Scoresee Does the Mafia

Martin Scoresee “The Departed” is a modern day bible story with Jack Nicholson playing the Devil. The Opening scene sees Jack Nicholson character Frank Costello marching through South Boston to the tune of “Gimme Shelter.” With opening scenes of the 1970’s violence dealing with Boston anti-busing battles, Costello lays out his philosophy as he states, “That’s what the black chappies never realized. No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

If Costello is not insulting African-Americans, he then takes his turn insulting the Catholic Church. Nothing is off limits to Costello and there is no redeeming quality to the man. He is the Teflon don of Boston, a man who runs the illicit empire of Boston and a man stays one step ahead of the law. His opposite number is Oliver Queenan played by Martin Sheen, who runs the undercover unit along with his deputy Dignam played by Mark Wahlberg. Queenan plays Captain Ahab to Costello’s Moby Dick, forever pursuing Costello but never quite catching his prey.

The star of the movie is Jack Nicholson and representing that eternal battle of good vs. evil are Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon.) Both men have the same roots but both men have different goals. For Sullivan, he wants desperately to escape his past and be part of the elites. His new condo is within the site of the Capital and he dreams of being a power broker. And to obtain these goals, he is willing to make a deal with the devil, in this case Frank Costello.

Sullivan is Costello long term project, as Sullivan “grows up straight”, become a cop and a mole within the police unit for Costello. Sullivan has the right instinct for quick advancement and is a rising star in the State Police’s special investigative unit headed by Ellerby (Alec Baldwin.) The man is a natural politician and people flock to him naturally.

Billy Costigan is recruited by Queenan to infiltrate Costello’s gang. Costigan must return to the street and spend time in jail on trump up charges to enhance his street credibility. If Sullivan wants to escape his root, Costigan must confront his own as he is the son of divorce parents. His mother lived in the middle class North Boston but his father remained in the South after their divorce. We find out that his father never succumbed to Costello charm or money and Costigan finds that for all of his father’s faults, he was an honest man. Even Costello respected his father’s honesty. To chase Costello, he must give up his own identity. During the process, he pays a heavy price as he evolves into a pill-popping cop, trying to keep his sanity and wit as he slips deeper in Costello’s world.

The central plot of the movie is that both sides are playing a cat and mouse game as each knows that the other has planted a mole in the other side camp. Not all of the good guys necessarily have the same goals in mind. The FBI has divergent interest from the state Police’s and it is not all that clear if the FBI truly wants to see Costello in jail.

When Costello steals microprocessor to sell to the Chinese’s, it is not all that clear if Costello will truly sell technology to the Chinese or if it is part of a FBI sting. (Costello collects the money but he doesn’t sell the Chinese the real microprocessor but fakes. As the movie progresses, we find that the FBI-Costello relationship is more complicated and not quite adversary.)

The plot moves quickly and as the body counts mounts, the suspense is as much who will be left standing or whether good will triumph over evil. As for acting, DiCaprio and Damon give us believable performances. DiCaprio has us feeling his fear and desperation as he finds himself moving toward the dark side of Costello’s world. Damon is the perfect actor to play the lying, conniving Sullivan, who is looking out for himself but never can shake his loyalty toward Costello.

But the dominating figure in the movie is Jack Nicholson, who controls this movie from the opening scene till the final shootout. It is his character that controls the action as Nicholson gives us a character that truly rules Boston. Even the good guys have to pay him his homage as they attempt to bring him down.

If the Departed is a morality play about Good vs. Evil, Goodfellas is a study of narcissism. From the very beginning, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) always wanted to be a gangster and even at the end, when he is forced to go into the Witness protection program; he doesn’t regret his life or show any remorse.

There is nothing glamorous about the mob and while Hill loves the good life that the mob provides, he seems oblivious to how he makes his living. He considers those of us who makes a honest living suckers and feels that the world is for the taking. Might makes right in Hill’s world.

Hill’s world lacks both morality and loyalty. The “wise guys” don’t pay for anything and it is as if the world owes them a living. From the very beginning when Hill was young, he noticed that the local wise guys do anything they want and no one bothers them. It is as if they are law upon themselves with the rest of us cut off from their world. Hills become a protégé of Jim Conway (Robert De Niro); a man who steals for it is what he likes to do and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a loose cannon with a temper that is often unleashed.

What we don’t see is loyalty, despite talk of loyalty. Instead we see men looking over their shoulders, waiting for that moment when they are the ones to be “whacked.” No one is immune, including one of the three close buddies, snuffed because of an incident years earlier.

Conway may be Hill’s mentor but he is also devoid of both loyalty and morality. After the JFK airport heist, he begins the process of killing his own crew to ensure that he is not nailed by the cops and allows him to keep a larger share. And the three friends profit from cocaine sales from one of Henry Hill’s connections without paying their dues to Paul Cicero, the boss.

Pesci is perfect as Tommy DeVito, as he plays De Vito, a man with a temper that can’t be controlled and Robert De Niro’s Jim Conway is a deft operator who can get others to follow but doesn’t reward those who follow with his loyalty. For the calculating Conway, all are indispensable as Hill finds out late in the game.

Hill testifies against his friends to save his life and that of his family, but he learns nothing from his experience. Both he and his wife are seduced by the life for they got everything they wanted. They got the nice house, the furs, the big cars and the jewelry’s. In the end, he is thrust in a life with the rest of the civilian world. It is the price paid to survive but Hill misses the old life.

Goodfellas is a study of narcissism of the modern criminal mind, men who have to divorce morality and any sense of right or wrong to survive. Any mercy shown could backfire and in the end, even close friends can become enemies. The Departed is story of pure evil and the price paid by those who must pursue it and those who live in it shadows. The major characters in both movies, including the good guys, do not survive the movies unscathed. All pay a price.

Casino is the middle movie between Good Fellas and The Departed. Ace Rothstein had one skill; he knew how to pick winners and was one of the best sports handicappers.  This skill led him to Las Vegas, where he became a major star on the scene. Hired to run one of the major casinos, Rothstein set up sports betting parlor in the casino and this made bundle for the casino and the mob.  Within the background of all this was the reality of the old Vegas, a town subsidized by mob money. Weekly payoffs to the old mobsters, cooperation of local politicians with the mob and Teamsters pension money being used to finance the whole things are detailed. This was the Vegas that Rothstein came to. 

After Rothstein makes his fame, he is joined by his hometown buddy, Nicky Santoro. Santoro is a made man, a wise guy and all around punk.  When Santoro came to town, he involved himself in petty street crimes while muscling other bookies.  Due to Santoro own status, Rothstein could not directly challenge Santoro plus Santoro own psychotic nature adds to Rothstein fear. 

Sharon Stone plays Ginger, a hustler and Rothstein fall in love with her.  They marry but her addiction to drugs and alcohol puts strain on the marriage plus her involvements with her old boyfriend and with Santoro add to Rothstein’s problem.  Due to the combustible nature of Santoro, he fears not just for Ginger’s safety but his own.  Her affair with Santoro could get both of them killed.

Rothstein begin as the man behind the scene but his own popularity nearly seals his doom.   Rothstein has his own local television program, bringing attention to himself but his conflict with local politicians added to his difficulty.  Those who put him in control of the Casino did not want any attention to themselves and they wanted Rothstein to get along with the local politicians.  Certainly, they don’t care for his television show as this not only direct attention upon Rothstein but it is but a short fall before they could be exposed. They prefer to stay in the background, for this is how they work best.

When Rothstein fires a relative of a local politician, this makes it more difficult for him to keep his license.  And the mob don’t like the added the publicity.  Rothstein survived an attempt on his life but Santoro is killed by the mob for his own indiscretion and behavior in Las Vegas. As for Ginger, she dies of a drug overdose.

Vegas was a virgin territory, a Garden of Eden in the desert.  Rothstein had his chance to begin his life anew but his success blinded him to the risk. Dealing with politicians and wise guys, there was no margin for error.  Santoro and Rothstein had their chance to be a permanent fixture but their own hubris ended their chance.  Rothstein survived with his life but becomes banned from Vegas, even to this day. Santoro recklessness ended his life as the mob felt it was easier to kill him than deal with him. 

Martin Scoresee uses his mob trilogy as a morality show and the final message is that crime doesn’t pay as each of these characters pay a price for their life.  It was often said that Al Capone could have been the President of GM, if he led a non-criminal life.  Capone may have been a brilliant businessman but the reason that he did not lead a normal life is that he didn’t care to.  His lack of moral campus ensured that he could never leave a normal life.   Scoresee notes that many of these criminals do not regret their life. Henry Hill never regretted being a criminal but only regrets that he got caught and if he had to do it again, he would do it again.  Rothstein is a gambler and again, no regrets. They consider the rest of us as the suckers but we are not the sucker. It is the criminal, who is the sucker.  The criminal believes that there are short cuts to life and no price will need to be paid. In Scoresse’s world, they do pay a price. 

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