The Irishman (2019)

Despite it earning an ecstatic reception that wasn’t afforded to similar late-career, swing-for-the-fences experiments like Silence or Hugo, I struggled to get excited for Martin Scorsese’s latest picture. Somewhere between the film’s 3.5-hour runtime and my disappointment in seeing my ancient Unkie Marty fall back on his tried & true Gangster Epic template, I couldn’t help but meet the prospect of watching The Irishman with an exhausted shrug. I doubt I ever would have caught up with the film at all if it weren’t for its prominence in the current Oscars Discourse, as I’ve been outright bored by Scorsese’s most recent mobster-violence retreads The Departed & The Wolf of Wall Street in the past. Even as someone who’d count GoodFellas among his favorite films of all time, I struggle to see the need to return to this thematic territory yet again, especially from a filmmaker who has so many other kinds of stories to tell (and, sadly, so little time left to tell them). It turns out that I was both a little right and a little wrong in my skepticism. The Irishman finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.

Scorsese mascot Robert De Niro stars as a low-level mafia hitman who becomes the unlikely, trusted bodyguard of infamous union organizer Jimmy Hoffa – played by the explosively charismatic Al Pacino. Pacino remains a hoot throughout the picture, which almost forgives the endless hours that monotonously detail the behind-the-scenes corruption & violence on the union-mafia border. Classic Scorsese collaborators like Joe Pesci & Harvey Keitel are flanked by giddy-to-be-there “youngsters” like Ray Romano & Bobby Cannavale in a GooderFellers redux that serves mostly as a history lesson to a new generation about why Hoffa was important in his time and how his flagrant corruption forever altered public opinion on labor unions in America. Each cast member holds their own in this decades-spanning epic, despite a distracting, much-written-about “de-aging” effect that lands the film near the realm of the “theme park” superhero movies Scorsese has been having fun flippantly dismissing in the press. It’s just that they’re instructed to joylessly go through the motions of reliving Marty’s past Mean Streets/GoodFellas/Casino triumphs, deliberately stripping the onscreen power & violence of any potential misinterpreted cool. No matter how many times Scorsese’s past pictures have been willfully misinterpreted as dorm-poster posturing for Badass Antiheroes, they’ve always had that same grim, hyper-critical eye for this realm of hyperviolent bullies. Those movies were just never this dull or exhausting. Scorsese is essentially repenting here for the sin of being entertaining.

In theory, I appreciate the idea of Scorsese self-examining what a life spent submerged in all this violence is meant to accomplish. In its best moments, The Irishman is exactly that – featuring an ancient De Niro, retired from his Murderer for Hire days, unable to find meaning in the remaining scraps of his life. He self-justifies his “youthful” crimes as a soldier who was just following orders, one with a duty to “protect” his family by remaining well-employed. After three grueling hours of matter-of-fact violence & corruption, the movie finally finds him discovering just how empty all that dutiful brutality truly was. Faced with the idleness of obsoletion & an inability to mend familial bonds that were never really there to begin with (especially with a silently disgusted adult daughter played by an expertly icy Anna Paquin), he actually considers what he’s done with his life for the first time, and is haunted by what he finds. That’s the core of the movie! That’s new, fresh territory worth dwelling on & exploring at length in miserable sequences of domestic drama. Unfortunately, these scenes that get at what the movie is About are only a small blip in a grander picture, a flood of familiar faces & imagery from Scorsese’s past work. I could have fallen in love with The Irishman if it started with that final half-hour and really dug into the themes that distinguish it as a unique work in Scorsese’s catalog. As is, they’re treated more as dashes of seasoning rather than a proper meal.

Ultimately, The Irishman is Fine. It’s also easy to complain about and not entirely worth the effort, so in that sense I suppose it’s a perfect Oscar Movie. Part of me wishes that Scorsese had gotten all these accolades for something more demanding & daring like Silence instead, but I can’t begrudge one of our greatest living cinephiles getting recognized for his contributions to the artform – no matter the context. The only real hurdle here for most audiences is going to be its massive runtime, as everything else goes down relatively smooth (including the confounding “de-aging” tech, thanks to the growing ubiquity of CGI fuckery on the big screen). I’ve got my own personal reservations about the choice in subject matter & thematic emphasis, but no real fervor for shouting them at what appears to be an otherwise appreciative crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

Scorsese’s Search for His Own Bonnie & Clyde

Arthur Penn’s 1967 free-wheeling crime thriller Bonnie & Clyde is often cited as the start of the so-called New Hollywood movement that reached its creative & cultural heights in the 1970s. An upstart director making heroes out of amoral, cop-killing bank robbers struck a chord with the youth culture of the day, especially in its gleeful depictions of shameless lust & ultraviolence. Other young directors were inspired to make their own antihero hagiographies in its wake, now with financial backing from major Hollywood studios – names like Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, and so on. Opera-composer-turned-filmmaker Leonard Kastle was far less inspired by the film, particularly in the ways it failed to fully subvert Hollywood glitz & glamor. With his first (and only) film The Honeymoon Killers, Kastle set out to right the wrongs of Bonnie & Clyde, explaining “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Kastle wanted grime in his true crime cinema, something much closer in aesthetic to early John Waters provocations like Multiple Maniacs than anything mainstream Hollywood would dare to produce. To help accomplish this goal, Kastle employed a fresh-out-of-film-school Martin Scorsese to direct his picture, a true life drama about the theft/murder spree of Raymond & Martha Beck, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers of the 1940s. Scorsese previously made a huge critical splash with his vibrant, energetic, and above all grimy debut feature Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, a film that made him appear perfect for Kastle’s pet anti-Bonnie & Clyde project. The partnership was short-lived, however, with Scorsese only surviving a couple weeks of production before being replaced in the director’s chair by Kastle himself (and several other uncredited collaborators). That didn’t stop Young Marty (to refer to him by his SoundCloud rapper name) from directing his own answer to Bonnie & Clyde, however. Instead, he paid his dues as a New Hollywood brat by taking his Bonnie & Clyde-aping ambitions to a much more traditional collaborator for his contemporaries: Roger Corman.

Many New Hollywood players got their start working for Corman, from Peter Bogdanovich working on bullshit projects like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women to Peter Fonda testing out early revisions of Easy Rider in Corman productions The Wild Angels & The Trip. Although they were both working under AIP, Kastle was much less valuable as a career-starter than Corman, as he approached The Honeymoon Killers as a singular-obsession passion project, while it was typical for Corman to juggle a dozen productions at once. It’s probably best for Scorsese’s overall career, then, that he was fired from Kastle’s picture to instead pursue his own Bonnie & Clyde romantic thriller under Corman’s wing, but the circumstances of that change-up are a little baffling. Kastle reportedly booted Scorsese from The Honeymoon Killers for taking too much time to set up, shoot, and break down individual scenes, delaying production to great cost. It’s unclear whether Scorsese had taken to heart the lesson of needing to prioritize speed over artistic fussiness by the time he worked with Corman on his next feature or if the increased budget of that production allowed for more careful preparation on a day’s shoot. Given Corman’s own notoriety for cheap, rapid-fire filmmaking, it’s most likely that Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable career lesson in the firing, one that would become much less useful by the time he was allowed the financial freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted in sprawling epics like GoodFellas, Silence, and Gangs of New York. Scorsese was capable of delivering his auteurist vision on an AIP schedule & budget, as evidenced by pictures like Who’s That Knocking? & Mean Streets, but his heart wasn’t really in it. That’s not only indicated by his firing from The Honeymoon Killers, but also by the quality of the Bonnie & Clyde knockoff he eventually completed for Corman instead: Boxcar Bertha. There’s a slickness & attention to detail in Scorsese’s best works that could not shine through under AIP’s prohibitive budgets & shooting schedules, even when he was shooting his pet-favorite subject of cool-looking antihero criminals behaving badly.

1972’s Boxcar Betha splits the difference between Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers, leaving itself a middle-of-the-road mediocrity in the process. Given the grimy, ultraviolent aesthetic he carved out in early pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver, you’d assume Scorsese’s own take on the Bonnie & Clyde template would be in line with Kastle’s, but those instincts did not translate to the screen in this instance. Barbara Hersey & David Carradine star as train-hopping armed robbers in the 1930s South, never quite matching the spiritual ugliness of the Lonely Hearts Killers nor the Hollywood glamor of Bonnie & Clyde. Boxcar Bertha is listed as a “romantic crime drama” on Wikipedia (a descriptor that fits all three of these works well enough), but it mostly functions as a road trip movie, detailing a loosely connected string of anecdotes as its romantically linked antiheroes drink, rob, shoot, gamble, and prostitute their way across the 1930s railways. This ramshackle lifestyle earns them much unwanted attention (and gunfire) from the law, ultimately to predictable tragedy. It’s a rote tale of Depression Era Southern pastiche, one with far fewer distinguishing details than either The Honeymoon Killers or Bonnie & Clyde, which is surprising given that its source material is entirely fictional. While both Bonnie & Clyde and The Honeymoon Killers were based on true stories heavily reported on in the papers, Boxcar Bertha was an adaptation of a fictional novel from the 1930s, Sister of the Road. That didn’t stop Corman from including a “based on a real story” title card at the start of the picture, solidifying its function as a Bonnie & Clyde mockbuster. In most ways, Boxcar Bertha feels far more akin to Roger Corman’s typical output than Scorsese’s, which isn’t all that surprising considering how green the director was at the time. The film was a stepping stone to New Hollywood infamy for Scorsese, one that faithfully took the shape of New Hollywood’s own stepping stone to mass audience success.

Like most directors’ early collaborations with Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha’s greatest asset to Scorsese was an opportunity for hands-on experience. The most he puts himself into the work (not counting the literal instance of his cameo as one of Bertha’s johns) is in the excruciatingly Catholic imagery of a character being crucified with railway spikes for their crimes. The rest of the film is a straight Corman mockbuster of Penn’s seminal film, the exact opposite of what Kastle set out to achieve in The Honeymoon Killers. I suppose Kastle taught Scorsese a valuable lesson himself in booting him from that anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, but it’s very tempting to wonder what The Honeymoon Killers might have been like if Scorsese had remained onboard throughout. Maybe Scorsese’s Honeymoon Killers would have been just as great as the film Kastle delivered on his own. Maybe the lethargic shooting schedule would have tanked the picture entirely and there never would have been a Honeymoon Killers in the first place. Either way, the result certainly would have been more interesting than the far less blasphemous Bonnie & Clyde echoes of Boxcar Bertha, easily the dullest Scorsese pic I’ve seen to date.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made CC, Boomer, and Brandon watch The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

Britnee: Leonard Kastle, a well-known opera composer, became a film legend after writing and directing his first and only feature, the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. The film is based on the true story of serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” the murderous couple would meet their victims by responding to “lonely hearts” ads in newspapers. Kastle personally performed extensive research on Ray and Martha’s crime spree in the late 1940s, and his hard work paid off because the film truly captures the dark, ugly world of the killer couple. In an interview featured on the 2003 Criterion DVD release, Kastle expresses his disdain for 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, stating, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” I let out a guttural laugh reading that statement because it completely caught me off guard. He wanted his film to be a realistic contrast to the big box-office Hollywood hit (such a rebel!), and that’s exactly what The Honeymoon Killers is.

The film may be based on a couple, but Martha, not Raymond, is the star of the show. Martha (Shirley Stoler) is a lonely, overweight nurse with a bad attitude who lives at home with her nagging mother in Mobile, Alabama. Her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts of Everybody Love Raymond fame) secretly signs her up for Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club, which is essentially an early, in-print version of Match.com. This is how she meets her partner in crime, Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco). After scamming Martha into giving him a “loan,” he takes off and sends her a letter to end the relationship. Martha has Bunny assist her with calling Ray and selling him a fake suicide attempt story to guilt him into not leaving her. It works like a charm, and Martha leaves her life behind to join Ray in New York City. She soon find out he’s a con man that preys on lonely women to make his money, and it doesn’t bother her at all. She joins him on his escapades, posing as his sister. At first, the crimes aren’t violent and the women he scams leave with empty pockets and a broken heart, but it doesn’t take long for things to get deadly.

I love how The Honeymoon Killers starts off in a campy, John Waters-like style and transitions into something much darker once Martha makes her first kill. However, during some of the grimmest scenes in the film, Kastle is still able to keep a little dark humor and campiness intact. A great example would be the scene where the couple is burying the body of their first victim; Martha throws in the woman’s Jesus portraits and sarcastically says something along the lines of, “She always took them with her,” mocking the woman she just brutally murdered. Brandon, did you find Martha to be a likeable character? Did you find the same humor in her that I did?

Brandon: Interestingly enough, it’s the tension created by those exact two questions that most endeared me to The Honeymoon Killers. The film boasts a self-conflicted tone that alternates from punishing grime & cruelty to slapstick camp in a minute to minute rhythm, never committing to a single effect for any prolonged stretch. The Honeymoon Killers is both a continuation of the handheld, art house immediacy of The French New Wave films that likely inspired it and comfortably of the same cloth as early, over-the-top John Waters camp fests like Multiple Maniacs (which premiered the same year as this surprisingly violent curio). Now that Multiple Maniacs & Female Trouble have recently gotten the restorative Criterion Collection treatment also afforded The Honeymoon Killers, that split between low-fi, grimy camp and high-brow cinema aesthetic makes more cultural sense. However, I imagine that when Francois Truffaut claimed that this was his all-time favorite American film he was being somewhat of a provocative ass.

My sympathies with Martha were similarly conflicted. On one hand, she’s a ruthless murderer who supposes in the first act that maybe Hitler had some worthwhile ideas. Those are not the easiest personality traits to fall in love with from the outset, but Martha does find her own paths to worm her way into your heart. She begins the film on the receiving end of one of Raymond’s “lonely hearts” scams, but refuses to be a victim and instead muscles her way into his operation (and his bed). Martha is a lonely, unexceptional woman with absurdly over-plucked eyebrows and an endless parade of friends & strangers eager to comment on her weight. She’s a bully, but she’s also a wounded animal. Moreover, all of the murders committed in the film are a direct result of Martha flying into a jealous rage whenever she catches Raymond sexually engaging with their marks, infidelities he promised he’d never commit (again). Much like how the film at large drifts between camp & cruelty in its depictions of violence, Martha drifts between being a total monster & a put-upon victim without ever fully settling on either, which is exactly what makes her (and the film) so fascinating.

That Leonard Kastle quote about Bonnie & Clyde not going far enough in depicting the ugliness of its own romantic crime spree is interesting. Bonnie & Clyde, however polished, is often cited as being the first major studio production to break apart the tyranny of the Hays Code and usher in the more freewheeling morality (or lack thereof) that guided the New Hollywood movement. Operating far below the budget of that studio system game-changer, The Honeymoon Killers is a ramshackle AIP production that feels more spiritually in line with the feverish grime of films like Multiple Maniacs, Spider Baby, Mudhoney, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the “erotic” roughies purveyed by schlockteurs like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman. Still, even as the grimier, low-fi alternative to Bonnie & Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers feels a little stifled by the morality of its time. At first it seems almost anachronistically horrific that Raymond & Martha would kill a child in the film to increase the convenience of a grift, but that murder is depicted with the same off-screen discretion adhered to in Fritz Lang’s M almost four decades earlier. It’s also daring for the film to depict a wide range of women initiating sex with Raymond for their own pleasure, but the only scene of onscreen naked flesh is de-sexed by having the woman in question flatly sing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub (an unhinged display that is admittedly hilarious). If the tabloid coverage of the events is to be believed, the real-life story of the Lonely Hearts Killers was also more sordid than what’s depicted in The Honeymoon Killers, with the couple being accused of a much higher body count than what they were ultimately executed for.

CC, do you think The Honeymoon Killers could have been a better movie by depicting the full scope of Raymond & Martha’s accused, real-life brutality or was Kastle smart for holding back on some of the tabloidish details and sticking to their verifiable legal convictions?

CC: Short answer: Definitely the latter.

Long answer: I couldn’t help myself; I had to do some outside research for this one. In the book Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press, the factual elements of the killers’ lives are both lurid and horrifying. Martha Beck’s past included a childhood sexual assault she was punished and ostracized for. By her early twenties, she had two children out of wedlock (although she was technically married to the father of the second child, it was revealed he was also married to someone else, putting her marriage into question) and a shrill monster of a mother. Martha retreated into a fantasy world fueled by her love of pulp detective and romance magazines that were popular at the time, filling her apartment with hundreds of copies and obsessively reading and re-reading them. She did show some signs of a sinister (or at least unmoored to reality) streak, when she lied about the identity of her first child’s father and then “killed” him off via a fake telegram to generate sympathy. After arriving on Raymond’s doorstep with her two children in tow prepared to start a new life with him, he told her he would never allow children in his household. Her desperate solution was to abandon them at the Salvation Army in Manhattan; she never saw them again until she was on death row. Her life and later cruelty were the culmination of years of abuse and misery.

Raymond, however, took a very different path to becoming a serial murderer. By all accounts a kind and gentle man, he left his beloved wife and four children behind in Spain to get a job in the United States (where he grew up) with the intention of sending for them when he got established. A cheap way to cross the Atlantic back then was to work as a merchant marine in exchange for free travel fare. He had previously worked on ships, so this voyage should have been rather routine. A few days into the voyage, a heavy metal hatch fell on his head, heavily fracturing his skull, sending him into a coma for a week, and leaving him with a permanent furrow across his frontal lobe. As soon as he recovered enough to finish the journey, his personality took a rapid turn for the worse. For reasons unknown to even himself, he stole a large quantity of the ship’s linen, landing him a 12-month jail sentence. While incarcerated he met a Vodun practitioner and became obsessed with the idea that he had a supernatural power over women. He suffered from debilitating headaches and the delusion that he could make a woman orgasm from 1000 miles away with just a lock of her hair, both byproducts of that metal hatch.

Would it have been more fun to watch a lonely, brutalized woman and a man with a severe head injury kill even more people? Nah. There’s a point where verisimilitude stops being entertaining because it precludes the introduction of the camp elements that make this film so fun to watch. Of course, as with all exploitation cinema, that act of condensing & fictionalizing real-life detail to increase entertainment value does present ethical questions about whether this story should have been told onscreen at all. It’s a moral shakiness The Honeymoon Killers somewhat compensates for by affording Martha some sympathy as a protagonist, but it remains questionable all the same.

Boomer, what do you make of the morality of the film’s indulgences in over-the-top camp entertainment among its depictions of real-life greed & cruelty?

Boomer: First of all, let me just express my joy that you are here and joining us in the MotM roundtable, CC. I’m so excited and happy that the stars have aligned to make this happen.

As to your question, I think it’s strange that this film alters so much of the story while the names of the participants involved remain unchanged. My roommate often watches MotM films with me and generally for the best, as his positive reactions to some of them have helped me be more appreciative (for instance, his profound enjoyment of Unfriended helped temper my own initially cold reception of it; had he watched last month’s Born in Flames, I might have been less antagonistic of it in my response). For Honeymoon Killers, he was in and out of the room and up and down throughout in one of the manic moods that he sometimes exhibits after finishing a particular academic project, but there were points where I called him into the room to take note of certain shots that I thought he might appreciate. I rewound the scene in which Ray rhumbas across the screen, eclipsing and then revealing the elder Mrs. Beck; I also made sure he saw the panicked Delphine’s eyes dart back and forth while Ray and Martha debate her fate. At one point, when Martha ran into the lake to attempt to drown herself after Ray (once again) broke his chastity, my roommate asked what she was doing, and I explained, before stating “She’s my new hero.” Granted, this was after she had already killed Myrtle, but even though Ray’s “soothing” of Myrtle on the bus had dark undertones, the fact that her face contorted into such a comical rictus—complete with crossed eyes and her tongue hanging out—made the whole thing too campy to be taken seriously. It wasn’t really until Janet Fay starts to panic, with her realization of how screwed she is dawning on her and playing out in real time as Ray listens to her begging from the next room while shrouded in darkness, that the film crossed into capital-“D” Dark territory for me. As Janet begged for her life, the stark reality that Ray and Martha were not just lovefools but deeply sociopathic really started to set in.

That tipping of the balance from over-the-top camp to realistic greed and cruelty served to underline the horrific nature of the situation more than if the film’s earlier darkness, like Martha’s weird antisemitism (it’s worth noting that the actress herself was Jewish) or her cold and apathetic abandonment of her mother in an old-folks home, had been more of a throughline. As it is on the screen, they call to mind the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk made stark by the lack of color, which gives the whole thing a feeling of being overdramatized but desaturated, like one of the romance novels that the real Martha Beck idealized if it had instead ended in a double murder (or the serial murders of 20 people, the number that some sources claim as the victims of the real Honeymoon Killers). There’s also something endearing about the staginess of it all, the gritty cheapness and spare place-setting making it feel like an overlong episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which of course elicits positive feelings from me.

Britnee, one of the things that really stood out to me, especially given that this was a first-time director with no apparent background in film, was the abundance of strategic uses of narrative shortcuts alongside unobtrusive foreshadowing (the fact that Martha is introduced scolding two lovebirds who let their feelings overwhelm their professionalism to literally explosive results is particularly clever). The first time this is apparent in the moment is in the way that Martha and Ray’s letters become more and more breathless and rushed as a way of accelerating what could otherwise be a dull recitation of other people’s love letters. Britnee, what are some of your favorite techniques used here, and which ones do you think work particularly well?

Britnee: One of the biggest strengths of The Honeymoon Killers is that the film doesn’t waste screen time. There are no prolonged, boring scenes like in most films from the 1960-70s, because the film’s small budget didn’t allow it. Martin Scorsese was initially hired to be the film’s director, but he was taking too much time to direct each scene. Time is money in the movie world, so this wasn’t great for the budget. One of the few scenes Scorsese directed was the one where Martha attempts to drown herself, one of the longest scenes in the film. Thankfully, Scorsese was quickly replaced with inexperienced Kastle. I can only imagine what the short sequence detailing Martha and Ray’s love letters would have been like if Scorsese directed it.

I love how Kastle was able to incorporate so many of the victims’ individual experiences with Ray and Martha in the film. There’s no silly five-minute montage of all the crimes committed by the duo, nor was there ever too much time spent on any of the individual victims. Instead, for most of the victims, we see what occurs from the moment Martha and Ray enter their lives until their grim ending in a matter of minutes. I think Kastle’s lack of experience is what gave him the ability to do this. He saw movies through the eyes of the viewer, and that gave him the ability to make a movie that the average moviegoer would appreciate.

After re-watching the movie for this discussion, I found myself more concerned about the relationship between Martha and Ray. At first, it seems like they are both two sociopaths who miraculously found each other, but after watching it again, I was so focused on figuring out if they were truly in love. Martha comes off as being so desperate for companionship that she clings onto Ray because he’s the first man to come into her life (as far as we know, at least). Ray seems to use Martha for assistance with his schemes, but when she has her suicide attempts (both real and fake), he can’t bear to lose her.

Brandon, is Martha controlling Ray or is Ray controlling Martha? Or do they both actually love each other in some sick way? What are your thoughts on their relationship?

Brandon: I suspect it’s the mystery of that relationship dynamic that made the real-life Lonely Hearts Killers such a tantalizing tabloid story and, thus, a large factor in how this movie got greenlit in the first place. Sure, Raymond & Martha’s peculiar method of baiting their victims through personal ads & the brutality of the resulting crimes are remarkable on their own, but it was likely public speculation around the details of their romantic dynamic that really piqued the morbid curiosity of Kastle & his audience. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, two unromantically tied men posing as brothers to pull off this scheme enjoying as much tabloid longevity & thematic foundation for a movie as Martha & Raymond posing as a brother-sister duo. The movie’s main hook to audiences already familiar with newspaper coverage of the crimes depicted is in supposedly offering intimate insight into a bizarre romance outsiders struggle to wrap their heads around, even though the filmmakers likely knew as little about Raymond & Martha’s private rapport as anyone else.

As for my own speculation on their private dynamic, I personally read the Martha-Raymond romance as the archetypal story of the cunning con man who finally meets his match. Raymond appears to be used to running his grifts from afar, by letter, only popping in to seduce & collect when it was time to seal the deal. After the payoff, he would then retreat back to the safety & anonymity of his big city apartment hundreds of miles away from his target. When Martha appears at that apartment, bullying her way into his professional & romantic life, Raymond either doesn’t have the fortitude to turn her down or he is genuinely impressed with her gall, given how different that response was from the women he normally bowls over & leaves behind brokenhearted. I read Martha’s refusal to be just another grift as something that genuinely impressed Raymond, so that he fell in love with her through admiration of her audacity. As presented in the movie, I believed them to truly be in love, even if the violent, impulsive, controlling tendencies they employed in their grifts also privately manifested in ways that eventually led to their romantic (and legal) downfall.

It’s difficult to tell, however, if my interpretation of this relationship following the con-man-meets-his-match romantic trope is a result of my watching too many crime pictures or if that was Kastle’s desired intent. CC, do you think Kastle tips the scale in influencing how audiences are meant to understand the Martha-Raymond relationship dynamic or does he attempt an editorial distance to allow personal interpretations to develop on their own, the same way tabloid coverage would encourage amateur speculation?

CC: Awww, Mark! Thank you! I’ve never been super confident about my writing, so hopefully this will be a way for me to strengthen my voice while also putting my MoviePass to work (while it lasts).

Brandon, I think what Kastle made was a brutally honest portrait of a relationship. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like Raymond really loved Martha, as evidenced by his constant two-timing and generally duplicitous behavior. Sometimes, I feel like Martha didn’t really care who she shared her crime-novel-fantasy-come-to-life with, just as long as she got to live out one of her stories. But other times, they were so desperately in love any other alternative just didn’t make sense. Just like a real dysfunctional relationship, sometimes their love was apparent, sometimes it was buried under resentment and possessiveness. I think that’s ultimately the strength of this film: its willingness to be honest, no matter how ugly. I think a different filmmaker would have skewed too far towards either romanticizing their relationship (oh, look at these lovebirds, torn apart by their passions for each other!) or focusing only on the brutality of it (both trapped in a doomed relationship). Kastle definitely kept his distance from his subjects. We never get real insights into their motivations or inner dialogue; we just see their actions play out on screen. Maybe that leads to some people thinking this is a true love story or maybe it’s a case of two sickos manipulating each other.

As Britnee mentioned in the introduction, Leonard Kastle was originally more well known for his original operas and musical compositions. He said later in life that he had plenty of other screenplays he wanted to direct, but everyone wanted him to do another Honeymoon Killers. It’s interesting, then, that what ended up being his only feature film doesn’t stray too far from his operatic roots, even if its similarities to opera aren’t immediately apparent. It feels akin to professional wrestling, where it looks so different from a soap opera that people have trouble understanding that they have the exact same narrative structure. Mark, do you think that Honeymoon Killers is at its heart an American Opera (minus the music)?

Boomer: You’re definitely onto something here, CC. There are two major stereotypes about opera that have penetrated into the general consciousness and immediately come to mind when the subject arises: that all operas are tragic (although this isn’t necessarily true) and that women who perform in operas are often larger than what is the current, contemporary “ideal” shape for women (i.e., references to “the fat lady” singing). Although this heftiness is frequently exaggerated, it has its basis in fact and physics: small bodies generate higher sounds, and larger bodies generate deeper sounds. I’m not just talking about humans; go search for videos of little lion cubs learning to roar (or just click here) and compare that to the terrifying sound of a full grown lion’s roar. Although Kastle didn’t write this screenplay and wasn’t the first choice to direct, there’s definitely something operatic about the full-figured Martha Beck that I can see being an influence on Kastle’s decision to present her as a kind of tragic figure. She’s mad, surely, but so were Medea and Lady MacBeth in their respective operatic adaptations. Her story is a tragic one: unloved and unlovable, tied down to a shrew of a mother who belittles her (not that it makes the scene of her being left at the old folks home any less hear-rending); taken with a man who reveals his true colors as a con artist and a rake, he commits to her but only when it is convenient for him and he doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “faithful.”

It’s also certainly American in the sense that it represents the truth about the dark underbelly of the so-called American dream. Martha can’t truly succeed in the world, even in her profession, because she is constantly sidetracked by having to tend to the libidos of her co-workers who lack self-control, or to the needs of her haranguing mother. Raymond has no real skills other than his charm, which is often vaunted as the most important asset in making your way up the corporate ladder, as evidenced by Fast Company‘s “5 Tips To Charm Your Way To The Top” or Forbes‘s exultation of the importance of charm and charisma in the business world. Despite his seductiveness (much of which is actually rather charmless at points, but his victims are so starved for attention that they fail to notice), he never manages to put it to use doing something with any kind of long-term returns on investment, instead going for the same kind of windfalls over and over again without much thought of the future. His need to take advantage isn’t motivated by a desire for wealth, but is compulsive and psychological, much like the aforementioned Lady MacBeth’s thirst for power. Both Ray and Martha are tragic figures, and that contributes to the overall operatic quality of the film.

Lagniappe

Boomer: There’s a really great YouTuber named Sideways who did a fantastic video about how to make music scary, but it has apparently been deleted (another great one about the use and misuse of indigenous music and the “exotic” music styles that are used to evoke the sound of indigenous music despite being, like, Hungarian has also been deleted). I wanted to link it here, but since it’s gone, I’ll just say that he talks about how the pairing of small, high pitched chords with low chords creates a kind of neurological feedback that induces anxiety. It’s simply a matter of physics that large animals make scary, deep, low sounds, and smaller animals make comical high noises, so we are biologically programmed to consider low noises, like roars, more frightening than high noises, like birdsong. By pairing high and low chords, our brains are tricked into a kind of anxious state. That doesn’t have much to do with Martha and Ray per se, but does explain why larger women are generally better for opera over music which is not pitched as low.

Brandon: I’m always a sucker for a long-winded, sensationalist title card intro for a genre picture and The Honeymoon Killers packs a doozy: “The incredibly shocking drama you are about to see is perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime. The unbelievable acts depicted are based on newspaper accounts and court records. This is a true story.” Now that’s how how you reel in a captive audience, some real carnival barker shit.

Britnee: The best victim is without a doubt Janet Fay, the 66 year old crazy Catholic who enjoys cheap cafeteria lunches. She is such a bizarre character. Between her funky feathered hat and her obsession with two large framed Jesus portraits, just about everything she does is hilarious.

CC: I can’t stop thinking about that early mark, the homely schoolmarm Doris Acker of Morris County NJ, knees pulled to her chest vigorously scrubbing her bony body in a washtub, bellowing “America The Beautiful.” America, the beautiful indeed!

ALSO, I just found out that University at Albany has a collection of Kastle’s papers in their archive, including early drafts for Honeymoon Killers. Swampflix trip y’all?!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Free Fire (2017)

About halfway into Free Fire, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to last year’s excellent existential horror High-Rise, I began worry I was watching something much more pedestrian than its predecessor. In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

Staged “in real time,” Free Fire depicts a weapons deal gone horribly wrong in a 1970s Boston warehouse. Irish gangsters representing the IRA attempt to purchase a large quantity of assault rifles from South African crime lords with impartial American mediators maintaining order between them. The only reason the audience really has any incentive to prefer one faction’s victory over another is because one group is introduced first. Besides there being one woman in a sea of overly macho personalities hitting on her and referring to her as “Sweetheart,” “Doll,” and “Bird,” there isn’t much variation in the film’s various intergangster dynamics. Mostly, Free Fire‘s dozen or so characters are all irredeemable criminals, boys with their toys, who are attempting to get one over on each other in an exchange of funds & murder weapons. Once the familiarity of their antagonism breaks down and their vendettas transition from business to personal, the deal devolves into an hour-long shoot-out where everyone’s shot multiple times and it becomes a weird joke they there’s anyone still alive to continue the narrative. Even with exposed brains & bullet-shredded flesh, the warehouse full of bloodied-up reprobates somehow find the energy to lob witty insults at each other between the roars of gunfire. For something so horrifically violent, it’s decidedly goofy.

There’s a Walter Hill-style exploitation throwback quality to Free Fire‘s bare-bones premise and its “All guns. No control.” tagline suggests it actually has something to say about modern culture’s relationship with firearms, but the film often feels like a naked excuse to watch beautiful people (Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, etc.) model 70s fashion & fire weapons to incongruous pop songs by acts like CCR & John Denver. It’s easy to see why the marketing team felt it was appropriate to tout Martin Scorsese’s executive producer credit so prominently in its advertising. Wheatley knows exactly what genre confines he’s working within here, though, and subverts them not through joking meta-commentary, but by playing them straight to an absurdly prolonged extreme. The last time I laughed this much at a character’s improbable, strained survival was watching Leonardo DiCaprio crawl & gurgle blood for hours on end in The Revenant. The difference in Free Fire is that the humor is intentional and every character is a post-bear attack DiCaprio, functioning like dead weight zombies who barely have the strength to lift guns in each other’s directions, much less take the time to aim. The film is impressive in its simple alchemy of making a familiar premise feel fresh again by sustaining it for an absurdly prolonged stretch of screentime. You may feel as if you’ve seen this exact film before, but you’ve never seen it pushed to such a sublimely silly extreme.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 31: GoodFellas (1990)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where GoodFellas (1990) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] Henry Hill, the hero of GoodFellas, is not a good fella, but he has the ability to be honest with us about why he enjoyed being bad. He is not a hypocrite.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.” -from his 1990 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What Scorsese does above all else is share his enthusiasm for the material. The film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share. Scorsese’s camera caresses these guys, pays attention to the shines on their shoes and the cut of their clothes. And when they’re planning the famous Lufthansa robbery, he has them whispering together in a tight three-shot that has their heads leaning low and close with the thrill of their own audacity. You can see how much fun it is for them to steal.” -from his 2002 review for his Great Movies series

Whenever pressed for my Favorite Movie of All Time, my answer tends to flip flop between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights & Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Neither answer is especially bold or indicative of my general tastes. They’re both massively popular titles with wide appeal. Still, they’re the two films I revisit most frequently and the two I think best exemplify everything cinema can be: terrifying, erotic, hilarious, gorgeous, musical, etc. Arriving years later than GoodFellas, Boogie Nights certainly pulled a lot of influence from Scorsese’s gangster magnum opus: absurdly complex tracking shots, sensual immersions in pop music indulgence, a narrative structure that posits the 1970s as a glorious time of hedonistic excess & the 1980s as dark times of cocaine-fueled downfall, etc. That more or less makes GoodFellas the birthplace of what I love most about modern cinema and, thus, leaves me no choice but to shamelessly gush without criticism whenever prompted to discuss it.

Scorsese reportedly wasn’t interested in making another organized crime picture after the early effort Mean Streets already covered what he wanted to say on the subject. Reading the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family on the set of The Color of Money completely turned him around on the idea. The book’s sweeping, decades-spanning look at how the Italian mafia operated on both a generational/cultural level and on a day-to-day operations basis inspired him to want to tell a mafia story that plays “like a two and a half hour trailer.” The result is a lyrical sense of pacing that both moves from the 50s to the 80s with the patience of a flood and freezes still for intimate moments of violence & tension when the situation calls for it. I could easily see that same “two and a half hour trailer” Scorsese quote being turned around on the film as an insult, but for me it’s pure pop cinema bliss. GoodFellas evolves the French New Wave influences that excited New Hollywood auteurs in the early 70s into an entirely new, powerful beast. It sets in motion a near-undetectable shift in cinematic language that feels Citizen Kane-esque in the way it wasn’t immediately appreciated, but informed everything that followed in its wake.

Although GoodFellas follows dozens of characters over the span of four decades, it’s solidly anchored by its narrator & POV character Henry Hill, modeled after a real life mobster by the same name. The story begins with adult Hill (played by a career-high Ray Liotta) opening the trunk of a car to stab & shoot a wriggling victim inside who had been annoying him & his two closest cohorts (played by Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci) with their pathetic cries for help. As this motley crew mercilessly ends their victim’s life, Liotta intones, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Scorsese does almost too good of a job of communicating exactly why someone would want to join the violent world of organized crime. The film follows Hill from his powerless youth as the son of Irish & Italian immigrants to his godlike power as an adult gangster with two mistresses and an endless network of untouchable killers who have his back. Scorsese also gets across the pitfalls of burning that fast & bright, as well the ugliness of a life in crime in general: the murders, the drug addiction, the paranoia of police scrutiny, the casual racism, etc. Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy may attempt a more ambitious summation of mafia culture in its endless scope & runtime, but the way GoodFellas boils that same subject down to its most essential pleasures & tragedies in just over two hours is far more miraculous in both its efficiency & its moment to moment effect.

Scorsese declared that he wanted to model GoodFellas‘s overall style after the New Wave classic Jules and Jim, especially in its narration, quick cuts, freeze frames, and wide variety in setting. He was deliberately attempting to overwhelm his audience with the intoxicating allure & apocalyptic downfalls of a life in crime. This effect can be achieved with the odd power of the tracking shot from NYC streets to the front row table at the Copacabana nightclub. It can be built through a thirty minute exercise in Hitchcock-flavored tension as narcotics officers close in on Henry Hill’s drug-running empire, It can also burst out quickly in a pop music montage that reveals an extensive line of dead characters disposed of without ceremony. From the giallo purples & reds of the nightclub lighting to Liotta’s constant narration commanding the pace with meticulous control, GoodFellas feels like Scorsese’s attempt to throw everything he knows about cinema at the screen in every single shot. Much like its well-balanced soundtrack (featuring artists like The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, Cream, and The Rolling Stones), GoodFellas feels like a Greatest Hits collection of cinematic techniques, perfectly curated so the album only feels more charming on every revisit instead of making you long for the sources it borrowed from.

Besides its eclectic, immaculate approach to craft behind the camera, GoodFellas also boasts some of cinema’s all-time best dramatic performances. As the centerpiece, Liotta obviously commands a lot of attention, especially with his maniacal laugh & coldly brutish readings of lines like, “Everybody takes a beating sometimes,” and “Fuck you, pay me.” Although she isn’t afforded nearly as much time in the spotlight, Lorraine Bracco’s role as Henry’s wife, Karen Hill, is occasionally allowed to overpower his perspective with her own narration. She does a great job of getting across the allure of being married to a mobster (“I gotta tell the truth, it turned me on,”) as well as directly vocalizing Scorsese’s intent to leave the audience feeling dizzy or drunk. Mobsters with names like Frankie No-Nose & Jimmy Two-Times round out the rest of the cast, but only De Niro’s mentor-turned-bully & Pesci’s loose cannon hothead threaten to steal the show. Pesci, in particular, lends credence to Scorsese’s claim that in-character ad-libs guided rewrites of the script. Whether delivering lines like “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em in the ear,” or lightly ribbing his mother (played by Scorsese’s real life mother Catherine Scorsese) over her mediocre painting skills, Pesci feels like he fully embodies the character. In fact, the entire cast feels like they were born to play their respective roles, which might help explain why (most of) their careers have felt relatively lackluster since.

Although it certainly traffics in populist cinema waters, GoodFellas has a natural divisiveness to it, possibly in part because of its omnipresent narration & deliberately overwhelming pace. The film feels now as if its legacy as an all-time classic is solidified, but there were multiple walkouts during its test screenings & the only Oscar it won from its six (mostly technical) nominations was for Joe Pesci’s performance. I do not have the critical ability to step outside of myself and consider its flaws. My admiration for it only grows in every revisit and I love getting swept up in its crushing flood of pure cinema bliss. The only film I could maybe claim better delivers on its exact formula is Boogie Nights, but that’s a point I flip flop on as often as I revisit either work individually. GoodFellas might just be the best the medium has to offer.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

-Brandon Ledet

Low Level Crime and New York City Grime in Mean Streets (1973) & Mikey and Nicky (1976)

In our initial conversation about May’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Elaine May mafia pic Mikey and Nicky, Alli wrote about how the modern organized crime picture as a genre typically is associated with large ensemble casts, gigantic budgets, and sweeping themes about the Italian immigrant experience in modern America. That does ring especially true if you think of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, one of my all-time favorite films, as typifiers of the genre, as you likely should. Mikey and Nicky has much smaller concerns than either of those grand, ambitious works. Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the mafia’s rise and fall in America, from poverty to opulence to back again, May’s film focuses on the small players who are but individual pixels in that much larger picture. The titular characters of her film, played by John Cassavetes & Peter Falk, are low level nobodies, merely necessary annoyances to their mob bosses, who treat them with open contempt. Staged over the course of a single night, the film’s minor drama reaches its lowest point when the two characters, despite essentially being each other’s only friends in the world, fight over a broken wrist watch in the dimly lit, visibly disgusting streets of pre-Giuliani NYC. There’s nothing grand or glamorous about the organized crime players in May’s film. They’re the lowlifes who’re left to fight over their mob bosses’ crumbs. That sentiment wasn’t entirely absent from Scorsese’s mafia pictures, however, even if his work in Goodfellas later represented Mikey and Nicky‘s aesthetic opposite. Three years before May’s film made it out of editing room post-production Hell, Scorsese had delivered a spiritually similar gangster film, one with common themes about small players fighting over pittances and with a common New York City grime.

I often dismiss Mean Streets as a kind of trial run for what Scorsese would later achieve in Goodfellas, but there’s a distinctly punk, lowkey charm to the film that makes it a rewarding watch in its own right. Harvey Keitel stars as a low level numbers runner who struggles with then-risque topics like interracial romantic desire & atheistic religious doubt. What really creates conflict for him as a low level mafia type, however, is the idiotic proto-punk antics of a life long friend, played by Robert De Niro. Living fast & loud, De Niro’s Falstaffian foil leaves a trail of financial debts & bruised egos wherever he goes, a mess Keitel’s troubled anti-hero often finds himself having to clean up. The dynamic of Mikey and Nicky is more or less the same, with its titular, brotherly lowlife criminals finding themselves at odds because one of them brings hateful scrutiny through his bratty, bridge-burning hedonism. With minuscule budgets & then-unproven directors, both films never had much of a chance to touch the more grandiose mafia stories of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The keep their scopes as small as possible, building tension in the betrayals and petty disagreements between their individual sets of low level criminal fiends. There’s something inherently tragic & pathetic about watching these crime world nobodies butt heads over minuscule debts & mafia etiquette while the higher-ups profit off their violence offscreen. By keeping their stories small & highly specific, both films do a great job in their own way of exposing a larger truth about the world of organized crime, if only by inference. Mikey and Nicky keeps things especially focused & streamlined, playing almost like a two-man stage play for long stretches, but Mean Streets is similarly dedicated to profiling the minor tragedies of low level criminals.

Besides their shared indulgence in minor crime world tragedy, Mean Streets & Mikey and Nicky are also both great snapshots of New York City grime. Scorsese’s reputation as a master of capturing 70s NYC in all of its sleazy glory might be more closely associated with Taxi Driver, which is a film more or less about the subject, but Mean Streets feels almost more authentic for using 70s NYC as a backdrop & a playground instead or a focal point. Keitel & De Niro’s crime-ridden tour of the Old New York is a great atmospheric measurement of the underbelly sleaze and working class angst that would soon lead to the city’s punk rock boom in just a few trips around the Sun. Mikey and Nicky feels even more authentic in its grimy New York City tourism, since it pulls an all-nighter, tearing through NYC street lights past an endless parade of barroom cretins, urban graveyards, and seedy late night cinemas. The New York City portrait captured by these two films a duo is of a city that’s long gone, cleaned up & policed into oblivion. Both films almost function as historical documents in this way, but more importantly, their shared New York City grime is an essential element in their bottom of the barrel crime world tragedies. Scorsese & May’s directorial styles were noticeably disparate in pulling off their minor New York City crime stories, with Mean Streets reaching for the pop music sleekness later perfected in Goodfellas & Mikey and Nicky luxuriating in the rough exploitation film looseness off handheld cameras & improvised dialogue. Together, though, they represent a small scale version of what we’re used to seeing in our mafia media, with more individualized stakes and a decisively punk rock attitude. I believe May made the better film in this pairing, but both entries are worthwhile for very similar reasons.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 12: Mean Streets (1973)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Mean Streets (1973) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 73 of the first edition hardback, Ebert likens losing his Catholic faith to the internal struggle of Harvey Keitel’s character in the film. He writes, “When I saw Harvey Keitel placing his hand in the flame in Mean Streets, I identified with him. The difference between us was that long before I reached the age of Charlie in the film, I had lost my faith. It didn’t make sense to me any longer. There was no crisis of conscience. It simply all fell away.” He also mentions on page 276 that Scorsese, who he affectionately refers to as “Marty”, sent him early screenplays that would eventually blossom into Mean Streets and that critic Pauline Kael was another major supporter of the film.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ isn’t so much a gangster movie as a perceptive, sympathetic, finally tragic story about how it is to grow up in a gangster environment. Its characters (like Scorsese himself) have grown up in New York’s Little Italy, and they understand everything about that small slice of human society except how to survive in it.” – from his 1973 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ is not primarily about punk gangsters at all, but about living in a state of sin. For Catholics raised before Vatican II, it has a resonance that it may lack for other audiences. The film recalls days when there was a greater emphasis on sin–and rigid ground rules, inspiring dread of eternal suffering if a sinner died without absolution.” -from his 2003 review for his Great Movies series

I’m going to get this disclosure out of the way early: Goodfellas is probably my favorite movie. At the very least it shares the top spot with Boogie Nights, which is a film that was heavily influenced by Goodfellas. I know this is a sort of bland, generic selection for personal favorite film that doesn’t shed much light on my cinematic tastes (Would it help if I also made it clear that John Waters is my favorite director?), but that doesn’t make it any less true. Goodfellas is a fun, gorgeous, devastating work of pop cinema that pulls off my favorite formula in the art of filmmaking: combining highbrow finery with lowbrow trash. It constructs one of the most perfectly balanced & lush cinematic journeys I’m likely to ever see before I die. I cannot say enough good things about it, so I should probably just cut myself off now before the gushing becomes unbearable.

It took a long time for Scorsese, or Uncle Marty if you will, to perfect his Italian-American crime life aesthetic for what would eventually be, by my measurement, his magnum opus. Indeed, a lot of his highly-lauded work came before Goodfellas‘s release:Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ. Even before these hallmarks in the director’s career, however, he had given Goodfellas something of a dry run in his early work Mean Streets. Scorsese’s third feature film is impossible to discuss in without mentioning the shadow of Goodfellas that looms over it. Praising the film’s innovation or artistic specificity now would feel like exalting the brilliance of the match after the invention of the blowtorch or the flamethrower or the nuclear bomb. Mean Streets is a germ of an idea that Uncle Marty would later hatch & perfect. As someone who wasn’t around to catch the original version of Goodfellas in isolation, it’s difficult for me to judge it too fairly or afford it much patience. For so much of Mean Streets‘s runtime I find myself wishing I were watching its superior incarnation instead.

As much as I’m downplaying Mean Streets here as Goodfellas‘s older loser brother who still sleeps on Mom’s couch “between jobs”, the two films are actually quite different plot-wise. Goodfellas depicts an organized crime ring of Italian-Americans who are on top of the world in their villainy (for a time). Mean Streets follows the same ethnic group through the same streets of NYC, except it depicts them at the bottom of the food chain. Harvey Keitel navigates the ratty New York City of the early 1970s (hard drugs, gang activity, and all) as a low level numbers-runner going through a personal, spiritual crisis. His inner monologues about losing his religious faith & struggling with the then-taboo of interracial lust have lost a lot of potency in a modern context. Most of what makes his conflict worthwhile to the audience as entertainment is in his Achilles heel of affection for a baby-faced Robert DeNiro, who plays the unconscionable brat bastard Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy is essentially an Italian-American version of Johnny Rotten, forecasting the punk rocker stereotype long before the “mean streets” of NYC gave it a name. It’s this loudmouthed, shit-stirring catalyst that gets Keitel’s protagonist mixed up in a level of do-or-die mob violence that’s way over his head and drives the film to the inevitable bloodbath catharsis that would eventually serve as a Scorsese calling card.

Mean Streets is mostly charming if you think of it as a punk rock version of Goodfellas. Its risks, successes, and failures work on a much smaller scale than its descendant’s eventual pinnacle, but there’s something inherently cool about its absence of pressure to deliver big time thrills & awe at every turn. The film was born of the same New Hollywood adrenaline rush that brought on new kinds of crime films like The French Connection and Bonnie & Clyde and although it didn’t quite match the artistry of those works, it’s easy to see how its influence could’ve reached far beyond Goodfellas. The film was made even before Coppola’s The Godfather, for instance, so this version of the modern gangster genre was truly embryonic at best. However, it’s difficult to discuss Mean Streets as a seminal work without obsessively narrowing in on the Scorsese films to follow (as you can likely tell). Almost all of the film’s pop music, pan shots, street brawls, and home video charm is repeated in Goodfellas to the point where the only scene that stands out as distinctly its own is one where two rival crews fight over someone being called a “mook”, despite no one involved knowing exactly what that means. It’s a great moment, but I’m willing to bet it would’ve played even better in Goodfellas. (And, yes, even I’m tired of hearing me say that.)

Ebert loved Scorsese as a filmmaker & as a friend. He supported the director’s career since his debut film Guess Who’s Knocking? and did his best to make his name the modern behemoth that it is. Scorsese even sent Ebert an early copy of the screenplay for Mean Streets before the film went into production. I’m not saying that the reason why Ebert gave the film such a glowing review was that he had established a personal relationship with the director. I just think that their personal connection may have put the critic more in tune with what Uncle Marty was trying to do & say in his work. When Ebert watched Mean Streets he saw an ambitious film about the loss of Catholic faith that had shaped his own life in his youth and all other sorts of early 70s spiritual crises that wouldn’t affect me as much in a modern context (despite ditching my own Catholic faith as a youth), the jaded brat that I am. When I look at Mean Streets, all I see is a misshapen embryo of a better film to follow. Maybe when I get to Ebert’s chapter of Life Itself on Scorsese I’ll even get to review that masterpiece properly instead of cramming my thoughts on it into a different film’s territory.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: 2001 – A Space Oddyssey (1968)

-Brandon Ledet