A three-and-a-half-hour epic in his signature genre, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman looks back on the life of a gangster, hitman, enforcer, and WWII veteran, who loses everything. There’s a familiar tone to much of the film, Scorsese getting the gang back together – Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel are wonderful to see, but perhaps the most enjoyable performance comes from Joe Pesci, his Russ a calm, knowing presence, a characterisation that feels like a deliberate defiance of the volatility we remember so vividly from Tommy in Goodfellas. The film weaves a tapestry of power structures throughout 20th century New York, incorporating the mob, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and politicians, all tied together by the wild, paranoid, braggadocious figure of Jimmy Hoffa, played by a brilliant Al Pacino in his first ever collaboration with Scorsese.
Scorsese’s use of digital technology to take years off his cast is a matter of debate between us. José thinks that the use of younger actors would have been beneficial, comparing it to De Niro’s portrayal of Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather Part II; Mike arguing that the technology convinces, facilitates a smooth telling of the story, where, had different actors been used, he might have felt like he was waiting for the ‘real story’ to begin, and doesn’t hamper the facial performances as it might have – though he agrees wholeheartedly that, in his mid-70s, Robert De Niro simply can’t convincingly kick a baker as a man thirty or forty years his junior should be able to.
José asks whether Frank feels enough guilt about having to kill Jimmy, by this point a man who’s been his friend for years. We agree that we think his emotional state is too opaque, though Mike suggests that he’s also tamping down his feelings for the sake of getting on with a task he can’t avoid. The feeling of loss and guilt that this event leads to, though, enormously affects the final half hour of the film, and for Mike it’s a beautifully moving coda to a film that, while hugely enjoyable, often felt free of a clear destination – something José disagrees with, never wondering where it was going.
We also consider Scorsese’s recent remarks on Marvel, suggesting that his perspective is a surprisingly ahistorical one, and that had he been making films in the 1950s he’d have had identical complaints about Westerns, for instance – the dominant genre of the time. But José takes time to agree with his aesthetic and artistic complaints, arguing that Marvel’s films lack ambition, and Mike suggests that his issue really comes down to a level of dominance that is marginalising films of lower budgets and greater ambition. We also discuss the fact that Scorsese has made The Irishman for Netflix, hardly the home of a lover of the cinema, as their model is Internet-based and doesn’t allow for wide theatrical releases, Mike suggesting this represents a conflict between Scorsese’s words and actions; though José argues that, as limited as it is, the film has been given a theatrical release, and one would be stupid to turn down money if it gets one’s film made, no matter the source.
But to bring it back to The Irishman, we had a terrific time and the film throughout is layered with great jokes, considered compositions, and brilliantly written, performed and directed set-piece scenes in which conversation is king, stakes are high, and power is in play. If you get a chance to see it during its brief theatrical window, do so.
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The image above is from one of Scarface‘s most iconic moments: ‘say hello to my little friend’. Practically everyone knows or has heard the line either in the movie or cited or imitated elsewhere. Pacino’s performance is galvanising and his reading of that line unforgettable: we now have over 35 years’ evidence that this is so. But what caught my eye in my most recent viewing is how the film’s set, costume and colour design — not to mention all other elements of mise-en-scène — also build up to this moment.
The red-carpet is like a pathway of blood, leading up to that oh-so-white and oh-so-deadly — ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ — little mountain of coke on the desk, all the darkness of the furniture showing edges of gold, including those two big bars that seem to frame the desk itself. It’s like the colour of killing leads to the whiteness of the coke, which is nonetheless enshrouded in the darkness one has accept and travel through to get to the gold. It’s patterned, meaningful, great use of colour and set design. Note also that foot and the patch of purple or violet on the lower right-hand side of the frame. Most of this post will be about that.
But before that let’s just establish how the colour is designed and patterned. Note below, Tony Montana’s phone call after the chainsaw scene with the Columbians were he manages to obtain both the coke and the money in spite of the suspicion that he’s been set up by by Omar (F. Murray Abraham). It’s what leads to his first contact with Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) The image is almost the inverse one of the scene where Lopez himself decides to off Tony Montana and which will instead lead to his own demise. See images below. It’s like the colours of the shirt in the picture on the left have been rendered onto the landscape that’s a backdrop and then combined so that the landscape is painted in the colours of the shirt and then transposed as the wallpaper that is a backdrop to a newly endangered Tony in Frank Lopez’s office. The first is a ‘Hello Frank’ moment. The latter is a ‘Goodbye Tony Montana that ends up being Goodby Frank Lopez’ moment. And the link between them, how one is the result but opposite of the other is partly communicated through a similar inversion and transposition of colour.
Another example of this consistent, patterned and expressive use of colour is the use of red. The first frame-grab below on the left is the two pillars of red that frames the entrance of Tony and Manny (Steven Bauer) into Frank’s house. In the second we see that the house is meant to evoke rich Miami moderne, so the red remains an accent if vibrantly evident. In the third as they sit down to discuss business with Frank, the red occupies the bottom third, but now the black predominates in the leather sofas, and Frank is wearing the colour of his merchandise, cocaine. Then compare this again to the final shootout at Tony’s mansion on the last frame, where the red predominates, the black, gold is evident and carried through, and the the sculpture that ironically proclaims the world is yours is in gold and dead centre.
To return to the ‘say hello to my little friend’ image from the beginning and the peek of purple at the bottom right of the frame, the colour of the nightgown Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the person Tony loved most was wearing when he killed the second person he loved the most, Manny. She’s still wearing it after being killed in his own office. When I saw it I wrote a note to myself:
‘Colours converge at the end, sister wearing husband’s mauve which he’s been associated throughout, the carpet of red, leading to the gold, the black and the cocaine, all the dominant colours of the last set-pice in the house with the world is yours fountain at the end, borrowed wholesale from the neon sign in the original film.
‘The World is Yours’ appears often in the film, sometimes written onto airborn Zeppelins, sometimes as a sculpture outside the new Montana headquarters,, sometimes in Tony’s own office, and at the end as the centrepiece in the middle of the dual staircase (see below).
I had a theory about the colour purple based on this image below:
It’s the moment where Tony kills Manny. Manny has been dressed in or surrounded by the spectrum of colours between red and blue that generally centres on violet. Manny is newly married and robed in white (and, after Tony, shoots him splattered in red). As you can see below there is hardly a scene in the film (I noted two important but brief exception) where Manny is not wearing some form of violet. My theory was that marriage had transferred his colour onto that of his wife.
However, looking back on the film I see that this is not quite the case. Gina has also been wearing that colour throughout the film and in fact in their first proper meeting where he takes her home, they’re both wearing slightly different shades of the same colour.
If violet/purple can be seen as the colour of Tony’s loves, then that little peek of purple by the foot in lower right hand corner of the image that began this post signifies all that his striving to make the world his has cost Tony. The darkness, the coke, the blood is still there with more intensity to come albeit only for a brief time. But that which was love is now dead, barely there and receding fast. It’s great and expressive use of colour throughout the film and this is only but a brief example.
Patricia Norris deserves credit for the costume design; Bruce Weintraub for the set decoration, Edward Richardson for the Art Direction, and Brian De Palma for drawing on Ferdinando Scarfiotti as visual consultant and co-ordinating all of it.
Chris McNicolls has brought to my attention the following: ‘Along with black, violet/mauve are colours of death and mourning in many cultures, so in a way its use seem to foreshadow how things are going to end with Manny and Tony’s sister. But in Cuban culture in particular, especially in its African inflected influences, mauve/violet are the colours of the goddess Oya, that imperious lady who rules the cemetery. And in that frame where Tony emerges from his office on that red carpet with his little friend. The entire setting is dominated by violet/purple and that raging red which, not surprising, is the colour of Oya’s one-time consort, Chango/Shango the lord of fire, lightning, and destruction. And let me tell you, his manly prowess is far from little, hence Tony’s ironic description.’
Andrew Griffin has noted that, ‘I assume that De Palma has a Roman Catholic heritage, as do some of the others on the design team for this film, and knew the Liturgical Colour Code, sort of a Handkerchief Code for Catholics. Purple/Violet is the colour of sacrifice; red the colour of the passion of the Christ.
Brian De Palma’s Scarface was released in December 1983. I was then an undergraduate at McGill trying to earn a few bucks during the holiday season by working as an usher at the Place du Canada cinema in Montreal, an 815 seater with one screen that opened in ’67 with Expo and closed in 1989, after the multiplex boom made such theatres impractical.
I got fired eventually, ostensibly for reading on the job but really because the holiday season was over. Scarface was Universal Pictures’ big Christmas release that season. During the whole time I worked at Cinema Place du Canada, which must have been just over a month, it was the only film we screened, and we could only show it twice weekdays as the film was so long (2h50). Despite mixed reviews, we got good crowds, and queues were common at almost every screening.
I have many fond memories of working there; the sound of kernels of corn popping steadily away, the smell of the newly melted butter. I thought that’s the way all cinemas all over the world made their popcorn until I moved to England. Here I found the popcorn on sale popped who knows when, looking forlorn and strewn behind big glass windows, usually sweet instead of salty. Why is that? It’s so inexpensive to pop corn fresh and the melting butter makes the whole cinema smell enticing and delicious. What an alienating way to cut corners, especially at the prices they charge.
I’ve never forgotten the way guys with their dates leaned up to the box-office and said ‘Two for Al’ at the Place du Canada cinema screenings of Scarface. It was almost always ‘Two for Al’ instead of ‘Two for Scarface.’ That’s how big a star Al Pacino was then. If the guys were Italian, they’d purr a ‘Hey’ up front with that extra relish, musicality and élan so typical of East Coast North Americans of Italian descent wanting to present ‘la bella figura’ and taking particular pride in Al Pacino’s accomplishments: ‘Hey! Two for Al’. Remember John Travolta aspiring to Al-ness in Saturday Night Fever?
Pacino then was every immigrant’s Al. That Scarface has since found a central place in hip hop culture in particular and black cultures in general is no surprise. One can point to how the cocaine, the guns and the gold might have a particular appeal to hip hop ‘pimp’ culture. But of greater significance in Scarface is how it presents the gangsterism of the system itself, the lawlessness of the cops, the muderousness of the privileged and the constant exclusionary practices put in place against any kind of other. Scarface spoke — sang really — not only in operatic style but with operatic range and depth to immigrants and outsiders of all kinds.
At Place du Canada I wore a tux; a cheap, scratchy and ill-fitting one, which probably made me uncomfortable wearing any kind of suit for life. I repetitively took and tore up tickets. I had a flashlight and sometimes lit the way and led the last stragglers to their seats.
But hey, there wasn’t much to do, which meant I was already in place in the dark to delight in the audience’s reaction to the chainsaw scene in the shower, probably the most graphic and violent bit of cinema your average filmgoer had seen to then — the not so average had probably already revelled in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) — and one which has surely shaped my taste.
I also got to see the rest of the film, over and over again, maybe 70 times in all, which surely also shaped the way I understand and think about cinema now. In between shows, I was reading Pauline Kael in short bursts, which I imagine must also share some of the blame, and not just for getting me fired.
There will be more on De Palma’s Scarface in later posts.
Sofia Coppola has a lovely ripe presence here but she’s too shy and not very good. Adolescence is an awkward time but awkwardness is the one thing she manages to convey — she makes for uncomfortable viewing and thus quite a bit of the film suffers by her presence. Talia Shire to me is as much a face of the 70s, as representative of that era, as bigger stars (The Godfather Films and the Rocky films ensure that). I love the way she grows into a Lucretia Borgia figure in this. I also love the relish Raf Vallone brings to his Machievellian churchman. Andy Garcia , whom I love to look at, is not good enough really (he suffers in comparison to James Caan. James Caan! That’s how insubstantial he is here). Yet, the film is somehow magnificent in spite of its relative inadequacies. It’s only not good in comparison to masterpieces; in comparison to what I saw in the cinema this week, it’s a masterpiece: it looks beautiful, has novelistic texture, it’s about character, has a view of life and a view of society that it articulates with grandeur. I love the helicopter shootout that wipes out a whole gang of mafiosi, and the opera scene at the end (clearly echoing the Baptism scene in the first film though not as good). Keaton has a lovely look in the film, teary, chic but somehow gemutleich and klutzy-chic. Is the steps scene inspired Cagney’s death in The Roaring Twenties? I think that here Keaton outshines Pacino but to me it’s really Talia Shire’s movie, and Coppola’s and that of the gorgeous design that is characteristic of all the Godfather films. The montage of the three films at the end, an unnecessary, elegiac and sentimental coda, seems somehow unworthy of the trilogy.
It was a joy to rediscover this. I was too young to see it when it came out, though I remember the excitement in grade school when they broadcast the first and second film knitted together with additional footage and, if I remember correctly, in chronological order, as a television miniseries. The opening, the closing, the baptism, the killing in the restaurant: all are great and it’s hard to fault the film. It has a beautiful gravitas and is to me a clear example of lean, classic, filmmaking. It is often described as operatic, and of course in a certain sense it is, but very sparse in comparison to the current bombast. With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton.