Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Irishman

I Heard You Paint Houses [title in the opening credits, repeated in the end credits]
[The title appears in a Godardian way in verse:]
I Heard / You / Paint Houses.
The Irishman [title in the end credits].
The Irishman / The Irishman [Finnish / Swedish titles].

US © 2019 Netflix. PC: TriBeCa Productions / Sikelia Productions / Winkler Films. Distributed by: Netflix. International distribution: STX Entertainment. P: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Gastón Pavlovich, Randall Emmett, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Gerald Chamales, Irwin Winkler.
    D: Martin Scorsese. SC: Steven Zaillian – based on I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa (2004) by Charles Brandt. Cin: Rodrigo Prieto – 1,85:1 – 35 mm – Redcode RAW – source formats: ARRIRAW 3,4 K, Redcode RAW 8K, Super 35 – digital intermediate 4K – released: D-Cinema. PD: Bob Shaw. AD: Laura Ballinger. Set dec: Regina Graves. Cost: Christopher Peterson, Sandy Powell. Makeup: Nicki Ledermann. Hair: Sean Flanigan. Prosthetic makeup coordinator: Lindsay Gelfand. Prosthetic Renaissance lab supervisor: Anthony Canonica. SFX: Taylor Schulte. VFX: Pablo Helman – Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) using Medusa Facial Capture – additional: SSVFX, Vitality. Executive M producer: Robbie Robertson. M supervisor: Randall Poster. S: Philip Stockton. ED: Thelma Schoonmaker.  Casting: Ellen Lewis.
    Loc: New York, New Jersey, Miami (117 different locations). Filming dates: 29 Aug 2017 – 5 March 2018. 209 min
    Festival premiere: 27 Sep 2019 New York Film Festival.
US premiere: 1 Nov 2019.
Digital streaming on Netflix: 27 Nov 2019.
Finnish premiere: 22 Nov 2019 – released by Scanbox with Finnish / Swedish subtitles (the credits flashed past too fast to read).
DCP viewed at Bio Rex, 23 Nov 2019.

Cast as edited in Wikipedia (most characters are historical and have Wikipedia links)
    Robert De Niro as Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran
    Al Pacino as James Riddle "Jimmy" Hoffa
    Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino
    Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino
    Bobby Cannavale as Felix "Skinny Razor" DiTullio
    Thomas Rogari as Tommy "The Shyster" Rogaro
    Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran
        Lucy Gallina as Peggy (age 7)
    Stephen Graham as Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano
    Stephanie Kurtzuba as Irene Sheeran
    Jesse Plemons as Chuckie O'Brien
    Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno
    Kathrine Narducci as Carrie Bufalino
    Welker White as Josephine Hoffa
    Domenick Lombardozzi as Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno
    Sebastian Maniscalco as Joseph "Crazy Joe" Gallo
    Steven Van Zandt as Jerry Vale
    Paul Ben-Victor as Jake Gottlieb
    Jeremy Luke as Thomas Andretta
    Aleksa Palladino as Mary Sheeran
    India Ennenga as Dolores Sheeran
    J. C. MacKenzie as Jimmy Neal
    Paul Herman as "The Other" Whispers
    Bo Dietl as Joseph Glimco
    Gary Basaraba as Frank Fitzsimmons
    Jim Norton as Don Rickles
    Larry Romano as Philip Testa
    Jake Hoffman as Allen Dorfman
    Patrick Gallo as Anthony Giacalone
    Barry Primus as Ewing King
    Jack Huston as Robert Kennedy
    Kevin O'Rourke as John McCullough
    Garry Pastore as Albert Anastasia
    Jennifer Mudge as Maryanne Sheeran
        Tess Price as Maryanne (age 8)
    Steve Witting as William E. Miller
    Stephen Mailer as F. Emmett Fitzpatrick
    John Rue as John L. McClellan
    Craig DiFrancia as Carmine Persico
    Craig Vincent as Ed Partin
    Frank Messina as Johnny Parcesepe
    Gino Cafarelli as Frank Rizzo
    Al Linea as Sam Giancana
    Joseph Riccobene as Jimmy Fratianno
    Ken Wulf Clark as James P. Hoffa
    Tommy McInnis as Marvin Elkin
    Jeff Moore as Frank Church
    John Polce as Joseph Colombo

The Irishman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (from Wikipedia) a selection from the film
No.    Title    Artist(s)    Length
1.    "In the Still of the Night"    The Five Satins    3:05
2.    "Tuxedo Junction"    Glenn Miller and His Orchestra    3:26
3.    "I Hear You Knockin'"    Smiley Lewis    2:45
4.    "The Fat Man"    Fats Domino    2:36
5.    "El Negro Zumbón" (from the motion picture Anna)    Flo Sandon's    2:29
6.    "Le Grisbi"    (Jean Wiener), harmonica perf. Jean Wetzel    3:26
7.    "Delicado"    Percy Faith and His Orchestra    2:53
8.    "Have I Sinned"    Donnie Elbert    2:59
9.    "Theme for the Irishman"    Robbie Robertson    4:36
10.    "Song of the Barefoot Contessa"    Hugo Winterhalter and His Orchestra    2:39
11.    "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)"    Marty Robbins (feat. Ray Conniff)    2:31
12.    "Canadian Sunset" (Single Version)    Eddie Heywood & Hugo Winterhalter and His Orchestra    2:55
13.    "Honky Tonk, Pt. 1"    Bill Doggett    3:05
14.    "Melancholy Serenade"    Jackie Gleason    3:15
15.    "Qué Rico el Mambo"    Pérez Prado    3:58
16.    "Cry"    Johnnie Ray & The Four Lads    3:04
17.    "Sleep Walk"    Santo & Johnny    2:27
18.    "The Time Is Now"    The Golddiggers    2:03
19.    "Al di là"    Jerry Vale & The Latin Casino All Stars    3:18
20.    "Pretend You Don't See Her"    The Latin Casino All Stars    2:42
Total length:    60:13

Official synopsis (Netflix): "Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci star in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran, a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th Century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics."

AA: The Irishman is a masterpiece, a gangster film and an epic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. It is a grand tale about betrayal.

Like The Godfather trilogy it portrays a shadow history of America. For Francis Ford Coppola the reference point was big business. Martin Scorsese deals with trade unions.

The Irishman also reminds us that bribe and corruption on the highest level did not start with the current President. The Kennedy family is seen connected with the mob who expect the ouster of Castro. JFK's rival Richard Nixon is funded by Hoffa. In an interesting scene Frank Sheeran registers E. Howard Hunt ("big ears") on tv in the Watergate trial and remembers him from the Bay of Pigs mission in which Frank worked as a driver. When everybody else has the flag in halfmast to honour the memory of JFK, Hoffa raises his flag to the top.

Robert Warshow called a famous essay of his "The Gangster as Tragic Hero". A film like The Irishman is, indeed, a tragedy, but its gangsters are no tragic heroes. They are anti-heroes. We do not register any grandeur within their reach that could be let down by a fatal flaw in their characters. The grandeur and the tragic destiny rest with their families, the trade union movement, the society, and the America of the 1960s.

The gangsters are monsters. In a bold experimental approach Scorsese rejuvenates his protagonists by several decades via digital de-aging (Medusa Facial Capture by ILM). It is a state of the art achievement, but the characters look denatured. They belong to the "uncanny valley" that has been discussed in digital animation. We accept real human beings in fiction, and we accept frankly stylized cartoon figures, but impeccably photorealistic animation feels uncanny.

Scorsese uses the uncanny valley as a means of expression – portraying his gangsters as dehumanized to begin with. The uncanny feeling stems from our uncertainty of whether we are seeing something real or unreal – dead or alive. I was reminded of Dick Tracy, The Polar Express, Sin City and The Adventures of Tintin. The mobster monsters belong with zombies and mummies – the living dead.


The duration of The Irishman is exceptionally long at 209 minutes, but there are no longueurs. The montage by Thelma Schoonmaker is dynamic and versatile.

The structure is based on a triple parallel montage on three time dimensions. The framing story is the present of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) living in his memories in a nursing home. Interspersed is a long fatal interstate drive of Frank and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) travelling together with their smoking wives (the gangsters having stopped smoking after Castro). Officially they are on their way to a family wedding; really they make a journey to one of America's most notorious assassinations. Flashbacks fill out the story. There are also flashforward freeze frames: future fates of characters are condensed in premature epitaph captions. There are also special montage sequences, generic to gangster films since the 1930s, but Scorsese and Schoonmaker put their personal stamp into them (gun montages, politics montages...).

Important information is offered on multiple levels, and the degree of compression is high. The private and the public merge for instance in highly moving scenes and reactions to the Kennedy assassination. (Of which we later hear an oblique comment: "If they can wipe out a President, they can wipe out a president of a union").

It is no news that Scorsese and Schoonmaker master density. A novelty is a more pronounced sense of durée in a film that seemingly slows down towards the end while losing nothing in intensity. On the contrary, moments of contemplation make action stand out more. There is more time to let tensions grow and implications sink in. In Scorsese's previous crime films there has sometimes been a sense of relentless hectic, a nonstop barrage of action or rapid montage, all movement and no reflection. There is a French touch in Scorsese's subtle evolution – a touch of the Becker / Sautet / Melville school. I am particularly thinking about Classe tous risques (1960). *


Like many of Scorsese's films The Irishman is a history of violence. With a diffence this time: there is no sadism, no gratuitous violence. I have been puzzled by this feature which dates Scorsese's films. With sadism you can have an impact, but it has a repulsive after-effect. Strangely, this feature has also been present in Scorsese's religious films such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence.

I don't remember about the presence of religion in Scorsese's previous gangster films, but in The Irishman it's meaningful. We witness no religious conversion or awakening, but we are in the territory. Just the other day I was reading Eira Mollberg's memoirs of her father Rauni Mollberg (another daughter looking at a monster father). Her prayer is familiar from The Phantom Carriage and also relevant to The Irishman: "God, let my soul ripen before it is harvested".

The Irishman tracks Frank's violent history back to Anzio, his WWII experiences, callously executing German prisoners of war. This gets him started as a hitman, brutalized and dehumanized by violence.

While there is no sadism, there are moments of glorifying violence like in the execution of Crazy Joe where blood jets are covered in slow motion.


Scorsese is a master of the compilation soundtrack, working here with Robbie Robertson and Randall Poster. Two key themes stand out: "In the Still of the Night" (a foundation song of doo-wop, written by Fred Parris in 1956, performed by his Five Satins). It contributes a romantic dimension otherwise missing from the narrative. It is also a perfect time machine.

The other one is the harmonica theme written by Jean Wiener for Jacques Becker's Touchez pas a grisbi (1954) released in Germany as Wenn es Nacht wird in Paris. In Germany the tune was turned into a popular song (launched by Caterina Valente) retaining the film's German name. In translation it became a pop hit and evergreen in Finland with the title "Kun yö saapuu Pariisiin", sung by no less than Olavi Virta, without the chilly impact of the original. In Wiener's melody there is an affinity with the "Love Theme from The Godfather" although the sound is different. Robert Robertson's "Theme from The Irishman" is a set of variations of Jean Wiener's tune.

Often Scorsese's soundtrack selections are so overwhelming that I lose focus on the story. This time this happened with two back-to-back songs ("I Hear You Knocking", "The Fat Man") written by Dave Bartholomew who died last June. They are also a Gegenbild, contributing a joy of life otherwise absent from the tale.

I was also moved to hear in JFK's funeral broadcast music the hymn "O God of Loveliness". The tune is the one of "Beautiful Savior" and "Fairest Lord Jesus", also known as "Crusader's Hymn". It comes from Germany, there known as the Evangelical tune to "Schönster Herr Jesu", first printed in 1842 by August Hoffmann von Fallersleben [he who wrote "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles"] in the collection Schlesische Volkslieder. It became one of the most popular hymns in Nordic countries: "Dejlig er jorden" ["Beautiful Is the Earth"] / "Pilgrimssang" (1850) in Denmark, "Härlig är jorden" (1884) in Sweden and "Maa on niin kaunis" (1887, 1903) in Finnish. Yesterday I sang this hymn in Swedish at Jerker Eriksson's funeral. It is also a beloved Christmas song in Nordic countries.


The performances are great.

Robert De Niro is Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran. His is a story of success by any means necessary, but on the fatal journey to Detroit, when it dawns on him what is expected of him, we witness him innerly crushed in a way from which he never recovers. He is reduced to an empty shell. Coppola's trilogy culminated in Al Pacino's Francis-Baconesque scream of agony in The Godfather Part III. The key image of The Irishman is De Niro's face twisted into a silent pain on his way to the hit. The film ends with Frank asking to "leave the door open a little bit". He has adopted this habit from Jimmy Hoffa. There is a sharp cut to black.

As the critic Veli-Pekka Lehtonen states in Helsingin Sanomat, the door is open, but nobody is coming.

The complex character of Frank Sheeran is De Niro's tour de force. The callous hitman is a warm union organizer. Retaliating a perceived slight to his daughter he is short-tempered, but dealing with mob / union tensions he is the soul of diplomacy for instance in the Don Rickles sequence (Rickles's ethnic slurs about Italians offend Crazy Joe). The mob / union relationships are based on a code of personal loyalty, but the climax of the saga is about a betrayal of friendship. Frank's family ties are distant, but he even sleeps in the same room with Hoffa. The homosocial charge is powerful. Women are supporting characters in a man's world.

Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino is his evil genius, his Mephisto, a mastermind who has it all covered, a friend who is also his worst enemy.

Al Pacino as James Riddle "Jimmy" Hoffa plays the part in a completely different way than Jack Nicholson in Danny DeVito's Hoffa (1992) written by David Mamet. Nicholson portrayed Hoffa as a fearsome, threatening brute. Al Pacino's interpretation is original. He is excellent in Hoffa's public performances and believable as a rousing union leader ("Unity!", "Solidarity!"), loved by the Teamster membership at large. He is both a warm and passionate union man and a hardened Machiavellian, no stranger to coercion, ruthlessly insisting that the Teamsters are "my union". For a Number Two man "you don't want somebody smart". He also maintains that "wise guys don't lead the union" and "nobody threatens Hoffa". "It is what it is", says Frank. "I know what they don't know I know" replies Hoffa. Indeed, after the Hoffa hit everybody in the conspiracy is fatally hurt, landing in jail.

Like in The Godfather trilogy, family matters, especially for the Italians, and Russell Bufalino urges Frank to stay close to the family just like Don Corleone used to say. But in the war Frank has become so brutalized that even his own family fears him. The barometer is Frank's daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) who senses evil in Russell Bufalino but loves Jimmy Hoffa. After the execution Peggy never talks with her father again.

The film was shot by Rodrigo Prieto with long Steadicam tracking shots typical for Scorsese, using different colour solutions for various periods (from full saturation to bleak visuals), shooting on 35 mm. Primarily designed for Netflix streaming, the digital cinema presentation of The Irishman looks great on the big screen of Bio Rex. The sense of space of this troubling epic comes into its own in the cinema.


* P. S. 9 Dec 2019. In Touchez pas au grisbi it was intriguing to see gangsters in pajamas brushing their teeth. Pajamas appear also in The Irishman.

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