Greatest Hit

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 209 minutes. Frank Sheeran (Joe Pesci) and Russell Bufalino (Robert De Niro).

YOU CAN BE KNOCKED OUT by the craft of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman but remain convinced that its twilight-of-the-mob narrative is unworthy of the director’s effort. That was basically my response the first time I saw the movie. But great works have a way of hanging around in your head “in the still of the night,” to quote the Five Satins’ 1956 doo-wop hit that accompanies the opening and final sequences of the film, which is, at the least, one of the funniest yet deadly serious melodramas ever made. Scorsese was thirteen in 1956. Eternity, which is the subtext of the Five Satins’ song—and of The Irishman—was, for him then, likely the orgiastic promise of getting inside some girl’s pants, and the hell awaiting him for doing it. For octogenarian Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the titular Irishman and central character of a sweeping epic so intimate that it often seems as if it takes place inside Frank’s head, eternity is what troubles him when he picks out his coffin and insists that it not be buried or incinerated but rather placed in a crypt, because that way “is not so final.”

So I went back to The Irishman and immediately understood that I was watching a masterpiece—a necessary postmortem on a particular romance with gangsterism that took hold in the twentieth century, and, through an obvious though unstated analogy, an indictment of the international gangsterism that today controls the US political system and economy to a degree that the Cosa Nostra could have only dreamed of. The Irishman provides the elegiac concluding episode in an unofficial pentalogy that began with Mean Streets (1973), a groundbreakingly precise depiction of the Italian American subculture in which Scorsese grew up, and continued with the irresistibly kinetic, coked-up ebullience of Goodfellas (1990) and the overblown Casino (1995) and The Departed (2006).

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 209 minutes.

The film is adapted from I Heard You Paint Houses, Charles Brandt’s 2004 biography of Sheeran, a soldier in the Philadelphia mob. Some of the book is narrated by the protagonist in the first person; other parts recount Brandt’s conversations with Sheeran, interspersed with musings on his subject and the many attempts to coax from him a confession of what would make his life more significant than that of the average mob hitman. According to Brandt, Sheeran finally admitted to having killed Jimmy Hoffa, the once powerful head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose 1975 disappearance has never been solved. Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian couch the film entirely in Frank’s point of view. His storytelling—sometimes in voice-over, sometimes spoken on camera—organizes the film’s complicated time structure. A man of few words, Frank isn’t given to introspection, which makes him a particularly dry and mordant narrator and, of course, an unreliable one.

The Irishman opens with an extended tracking shot that winds through the corridors and common rooms of a Catholic nursing home until it reaches Frank sitting alone in a wheelchair. Nearly drained of color and with poor resolution, as if recorded on cheap video, the sequence nevertheless recalls Goodfellas’s famous, exuberant Copacabana shot, which follows fledgling mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as they enter the Copa through a side door, where they are greeted as if they were celebrities as they’re rushed across the bustling kitchen and emerge into the brightly lit dining and dance hall, which seems to the impressionable couple like the most glamourous place in the world. Nothing could be further from the near emptiness of Frank’s nursing home, whose aged occupants and the people who attend them already seem like ghosts. The nursing home frames the film. We return to it for the final thirty minutes in this 209-minute saga, in which time is elastic and never wasted, even though some may think the life it chronicles is a complete waste.

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 209 minutes.

Within this frame, there is another, very different framing device—or perhaps it is better described as an anchor for Frank’s eighty-plus years on earth. In 1975, Frank, in his late fifties, and his mob “rabbi” Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci)—the don of a powerful Philadelphia mafia family, who is a few years older—take their wives on a road trip from Philly to a Howard Johnson’s motel in an Ohio town across Lake Erie from Detroit. The trip is ostensibly for a wedding, though Russell has more pressing business that he keeps from Frank until they reach their destination. The journey gives rise to memories: flashbacks within flashbacks, each introduced with its own music. Scorsese once told me that his ideas about film music changed completely when, in the late 1960s, he saw Kenneth Anger’s 1963 short Scorpio Rising, which fills its entire soundtrack with jukebox hits played in their entirety. The Irishman uses music almost as lavishly and more eclectically, mixing classic rock with movie theme music and nineteenth-century orchestral and opera favorites. The music forms part of the structure in which Frank lives, as do the clubby leather and brass interiors of the steakhouses and bars where he and Russell do business; the less impressive, narrow one-family houses where they come home to their wives; and, in Frank’s case, the four children from whom he becomes increasingly estranged.

En route to the Midwest, Frank remembers his chance first meeting with Russell, and how when Russell began feeling him out, Frank told him about his war experience in General Patton’s army as they fought their way up the boot of Italy. Frank was assigned to “handle” the problem of prisoners, which meant that he took them out to the woods and shot them. What difference, then, is there for Frank between following orders in a depraved army and being a hitman in the underworld? It was a job, and he carried out his tasks efficiently, with no discernible thought or feeling before or after. Scorsese’s staging of these nonevents is economical—if you blink, you might miss all of them, except two: the hit on Joey Gallo in Umberto’s Clamhouse and the hit behind Russell and Frank’s trip to Detroit. If most of Frank’s work involves internecine mafia warfare, some of it spills out into a more public arena. Frank is the guy who delivers the weapons used in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the failure of which he watches on TV. Later on TV, during the Watergate investigation, he sees the guy with the strange ears to whom he gave the guns, one E. Howard Hunt. The mob wanted Castro dead so that they could rebuild their casino empire in Cuba. They believed President Kennedy owed them this favor because of the “assistance” they gave to his election. Instead, Kennedy named his brother Robert attorney general and gave him free rein to go after the mob. Scorsese and Zaillian don’t delve into conspiracy theories about the JFK and RFK assassinations, but when the report of Kennedy’s death comes on TV, Frank is watching and so are a couple of his associates. And Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who was a target of RFK’s investigations, remarks that without his brother in the White House, Bobby is just another lawyer.

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 209 minutes. Fred Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano).

Jimmy Hoffa! If The Irishman were a romance—like the The Age of Innocence (1993), still my favorite of Scorsese’s movies, which I watch over and over because of the feelings it engenders rather than, as with The Irishman, its cinematic perfection—then Frank would be caught in a love triangle between his wife and the woman he desires. The relationship that instead triangulates—between Frank, Russell, and Hoffa—is about trust and betrayal just the same. Russell recommends to Hoffa that Frank be his bodyguard. Hoffa, the flamboyant head of the Teamsters is the movie’s spark plug and the foil to the buttoned-up Frank and Russell. (Pacino relishes the task and, thanks most likely to Scorsese’s direction and Thelma Schoonmaker’s eye, is never over the top.) Hoffa wears his emotions on his sleeve, including his vulnerabilities, his paranoia, his desire to be celebrated and loved. The love part may have rubbed off a bit on Frank, which makes Russell’s demand that Frank rub out Hoffa—precisely because Frank is the only person close enough him to get the deed done—extremely difficult for Frank to obey, although he never admits to any regrets. Or perhaps just one: leaving Hoffa’s wife with the hope that he’s still alive.

T.S. Eliot, as Catholic a poet as Scorsese is a filmmaker, opens “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets, with the lines:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Much has been made about the CGI process of “de-aging” or “youthification,” developed by Pablo Helman of Industrial Light and Magic, which made it possible for De Niro’s character to believably shuttle back and forth through five decades, for Pesci’s to span three decades, and for Pacino to play someone much younger than his own seventy-nine years. The process makes the actors’ faces look a bit weird sometimes, but you get used to it, just as you get used to movie makeup or, something worse, the lack of expression that results from cosmetic surgery. The de-aging added a considerable postproduction budget to the film, but that’s Netflix’s problem, not ours. It also made cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s life more difficult because he had to shoot in both 35 mm and digital, required for the de-aging work, and select angles and lighting that would work for the CGI. But the cinematography is brilliant. The editing by Schoonmaker is beyond brilliant, and she had to contend with selecting takes that worked best in postproduction and that were the best angled and timed in relation to the performances. I suspect the actors didn’t worry much, if at all, about playing age, which resulted in De Niro and Pesci giving the greatest performances of their careers—timeless performances. (They, and Pacino as well, move like the septuagenarians they are, while their faces suggest the younger selves of the characters they are playing, giving a new spin to movies as time machines.) Remember the duet between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in the back seat of the taxi in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront? There are about a half-dozen scenes between De Niro and Pesci that are more brilliant in boiling down acting to the basics of being alert and responding to your opposite number in the present moment. It’s unusual for the interactions of two straight men to be so funny, but here, the comedy is no less hilarious for whistling past the grave. (Who would have thought that Pesci would come out of retirement to exchange his manic spontaneity for avuncular cool.) Scorsese lets the actors have all the time they need, and the resulting performances are as rhythmically intricate as the interplay between Miles Davis and John Coltrane, with every second existing for itself and also taking its place in the whole shebang.

Martin Scorsese, The Irishman, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 209 minutes.

The world that Scorsese and his colleagues created in The Irishman is claustrophobic. The first time I saw the film, I rushed out when the final credits had barely begun. Do not, under any circumstances, do the same. After the last image of Frank goes to black, the credit roll begins with a reprise of “In the Still of the Night.” But when that tune ends, a different kind of music begins. Composed and scored for soaring and vibrant harmonica, guitar, piano, and drums by Robbie Robertson, it carries us away from the mobbed-up darkness to a place that hints of “eternity.” It is essential to the meaning that is laced like a barely perceptible thread from beginning to end—the promise of release from the suffocating conditions of our lives. So whether you see The Irishman in a theater or on Netflix, stay until the last chord dies away.

The Irishman will be released in US theaters on November 1 and on Netflix November 27.