The Departed

Jack Nicholson in The Departed



Martin Scorsese’s remake of the brilliant 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs adds 50 minutes of flab to what was a lean, taut thriller. The plot is the same – cop bosses Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg send in undercover man Leo DiCaprio to bust a gang. Unbeknown to the boys at the precinct, gang boss Jack Nicholson is one step ahead of them and has been grooming a placeman of his own (Matt Damon) for years, and he’s now deep deep inside their gangbusting team. The drama springs from the “Who is going to get whacked first?” premise as each side works out after a while that there’s a mole on the team and then tries to work out who it is.

Scorsese gets busy with the digressions from the start, with a Goodfellas opening (thanks to William Monahan’s script) intoned by Nicholson – “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be product of me. Years ago we had the church…” And through the rest of the film Scorsese keeps adding self-consciously “Marty” touches – the use of the Stones and John Lennon on the soundtrack, the acres of wiseguy smalltalk that used to be fun until everyone started doing it, the “big man” acting style. If Scorsese is puzzlingly behaving as if Tarantino hasn’t happened, the basic cat-and-mouse of Damon and DiCaprio remains nailbiting, and the fact that the two stars are dressed and coiffed similarly is clearly also saying something about 21st century law enforcement (the usual thing, but hey). And Alec Baldwin, as the reptilian alpha male, toilet-mouthed and very violent cop, also reminds us what presence and acting chops are all about.

As for Jack Nicholson, the extra length of this film vis a vis the original looks to be down to the fact that it’s been rewritten around him, possibly to encourage him to sign up. Nicholson and Scorsese have never worked together before, and the suspicion is that Scorsese sees The Departed partly as a way of bagging another 70s legend. But though Nicholson’s presence can be justified in so many ways – his Frank Costello is based on real-life Boston crime boss “Whitey” Bulger, his character allows Scorsese to get religion in, and widen the film out into a discussion about morality and guilt, and so on – the story isn’t about him, or shouldn’t be. And as if to show he knows everything has been bent too far out of shape to accommodate him, Nicholson delivers a finger-flick performance. Scorsese-philes and Nicholson groupies will love all the masturbatory touches. The rest of us will console ourselves with the Hong Kong original, which actually concentrates on the show rather than the sideshow, and with the fact that for all its flaws this is Scorsese’s best film since Casino, so maybe the man is on the comeback trail.


The Departed – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006



Mean Streets

Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



12 May


Exile on Main Street released, 1972

On this day in 1972, one of the cornerstone rock albums of all time was released. Exile on Main St was the Rolling Stones follow-up to Sticky Fingers and the first album they had produced since extricating themselves from their contract with manager Allen Klein. The Stones had recently become tax exiles from the UK – and recorded much of the album in the south of France, at a villa Keith Richards was renting. Richards was a heavy user of heroin at the time, and his villa became a hub for visiting fellow devotees – country singer Gram Parsons and author William Burroughs were among those who turned up to shoot up. Much of it written while laying down sessions for Sticky Fingers, the album has the syncopated swagger and blues lope that the Stones had made their own. It is in many respects the classic Stones record, forming, along with the previous two releases – Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed – the high point of the band’s output. The band would never be this good again.




Mean Streets (1973, dir: Martin Scorsese)

One of the immediate realisations, on watching Mean Streets again decades after it hit the unsuspecting streets of criticdom, is how cheap it looks. Written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin in a car in the locations it would be shot in, and focusing on two punks in New York’s Little Italy, its low budget means it doesn’t have the gloss Scorsese has since become associated with. He’d been bubbling under for a few years by 1973, but this is the film that shot Scorsese to dominance, the one that confirmed the promise of Who’s That Knocking at My Door. It didn’t do Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro any harm either. The other thing about re-watching it all these years later – how young these two main actors looked, how in need of a few good dinners.
The seat-of-the-pants looks and lean features of its stars work to the film’s advantage, though, because it’s a movie about being cheap – being a two-bit hustler, a cut-price Romeo, a bottom-feeding extortioner for the Mafia. Keitel plays the fairly useless collector hoping to move up the ranks, De Niro is his childhood friend, a dangerous and unpredictable little toughie who seems to have learnt most of his mannerisms from half-remembered Jimmy Cagney movies. They are chalk and cheese these two – Keitel’s Charlie is useless and sensitive and overburdened by a sense of responsibility; De Niro’s Johnny Boy is violent, charming and unpredictable. Mean Streets essentially follows these two through the bars, pool halls and restaurants of Little Italy, waiting for something to snap, which of course it will. And let’s not forget the church (or the Church, if you prefer) because Charlie’s guilt is a key driver – over the black woman he dances with and wants to date but can’t because she’s black; over the epileptic sister of Johnny Boy who he secretly loves but can’t date because she’s marked as damaged goods; over the family business, extortion; over the fact that he can’t stick to the Commandments; over the fact that he can’t be himself. In 1973 this film was the shizzle – lots of it handheld, some of it slo-mo, lit in exaggerated colours to indicate psychology, with a soundtrack that used actual real hit music (the Stones, Eric Clapton and the Miracles larding a track full of operatic favourites) because Scorsese couldn’t afford a soundtrack, but also because it fits. This soundtrack business is normal these days but then it was revolutionary, as was the whole film, especially the way it depicts characters who seem to have taken the conscious decision to behave as if they are the star of their own B movie. In many ways it is the ground zero of modern film-making – without the elliptical dialogue, bravura editing, expressionistic camera and grungy milieu of Mean Streets what, for instance, would Tarantino look like?



Why Watch?


  • De Niro and Keitel
  • Scorsese’s real debut (forget Boxcar Bertha)
  • The great soundtrack
  • Look out for a cameo by Scorsese himself


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Mean Streets – at Amazon





The Aviator

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner in The Aviator

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

19 January

Howard Hughes sets transcontinental air record, 1937

On this day in 1937 Howard Hughes set a new world record for flying across the continent of America. Flying a H-Racer with extra long wings, he made the journey from Los Angeles to Newark in 7 hours 28 minutes and 25 seconds. The plane had been commissioned by Hughes himself and was innovative in many respects, not least its insistence on all rivets and joints being set flush, which greatly increased its slipperiness through the air.

The record was one of many accolades that this man born into wealth would accrue. His father had made his money by designing a bit for oil drilling, and when Hughes inherited his money aged 19, he immediately set about doing extraordinary things with it.

This included becoming a Hollywood producer, flying and designing planes, buying and running the TWA airline, designing a bra for Jane Russell (which she never wore), designing a hospital bed for himself after a plane crash (which he never used), designing and building the world’s largest plane built from wood, the H-4 Hercules aka the Spruce Goose (which flew only once) and founding the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, now the second largest medical research foundation in the world.

The Aviator (2004, dir: Martin Scorsese)

Though he hasn’t made a really great film since Casino, with The Aviator Martin Scorsese returns to something like classic form. Yes, this means I’m down on Gangs of New York – but then most people are these days, now that the dust has settled.

The aviator in question is Howard Hughes, with Leonardo DiCaprio taking the role of the magnate/producer/oddball and proving again that Scorsese’s faith in him is well founded.

It’s a riches to something like rags story, the film following Howard from his first arrival in Hollywood as a young, handsome, stupendously rich man to the beginning of his long decline sat in the dark, in his own filth, suspicious of everyone around him.

On the way we’ve been treated to one of those love letters to old Hollywood that Scorsese loves writing – with Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale making a particularly fine Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, and Gwen Stefani doing OK as Jean Harlow, as does Jude Law as Errol Flynn (these are all pretty tough calls).

We’ve seen something of Hughes’s airplane obsession – the designing and flying of the Spruce Goose (it was made mostly of birch, in fact), the takeover of TWA, the round-the-world flight and the spectacular crash of his XF-11 into a Beverly Hills neighbourhood which ensured Hughes was in pain for the rest of his life.

We’ve also, in one of the film’s most gripping sequences, seen something of the keen brain that probably would have made Hughes rich if he hadn’t inherited wealth, as he is grilled at a Congressional hearing and turns the tables on the Senator (demonically played by Alan Alda) who is convinced Hughes’s corporation is milking money from the government and profiteering from the Second World War.

Ultimately this is a sad story, though Scorsese loads it with Hollywood glam as John Logan’s script touches down nimbly at key points from the 1920s to the 1940s. Hughes would live until 1976 and spent the last years of his life as the world’s most famous recluse. But there’s no need to go from A to Z when A to B tells us what we need to know. B, in Hughes’s case, often standing for “breasts”. Enter Jane Russell’s cleavage.

Why Watch?

  • A glossy, spectacular biopic about a fascinating character
  • The stunt casting of famous people as other famous people
  • Cinematography by Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds, World War Z)
  • Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing

    The Aviator – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

Cape Fear

Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear

Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear

It’s compare and contrast time. Max Cady, a psychopath recently out of stir after a long stretch for rape, sets out to terrorise lawyer Sam Bowden who he believes withheld information about his case at the trial which resulted in him going down. The original, directed by cult British director J. Lee Thompson in 1962, starred Robert Mitchum as the avenging psycho (a role he’d perfected in 1955’s Night Of The Hunter) and Gregory Peck as the apparently decent lawyer. Both turn up again in cameos in Martin Scorsese’s remake, in which things aren’t quite so clear cut. This time around Bowden (now played by Nick Nolte) is a lousy lawyer, and a philandering husband to boot, and Cady (Robert De Niro) isn’t just bad, he’s positively evil. The later version amps up the sex, too. Remember the infamous scene where Bowden’s daughter (Juliette Lewis) sucks the finger of Max Cady in the empty school theatre? And of course there’s Scorsese’s wham-bam hurricane-tossed ending. But sex, a big budget and lots of special effects to one side, the consensus seems to have it that Thompson’s is the better film, that drama as stormy as this works best when set in an age of innocence. As well as an elemental good versus evil thrust, Thompson also has Bernard Herrmann’s jangly score to help him along too, plus his instinct for the pace of a scene. Scorsese is, to be fair to him, after something more nuanced. His isn’t a clear-cut world of good v evil – everyone has done something that stinks in his Cape Fear. But does his finessing of moral positions make for a more satisfying, more humane drama, or a less dynamic film? Or both? Coming one year after Goodfellas Scorsese’s Cape Fear was fighting not just Thompson’s film but his own reputation.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Cape Fear (1962) – at Amazon

Cape Fear (1991) – at Amazon


Duel in the Sun

Original foyer poster

Martin Scorsese reckons Duel in the Sun was the first film he ever saw and one of the reasons he became a director. It was made in the mid 1940s when David O Selznick was still basking in the glow of Gone with the Wind, in terms of bums on seats the biggest film ever made.

The legendary producer was also feeling pretty pleased with himself at having tempted Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood, Rebecca and Spellbound being the result of that bit of handiwork.

Selznick was riding high. The stocky fortysomething was also riding a new starlet, 25-year-old Jennifer Jones. In a case of extreme hubris – those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make movie producers – Selznick decided that he was going to make a film to top Gone with the Wind, and simultaneously make his hot girlfriend into a huge star.

So he got King Vidor in as director and cast Jones as a mixed-race orphan girl (“built by the Devil to drive men crazy,” as the poster has it) who finds herself caught between decent Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and his sexually forward brother Lewt (Gregory Peck). It’s a tug of war between head and loins, and there’s no prizes for guessing which wins out, albeit in a torrid, sensationally destructive way (see Gone with the Wind for the template).

The critics called Selznick’s film a hymn to the folly of middle-aged desire, gave it the nickname Lust in the Dust and tried to laugh it off the screen. The public liked it though, but not enough to actually make it profitable – it was at the time the most expensive film ever made.

Fittingly, it’s shot in Technicolor, as every film as loud, lavish, exotic and gloriously camp as this should be.

Duel in the Sun – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013