The first three-and-a-half minutes of the new movie, “The Irishman,” is tightly packed with the story’s expository information of the main character, Frank Sheeran.
Right out of the gate, there is a long tracking shot of the interior of a nursing home; clients in wheelchairs accompanied by attendants pass by card-playing folks — walkers and oxygen tanks can be seen. The floors shine. At the end of the shot sits a guy in a wheelchair with an Irish shillelagh resting between his legs, wearing glasses that were once in style. The fifties’ hit song “In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins, wafts over the scene and segues in to a monologue of Sheeran’s matter-of-fact yet world-weary voice. He talks about being a Teamster — “A working stiff, until I wasn’t no more” — and he talks about “painting houses.” Then, a flashback and bang, a guy gets shot — in the head. After that we see some stage business of this guy’s hands donning a fancy watch and a beefy gold ring with a still shot of a wedding invitation. Sheeran talks about the wedding of a guy’s daughter, and how they had to drive to the wedding because the guy wouldn’t fly, and who was adamant about his neatly-coiffed wife not smoking in the car. His name is Russell Bufalino.
This is Martin Scorsese country.
Another tracking shot shows a car heading down the highway. In the car we see an unhappy wife, and then a shot of said wife smoking outside of the car with Sheeran’s wife — beat — peeved and puffing. The payoff of all of this information is that we see the guys eying a Stuckey’s sign at a Texaco gas station. The voiceover continues with Sheeran telling us this is how he met Bufalino when he was jammed up with a truck problem at the gas station. (In the next shot, the period shifts gears to an earlier time when the men were younger and Bufalino gets the truck going.) Furthermore, we witness very simple dialogue, which sets up the firm brick and mortar foundation of the Faustian pact that Sheeran plays right into without flinching. I counted about 25 camera set-ups — a film viewing habit of mine from my youth — and every shot was needed. Without question, for a film of this length — three-and-a-half hours — it cost lots of dough to get this necessary information on the screen; however, the director needed to shorthand some history of these two guys who were fated to roll into their futures together through the good, bad and the ugly.
Martin Scorsese is a guy who was born in Queens into a Catholic family and moved to Little Italy as a kid. He’s a guy who understands the biblical narrative structure of sin, guilt, and redemption, which hovers over and is baked into most of his films. He’s successful and respected; a risk-taker who learned as a young student at NYU to make movies that he wanted to make.
His collaboration with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci on “Raging Bull,” in 1980, won two Oscars. It was nominated for eight. DeNiro won for Best Actor, and Thelma Schoonmaker won for editing. (Schoonmaker is responsible for reigning in Scorsese’s gazelle-like thought process which darts to and fro.) De Niro and Scorsese had to retool Paul Schrader’s screenplay to make the film work — this speaks volumes of their creative respect for each other. Furthermore, “Taxi Driver,” and “New York, New York,” were edited by Marcia Lucas, who won an Academy Award for editing a “Star Wars” film. Scorsese was and is lucky to have women with this kind of work ethic, intuition and intelligence on his team.
Before Scorsese and DeNiro got squared away to make “The Irishman,” DeNiro was attached to “The Winter of Frankie Machine,” a book written by former South County resident Don Winslow. (I love all of Winslow’s books, and refer to the aforementioned title as Raymond Chandler on a surfboard.)
The character arcs of the main guys in these stories are somewhat similar. Things weren’t coming together with Winslow’s book, and after someone flipped DeNiro “I Heard You Paint Houses,” it was game on for him and his pal.
Scorsese had never worked with Al Pacino — who plays Jimmy Hoffa in “The Irishman” — but he met him in Greenwich Village through Francis Ford Coppola decades ago. Pacino was directing an Israel Horovitz play titled “Rats.” Coppolla was trying to cast Pacino in “The Godfather,” which wasn’t an easy sell for the production company fronting the dough. We see where that went. (Nota bene: DeNiro and Pacino have worked together in the past.)
De Niro finally talked Joe Pesci into working on “The Irishman,” which was not an easy sell for De Niro, either. Maybe Pesci was just finished with the mob guys. So, the main cast members were on board, and now Scorsese needed the dough to mount this thing. Netflix threw down $160 million for the gig, and worked out a big screen release deal that was controversial because it was so limited. “The Irishman” is now streaming on Netflix.
I loved it. The acting (and the de-aging technology) is excellent. There is great talent performing in this epic tale of folks going down the dark road to Perdition. Pesci’s performance as Bufalino is very contained; no histrionics yet plenty of sub-textual menace spilling out of the guy. The only spoiler you’re getting from me is Little Steven Van Zandt sings a Jerry Vale song.
The production values beg a second viewing which I’ll do with the bride. The script is well written; however, people are doubting the veracity of some elements of the narrative. But, let’s remember it’s a movie, which may spawn speculation, more conjecture and a brace of curiosity. To this I say, great! Finally, I’ll leave you with this little nugget and play the Devil’s Advocate.
The term Corpus Delicti basically means no body; no crime.