At the Movies

Michael Wood

You don’t have to love The Sopranos to see that screen gangsters are a lasting feature of American mythology. And yet a mystery remains, even after all those hits and deaths. The allegorical message is obvious and has been since the great mob movies of the 1930s: there are gangsters everywhere, and there are more than we think, since many of them are called businessmen, politicians, lawyers, clerics and union leaders. But then the apparent political or moral point vanishes as soon as it appears, and everyone still wants to be a gangster. He is not exactly a tragic hero, as Robert Warshow once suggested in a famous essay, but he is an embodiment of rogue power, a Robin Hood without the sentimental interest in the poor. Actually, gangsters in movies are always giving things away to children and widows, as Jack Nicholson hands out groceries at the beginning of The Departed; but this is just one more expression of their unlimited reign. ‘Uneasy lies the crown,’ Nicholson says later in the movie, misquoting Shakespeare, probably on purpose. What he means is he has never had a moment of unease in his life, but he knows how the story goes. The real point of the crown is that your psychosis has the world to itself.

Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) opens with three gangsters on the road and a noise coming from the boot of the car. There is a corpse there who is not quite dead. The two older gangsters (Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci) take care of this problem, and the younger one (Ray Liotta) stares in shock. Before the camera leaves his face, his own voice on the soundtrack, speaking presumably at another time, announces: ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.’ Then the music and titles come up, with Tony Bennett singing ‘From Rags to Riches’. Scorsese’s gangster myth is not different from anyone else’s, but his take on it is. There is no 1930s grandeur in his crime movies, and no family friendliness as in the Godfather films. No one suffers like Michael Corleone from the anxieties of extreme power (‘If history has taught us anything, it is that we can kill anyone’). Everyone, by implication, still wants to be a gangster, but the wish is insane and not just lawless. Scorsese doesn’t deny or moralise the myth, but he does try to understand it, and one of the ways he does this is by having his crazy people believe they are in outstanding mental health. This is the case with Joe Pesci in Casino (1995), and if De Niro is not mad in that movie he is at least deluded about the effects of his own tidiness. At one point in Goodfellas Liotta is under helicopter surveillance and about to be arrested. He is high on drugs, driving around from one crime contact to another, and dropping in at home every now again to see how the preparations for a party are going, checking the taste of the pasta sauce, for instance. Scorsese has said this is one of his own favourite sequences, and you can see why. It’s fast, it’s dramatic, and above all it’s a perfect picture of delusion. Liotta is cracking up but he’s sure he’s in control of his life, and is very pleased to be able to do so many things at once. His idea of order is the very shape of his mania. Scorsese’s interest here is in concentrated, closed-circuit madness, and the same interest gave The Aviator (2004) all its good moments, and turned Leonardo di Caprio (as the solitary and paranoid Howard Hughes) into an actor quite different from the one he had been.

Enter Jack Nicholson. Or rather, re-enter Jack Nicholson. I had somehow missed all the hype about The Departed representing the first time Scorsese had ever worked with Nicholson, probably because I didn’t want to think about the combination. For me as for many others, Nicholson, after great performances in Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a number of other films, disappeared into his own act in The Shining and never returned, except as a manic parody of himself or some sort of crazed twin of Walter Matthau. In The Departed, he is something else. He dominates the film, and gives it its strange mind, so to speak. Even when he seems to slip back into his old acting self, the effect is different. As Frank Costello, head of the Irish syndicate in Boston, is speaking of a rat who has infiltrated his organisation, he suddenly makes a cartoonish rat face, all teeth and sniffing nose. A little later, in a grotesque spoof of the soft Irish heart, he offers an appalling rendition of ‘Mother Macree’. You think this must be a portrait of the criminal as joker, a reprise of Nicholson’s own role in Tim Burton’s Batman. Then you realise it’s a portrait of the criminal as psychopath, pretending to be a joker. Well, not even that: pretending to pretend, leering at all such confusions. ‘Only I can do what I do,’ he says, sounding like Louis XIV rather than Henry IV, and adding that many people had to die so that he can do what he does. The fact that the line comes from Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002), the Hong Kong source of The Departed, serves only to enhance the difference. ‘What millions died that Caesar might be great’ is how the subtitle translates master-mobster Hon Sam’s version of the wisdom of the ancients. Sam (Eric Tsang) is being sarcastic, and encouraging his men not to think too much about the folks they have to kill. He is a practical gang-boss, not a madman. Frank Costello is more or less talking to himself, with a witness sitting by, and the causality is evidently the reverse. Not: many had to die for his greatness. But: he sought his greatness so that he could deliver death sentences whenever he felt like it. A brief flashback early in the movie shows Frank at work. He is executing two Italian gangsters on a grubby beach. The man is already dead, prone on the sand. Frank shoots the woman through the head, she crumples and drops across the body of the man. The camera cuts to Frank’s face. He looks slightly bemused, as if confronted by a joke he doesn’t get, or a problem in chess or mathematics. He says: ‘She fell funny.’ His sidekick says: ‘Francis, you really should see someone.’ He is not going to see anyone, but that just shows how old-fashioned he is. Most movie gangsters have analysts these days, and in The Departed two younger men, one an undercover cop, the other an undercover criminal, are in love with the same psychologist.

In Infernal Affairs the two men are involved with two different women, one a psychologist, the other a writer; and the two men know each other from an encounter in a hi-fi store. Infernal Affairs is more philosophical than The Departed, more explicitly interested in questions of identity, and the bad guy makes a too late turn towards goodness at the end. The two main characters (played by Tony Leung and Andy Lau) are more sympathetic generally, more inward, more like people in a plot than instances of life on the mean streets. But in almost every other detail the second film follows the first one very closely: story premise, set pieces, incessant use of cell-phones, who dies when and where.

The police have a mole in the criminal organisation and the criminals have a mole among the cops. The word ‘mole’ or its Chinese equivalent appears frequently in Infernal Affairs, but ‘mole’ is used only once in The Departed, where the preferred term, as we have seen, is ‘rat’. In Infernal Affairs the situation is compared with that of the game where two people each have a playing card in their pocket. The trick is to guess at the card in the other’s pocket. Except that here they already know, every time, what the card is. This means there isn’t much suspense in either movie, only an extraordinary atmosphere, because this mutual knowledge converts the world of crime and detection into a doubly poisoned community, given over to an unshakable neurosis about knowledge and secrecy, where leakage is seen as the natural human condition. Everything falls apart in the end, but without any promise of a better arrangement, and in both films a lot of people get shot in the head, with one person flung from a high roof just to vary the pace. In Infernal Affairs the final shootings (bad cop’s friend shoots undercover cop, bad cop shoots friend) are offered as a fast climax. In The Departed, and this is where a whole run of differences can be seen to matter, the enhanced shootings (bad cop’s friend shoots undercover cop plus a good cop who has shown up at the scene, bad cop shoots friend, and a few scenes later gets killed by yet another cop) are a deliberate bit of Grand Guignol, the opposite of a wrap-up.

In one of his quiet moments Frank Costello has done a fine-line sketch of the Boston State House, a classical dome, surrounded by oversize rats. Earlier in the movie, Matt Damon, as Frank’s man among Boston’s finest, has gazed ambitiously at the State House, and even taken an apartment with a view of it. In his imagination at least, the road from crime leads to high political office. As he lies dead in his apartment, shot as he came home with some groceries (he was the little boy Frank gave groceries to right at the beginning of the film), the camera tracks away from us, across the body and the pool of blood, across the spilled shopping, across the apartment floor to the balcony with the State House view. And then in a startling slip into fable, or maybe as a revelation that the movie was a fable all along, a literal rat trots along the balcony railing, pauses, looks around, and continues out of the frame. End of film.

The implication is that rats will survive us all, but also that human rats will always find a job, on one side of the law or another, and even on both. Frank Costello himself is a rat, and not just an employer of rats, since he sells a few of his men to the FBI whenever he needs a favour. And the counter story to that of Matt Damon (from rat to riches, as Tony Bennett might say) is that of Leonardo di Caprio: from poverty to dignity (only in death, as it happens) by means of a long pretence of rathood. Scorsese wants us to see the difference, but also to see how thin the line of difference looks, and how strongly both of these lives are determined by the humiliating rigours of a poor Boston Irish childhood. There is, needless to say, nothing like this in Infernal Affairs, and Scorsese’s title signals this angle to us. The phrase ‘the departed’ is used ironically in the film as a faux-formal name for a dead crook, but the concept is everywhere in the shape of dead parents, images of what it means to be born in a particular place and time and class and tribe. Both of the film’s rats are seeking a fresh start, an escape from who they were and where they have been. The film doesn’t say this can’t be done, it has no doctrine or message. What it says is that solutions to a problem are apt to look like versions of the problem, especially when everyone wants to be a gangster.