March 8, 2009
The Return of the Irish-American Gangster to the Silver Screen
When The Godfather was released in the early 1970s, it effectively created a myth of the virtually unbeatable Italian crime family for the American public that endured for the remainder of the century. The film also effectively eliminated all other white ethnic organized gangs from the silver screen, as well as from the public's eye. But Hollywood had its history wrong in this case: The Italian Mafia was never as invincible nor did the "families" always have everything their own way when it came to illegal activities. It wasn't until the close of the last century that the film industry began to expose the old-time hoods as being fallible and besieged on all sides from new criminal elements connected with newly arrived immigrant groups. The Cubans, Russians and the Colombian hoods, along with the longer established black and Mexican-American gangs, had begun to nibble away at the turf long controlled by the almighty Italian mob.
As the paradigm of the urban underworld began to shift to reflect the new realities of the global economy, another look at the past by historians and Hollywood is revealing that the Italian gang never had absolute power as it was once commonly believed. The Irish hoodlums were actually engaged in gangland activities years before the arrival of the Italians and the Irish also competed with the Italians up until recently.
Since D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), when Hollywood first blended historical fact with pure fantasy (and racial basis) in a feature-length movie, historians, social critics and educators have bemoaned the modern reality that many Americans now learned their history from motion pictures rather than from history textbooks; this learning process, the thesis states, led to distortion, misconception and misunderstanding. Hollywood produces illusions, the masses believe in these illusions.
Every now and then Hollywood does get history correct, at least it did with Gangs of New York. The assertion that it was the Irish street gangs of the 1840s that established the ground rules of organized crime activity in America is correct. Secondly, films such as Cotton Club, Road to Perdition and Last Man Standing indicate that the Irish gangs were on equal footing with the Italians during Prohibition. These films depicted the Irish versus the Italian warfare raging in the big cities but also ranging to the cornfields of the Midwest to the deserts of the Southwest. Thirdly, recent motion pictures such as The Departed and State of Grace serve as proof that the Irish godfathers still hold sway in New York's Hell's Kitchen and Boston's Southie neighborhood.
It took the Irish-American gangster many years to recover from the damage done to his myth and history by Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola. It can be argued that more than a few Irish-Americans enjoy this reminder of their ethnic group's seamier side of their cultural history. To some contemporary Irish-Americans, the gangsters have long been a part of their collective ethnic identity, along with the priest, the cop, the politician, the boxer or the foot soldier. It's this collective Irish-Catholic identity that serves as an escape from the WASP hegemony that they have slipped into since the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Mickey Machine Gun is back for his last gasp of air before he is finally put to rest by history…and Hollywood.
Actually, the Irish-American gangster only made his comeback after Hollywood returned to the dusty police files and the yellowing newspaper clippings to re-introduce the Jewish racketeer to American filmgoers. Bugsy (1991), Mobsters (1991) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) reminded the public that Jews, hand-in-hand with the Italians, were instrumental in transforming the neighborhood ethnic gangs of the Roaring Twenties into the corporate-style syndicate visualized by Lucky Luciano during the Great Depression. Bugsy Siegel invented the casinos and nightlife of Las Vegas and Meyer Lansky reigned for years as supreme as any Italian Don. The Jewish thug of Chicago's Westside or the southern point of the Bronx was as tough as any Al Capone.
Taking their rightful place alongside the coin-flipping, finger snapping and street talking Italian or Jewish hoods were the Irish, the ones who probably invented the coin-flipping, finger snapping and street talking. According to Herbert Ashbury's ground-breaking 1928 study, "The Gangs of New York – An Informal History of the Underworld," the Irish invented many of gangland's most notable trademarks back in the days of Boss Tweed's pre-Civil War New York City. The revelation that the Irish played an important role in the shaping of America's underbelly should come as no surprise to any Irish-American interested in their own cultural history. However, many of these same Irish-Americans probably didn't know that their own Whitey Bulger was the godfather of Boston or that another one of their own, Jimmy Burke, had pulled off the biggest heist in American history, or that yet another, Jimmy Reardon, had splattered the streets of the Big Apple with more blood during the 1970s and 1980s than any other crime chief in America.
The annals of American street gangs can be traced back to the 1840s when two million desperate Irishmen and women fled the potato famine in the old world for a better life in the new world. Unfortunately, most avenues for upward mobility were closed to these new Americans due to their lack of skills and education. The prejudices of mostly Protestant America towards the mostly Catholic Irish only made matters worse. The Micks would have to earn their pennies, nickels and dimes on the hardscrabble streets of urban America. Operating on the wrong side of the law quickly served as an outlet for many an Irishman with savvy, muscles and guts. Bootlegging and drug pushing were both enterprises for the future so the early Irish fire-plug thugs earned their upkeep through stealing, pimping and hiring out to ward bosses on election day; the brightest of these lads graduating into the ranks of big time gambling: cards, dice and horseracing.
John "Ole Smoke" Morrissey of New York's Bowery and "King" Mike McDonald of Chicago's red-light district built-up empires that depended upon a variety of games of chance. Frank Farrell, one-time owner of baseball's New York Yankees, was probably the most infamous of these 19th century Irish-American high rollers. These classy old-time sporting men were eclipsed at the turn of the century by Irish toughs of the likes of Owen Madden and Jack Nolan. "Owney the Killer" evolved from being a mere pawn with Hell's Kitchen's Gophers to becoming the owner of Harlem's Cotton Club and a founding member of the national crime syndicate of post-Prohibition America. "Legs Diamond" made the jump from the ranks of the Hudson Dusters to being a big-time bootlegger, as well as the personal gun for hire of Arnold Rothstein.
A contemporary of Madden and Nolan was Dean O'Banion, one-time safecracker and train robber who became the dominant force of the North Side of Chicago. By 1925, the limping Irishman was Johnny Torrio and Al Capone's biggest rival for the Windy City's beer and booze trade. Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, Spike O'Donnell, "Big" Bill Dwyer, Vannie Higgins and Klondike O'Donnell were all powerful Irish gang chieftains who controlled huge swaths of turf from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard.
When the early talking gangster films became the vogue in the earliest days of the Great Depression, the three most important of these films were Little Caesar, Scarface and Public Enemy; each was released by the end of 1932. The first two films dealt with hoodlums who were noticeably Italian, loosely based on Al Capone, while the third was clearly a Chicago Irishman. Munby contends (Public Enemies, Public Heroes) that the ethnic gangster served a twofold purpose: 1) offering a road to success for the urban ethnic group, and 2) allowing mainstream America to demonize ethnic groups as elements making up the crimp groups.
Munby also wrote: "Accordingly, it could be argued that in the pre-cash era gangster film, the gangster's ethnicity was significant only to the extent that it could help confirm the logic of a divisive and exclusionary national ideology. Being Italian, Irish, Polish or Jewish only help to clarify the boundaries that separated the realm of legitimate values from the illegitimate. In other words, ethnicity, far from threatening to upset the traditional mythology only served to strengthen it. Moving to the city initially kept the old-stock culture on the right side of the street."
When the "old-stock" such as John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Barkers began to fill up the ranks of America's biggest bank robbers during the harshest years of the Depression, the rhetoric had to be changed to go along with the mythology. Dillinger was linked with the myth of the old western outlaws who, in turn, were linked to Robin Hood and the whole "taking from the rich to give to the poor" ethos.
While the rural audiences could demonize Tom Powers as a dangerous Mick with a machine gun, the Irish urban audiences could identify with the tough paddy who uses his moxy, as well as his dukes, to be able to grab his share of the American dream pie. Scholars debate over which famous real life gangsters served as the model for Tommy Powers. Cagney's character was probably a Hollywood brew consisting of Owen Madden, Dean O'Banion and Hymie Weiss, Dean's second-in-command in Chicago's 42nd and 43rd wards. I lean towards O'Banion, Chicago's most notorious bootlegger before he was bumped off by three of Capone's torpedoes in his very own Clark Street florist shop. Tommy Powers received his very own unique execution, wrapped up in a sheet like a mummy and dumped on his mother's doorstep by the Schemer Burns mob.
Out of Chicago's stockyard district, Tom Powers, the son of a beat cop, moves up the ranks of Paddy Conner's South Side gang until he is second-in-command. Shadoian (Dreams and Dead Ends) describes Tom Powers as the "prototype of high-living gangsters, synonymous in the public mind with fast, fancy cars, easy women, boozing, swank nightclubs, and reckless uninhibited activity." A teenager growing up in today's Los Angeles' Mexican barrio or Brooklyn's Haitian section would perceive the local reigning kingpin, the direct descendants of Tom Powers, as a dude who "has it all."
Tom Powers was probably Hollywood's first truly identifiable Irish-American racketeer as well as the most important. The great James Cagney, complete with his flaming red hair, slangy street-speak and drugstore-cowboy strut, will always remain the poster boy for the defining image of Mickey Machine Gun.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939) solidified Cagney as America's No. 1 tough mug, more so than Paul Muni or Edward G. Robinson. In the former film, Cagney's Rocky Sullivan is loosely patterned on Francis "Two-Gun" Crowley, a flash-in-the-pan, five-and-dime punk teenage desperado. Both Rocky and Two-Gun survived shootouts with the men in blue before being fried in the electric chair for first-degree murder. Happily, Rocky turned yellow on his final mile whereas Crowley behaved himself with quiet dignity. Of course, Francis didn't have to bother about scaring off the Dead Ends from emulating him either. In the latter film, Cagney's Eddie Barlett was modeled on Eddie Fay, a former taxi driver who had become one of New York's most respectable bootleggers. Both Eddies fell victims to the stock market crash and the demise of the Blue Law banning drink. Both Eddies wound up hacking their cabs in front of their former nightclubs. Cagney's character sad plight ends with one final shootout; his death on the steps of a Catholic church was patterned on the death of a real life Midwestern gangster who died on the steps of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Kenosha, Wis.
As the Thirties waned, Jimmy Cagney turned to roles as G-men, tough reporters and other variations of his Tom Powers routine, only this time he normally was on the right side of the law. It wasn't until well after World War II that he agreed to take on the part of another hoodlum. Cagney's Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949) is perhaps his greatest performance as a criminal. Curiously, Jarrett is never identified as being of Irish origin and he is more of the nominal leader of a heist crew than a kingpin in an organized crime group.
Manhattan Melodrama (1944) is less important to the Irish-American gangster genre than any of Cagney's trio of early films. Blackie Gallaher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell) characters in this B-movie symbolize the basic unity of the Irish gangster with the Irish cop – one forged on the sidewalks of their shared childhood. The only real historical importance of this film is that it was the last movie the great John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber, viewed before he was gunned down by Melvin Purvis and his G-men outside of Chicago's Telegraph Theatre.
An off-shot of the Irish-gangster genre were the Irish street urchin movies. Originally appearing as a stereotypical Irish-Catholic street gang in Dead End (1937) and Angels with Dirty Faces, the Dead End Kids later morphed into, briefly, the Little Tough Guys and later, the East Side Kids; finally and sadly ending their long run as the Bowery Boys. About 100 feature-length films chronicled the misadventures of this one New York street gang. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, under a variety of names, usually spearheaded the lads over a 20-year period.
In the early films, it's refreshing to see a Jewish kid (Billy Halop's Soapy) act as the top dog in an Irish gang in the early Dead End Kids movies. Jewish Soapy, sometimes Tommy Gordon, with the fists and savvy of any Tommy Powers, kept his troops in line. Tommy Gordon even reigned supreme over Leo Gorcey and Hunt Hall, both real life Irish goons. It was only in the later series that Gorcey and Hall were able to muscle in on top billing slot left by the departure of Billy Halop for more adult fare.
However, it is Leo Gorcey, who was part Irish and part Jewish and all Catholic off camera, and Huntz Hall, who was 100 percent Irish-Catholic with a brother and a son as a priest, who are best remembered in these long-running and popular series. Gorcey's Muggs McGennis, sporting a battered, pinned back hat, was known for his tortured logic, fractured grammar and round-house punch. Mugs, like many stereotypical Hollywood tough guys, carried a heart of gold beneath his rough exterior. Huntz Hall, the truest Irish street kid of the lot, was reduced to playing Glimpy, an almost moronic fool on the order of Art Caney's Fred Norton in "The Honeymooners." Some examples of standard East Side Kids fare were Ghosts on the Loose (1943) and Docks of New York (1945).
Sometime in the late 1940s, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall took their Irish street gang over to another Hollywood studio as well as another New York neighborhood. The Bowery Boys were a last ditch effort to still milk a profitable cash cow. According to Leo Gorcey Jr., (Life with the Dead End Kid) his father continued to rake in a huge fortune based on the percentages from these lousy films cranked out until the end of the 1950s. Bowery Battalion (1951) and Bowery to Baghdad (1955) did very well indeed at box offices in both urban and rural America.
Corrigan and White (The Film Experience) describe "mise-en-scene" (a term connoting atmosphere and setting) as the "fictional or real place where the action and the event occur." Perhaps the Irish Americans from the dying urban Irish enclaves could still identify with the antics of Slip Mahoney (Gorcey) and his pot-bellied loser followers. Maybe the Irish Catholics who led the charge of white flight out to the new suburbs looked at the non-threatening doings happening in the Louie's Malt Shop on the Bowery with a certain amount of longing for a dying epoch in their cultural history. Slip and his lads may have been always on the lookout for a handout but they were also a far cry from the Jets and Sharks of post-war Hell's Kitchen. By the early sixties the urban Irish were confronted by the realities of changing street scene as depicted in West Side Story (1959). The Irish were still hanging around the Kitchen but they were daily losing inches of their turf to the new Spanish-speaking immigrants who flooded into the tenements.
When Jimmy Cagney hung up his Tommy-gun and left the rackets the Hollywood Irish American gangster was regulated to a slew of B-grade films in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Mickey Machine-Gun was reduced to appearing in low budget, black and white, outdoor theatre fare. Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and Mad Dog Coll (1961) were low-budget B-movies that added little to gangster film lore.
The legendary Legs Diamond was played by Ray Danton and the infamous Mad Dog Coll was played by John Davis Chandler, both who were competent but lower billing actors. At least the part of George "Machine-Gun" Kelly was performed by a very young Charles Bronson and directed by an equally young and upcoming Roger Corman. Furthermore, Hollywood got it right with the machine-gunning of the Mad Dog in a drugstore telephone booth and the frying of Machine-Gun Kelly in the electric chair. Corman's crew also were correct in depicting the real George Kelly, a/ka/a Thomas Barnes before being renamed by the daily presses or his wife, was nothing more than a down-at-the-heels Southern bank robber of Irish ancestry whose botching of a kidnapping scheme led to his capture by J. Edgar Hoover's G-men. The media over-glorified Kelly in order to sell newspapers, as well as to add to the growing luster to the reputation of the FBI.
Elia Kazan's On the Water Front (1955) stands as the lone exception during this timeframe as a good film based on the theme of Irish-American gangland antics. Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger's Malloy brothers may have been the figment of novelist and screenplay writer Budd Schulbeber's imagination, but Lee J. Cobb's Johnny Friendly bares more than a passing resemblance to Eddie McGrath, a real life pier boss. McGrath, the undisputed czar of the Hudson River docks, controlled New York's shipping industry for 20 years; at the same time controlling the war chest of the International Longshoremen's Union. McGrath was eventually chased down to Miami by a federal commissions investigating racketeering on the waterfront. By making Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) the heroes behind Johnny Friendly's downfall, Schulberg humanized the story, giving the audience somebody to cheer on.
The Malloy brothers are also important to Irish cultural studies because they represent the paradox of the Irish urban experience: success and failure, good versus bad, and blood ties winning out over bonds to outsiders. Brando's Terry Malloy, in one of Hollywood's greatest performances, is a punch drunk former boxer and a current freeloader. Irish Terry has gone from being a middle-weight contender for the crown to a very minor character lurking on the fringes on the Irish mob. Terry is never a gangster in the true sense of the word, but he rubs shoulders with the criminal element every day of his life. He's also quick to do the biding of Johnny Friendly, no matter how wrong these commands may be. Terry is a product of his neighborhood, a Hell's Kitchen slum, and the code of silence that prevails among his social class. Loser though he may be, Terry Malloy is essentially a decent man with a grounding in the rights and wrongs of Catholicism; one who grieves over the death of a friend pushed off a tenement roof by Johnny's thug after being lured there by Johnny himself. Terry also has the noble impulses of protecting his friend's sister, Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint, and to join in Father Barry's crusade to protect the rights of dock workers.
Rod Steiger's Charlie "the Gent" Malloy represents the Irish slum boys who made good, graduating with a law degree from Fordham and becoming the mouthpiece of Johnny Friendly's crime family. However, Charlie's college education and refine manners aren't enough to save him from the wrath of Friendly when he refuses to put a contract out on his own brother. There's much in Charlie Malloy that was from Jimmy Hines, Dutch Schultz's famous Irish-American mouthpiece.
One of On the Water Front's most gripping scenes is in the film's finale with a defiant Terry Malloy taking his place in the work line up after being subjected to a brutal beating at the hands of the river rats employed by the mob. Budd Schulberg's novel by the same title has an alternative ending strikingly different from that of the movie's. It is apparent that audiences in the 1950s didn't want to view a movie wrap up with Brando's likeable character floating down the Hudson with an ice pick planted in his back.
It wasn't until 1968 that the classy-classical Irish gangster of yore made his reappearance in Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a surprise hit during the height of the flower power era. This film recounted the events leading up to Al Capone's bloody red valentine to George "Bugs" Moran, gangland leader of Chicago's North Side. The movie stresses the ethnic overtones of the Capones versus the Morans: the South Side being made up of Italians while the North Side is represented by Irish, German and Jewish hoodlums, Chicago gangs were never as neatly defined or divided except by the newspapers. The climax of the plot is reached with the wholesale slaughter of seven of the North Siders in a Clark Street garage on the morning of February 14, 1929. Unlike many gangster movies since, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre presents the Irish on an equal footing with the Italians. Most films generally polish off the Irish early on so the Italians can feud with other Italian crime families. Movies such as Mobsters and The Gangster Chronicles preferred to focus on the Massera-Forazzano vendetta rather than the entanglements with the Micks.
Cormon, in another innovative step, made the Irish gang more interesting, if less efficient, than the Italians. Moran and his boys were more dangerous, daring and more individualistic than Capone's corporate combine. Moran slugs down beer and whiskey with the Gusenberg brothers as they devise a blueprint to rub-out Big Al Capone, on the other hand, contract out the hit on Moran to a lower rung Jack "Machine-Gun" McGurn after a meeting held around a conference table in a swanky hotel.
Rose Keefe ((The Man Who Got Away: The Bugs Moran Story) gives her readers the real inside dope on the real-life Moran, who took part in the daylight attack on Johnny Torrio, Capone's one-time boss. Moran wasn't above joining in on any shooting done by his torpedoes. Both Moran and Pete Gusenberg (played by Ralph Meeker and George Seigel) were presented as street punks wearing expensive suits and two-tone spates. Seigel's Gusenberg even pays homage to Cagney's Tome Powers, not once but twice. Gusenberg and Powers smash food into the faces of their blond bombshell molls and they both wipe-off their beer-splattered shoes with a bartender's coat.
Corman does incorrectly have his Al Capone (Jason Robard) identify Bugs Moran as that "no good Irish son of a bitch!" Keefe, Moran most serious researcher to date, has traced the real life Moran's origins back to French immigrants settled in St. Paul, Minn. Keefe is also quite clear in reminding her readers that six of the seven men killed in the massacre were of German or Jewish extraction rather than Irish. However, it is a historical fact that the North Side mob was initially formed by Irishmen Dean O'Banion and "Dapper" Dan McCarthy.
Corman reprised the Irish-Italian theme in his 1975 film, Capone starring Ben Gazzara as Big Al, a far less interesting film than his earlier pieces. The screenplays of both of these Chicago sagas were the work of Howard Browne, one-time Chicago beat reporter, who knew some of the seven hoods executed by the Capone organization. Browne's experience as a reporter gives a more realistic touch to the Corman movies than other screenplay writers could provide a director. One can probably take Browne's word that although George Moran was the chieftain of the other gang, he was also one of the guys while on the other hand, the South Side guys referred to their boss as "Mr. Capone" and not a chummier "Al."
T.J. English's groundbreaking work Paddy Whacked puts in what Roger Corman's films left out. The Irish and Italians were competing for the loot coughed up by Prohibition and they both basically played the game according to the underworld code of ethics drawn up back in pre-Civil War New York City. The two opposing urban ethnic groups were fighting over a way of life, as well as over turf. The Irish gangsters at the end of the bootlegging era were rapidly facing extinction. With a loosely structured organization that wasn't much different to the outlaw days of Billy "the Kid" Bonney, probably baptized as Henry McCarty in a Hell's Kitchen parish church for the famine Irish, and the hombres who rode with him and marooned in the boozy haze of the wet 1920s, the Irish gang couldn't compete with the tightly woven Mafia and its businesslike Jewish allies. According to an urban legend, the Irish racketeers also may have expressed a marked displeasure at the peddling of flesh and drugs. The Italians, according to this theory, bumped off the leading Irish gang leaders by the time of Repeal in 1933 and then they turned their attention towards eliminating the mighty Jewish dons. English isn't the first author to speculate that the move to deal out the Irish was the brainchild of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Be that as it may, the Great Depression coupled with Repeal, did more to shrink the profit margin of Irish gangland than any well-planned blueprint or palace conspiracy. All of Chicago, New York and Boston's Mickey Machine-Guns were destined to go out the way of the James Gang and the Daltons: violent men who were unwilling to adapt to the times and their bullet-riddled corpses winding up on display in storefront coffins. Mickey Machine-Gun never stood a chance against the cigar-chomping men in gray flannel suits. Or did he? Just because Hollywood wasn't interested in the Irish gangsters anymore did that mean he no longer existed? Is it possible that the Irish mob went so below the radar that even scholars of crime forgot about them?
The alleged death of the Irish mob is only lightly brushed upon in the film Mobsters, the story of the unification of the Italian and Jewish gangs into one mega-syndicate. Nicholas Sadler does a fantastic job as Mad Dog Coll, the one-man crime wave and solo terrorist act, This Mickey Machine-Gun becoming the ultimate symbol of the Celtic lone wolf. It's up to the Mad Dog, machine gun in hand, to add a touch of old fashioned Irish rebellion and American individualism to the Mafia hybrid of European regal and American boardroom.
Vincent Coll was indeed a vicious killer from Dutch Schultz's old stomping ground, the South Bronx via Donegal, Ireland, and he was also the head honcho of a small but compact gang of mostly Italian and Jewish sluggers who specialized in kidnapping and assassinating of fellow New York gangsters. The real Mad Dog, as depicted by Mobsters, was a nut case responsible for the drive-by shooting death of a child.
Francis Ford Coppola also touched upon the career of the vicious Vincent in his film CottonClub (1984) substituting the name Dwyer for that of Coll, played by a very young Nicholas Cage. Coppola also reintroduced Owen Madden (Bob Hoskins) to moviegoers. Hoskins, an Englishman, gives "the Killer" a cockney accent dipped in posh instead of Madden's Liverpool Irish Scouser brogue. Hoskins, however, did an excellent job with Owens's real life habit of putting on refined British airs. The one-time roughhouse Gopher had gone to great lengths to reinvent himself as a polished member of society and owner of the Big Apple's No. 1 speakeasy. The movie never offers the audience a glimpse of Owney the Killer as Mickey Machine-Gun who went in cahoots with the Italians and sold out his fell Mickey Machine-Guns. According to several sources, including English, it was Madden who kept Coll on the drugstore telephone long enough for Bo Weinberg, Dutch Schultz's top gunslinger, to pull off the execution.
Mobsters and Cotton Club perked America's interest in the old-time Irish gangsters, but it was left to State of Grace (1989) and Goodfellas (1990) to bring the Irish-American up-to-date in America's modern cement jungles. The former film is loosely based upon the Jimmy Coonan-Mickey Featherstone band of bandits, heralded as the "Westies" by the media, and their reign of terror in Hell's Kitchen in the final days of the Irish tenements before it was renamed and the yuppies pushed out the Micks. The latter movie dealt with an Irish gang situated in Queens, N.Y., near the airport and headed by the notorious Jimmy "the Gent" Burke, played by Robert DeNiro in the movie but renamed Jimmy Conway, and his cokehead sidekick Henry Hill portrayed by Ray Liotta. Joe Pesci played the weird Tommy DeVito (Thomas DeSimone in real life) a made man in the Gambino family. Burke and his crew managed to pull off a $6 million caper by raiding the Lufthansa in the cargo terminal. Burke was more of a hijacker than a racketeer. He was also a ruthless brut, knocking off 25 opponents and was accused of torturing the children of people who owed him money. Jimmy the Gent also probably knocked off members of his own gang before dying in prison. Most of that $6-million prize was never recovered by the authorities. The Big Heist (2001) covers much of the same ground as Goodfellas but it lacks the directing skills of Martin Scorsese. However, interestingly enough, in this latter depiction, Donald Sutherland's Jimmy Burke speaks with an Irish brogue and is the leader of a motley gang of misfits and losers.
The three most important Irish American gangster films at the opening of the 21st century were Gangs of New York (2002), The Road to Perdition (2002) and The Departed (2006). These three films cover the involvement of the Irish in gang life dating from pre-Civil War days to present time, bringing the Irish American gangster full circle.
Gangs of New York is a film that provides the historical groundwork for all other films based on Yankee Celtic hoodlum life. Gangs is loosely based on the factual evidence that traces the proto street thug to New York's Five Point neighborhood on the Lower East Side. No drive by shootings, high tech weaponry or designer drugs by these boys. The Dead Rabbits, Pug Uglies and the Bowery Boys, not to be confused with Slip Mahoney's malt shop pals, didn't play patty cake or trash talk with their True Blue American rivals. Their rumbles were fought with swords, butcher knives and clubs. Red Rocks Farrell, member of the Whyos, was a classic example of a gang thug of the 19th century.
Martin Scorsese's film focuses on the real-life conflict between Bill "the Butcher" Poole (Daniel Day Lewis) and his Native Americans (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) against an alliance of outcasts from the Emerald Isle sporting labels like the O'Connell Guard and the Forty Thieves. The "Priest" (Liam Neeson) is roughly cut from the cloth that was John "the Smoke" Morrissey. The Irish gradually lost their hold on the gang life in the East Side to the Italians commanded by Paul Kelly. This new gang spawned the careers of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone.
Gangs is also one of the few gangster films ever to pay homage to perhaps the most notorious street thug of the early 20th century: the ape-like Monk Eastman. The screenwriter for this movie was off course by 50 years; the real Monk was born long after the Boss Tweed era. Oddly enough, this Finn MacCool of the streets was the son of a Russian Jewish rabbi and the owner of a pet shop. Monk is worth a feature film of his own, but he never rumbled for or against the Butcher or Ole Smoke.
Road to Perdition takes the gangster film back to the heyday of gangland during the wet years of Prohibition (1919-1933). However, Road breaks new ground with its setting: The cornfields and small towns of western Illinois and eastern Iowa replace the stockyards, the kitchen or the south end of the urban landscape. Road, following a pattern established in On the Waterfront, is more interested in the dynamics, squabbles and inter-squad feuding of the Irish gang as an extended family. John Rooney (Paul Newman), the Irish chieftain and father figure, is machine gunned down by Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), the Irish enforcer and son figure, after the two have effectively destroyed the other's family. Newman's character is based upon the career of John Patrick Looney (1865 to 1947), Al Capone's equal on the other side of the state. Looney controlled the booze, gambling and union rackets in the Quad Cities until he went to prison on a murder rap. Michael "the Angel of Death" Sullivan never existed as far as I can determine, but he fits in perfectly with the lone wolf Gael who took on the elites before they go down in a blaze of glory. In many ways, these Irish renegades echo the fallen heroes of Irish history: Brian Boru, Hugh O'Donnell, Patrick Sarsfield and Michael Collins, all who fought and died for their lost cause.
The movie that may represent the swan song of the real Irish-American gangster could very well turn out to be The Departed. Jack Nicholson's Francis Costello, the sleaziest of all cinematic godfathers, chews up the scenery as a demented stage Irishman and the last of the urban Celtic clan chieftains. Costello serves as the personification of every Irish-American outlaw who ever lived: violent, generous, cheap, ballsy, cruel, shrewd and likeable in a creepy, dirty way. Francis Costello, a paradox of behaviors, also snorts coke, sells phony secret plans to the Chinese and rats out his fellow mobsters to the FBI. He is clearly a reworking of South Boston's very own Whitey Bulger, a Mickey Machine-Gun who almost single-handedly wiped out the Italian Mafia in Massachusetts as well as in Rhode Island. Whitey, who is considered by some crime scholars to be the last powerful Irish American crime boss, is currently Public Enemy No. 1 on the FBI's Most Wanted List. Mr. Bulger has been on the lam for years now. Nicholson's Francis Costello is executed by his own informant on the Boston police force (Matt Damon).
What is behind the reemergence of the Irish American gangster in Hollywood films at the start of a new century? Why the sudden interest in the antics of the lowlife Irish past and present? And why don't Irish-Americans get up in arms when this rotten side of their cultural history is dug up and splashed across the silver screen for the whole world to see? My argument would be that this is Irish-America's last stab at outlawry before finally slipping inescapably into the great melting pot that is America. Perhaps the blazing fire of the American-Mulligan stew has already melted the Irish-American beyond any unique cultural identity at this stage of history. The Irish- American gangster film is the Irish-American's last look backwards in time when they were the outsiders.
Ashbury, Herbert. "Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld." New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1928.
Corrigan, Timothy and Patricia White. The Film Experience. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.
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