They Always Wanted to be Gangsters
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”, Irish-American mobster Henry Hill wistfully tells us in GoodFellas. Henry can never be made, since he is half Irish (just the good half) and laments the mafia’s “real greaseball shit” mentality and fake morals.
But we need to like the bad guys. That pushes the narrative forward. As Hill says, Jimmy “rooted for the bad guys”. We root for them, too. In GoodFellas, Paulie was a gentle giant, instead of a convicted rapist, and Hill is a hottie who never whacks anyone, instead of what Hill really was; arsonist, high jacker, extortionist, NCAA game fixer and key figure in the Lucchese crime family. Jack Nicholson makes Frank Costello his character in The Departed, seem funny and wicked smart. This thinly-veiled Whitey Bulger even quotes James Joyce. The real Bulger, serving two life sentences for 11 murders when two inmates killed him in prison with a sock stuffed with padlocks, probably wasn’t reading Ulysses in his cell.
The Irishman stars Robert DeNiro as labor official and sometime hitman Frank Sheeran. It’s not the first time DeNiro has worked in greenface. In GoodFellas, he made Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, whose crew’s body count is rumored to be about 70, seem like a cool bad-boy uncle, so it isn’t a huge stretch to see playing the Irishman in the film of the same name. He has Irish ancestry in him, but only “a little bit”, as he says in every film in which he stars. It’s understandable that Scorsese would want DeNiro, his muse, to headline his comeback.
The Irish have their part in Mob history, and in books and films, but it’s important to correctly identify them and not use the phrase Irish Mafia. Author and journalist T.J. English explains the importance of getting it right:
“The Mafia is a very specific term relating to Italian and Italian American organized crime. To use it as a catch-all term for organized crime perpetuates a stereotype that Italians are somehow the progenitors of all organized crime, which is not accurate or true. Better term is the Mob, the Irish Mob, Irish Mob movies.”
There’s a wealth of true Irish mob movies, some more legit than others, and here’s a list from a true Irishman (not Irishwoman, that makes me sound like I wash people’s laundry for a living). And who am I to decide? Well, I’m fourth generation County Roscommon, I hail from Sopranos Land (Essex County, NJ) and I had a friend whose mafioso Dad lost his funeral-home business on a Giants game. A Giants game!
Gangs of New York
Outlandish and grotesque, this 2002 epic saga of New York in 1862 is filled with ultraviolence, orgies, gambling, public drunkenness, debauchery, and Crusades-style battles of Catholic vs. Protestant.
Classic Irish moment: Scorsese balances out the bare-knuckled fight scene between Leonardo DiCaprio and Garwithy with the brutal beauty of raw meat hanging from butcher hooks, and a guy playing the hammer dulcimer.
Bonus points for using real Irishmen: Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson and John C. Reilly.
Gone Baby Gone
Casey Affleck, earnest in a tracksuit, is a good-guy private dick from the old neighborhood, Dorchester, the type of place where no one saw nothing, and nobody knows nothing. Amy Ryan as an addled mom whose daughter has been kidnapped in a drug deal gone awry gives a great turn as the skanky, casually racist, shanty Irish Helene McCready. Dirty cops, drug dealers and neighbors who look the other way keep the plot moving and full of surprise turns.
Classic Irish moment: An unfazed Amy Ryan breezes through her interrogation by chugging a can of beer.
Bonus points for using real Irishmen: Amy Madigan and Michelle Monaghan.
State of Grace
Inspired by the Irish American gang, The Westies, Goodfellas overshadowed this star-studded 1990 film, but it deserves a look. Starring Sean Penn; Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, John Turturro, John C. Reilly, R.D. Call, Robin Wright, Burgess Meredith, Mo Gaffney and Deirdre O’Connell round out a solid cast. The Westies deserve a chapter in gangster lore as the brutal Irish American gang who ruled over Hell’s Kitchen in the 70’s and 80’s.
Classic Irish Moment: Family boss Ed Harris, genteel enough to have moved from Hell’s Kitchen to a big house in New Jersey, guns down his own brother. The Irish never let go of their grudges.
Bonus points for using real Irishmen: Penn, Reilly, Gaffney and O’Connell.
Get past the accents. Scorsese returns with a slam dunk and a tale of class, corruption and more rats than a New York City garbage strike. Matt Damon is that guy, the cop cousin you hate, who has been a dick since he tortured small animals when you were kids. The all-star cast includes a scene-chewing Alec Baldwin, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Walhberg (Academy Award nominee) and a nice sleazy turn from character actor Kevin Corrigan, possibly still stirring the sauce from GoodFellas.
Classic Irish moment: American Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphy’s “Shipping Up to Boston” provides an urgency to the film’s more fraught scenes.
Bonus for using real Irishmen: Corrigan, Baldwin, David O’Hara and Irish American Hall of Fame inductee, Martin Sheen.
The Coen Brothers 1990 film is the ultimate Prohibition era gangster film, bursting with hard-boiled molls, rapid-fire dialogue, seedy underworld types and lush cinematography.
Classic Irish moment: The blood-soaked killing spree scene during an execution attempt on boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) life is one of the film’s standout moments. Finney, clad in slippers and a dressing gown, takes out a whole gang of assassins, while Irish tenor Frank Patterson croons “Danny Boy” from the Victrola.
Bonus for using real Irishmen: Dublin-born Gabriel Byrne.