The Scorsese Legacy
One of the most successful Mafia movie directors is Martin Scorcese. A modern artist, Scorsese took his New York Italian background and transformed not only the Mafia movie but the film world in general. His movies are street-level visceral and gritty. Scorsese also knew how to pick talent. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are one of the great actor-director teams in the history of film, rivaling John Ford and John Wayne, and Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Their collaborations include New York, New York, Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, The King of Comedy, and Raging Bull. And, of course, the mob classics Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino.
Marin Scorsese's first movie, Mean Streets, was partly based on his years growing up in Manhattan's Little Italy. But by the time it came to shoot the movie, Scorsese had to film in Brooklyn to get a real Italian neighborhood feel, as Little Italy had become a tourist destination more than a real ethnic neighborhood.
Goodfellas is based on the book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi. It is the story of Henry Hill, an ex–wise guy turned “rat” who entered the Witness Protection Program to save his skin. The story chronicles the unsavory activities of the Lucchese crime family from the 1950s through the early 1980s, though the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.
Here one can see the Mafia in all its sleazy splendor. You meet a cast of low-life hoods and dangerous psychos who populate the landscape of New York City and its suburbs. You see how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Goodfellas, more than any mob film before it, shows that day-to-day drudgery and internal petty squabbling of the real street-level hoods who make up a majority of a Mafia family.
You also get a glimpse of how the mob members treat their women. The men all have girlfriends on the side while their wives turn a blind eye. It is a given that a Mafioso has a mistress. She is the one he squires about town and lavishes with gifts while the wife stays home with the kids and becomes no longer an object of desire but rather a maternal figure.
The most outrageous character in the movie is Tommy D., a deranged, psychotic cowboy played by Joe Pesci. He is disarmingly affable at one moment and he viciously kicks a man to death the next. He is exchanging quips with a gopher (played by a pre-Sopranos Michael Imperioli), but when the kid doesn't get him his drink quickly enough, he shoots him. He is too much of a loose cannon even for his handlers, and he is eventually killed by some made guys as vengeance for killing another made guy without permission (and without being a made guy himself). This character is based on a real person, Tommy DeSimone. Joe Pesci won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role. Unlike his over-the-top character, after receiving the award Pesci demurely said, “This is an honor and a privilege. Thank you.”
The most famous scene in Goodfellas may be the walk into the Copa through the kitchen. The stedicam follows Henry and his soon-to-be-wife Karen from the streets of Manhattan through the kitchen of the hottest nightclub in town. This widely praised shot is coupled with another stedi-cam scene, this one introducing all of the mobsters around Henry Hill, as he enters the Bamboo Lounge.
Another great Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci collaboration is Casino. It is the story of Las Vegas in the waning days of the Mafia's control of Sin City. De Niro plays a Jewish gambler who runs a casino for the mob, and Pesci plays another of his patented frenetic psychos who meets an even more grisly fate than he did in Goodfellas. The characters were based on real-life Las Vegas gangland figures Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Anthony “the Ant” Spilotro.
This movie details the Mafia's practice of “skimming.” The audience sees how money is taken off the top before being reported as income and how much of it is sent back to the bosses back East. You see the ruthless way that card cheats are dealt with. As in medieval times, the hand that cheats is crushed in punishment. You see an embittered Mafioso assigned to kitchen duty spit in the soup of a customer he does not like. The Corleones, one suspects, would never do such a thing. They are nothing more than sleazy and despicable punks in Scorsese's films.
In 2007, Martin Scorsese finally won what he has deserved for decades, a Best Picture Oscar. He won it for The Departed, a remake of a Hong Kong flick, set in the Irish-dominated Boston underworld. The movie has an all-star cast: Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Alec Bladwin, Mark Wahlberg, and Martin Sheen. Nicholson plays Frank Costello, an Irish mob boss modeled after noted fugitive and former Winter Hill Gang boss Whitey Bulger.
One other Irish gangster picture of note, though not made by Scorcese, is the 1990 film State of Grace. Based on the Westies, a violent Irish mob in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, Grace teams Ed Harris as an Irish mob boss and Sean Penn as a former neighborhood tough who becomes a cop and works undercover to infiltrate the gang.
The mob bosses in Casino's courthouse scenes are never named; nor is it made clear what cities they represent. In real life, the bosses who were indicted for skimming the casinos in Vegas included: Nick Civella, boss of Kansas City; Joe Aiuppa and Jackie Cerone, boss and underboss of the Chicago Outfit; and Frank Balistrieri, boss of Milwaukee.