his legacy of being the most known and famous gangster the world over.
The Untouchables TV Pilot 1993:
This was the pilot to the 1990's series. This pilot is greatness. It has William Forsythe as Capone for one thing. For another it covers Capone's life, for the most part accurately, from childhood up to the point when Ness comes upon the scene to wreck his bootleg business. It has all the major events and players like Dion Obanion, the assination attempt on Torrio, to the St.Valentines Day Massacre. The Capone scenes are intercut with Ness's life story (which chances are isn't even 80% accurate but it makes it worth it for the rest).
The Scarface Mob:
The edited for the big screen version of the 60's TV pilot actually kind of picks up right where the 90's pilot leaves off. Capone returns from a short stay in jail to find that Elliot Ness and his crack squad The Untouchables has been gumming up his works. Capone is played here by Neville Brand ( of Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive fame!) and is a little too over the top to be believable. Stack's Elliot Ness is almost inhumanly emotionless that its too hard to believe he's the good guy. One can only speculate how close this is to reality even though it was based on Ness' own book. But considering most of the action involves pedestrian things like tapping the Capone mobs phone line and pretending to take bribes its actually quite possible.
By the 70's the Outfit had several bosses. One of those was Joey "Doves" Aiuppa who sent Jewish gambling genius Lefty Rosenthal and hit man Nicky Spilotro to Vegas to make money for the mob. In this film Aiuppa is renamed Remo Gaggi. Robert Deniro plays Rosenthal renamed Ace Rothstien and Spilotro is played by Joe Pesci and renamed Nicky Santoro. For the most part this film follows the facts and comes off being for my money Scorcese's best gangster film. While Goodfellas gets all the accolades I think this is his true masterpiece. Like I said this film stays close to reality including the beating and buried alive death of Spilotro.
Boston's Irish Mob
Like most cities the Mafia had always had a tentacle in Boston but it never grew into anything more. It was always controlled mainly by the Irish Mob. No Boston mobster was bigger than James "Whitey" Bulger. He got away with almost everything due to his mentoring of a young Boston kid named John Connolly who would grow up to be an FBI agent. Connelly kept Bulger in touch on every planned bust, wiretap, and undercover agent. Because of this Bulger held Boston in a reign of drugs, murder, and violence from 1979 to 1994. Eventually the Boston Police realized what was going on and decided to catch him on their own. Of course Connolly found out and informed him. Bulger is currently on the run and still at large. He remains Public Enemy number 2 right under Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's most wanted list.
Though film nerds everywhere screamed about how this ripped off a Asian film called Infernal Affairs they obviously didn't do their homework. The only part that was really a rip off was the character of Leonardo DeCaprio (and even then he's partly based on Richard Marinick a former State Trooper who later joined Bulgers Winter Hill Gang). The character John Conolly played by Matt Damon was real. He was an FBI agent who defected to work with the head of the Irish Mob in Boston, which was led by Whitey Bulger who is played by Jack Nicholson and renamed Frank Costello for the film. The main difference is that Bulger never died like in the movie. So even though it is considered a remake choosing Bulger's story, which oddly fit the story of the original film, kind of makes it a remake and at the same time a true crime film. Not a perfect film,and the ending is lame,but it remains a definitive highlight for Jack Nicholson (I could watch his portrayal of Whitey Bulger all day) and the only film us mob buffs have of Whitey Bulger.
Next Week: Lucky Luciano and the New York Mafia saga.
"The Enlightenment" is ©2009 by Terence Nuzum. All graphics (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2009 by Nolan B. Canova.