Martin Scorsese on THE IRISHMAN, Crime and Corruption in His Cinema

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Throughout his filmmaking career, Martin Scorsese has been drawn to stories of crime and corruption. His name is associated with movies about mobsters. Yet, of the 25 narrative films Scorsese has directed to date, only eight of them have focused on criminal behavior, lifestyle and credo – and they range in focus and scope from the expose of the exploits of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street to the epic period civic rumbles in Gangs of New York, and from low to mid-level mob life in Mean Streets and Goodfellas to high stakes gaming in Casino, to the exploration of adversarial exploitations by organized crime and law enforcement in his Oscar-winning The Departed.

 
Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, releasing today in theaters and available on Netflix on November 27, is the director’s eighth foray into the world of crime and corruption. Based on Charles Brandt’s investigative book, I Heard You Paint Houses, the film is a three-hour long epic drama about events spanning decades, leading up to and following the 1975 disappearance of the power-wielding, mob-associated union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a real life crime that has never been officially marked as solved. The titular Irishman is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a union leader and high-level mafia hitman who, if the film’s scenario is accurate, was the capo who carried out the mob-ordered execution of Hoffa.

Perhaps because The Irishman’s truth-based narrative is about relatively recent events that actually changed the course of history and brought America to its current state of affairs, the engrossingly complex, superbly structured and thoroughly gripping crime thriller serves not only as an intense decades-spanning character study, but also as a provocative sociopolitical primer. In our present era’s predicament about finding truth in media, this is a history-making film about historical events.

Pacino as Hoffa, De Niro as Sheeran in THE IRISHMAN

With Scorsese’s directorial guidance, the film’s brutally ruthless key characters – Sheeran, Hoffa and crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesce) who defied the law and corrupted the government — are portrayed with such depth and subtly that they become surprisingly sympathetic. Shockingly sympathetic. With the technological de-aging of their faces, we get to know them over decades of their antisocial behavior and, given the violence and upheaval caused by this criminal trifecta and their associates, sympathetic feelings are actually quite discomforting. They provoke some deep thought about human nature and what our species is all about.

Robert DeNiro in THE IRISHMAN

At Netflix’s recent press conference for The Irishman, I had the opportunity to ask Scorsese whether the film represents a new chapter in his thinking about crime and corruption as represented in his films. Here’s what he had to say:

“Well, yes. There was a change. And having gone through Mean Streets and Goodfellas and Casino, you know, I had covered the territory in specific ways at those times, you know. The overall issue of corruption is something that I tend to be attracted to as material. And what happened with this, with Frank [Sheeran], when you described the character to me and I read the book, the book had this whole backdrop of this history. Their history. The history of the United States, the world, all that’s going on.

Still from THE IRISHMAN

And I said I think I know what to do. I think it’s a matter of just having to cut the whole thing down to its essentials and deal with the emotional impact ultimately of the life you lead. You know. And everything else, whether it’s Cuban Missile Crisis or Joey Gallo being shot, it’s all peripheral, all forgotten about ultimately. And so in a way, it freed me.

In terms of corruption, that part of a human being, in The Asphalt Jungle, Louis Calhern has a line that’s great where it goes, his wife says why do you always — he’s a lawyer — why do you always defend the bad guys and gangsters and that sort of thing? He goes, well, I look at crime as sort of a left-handed endeavor of the human condition. And, yeah. You know. The whole sense of that’s part of who we are. And it’s always there. The dark forces are always there. Do we succumb to them? All the time. Do we get sucked in and pulled back out? I mean, this is the whole thing. It has to do with our pride, too, in the case of Jimmy [Hoffa] when he keeps saying it’s my union, it damn well is his union, but he lost it. He lost it. In any event, it’s more than corruption. It’s about what’s in ourselves as human beings.

I’ve found that over the years, the choices I made in terms of making films, it got to a point that each film is another lifetime. And I went ahead and made choices as to what I felt comfortable with. I tried some experiments from time to time, but in so doing, I backed out of two or three major movies that became very popular and very famous and award winning and that sort of thing, but I couldn’t find my way in there.

I didn’t know why until years later. Years later when it became… so I always had this line about the professional and the amateur in a way. If I stayed an amateur, I think that was pretty good. An amateur, the word love is an amateur, you know. I’m not putting down professionals. I always wish I could be. But it took me a long time to understand that and I guess I shied away from certain projects because I just didn’t know how to do them. I didn’t feel I had that connection with it. And the connection has to be something personal. And there are other reasons, too. But it’s more layered than what I’m saying. But when the film you didn’t do is a great success, oh no, I couldn’t, you know. I couldn’t do it. And if I had made it, it wouldn’t have been the great success. I don’t mean to be self-deprecating, but what I mean is it would have been a different film. Do you follow? And so like you made your choice.

For me, it’s always been for different reasons, personal reasons or whatever, I’m aware of the people that I knew around me sometimes who I knew genuinely good people, but wound up doing bad things. And then ultimately, are they cast out? Are they cast out of a religious institution? Are they cast out of the society around them? In some cases, they are. But in terms of certain religious aspects, if I have made Silence and movies like that, you know, the bottom line is the wretched, the ones who couldn’t help it. And the ones who can’t do anything else. They’re the ones that demand the compassion. And it’s very hard. And there’s compassion and understanding. You may hate it, you may get, you know, I don’t know. But that’s a very important thing to nurture in a human being and not cut people off dead.

I remember back when Mean Streets was shown at the New York Film Festival. One critic was very nice to me at certain times. But this time he hated the film. And well, Mean Streets was the first. Then afterwards he was very nice about certain films. Anyway, I don’t want to mention his name. Good guy, let him be. Long time ago. Anyway, there was another film that ended the festival. Badlands. Just a terrific film and I want to mention it because it is a beautiful film and the filmmaker is a good friend. But when the festival was over, the critic wrote, that last film, the film I just mentioned, yeah, it’s the front page. Mean Streets is the back page. And I said well, you didn’t like the movie. Then I realized, that’s right. It IS the back page. The back page. What? You know. What is that? Human beings. It’s still about –it’s the back page. A guy shot in an alley. Somebody caught and arrested and spends 20 years in life for something, in jail for something that you know, five years later, the law changes. Yeah. What about them? We’re the back pages. You know. So that’s what we’ve been doing.

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