Reel Crime: Martin Scorsese’s Irishman

By Paula Uruburu

“I’ll be a Hoffa man ’til they pat my face with a shovel and steal my cufflinks.”

Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran

They say crime doesn’t pay.  But Netflix certainly does -- though not without a little controversy, a little CGI, and a pricey roll of the dice. 

With a production budget exceeding $159 million (according to recent reported estimates) Martin Scorsese’s passion project The Irishman is set to make its world premiere at the 57th New York Film Festival on Friday, September 27th.  

The film is one of the most expensive projects of the director’s career, so it’s no surprise—considering his track record as the modern master of cinematic crime (both real and fictionalized)—that Scorsese’s newest is also one of the most anticipated films in decades. I have no doubt everyone (myself included) is hoping for another blood-spattered rock and rolling adaptation that tells us where the bodies are buried—maybe Goodfellas meets Casino meets The Departed? But how much of a gamble is it for media mammoth Netflix?

Even if they haven’t read the book, true crime fans should certainly be interested in the film’s provocative source material, Charles Brandt’s “I Heard You Paint Houses”— which has nothing to do with actually painting houses—but more on that in a minute.

A former homicide prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer, Brandt was allegedly hired by the Philadelphia mob to obtain early parole on medical grounds (at age 71) for former mob hit man Frank Sheeran. Over the course of five years, the author turned his talks with Sheeran—who had served 32 years in prison for Labor Racketeering—into the book that serves as the basis for The Irishman

When it came out in 2004, Brandt’s sprawling crime saga promised to close the case on the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the feisty Teamsters boss and most fabled missing person since Amelia Earhart. (I remember the rumors back in 1976 that the former labor union leader was buried under the goal posts at the new Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Few doubted then it wasn’t at least likely. 

But this is not simply a story of a cold-blooded career assassin. It is the tale of a young man who——after the attack on Pearl Harbor— volunteered for the Army Airborne, and ended up serving in the Infantry for more than a year of combat duty in Italy, France and Germany. That experience, and the atrocities he witnessed, changed Sheeran. 

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” the mob’s motto, became Sheeran’s own, which not only put him on the path to becoming a Union Organizer but one of the few who earned the trust and lifelong friendship of Jimmy Hoffa – at least as long as Hoffa’s life lasted. But what began as a close alliance between two men up to their necks in corruption and corpses would ultimately end in more blood. And betrayal.

As for the title of the book.  Here is Sheeran’s own explanation:

“The first words Jimmy [Hoffa] ever spoke to me were “I heard you paint houses.” The paint is the blood that supposedly gets on the wall or the floor when you shoot somebody. I told Jimmy ‘I do my own carpentry work, too.” That refers to making coffins and means you get rid of the bodies yourself.”  

Throughout “I Heard You Paint Houses” Sheeran is more than just casually reflective about his initiation into a life of crime, associating with men like Skinny Razor, Fat Tony and Crazy Joe. He is in full lapsed-Catholic confessional mode, feeling his own mortality and hoping he can clear the way to being buried in a Catholic cemetery.  In other words, he is the perfect Scorsese anti-hero – the gangster with a troubled family history, a man who kills for a living, loves his three daughters, and who seeks some kind of redemption -- even while recalling how many guys he whacked on Hoffa’s orders.

Scorsese, who rolled around the idea of adapting Brandt’s book for more than a decade, seems the natural choice to reconstruct Sheeran’s free-form “confession,” given his own mastery as a storyteller.

It is no secret that Scorsese reveres the Depression-era films that transformed gangsters into larger-than-life folk heroes. Films like Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface not only exposed the deep wounds WWI left in the collective American psyche, but also showed how men like Al Capone rose to power, with the help of bootleg alcohol and the tommy gun. So, it may not be a coincidence that Sheeran’s own voice often mimics the dialogue from those same films; the book is full of mobster jargon and casual colorful slang. It also reads like a Rorschach test of the American criminal mind as Brandt, the former investigator and experienced interrogator, shows how sweeping historical events and personal memories in turn shaped Sheeran. 

So what can we look forward to with The Irishman?

For fans familiar with Scorsese’s mob bosses, made-men, wiseguys, and wanna-bes, the film   boasts a cast of actors with equally familiar faces – sort of. Herein lies one of the little controversies attached to the project.

Robert De Niro stars as Sheeran. Joe Pesci (who was coerced to come out of unofficial retirement) plays Russell Bufalino, crime family head. Harvey Keitel plays Angelo Bruno, another crime family boss known as he “Docile Don.” Add Al Pacino, who plays Jimmy Hoffa in his first Scorsese film, and you have a cast made in crime-heaven. Right?

Consider this:

This film is the ninth collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese (and their first since 1995's Casino), the fourth film to star both De Niro and Pacino (following The Godfather Part IIHeat, and Righteous Kill), the fifth to star both De Niro and Pesci (following Raging BullOnce Upon a Time in AmericaGoodfellas, and Casino), and Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Harvey Keitel (who appeared in the director’s first feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? as well as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and The Last Temptation of Christ). It is the first time Pacino has been directed by Scorsese. And there collectively is the rub.

Because of the age of his lead actors (with an age range between 74-80), Scorsese has had to turn to the special effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, who were tasked to de-age the actors by as much as 30 years at different points in the film. It was reported that a posture coach had to be brought on set to offer tips to the actors on how to move and carry themselves like much younger men. The result of all this computer fountain of youthifying?  Much higher budget numbers than first estimated.

As for the other little controversy, it concerns Sheerhan’s believability.  Some critics have called bullshit and question how much truth there is to Sheeran’s list of crimes, which includes the claim that he killed Crazy Joe Gallo. 

But let’s face it. No one will ever know for certain if Frank Sheeran killed his good friend Jimmy Hoffa. The FBI certainly questioned him. and subpoenaed Charles Brandt’s interview tapes after the last boss of the Bufalino crime family, “Big Billy” D’Elia, became a cooperating witness and corroborated Brandt’s book.* 

To quote a memorable line from the book and the movie trailer: “It is what is.” 

I only have a few questions.

How convincing will a de-aged Robert De Niro be playing Sheeran, a six-foot-four Irishman? Will this be the biggest hit in mob history (which also happens to be the subtitle of Brandt’s book?)                                                                                                    And finally, with Netflix making one of its largest bets ever on the recollections of a mafia hitman, will The Irishman have the legs to cover the Vig??

The Irishman is scheduled for digital streaming on November 27, 2019, by Netflix.

Copyright 2019 by Paula Uruburu. All Rights Reserved.


Paula Uruburu is an author and is the a Professor of English and Film Studies at Hofstra University. Dr. Uruburu has acted as a consultant to A&E, PBS, the History Channel, and the Smithsonian Channel.

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