Scorsese’s The Irishman: sad farewell to an era

The Irishman banner image.

When I finally got around to watching The Irishman, I had still been isolated from conventional and amateur critique about the film.

As a spectator, I formed the opinion pretty quickly that this was a love story. A salute to friendships between Hollywood legends who knew they might never work together again. Perhaps not even see each other again, all in the one place and time. And maybe it was also a tip of the hat to us, the audience, for making these artists into living legends, and coming back this one more time.

To put it another way, The Irishman is a gangster film the way Homer’s Odyssey is a gangster story. Or is the Odyssey a travelogue? Meaning that the Odyssey is both. And much more. Odysseus and his men were indeed roving bandits whose travels were recounted. There’s plenty of theft, murder, and gadding about the ancient world to lay it to waste. But along with it also comes a meditation on personal integrity, spirituality and the caprice of the gods (or fortune, as the case may be), on patriotism and duty as much as the lure of lust, gluttony, and narcissism.

Why do I mention the Odyssey in a contemporary film review? Because it is a model for Western story-telling and myth-making. It sets the standard, so to speak, for devices used in narrative fiction to tell literal and not-so-literal stories at the same time.

The Irishman is a gangster film, traversing a particular sub-domain of American organized crime history, but it is also much more than that. Why do I belabour this point? Because I read the critical notices, and some of the online gibberish posing as critique. They made me think that either I was dead wrong about the film, and maybe deluded about storytelling and myth-making altogether, or there are a lot of ignorant people out there who spend a lot of time writing absolute nonsense.

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself going for a minority report. This will be a deconstruction of what I saw and how I interpreted it. Deconstruction as in taking things apart a little, like an engine, to see how it works.

And I do some of that also for the more popular critiques – popular in that two or three general assertions seem to have been plagiarized and widely repeated.

It turned out to be a much longer disquisition than I anticipated, so here’s a roadmap of sorts you can use to jump to areas of particular interest, or just to change the reading order of my narrative flow:

Love story: a valediction

For me it was always a straight-forward proposition: a director who has made a number of films I enjoyed over several decades made a new one. I should try to catch it. And not to look for things to be outraged about, but in the hope I might be entertained, enlightened, or even inspired.

Of Scorsese’s films, the ones that appealed to me the most were Mean Streets (1973, with Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel), Taxi Driver (1976, with De Niro and Keitel), Raging Bull (1980, with De Niro and Joe Pesci), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, with Keitel), Goodfellas (1990, with De Niro and Pesci), Cape Fear (1991, with De Niro), Casino (1995, with De Niro and Pesci), as well as several films without any of the Irishman headline cast in them, including Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

I couldn’t help but wonder whether Leonardo DiCaprio was just too young to qualify for a role in The Irishman.

 Pesci, Pacino, Scorsese, Keitel, and De Niro at the New York Film Festival, October 2019.
L-R: Pesci, Pacino, Scorsese, Keitel, and De Niro at the New York Film Festival, October 2019.

If there were any surprises in the film, these concerned the deep sadness I felt at what was the express theme: some of the biggest Hollywood names coming together for one last time to say affectionate farewells to us and each other.

This was a love story, then, as much as a gangster film. Love of the craft. Of each other, and maybe a little of us too, for coming back again and again to enjoy and recognise these artists as among the best in the history of cinema. It’s possible I saw all this so clearly because I am no longer young myself, with people I knew and counted as fixtures in my landscape increasingly passing away. People I knew only at a distance, and people close to me I loved. A realization of my mortality, the way I think Scorsese referred to his own with the film.


In the USA, the average age for men is 78.69 years. Slightly better for the wealthy. In 2019 Scorsese was 77, Harvey Keitel playing mobster Angelo ‘Angel’ Bruno was 80, Al Pacino playing Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa was 79, Robert De Niro playing hit man Frank Sheeran was 76, the same age as Joe Pesci playing Sheeran’s Mafioso patron, Russell Bufalino.

There is a maudlin sentimentality about the realization that this might be a swansong. In that sense, The Irishman is more than just a film. It’s like a party at which old friends get together knowing it might be their last hurrah. That’s not to say they won’t each do yet more creative work. Just maybe not together. That created, for me, something of a solemn undertone for the film. And, selfishly, narcissistically, I see myself invited to that party. I know it is not the exclusive invite it seems like when I watch the film in solitude. That every and all audience members are similarly invited. Nevertheless, I know that I may yet see the obituary notices of one or more of these fellows.

That this valediction was wrapped up in a story about the Mafia and killing is no big surprise. It has been the bread-and-butter genre of the director and the main actors since the 1970s, with audiences always coming back for another look at a slightly different take. But it did seem odd to me that no one else really talked about the love story, the farewell, and the unspeakable fear we might yet live to see these legends dead in our own remaining lifetimes.


Told in retrospect by an aged and rueful but not repentant Frank Sheeran, whiling away his last days in a nursing home (the Americans call it ‘assisted living’, I think), there’s no doubt that the story looks mortality and passing glory squarely in the eye. Seeing De Niro as a shabby-looking old guy is a bit of a shock, even if I should have expected it. Maybe it was a trick to get better audience reactions to the expensive and extensively critiqued visual effects rejuvenation technique by Industrial Light and Magic, employed to make the main actors look up to 30 years younger for some scenes.

And so, from the decrepit old Sheeran, we jump back in time: it’s 1956 and truck driver Sheeran is shown to have first met Russel Bufalino on the road, at a petrol station, before he ever knew his name or mob connections. It’s a friendly meeting over a mechanical problem to which Bufalino has the answer. A characteristic he retains to his own end.

Sheeran’s life of crime did not begin until sometime later. We see him in a working men’s bar in South Philadelphia, the Friendly Lounge, where he meets local tough guy, Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ Ditullio, to whom he starts selling the beef hindquarters he drives from meat company to customers for a living. Extra money from a bit of pilfering. To begin with.

Cannavale’s Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ Ditullio.
Cannavale’s Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ Ditullio.

We are introduced to Ditullio with a short flashback to 1946, showing him using a straight razor to cut a chicken’s throat, a satisfied sadist’s grin on his blood-spattered face as the Chicken sprays blood everywhere, and on the customer waiting for the slaughtered chicken. This is probably the most violent, blood drenched scene in the film, and it fills in for the brevity of the later ‘hits’, including the climactic but very brief glimpse at a man’s brains splattered on a wall, illustrating the meaning of the euphemism ‘painting houses’.

When Sheeran first talks to Ditullio, he is kept standing while the gangster and his minions eat steaks at a table. The next time we see them together, after business has been done once or twice, Sheeran is seated with them, also eating steak. And so it goes for his career as a gangster. An outsider getting a seat at the table.

When Sheeran is eventually charged with a criminal offence, his Teamster (American truck drivers’ union) lawyer is Bill Bufalino, cousin to Russell. An apparently innocent question by Bill about Sheeran’s willingness to name others in any crime he might have committed vets him for bigger and better things when he emphatically rejects acting as ‘rat’. Bill reintroduces him to Russell, and Russell to ‘Angel’ Bruno, and later to James Riddle Hoffa – one of the most powerful and respected public figures in America during the later 1950s through to the early 1970s.

Thus, Sheeran’s career as a mobster takes off, from hired muscle for Ditullio, to Bufalino’s mercenary, and hitman extraordinaire under Bufalino’s guiding hand. His stint as teamster official and Hoffa ‘fixer’ also involves more than a little criminality.

We see Bufalino protect Sheeran from his own mistakes, but also draw him into the Hoffa circle that eventually became a big problem for all concerned. How that problem is resolved is probably among the finest cinema Scorsese, or anyone, has made. Not because it’s a famous gangster story, but because it deals with issues of family, loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. These are all themes you can find in the Odyssey, and other Westerns ur–myths, which remain perpetually valid in all walks of life. Tying them together in this film is the notion that bonds between people that last a lifetime – literally – have their ups and downs. Coming undone when friends, allies, and enemies start to distrust each other, and do things that cannot be undone.


Most of the names and reputations we come across along the way belong to real gangsters.

Ditullio is based on the real Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (the script and publicity credits don’t use the original spelling of the name. Maybe because there is another DiTullio in the script). He was reputed to have been a Philadelphia Mafia captain, hit man, loan shark, and mentor of future bosses Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo and Ralph Natale.

DiTullio really did own the Friendly Lounge on the corner of South 8th Street and Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia, in what is today Little Saigon. He died at age 60 in 1966 without violence, but maybe from enjoying life too much.

The real Bufalino was a Sicilian émigré who became Pennsylvania gangster Joseph ‘Joe the Barber’ Barbara’s underboss, and was probably most famous for having organized the notorious ‘Apalachin meeting’ of Mafia bosses at Barbara’s residence (625 McFall Road, Apalachin, NY, on 14 November 1957) which was staked out by police and resulted in 60 arrests, with 20 being convicted of obstruction of justice for refusing to reveal why they were at the Barbara house.

The real Russell Bufalino (1903-1994).
The real Russell Bufalino (1903-1994).

The whole affair is probably more significant for forcing transvestite FBI boss J Edgar Hoover to admit publicly that there was such a thing as organized crime run by Italian immigrants, after dismissing this proposition publicly many times previously, preferring to focus on anti-communist activities in the later 1940s and 1950s. Hoover’s reticence about organised crime suggests that the American Mafia’s influence was very widespread indeed during the immediate postwar decades. A theme picked up on in the film by casually connecting the murders of the Kennedy brothers to the Mafia, via unpaid debts and unreturned favours, and openly linking Richard Nixon’s political fortunes to funding from criminals.

Angelo ‘Angel’ Bruno ran the Philadelphia and Atlantic City Mafia from 1959 to 1980, when he was murdered, probably for opposing the lucrative drugs trade, the way Don Corleone in The Godfather is shown to have done, with similar consequences. Bruno avoided publicity, and therefore also violence when other methods would do. The way Harvey Keitel’s Bruno does not assassinate Sheeran for planning to burn down a laundry in which he has a stake.

Jimmy Hoffa is most definitely a larger than life character in American history, who rose through teamster ranks to become the union’s virtual dictator, and an immensely powerful figure for the loans and donations he was able to make, using Teamster pension funds. This generated an immensely widespread and influential network of patronage from gangsters, politicians, judges, police, and who knows who else. Eventually Hoffa was prosecuted and gaoled for conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, and improper use of the Teamster pension fund (in the USA it is a federal crime to use the postal service or electronic communication to commit fraud). He served five years of a 13-year sentence, and sought to regain control of the union on his release in December 1971, but there was bitterness in the union hierarchy, and it is said the gangsters preferred his caretaker, Frank E. Fitzsimmons. Probably for the deals he had done with them while Hoffa was in gaol. Hoffa disappeared in 1975, and was declared legally dead in 1982; no body was ever found, and no criminal charges were ever filed.

Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano, shown in the film to have been first an associate of Jimmy Hoffa, and then an enemy, was a caporegime (made man) in the New Jersey Genovese Mafia family, and a Teamster official from the 1940s to the 1970s. In 1975 he and Fitsimmons were spotted playing golf with disgraced former president Richard Nixon at the Californian La Costa Country Club, which had been built largely with Teamster pension fund money. That episode lends some credibility to the allegations the union helped to fund Nixon’s political career.

Provenzano was convicted of murder in 1978, gaoled for life, suffered from congestive heart disease, and died of a heart attack in Lompoc, California, on 12 December 1988.

Fiction and verité

Steven Zaillian based his screenplay on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by former homicide investigator, prosecutor, and Delaware Chief Deputy Attorney General, Charles Brandt. Purporting to be the end-of-life confession of a mob hitman, the story offers us some ‘insights’ into leading gangsters of the day, and into James Riddle ‘Jimmy’ Hoffa.

However, Scorsese has been disparaged for telling what has been called a ‘questionable’ story.

Vince Wade wrote in The Daily Beast: ‘One expert on the case [Dan Moldea] warned star Robert De Niro, in a face-to-face meeting, not to make the movie because Sheeran’s claim that he killed Hoffa was untrue.’

Irene and Frank Sheeran with Jimmy Hoffa (far right).
Irene and Frank Sheeran with Jimmy Hoffa (far right).

There are some people who have difficulty telling fact from fiction, and myth from reality. Maybe Moldea also thinks the Odyssey is a factual account of real Greek soldiers returning home after the war at Troy.

I am content to understand that Scorsese, like thousands of story-tellers before him, is telling a fable which contains truth in between the concrete details, not as rigid dogma or explicit narrative. Nevertheless, Wade’s article is worth reading if you’re interested in a perspective on why Hoffa’s disappearance was never officially solved in the course of a criminal investigation.

I don’t think it really matters precisely what happened, or exactly who did what to whom. What matters in the screenplay are the underlying motifs about obligation, debt, and retribution. Mobsters like Bruno and Bufalino created and traded in obligation, Sheeran both owed and collected debt; we are told that the Kennedy brothers and Jimmy Hoffa found out what it costs to repudiate obligation and fail to repay debt.

Zaillian’s script is a compact 144 pages (at least the version I’ve seen is), but Scorsese and the actors liberally departed from it, and that really worked. Zaillian has a long list of notable screenplays to his name, including The Falcon and the Snowman, Schindler’s List, Hannibal, Gangs of New York, All the King’s Men, American Gangster, Moneyball, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He knows how to create the structure for a successful collaboration between diverse artists. And Scorsese certainly knew how to make the screenplay come credibly alive.

Scorsese’s sensibilities

Scorsese injects something of his own history and æsthetics into his films. That’s certainly evident in The Irishman.

He grew up in a five-storey tenement building with a narrow street entrance, and classic American external metal latticework fire escapes out front, at 253 Elizabeth Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy. People were living in cramped spaces close to each other. Easy to understand that sights, sounds, and smells would waft through the streets from multiple sources. All-pervasive and sublimated as the ambience of home. Conjuring an era and its ethos in the mind of someone who remembers all the interconnected aspects of that ambience.

Scorsese’s childhood home: the beige brick building in Lower Manhattan. Picture from Google Maps.
Scorsese’s childhood home: the beige brick building in Lower Manhattan. Picture from Google Maps.

Scorsese can’t deliver on the smells. Not yet, anyway.

But he works hard at delivering to us, and explaining the sights and sounds of the milieu he brings to the screen.

As I was growing up, music was a very important part of our lives. It wasn’t a bookish culture I came from. But there was a great deal of music– records, radio … in the streets, through people’s windows in the summertime.

… I found that very often, … music was something that created that moment of visualization, so to speak. And often, the music that was being heard or being played in the street or in the car radio counterpointed to the scenes I was seeing around me …

… in an odd way … hearing … my father, my uncles talking about certain films and then mentioning other stories that are going on in the family or in the street. And somebody would say something like, ‘oh, they could never make a movie of that’. And that’s what I wanted to do …

… all this was coming together, and music was so prominent and almost like what you would call the sense memory … . So it really begins with the music for me. And once I hear the music … I really start to feel the story.

—Martin Scorsese, Masterclass, circa 2019

The opening minutes of the film cement a musical cypher: the Five Satins’ ‘In the Still of the Night’ for the nursing home of Sheeran’s last days telling us the end is nigh even at the beginning; and Smiley Lewis’ ‘I Hear You Knocking’ as backdrop to Sheeran’s introduction to Ditullio, telling us that entrée to ‘the life’ might be tough for some, but not for Sheeran.

I hear you knocking, but you can’t come in

I hear you knocking, go back where you been

The selection of songs in The Irishman is based on an intuition about what moods patterned the internal lives of the gangsters and their families that populate Scorsese’s films, often contrasting sharply with the ugly deeds being discussed or executed, using euphemisms like painting houses for blowing people’s brains out. It works like a counterintuitive mood, suggesting gentleness and romance while the opposite plays out on-screen.

I was particularly impressed by the choreography of Bufalino’s business day, leading to the unseen murder of Albert Anastasia set to the 1952 instrumental ‘Delicado’ by Percy Faith & His Orchestra. Delicado means delicate or sensitive. Anything but on screen, where it works almost like a modern-day ‘Dance of the Knights’ for me. That sequence, stretching from Bufalino’s shopfront to the close-up of a florist’s window, all set to Delicado, was just so!

A stand-out for the music was the wonderful performance by Steven Van Zandt as crooner Jerry Vale, who actually played himself in Goodfellas and Casino. Vale died in 2014, so Scorsese drafted Van Zandt, probably better known to most people as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and Silvio Dante from the TV series The Sopranos. Even before he came on screen I wondered whether Scorsese would tip his hat at the Sopranos, with James Gandolfini already departed. Van Zandt lip synched Vale’s ‘Aldi La’ and ‘Spanish Eyes’ at Sheeran’s testimonial dinner, wearing one of the worst crimes against tuxedos ever committed, even if it suited the period perfectly. I almost didn’t recognise him at all.

Scorsese brought in the co-founder of The Band, Robbie Robertson, with whom he’s worked on soundtracks since Raging Bull, both to help select songs and to write a score. Robertson’s theme for The Irishman can be heard first when Sheeran is shown throwing a succession of murder weapons into the Schuylkill River. More of Robertson’s music is played during the closing credits, though it’s not included on the soundtrack CD.

Scorsese’s sensibilities certainly extended to fastidious selection of locations and set decoration. Creating the seen unseen – the costumes, props, cars, locations and sets was the domain of his long-time collaborator, production designer Bob Shaw, with heavy influence from Scorsese himself.

Cathy Whitlock from the Architectural Digest:

Set in different periods ranging from 1949 to 2000, various locations in New York and New Jersey doubled as Philadelphia, Miami, Washington, D.C., Ohio, and Michigan, and perhaps the numbers say it all: This movie has 309 scenes, and 295 different sets and locations were used over three-and-a-half months of shooting.

But it’s not enough just finding locations. That marvellously kitschy Howard Johnson’s in the film? It was an abandoned and wrecked building, with a disused swimming pool that had been repurposed as a dump for broken furniture and other rubbish. Scorsese’s crew meticulously restored the place. Take a peek at that sparkling pool and the pristine motel in the film! I admire the artistic eye that saw this potential when looking at the ruined structure. And I hope the restored site won’t just be allowed to rot again.

The meticulously restored Howard Johnson’s location.
The meticulously restored Howard Johnson’s location.

The Villa di Roma restaurant, where dark deeds were discussed, was a carefully decorated set on a soundstage at the Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn. The Latin Casino, a real 1970s South Jersey nightclub, was recreated as a set in the Harlem Alhambra Ballroom for the scenes of fateful intrigue at Sheeran’s testimonial dinner.

And on it goes. Shaw, who worked on The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and Wolf of Wall Street, really knows his stuff.

It was not until I started to think about it that I recognized the mastery of apparently effortless unobtrusiveness – the things you see without really seeing them. Nothing ever seemed to be out of place when I was immersed in The Irishman.

What made me notice at all, I guess, was that I smirked a little, thinking I was a right clever dick, when I spotted one particular backdrop used twice: the art deco Lafayette cinema opposite Russel Buffalino’s Penn Drape & Curtain store in Pittston, Pennsylvania, from which he ran his portfolio of mob businesses. The cinema has one of those old-time sign boards. You know the ones – you climb a ladder and change the letters on the grooved backing by hand.

Except, the location, complete with the theatre, is actually in Suffern, NY. About 60 km North of NYC.

The first time I spotted it was when Sheeran explains by voice-over how Bufalino was called on to smooth over Albert Anastasia’s assassination, so it wouldn’t start a gang war. The film showing at the Lafayette that time was Nunally Johnson’s 3 Faces of Eve (1957), a mystery about a woman with split personality. Scorsese and Shaw having a laugh about the multiplicity of gangsters like Bufalino? Or just setting the right date for the murder?

The second time I spotted it was near the end of the film, during a gang arrest, when the Lafayette was showing The Shootist (1976), John Wayne’s last film, when he was 69 years of age, looking quite a bit older, and not in the best of health. Wayne died of cancer three years later. Now there was an Irishman … .

Shootist is the story of an ageing gunman, John Bernard ‘JB’ Books, dying of cancer, come to pass away quietly in a small town (diagnosed by Doc Hostetler, played by James Stewart, who was no spring chicken himself). The story turns on the dramatic proposition that a gunslinger can’t go quietly. A contretemps, of sorts, with the parallel plot development in The Irishman, of Frank Sheeran recounting his life as a gunman while aged and infirm, awaiting an unexpectedly natural death himself, while many men he knew died much earlier, and much more violently.


The artistry of location spotting and set design notwithstanding, my favourite scenes in The Irishman are shot against plain and timeless backdrops in comparison with the more fastidious ones.

My third favourite scene used the Villa di Roma setting as Angel Bruno roasts Sheeran for taking a job to torch a laundry in which he has a stake, telling him he should have let the ‘Jew mob’ kill him, but that Bufalino, sitting right there, has been a great friend to him. Presumably by pleading for his life and for forgiveness. It is Harvey Keitel’s only speaking part in the film; he seems to have been shamefully underutilized. But what makes it poignant is that De Niro and Pesci are great friends off-camera. It’s been talked about that it took De Niro almost a decade to talk the semi-retired Pesci into taking on a role in the film in the first place. And it is said that De Niro kick-started Pesci’s career just as he was ready to chuck it in, by talking Scorsese into casting Pesci as Joey LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980).

Angel Bruno (Keitel) roasts Sheeran for not checking with him on the laundry arson, but Russell Bufalino (Pesci) saves his protégé’s hide at the Villa di Roma restaurant.

Dramatically, the scene shows Bufalino as a loyal and powerful patron, stepping in to protect his man. Metaphorically it seems to be an homage to the friendship between the three actors, who have known each other almost a lifetime. And there’s a great unspoken addition to the mood from Cannavale’s Ditullio.

My second-favourite scene in the film is a slow panning shot in a nursing home, apparently moving towards an exit sign, lit in red, but turning off one door to the left, into Sheeran’s room, where he spends his final days. It is not the similar shot in the same location at the beginning of the film. It comes late in the piece. A red exit sign to denote the route to hell? Exit signs are usually green, aren’t they?

The real Sheeran died in December 2003 at the Pembrooke Health and Rehabilitation Residence in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Scorsese’s location, with the old-timey brick feature walls, is the former Summit Park Hospital & Nursing Care centre in Pomona, NY.

In the film, Sheeran’s last routines are about avoiding making a full confession to a priest – still not ratting anyone out. And chatting with a much younger nurse who doesn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was. As if Scorsese intuited that hardly anyone under 70 would remember Hoffa unprompted, or what he symbolized in his lifetime.

Hardly anyone would remember the entire era Scorsese conjured up for the film. Making it almost a legacy gift to do that one more time.

Maybe Scorsese also foresaw that there are already, or soon will be people who will not remember what big names he and the lead actors were in their own times.

This undercurrent appealed to me as much as it did because I am noticing daily there are now people entirely ignorant of the world I inhabited as a child, and even as a younger man. A very real world that now seems to exist only in my memories, in history books, and in celluloid verité of the times.

My favourite scene of the film takes place in the kitchen of an Ohio restaurant. Buffalino is part-owner, and the dinner there is part of the road trip that ties together the flashbacks and contemporary events leading to the denouement. Shot in the kitchen of the actual New Corner restaurant in Brooklyn, Bufalino mixes salad, or salad dressing, while talking to Sheeran across a bench, their wives sitting at the table in the dining room, out of earshot.

The Ohio kitchen scene.
The Ohio kitchen scene.

Buffalino says almost casually: ‘By the way, we got a little change in plans. We’re going to hang around here tomorrow morning and drive up in the afternoon.’

Sheeran seems puzzled. ‘I told Jimmy [Hoffa] we’d be there in the morning.’

‘I know.’

‘That I’d be at the meeting with him and Pro [Tony Provenzano].’

You can see conflicted feelings on Sheeran’s face, as he’s wrestling with what he doesn’t want to know is coming.

Bufalino looks up, and fixes Sheeran in his avuncular, bespectacled gaze, speaking softly, almost tenderly: ‘We did all we could for the man.’ There’s a pause while Bufalino hopes Sheeran understands the unspoken message. It’s not certain that he does.

‘Don’t call him,’ says Bufalino. Gently but firmly commanding his conflicted protégé, who is by now a very close confidante of Hoffa. At Bufalino’s request. But now Bufalino is reminding his man to whom he owes the most.

How Pesci managed to work compassion, hard-hearted fatalism, and paternal authority into his face all at once is beyond me. It is a masterful performance, and so quietly baleful it raised my hackles. The only other time I have ever seen anything like it was Alec Guiness’s George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when Guiness was at the height of his unequalled powers.

At the same time the kitchen scene talks volumes about the chemistry between Pesci and De Niro, by the way they move around each other, and respond to each other. Almost like an old married couple. Or the brothers they played in Raging Bull. Familiar with each other’s rhythms and moods.


By far the best, most powerful performance comes from Pesci. He deserves some kind of award for those seconds in the kitchen on their own, though he was the standout performer throughout the film, notably eclipsing De Niro and Pacino with his understated presence, an easy charm, and the unassuming dominance of those around him. Just look at him in the Angel Bruno scene, where Sheeran looks to him for guidance as he’s questioned about the laundry arson; Bufalino never says anything, but the serene ‘Gioconda’ smile on his face suggests both reassurance to Sheeran, and command of the situation, despite Bruno’s seniority, with the suggestion that he just knows so much more than anyone else at the table.

I am tempted to conclude that Pesci was in retirement from films because he grew sick of his immensely popular and lucrative bad guy roles, and that he was well aware of the ugly side of the movie business, including what he regarded as his own shortcomings. In a reported incident alluding to this jaded outlook, Pesci is reputed to have told the pre-disgrace Louis CK to give up stand-up comedy because he is not funny. That story tickled me. I never thought CK was funny. Ever. And I could just imagine Pesci saying it with a straight face and the sad eyes of someone who was both certain of his judgement and sorry for the fact. Those were the eyes he brought to his performance in The Irishman.

Scorsese managed to assemble an outstanding cast, and I was impressed with the bit players. But I was a little disappointed with De Niro and Pacino. The first for resorting too much to that mouth-down-at-the-corners scowl he has affected for many of his characters in the past 20 years. It’s just not quite right for WWII veteran Sheeran, particularly in the character’s earlier days, when his war experiences might have made him appear more stoic, stony-faced, and hard to read.

Pacino fell into cabotinage with too much of the shouted verbosity he’s affected too often since Heat (1995), with none of the more sedate power he showed in roles like You Don’t Know Jack (2010), Phil Spector (2013), or Misconduct (2017).

Pacino’s Hoffa and De Niro’s Sheeran were a bit patchy, in places.
Pacino’s Hoffa and De Niro’s Sheeran were a bit patchy, in places.

Of course, these quibbles don’t take away from the fact that both actors also delivered powerful performances in many scenes. I was quite taken with DeNiro’s ability to stammer convincingly at key moments, including especially when he calls Hoffa’s wife after the disappearance. Pacino was mesmerizing in the scene where Hoffa meets Tony Pro in Miami and quibbles about attire and punctuality. That was some masterclass in acting.

Of all the great supporting performances, and there were many, I was taken the most by Bobby Cannavale’s Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ Ditullio. The way he responds to Sheeran’s offer of stolen beef at the Friendly Lounge with his ‘would ya’, ‘could ya’ monotone was just perfect. As were the wordless expressions he mustered at just the right times, like the clueless expression and sign language for ‘gimme a drink’ at the Villa di Roma when Bruno roasts Sheeran.


Having come away already impressed by the farewell theme, and the superb professionalism evident in all artistic aspects of the film, I was then quite surprised to note, retrospectively, that Scorsese and the film had drawn some snarky criticism.

There were two critiques in particular–more accusations than appraisals–that seemed to have been repeated, like fungus spreading through a loaf of bread, in what struck me as an unthinking fashion: that making a film for Netflix somehow betrayed the entire domain of ‘cinema’; and that Scorsese is a bigoted, white chauvinist prick who injects those (unlisted) prejudices into his films.

The substance of the Netflix critique appears to be based on Scorsese’s disparagement of the Marvel superhero franchise films as not ‘cinema’. He told Empire:

Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

When that opinion, which I think is quite reasonable, raised disproportionately shrill outrage from juveniles of all ages, Scorsese was afforded a comment in the New York Times. He said, in part:

… I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies – of what they were and what they could be – that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri.

For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation ­ aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters– the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.

It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.

In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. … there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.

That includes me, and I’m speaking as someone who just completed a picture for Netflix. It, and it alone, allowed us to make “The Irishman” the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful. We have a theatrical window, which is great. Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would. But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.

In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.

When the Hollywood studio system was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made – in the words of Bob Dylan, the best of them were “heroic and visionary.”

Today, that tension is gone, and there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary – a lethal combination. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.

For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art.

The central points in all this are not in doubt–

  • The term ‘cinema’ is not dogmatically confined to a building with a large screen and many seats.
  • If the choice is absolute virginal integrity and no film, or some compromise and the money to make the film, what would a film-maker do?
  • Films are not automatically art if they make a lot of money.

So, calling Scorsese a hypocrite for dealing with Netflix falls flat. It is the kind of argument pursued by simpletons looking for a ‘gotcha’ clickbait headline. It works only because a famous person is being attacked, not because the argument makes sense.

Nor am I convinced that the boycott of the film by cinema chains for not getting a 90-day exclusive run at the film is anything but sour grapes. Netflix offered 45 days and is entitled to look for ways to recoup its investment by boosting subscriptions. For all the griping by the cinema chains, what value do they really add to the whole entertainment equation? Outrageously expensive admission prices and the crappiest, priciest snacks, possibly to make you forget that the seating is so uncomfortable your buttocks will go numb in 45 minutes. And in any cinema, you’re forced to endure the next little while in close contact with noisy, rude, and possibly homicidal people in a meat chiller environment.

Netflix is no corporate angel. But its model doesn’t really need any apologies: stream what you want, where you want, when you want, without any by-your-leave from a theatre consortium. A corollary is that Netflix owns and locks away a great deal of historical film and TV. That doesn’t bode well for audiences at all. But that’s a separate story.

The untold story of exactly why it took Netflix money to get a Scorsese film made, when Hollywood snubbed him for ten years, would be worth reading. Here’s what I pieced together on my own. And I’m certain that it’s not nearly the untold story, which is still begging to find a journalist out there ready to beat aside the semi-literate self-promoters who call themselves showbiz reporters, and the conventional media publishers who practice censorship to protect media mogul interests.

The story goes that Scorsese and De Niro had been interested in making The Irishman for ten years before funding finally came through from Netflix, after Hollywood passed on the project, considering it too risky as an investment.

Entertainment writer Scott Mendelson crunched some numbers to come up with one explanation: ‘there is no scenario that exists for a movie like The Irishman to make as much as it would need to in conventional global theatrical release (around $400 million to $450 million) to break even’. His rationale is that gangster films just don’t make that kind of money.

Personally, I’m drawn to a different explanation, even if there is overlap with Mendelson. The Hollywood machine is today run by timid, grey little accountants who lack imagination enough to stray from the ‘four-quadrant formula’ (targeting male and female, under and over 25s demographics), which I think is actually a five or six quadrant formula (add: don’t mess with America’s religious gangsters or the political correctness Gestapo). No problem with murder or mayhem, but connecting politicians with gangsters is still a taboo even if we all know it to be simple truth. All American politicians have to have backing from religious and the less hypocritical kind of gangsters, because they have the money and influence to get you elected. But in the USA no one is allowed to call the bewildering range of Protestant cults what they really are: rackets revolving around money, power, and all the excesses that come with these. And it’s still seen as bad form to link unwholesomeness to the political process, even in the Trump era. On the other side of that ideological divide is a mostly youthful, ignorant, but zealous, self-appointed ideological police that will actively search for and find things to be outraged about, to ‘cancel’ people, even if doing so involves defying reality and arguing delusional paranoia as mandated fact.  Just like the McCarthy era witch-hunters, and the Salem Puritans.

I think there is something to Mendelson’s profit theory, but I lean towards the notion that, money aside, Hollywood stayed away from Scorsese because he would not sanitise his story to make it safer. And no matter how long ago the events portrayed or talked about are these days, their genesis and consequences still pose risks and fears for today’s ‘business’ domain, for politicians, and perhaps the most profligate, fallen justice system the world has known since the Dark Ages. Gangsters have not died out with Sheeran. They’re as active as ever. And just as audacious.

The other pervasive critique is the hypocritically bigoted one, accusing Scorsese of bigotry. Yeah, I know. It’s ugly grammar. But it’s accurate.

Here’s how it works: Scorsese is an old white guy who has no strong female characters, nor any from minority groups (avoiding the argument here that Irish and Italian Americans were minority groups that faced significant discrimination). And he keeps re-hashing a past that’s dead and buried.

So, he must be a sexist, a racist, and a recidivist. Right?

Holding it against Scorsese that he’s an old white guy is just mean-spirited, narrow-minded bigotry in itself. There is no logical way to advance the argument that because some old white guys … all old white guys.  Where, in identity politics, is it mandated that one identity, or group of identities, gets to persecute another?  To me, that seems almost the same as a bunch of white guys in black shirts looking to bash the shit out of others who happen to be Jewish, or gypsy, or women, or Latino, or black , or … you get the picture.

Relying on pejoratives like misogynist is just plain rude without calm reasoning supporting the claim. The fact Scorsese excluded ‘strong female characters’ isn’t really proof of misogyny. It could be reasonably explained as an absence of strong female characters in the story itself. Were there any notable women gangsters in the real Frank Sheeran’s apparent confession to author Charles Brandt? I haven’t read the book, but I’m betting there were exactly none. How many real Mafia dons were women? How many hitmen … hitwomen … hitpersons? None!

Let’s contrast with Marvel superhero films. Not a single one of these franchise films has strong characters (male or female). They are all cardboard stereotypes. And every single superhero film presents the notion of womanhood as tits and arse barely concealed in skin-tight fetish outfits. Men are almost always presented as if they were homoerotic rubber love dolls. All rippling muscle, square jaws … yet surprisingly modest genitalia for all those tights and all that external spandex underwear.

I don’t think anything Scorsese has ever done comes close to that kind of objectification. It isn’t ‘woke’ or politically correct to throw accusations a five-year-old could pick apart. It’s just stupid and envious in an ugly, disturbingly narcissistic way, and possibly quite fascist for the witch-hunting genealogy of the vituperation.

I confess I’m an old white guy too. Not quite as senior as Scorsese, and certainly not as accomplished or famous. But I am more than a little weary of the ignorant contempt younger people think is trendy to show for older people, who remember the world, and all that went on it, before the youngsters were born. Older people know damned well that no idea the young have come up with so far is original or brilliant. Critique for the sake of someone’s age is like throwing rocks from inside a glasshouse, before ever knowing what a glasshouse is good for.

If Scorsese is old and dwells on the past, so be it. At least he experienced some life, and can comment sagely on it. Telling him to shut up because the past is dead and gone is like demanding he lie down in a coffin and to let it be nailed shut on him. Because he is the past, and still alive! The irrelevance-of-the-past argument is thus unmasked as an unseemly demand for a kind of cultural euthanasia – the relatives of an old person coming together to demand the old one be put to death so they can split the proceeds of the estate. This is pretty close to cultural vandalism, and I’ve never favoured ugly, amateur spray-can tags more than paintings hung in national galleries. The comparison is about right: Scorsese is recognized as one of the greatest film-makers of modern times, while his critics are … not really recognized at all.

The politically correct censorship line would be much more sound if it were able to show that the past holds no lessons for the present or the future. Virtue-signalling harpies, intent only on the self-gratification (or onanistic thrill, if you want to be less polite) of hyperbolic headlines, and anticipated adulation by an imagined peer group, aren’t really critiquing Scorsese or his film. They are attention seekers who have learned they can get some of that attention – however brief – by screeching ridiculous slogans in online rants. It is a not very sophisticated advance on the strategy employed by infants when they want attention: scream as loud as you can in the hope mummy and daddy can divine what it is you want, and give it to you.

The quality of the non-thinking behind critiques from youngsters that Scorsese is a has-been, irrelevant in today’s Millennial milieu, is probably best illustrated by reminding everyone that it was in their generation, on their watch, that the USA elected a very cheap, gormless gangster into the White House.

The bottom line is that if every film-maker were required to represent every demographic and every minority gripe, we would have precisely those Soviet masterpieces of cinema and TV we all remember from the 1950s!

What’s that you say? You don’t remember any?

Well, no one does. Because there were none. Soviet politically correct cinema and TV was all dreadful shit, fit only for psychologically torturing prisoners in the Gulag archipelago. That’s always what ‘culture’ looks like when ideological zealots have suborned it to their vapid purposes. My point: the perpetually outraged crowd of would-be critics have nothing to say or scream about that is worth listening to.


No human endeavour is without flaws, and I’m not certain that The Irishman is the best Scorsese film in any case.

But being an armchair critic is always too easy because one doesn’t have skin in the game, and mostly, one has not risked or revealed nearly as much as the artists being discussed.

So, I’ll do a little bit more than just nit-pick. I’ll offer a possible means of making the film better: by cutting some of its length. And here’s how I would get there.

What was that unspoken and uncomfortable interplay at the bowling alley between Russell Bufalino and Peggy Sheeran, played in her younger incarnation by Lucy Gallina? The scene made we wonder quite seriously whether Scorsese was alluding to pædophilia, particularly with Marty Robbins’s ‘A White Sport Coat’ in the background, proclaiming he’s in a blue mood and all alone ‘in romance’.

I saw the film not long after the local news media carried stories that recently deceased, legendary 1980s and ‘90s Australian Labor prime minister Bob Hawke had urged his own daughter, Rosslyn Dillon, not to publicly accuse former Victorian Labor MP Bill Landeryou (also recently deceased), of raping her in the 1980s, so that Hawke’s political career would not be tarnished by the resulting scandal. Was the bowling alley scene an indictment of Sheeran’s character along the same lines?

I thought Peggy Sheeran’s reticence to approach Bufalino in the bowling alley, and his insistence that she do so, plus a later scene in which she unwraps a Christmas present from him, while making a long face and having to be urged to say ‘thank you’, indicated something untoward between the two characters. By implication, that would mean a horrific oversight by her father, who had, on another occasion, thrown a grocer through the plate glass window of his shop for manhandling his daughter. Or a profligacy of character in countenancing abuse of his daughter to further his own career.

But Scorsese didn’t go anywhere with this, and Peggy’s contrasting, very sympathetic response to Jimmy Hoffa might just tell us that she is the conscience nagging at the father about remaining loyal to gangster Bufalino while betraying unionist Hoffa’s friendship. Her refusal to talk to her father after Hoffa disappears suggests this is what the real Sheeran may have regretted in his final days. The fictional Peggy’s classroom homily to Hoffa as union hero implies she saw Bufalino only as a gangster. Yet that’s a kind of nonsense, really, given Hoffa’s own larcenous nature. It’s too tortuous a speculation to indulge in. But without clarifying this interpersonal drama, Scorsese left a loose end.

I think the bowling alley scene was superfluous and confusing. The whole thing could have been cut without great loss. Except, perhaps, we wouldn’t have seen the great location: Van Nest Bowling Alley in the Bronx, which apparently has not changed its appearance much since the 1960s.

The other moments that might have been cut from the film are the scenes about mob tough guy Joe Gallo. It is true the real Gallo was a legend in his own time for being crazy, violent, and fond of publicity. But did he add anything to The Irishman?

Esquire’s Gabrielle Bruney reported that:

… in 1961, Gallo and his crew reportedly kidnapped and ransomed leaders of the Profaci crime organization, including the group’s underboss. Later, he was convicted on extortion charges, and would spend eight years in prison.

The murder of Joseph Colombo, who headed Joe Profaci’s criminal organization after his death and in whose honor it was renamed the Colombo family, was also featured in The Irishman. Colombo was shot in 1971 while attending a rally for the Italian-American Civil Rights League, a political group he founded, at New York’s Columbus Circle. He remained paralyzed until his death seven years later.

Umberto’s Clam House at 132 Mulberry Street, NYC, the morning after the Gallo assassination in 1972. The restaurant is still there today.

Gallo was rumored to be behind the killing, in part because he’d become known for associating with African-American fellow criminals during his time in prison, and the hitman who murdered Colombo was black.

Umberto's Clam House is still there, at at 132 Mulberry Street, NYC, seen here the morning after the Gallo assassination in 1972.
Umberto’s Clam House is still there, at at 132 Mulberry Street, NYC, seen here the morning after the Gallo assassination in 1972.

That just means the substantive details of the scenes in the film seem to be ‘historically accurate’, yet I wonder what they have to do with the story. To show Sheeran do a hit? We already saw that. To weave in verité? Unnecessary. To make some comment about Bufalino? I didn’t get it if it was there? To tie in a memory of life in New York circa 1950s to 1970s? Maybe that was Scorsese’s personal reasoning. But I maintain the Gallo scenes were expendable and could have been lost without damaging the drama of the central story.

My verdict is that The Irishman is a good film. Maybe not great, but certainly better than superhero farce, or yet another Quentin Tarantino film with scenes I’d rather fast-forward over than endure for their cocaine-induced, self-indulgent tedium.

I had fun watching The Irishman. And maybe I had even more fun reading and writing about the film to discipline my own thinking.

In any case, the biggest compliment I can pass on to Scorsese, his cast, and his crew, is that I spent all this time thinking and writing about the film.


The Irishman (2019), TriBeCa Productions/Sikelia Productions/Winkler Films, distributed by Netflix. 209 minutes.

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Produced by Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler, Gerald Chamales, Gastón Pavlovich, Randall Emmett, Gabriele Israilovici. Written by Steven Zaillian, based on I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. Music by Robbie Robertson.

With: Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno, Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale as Skinny Razor, Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran (older), Stephen Graham as Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano, Jack Huston as Robert Kennedy.

Some of my sources

Jon Blistein, 1 November 2019. ‘Robbie Robertson Details Soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”’, Rolling Stone,

Joe Bonomo, 11 December 2012. ‘Martin Scorsese’s boyhood home’, No Such Thing As Was,

Anthony Breznican, 9 December 2019. ‘The Irishman, Avengers: Endgame, and the De-aging Technology That Could Change Acting Forever’, Vanity Fair,

Gabrielle Bruney, 27 November 2019. ‘Russell Bufalino Took the True Story of The Irishman To His Grave’, Esquire,

Gabrielle Bruney, 1 December 2019. ‘The Irishman’s Joe Gallo Was One of New York’s Most Famous Reputed Mobsters’, Esquire,

Stephanie Convery, 7 November 2019. ‘Why Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman won’t be coming to a cinema near you’, The Guardian,

Shuvrajit Das Biswas, 27 November 2019. ‘Where Was “The Irishman” Filmed?’, TheCinemaholic,

Jaime DeJesus, 4 December 2019. ‘This is the Brooklyn restaurant featured in “The Irishman”’, Brooklyn Daily Eagle,

Alejandro de la Garza, 31 October 2019. ‘The True Story Behind the Movie The Irishman, Time,

Malcolm Farr, 8 December 2019, ‘Bob Hawke’s daughter alleges her father asked her to keep her rape by a Labour MP a secret’.,

Alex Flood, 1 November 2019. ‘The Band’s Robbie Robertson details soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”’, NME,

Felicity Ford, 7 November 2019, ‘The Irishman is stuck in the past, just like director Martin Scorsese’. The New Daily,

Drew Fortune, 29 November 2019. ‘How Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson Decide on the Perfect Needle Drop’, Vulture,

Matt Grobar, 26 November 2019. ‘How “The Irishman” Production Designer Bob Shaw’s Personal History In South Philadelphia Influenced His Approach To Gangster Epic’, Deadline,

Jason Hellerman, 16 December 2019, ‘“The Irishman”: Read and Download the Script’. No Film School,

Amit Katwala, 27 November 2019, ‘The Irishman lays bare Scorsese’s Netflix-enabled hypocrisy’, Wired,

Kayla Keegan, 6 January 2020. ‘Robert De Niro Says Golden Globe Nominee Joe Pesci Did NOT Want to Do “The Irishman”’, Good Housekeeping,

Rebecca Keegan, 26 November 2019. ‘Making of “The Irishman”: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino Bring Scorsese’s 10 Years in the Making “Experiment” to the Big Screen’. The Hollywood Reporter,

Rob LeDonne, 17 December 2019. ‘Who Is Jerry Vale and Why Does Martin Scorsese Love Him So?’, The New York Times,

Robert Lindsey, 10 October 1975. ‘Nixon Plays Golf With Fitzsimmons At Resort Built With Teamster Loans’, The New York Times,

Violet Lucca, 6 November 2019. ‘The Restrained Genius of a Joe Pesci Performance’, The New York Times,

Scott Mendelson, 31 July 2019. ‘“The Irishman” Was An Offer Hollywood Had To Refuse (And Only Netflix Could Accept)’, Forbes,

Amy Remeikis, 8 December 2019. ‘Bob Hawke’s daughter says he told her not to pursue rape allegations against former Labor MP’, The Guardian,

Katherine Schaffstall, 30 November 2019. ‘“The Irishman”: 12 of the Film’s Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations’, The Hollywood Reporter,

Martin Scorsese, 4 November 2019. ‘Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.’, The New York Times,

Zack Sharf, 4 October 2019. ‘Martin Scorsese Compares Marvel Movies to Theme Parks: “That’s Not Cinema”’, IndieWire,

Tom Siebert, 30 November 2019. ‘“The Irishman” gets an A+ in moviemaking but flunks history’, Patch,

Neil Smith, 26 October 2011. ‘Why did The Help clean up at the US box office?’, BBC News,

Regan Stephens, 7 December 2019. ‘Real-life locations you can visit from Netflix’s The Irishman’, Lonely Planet,

Peter Travers, 28 October 2019. ‘”The Irishman” Review: Scorsese’s Goodbye to Goodfellas’, Rolling Stone,

Adrienne Tyler 28 November 2019. ‘Every Song On The Irishman Soundtrack’, Screenrant,

Nick Vadala, 5 December 2019. ‘Here’s what the Philly spots featured in Netflix’s “The Irishman” actually look like’, The Philadelphia Inquirer,

Nick Vadala, 6 December 2019. ‘Who were the real people behind “The Irishman”?’, NNY360,

Vince Wade, 30 November 2019. ‘Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ Is a Big Lie. Here’s What Really Happened to Jimmy Hoffa.’, Daily Beast,

Cathy Whitlock, 26 November, 2019. ‘Designing the 295 Sets of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman’, Architectural Digest,

Steven Zaillian, 2017, The Irishman script,


  1. Well, if anyone could make me want to watch the Irishman, it’s you. You articulate all the ways the film could be interesting beyond being just another gangster flick. And yet, these are the very reasons, the idea of the film doesn’t resonate with me at all. I don’t want to see the swan song of these guys or their era. I don’t begrudge them their family reunion; I just don’t want to attend it. However, I do understand the appeal to their fandom…just the way Star Trek fans attend conventions to get a glimpse of someone who stirred them in their youth, even if now old and faded. The nice thing about this crew is that being old adds a dimension to their performances. This is a celebration of age and experience. And in our culture, stories are awfully short of the tragedies of elders. “Coming of age” when the age is the transition from childhood to adulthood seems to be the only story we focus on. As if life stops, rather than begins, on that threshold.

    Well, you’ve given me some fresh eyes with which to approach this film. So I might do it yet.

    I was particularly struck by this Scorcese quote “For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”

    For me, the film of 2019 that this quote describes best is “Parasite”. Talk about revelation! Complexity of characters! Contradictory and paradoxical natures! The underlying dread of inevitable approaching disaster…yet to be shocked when it arrives. The brutality of those in power, even those with a little power recently acquired…the mercilessness of those who are one moment being abused when they gain the upper hand. I think it exposes contemporary have/have-not politics better than any American film could, because that theme can’t help but be mixed up with race in America. “Parasite” provides a better focus on the circumstances of wealth or poverty because it’s the only factor separating one character from another.

    So I guess that puts me in the camp of people who feel that “Parasite” is the film for our times and “The Irishman” a film of some earlier time. But I think my reticence about watching it is more closely connected to something else you said…I don’t want to watch a film about ugly men and their betrayals when I see them on the news every night, degrading every ideal I ever believed in. I don’t want that to be the only story I hear; I want to hear other voices.

    • We are at an interesting impasse. You talk about a film you haven’t seen by discussing a film I haven’t seen.

      I’ll add Parasite to my list, but you know how impatient I get with subtitles. Not least because I know them to be sometimes comically or exasperatingly incorrect. Judging by the ones I turned on in films whose spoken language I can understand.

      Peter Travers, in Rolling Stone, made the observation about Scorsese’s film that ‘this last is also a response, written in fever, blood, and poignant regret, to accusations that his films are Mob recruitment posters. No one can accuse this film of that.’

      Hyperbolic prose aside, I think there’s an element of truth in that observation.

      And I’m certain I mentioned that The Irishman is not a masterpiece, just not quite what everyone else was talking about in the online maelstrom.

      Without pre–empting any judgement of Parasite, I can hardly fault a critique of socio–economic inequities fuelled by bourgeois prejudice, sociopathy as banal attribute of unremarkable people, and the cumulative effects of late gangster capitalism, seeing as I observe just that all around me.

      I won’t urge you to see the Scorsese piece. I am happy to have made you curious. Did you think me delving into Scorsese’s motivations for music and settings was useful in explaining my take, or just long and boring?

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