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Martin Scorsese’s Dangerous Men: On the Actors of The Irishman

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Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is withering away. He was once one of the most feared mafia hitmen around, responsible for countless unceremonious deaths under the orders of crime bosses like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Now he’s living in a nursing home, looking startlingly frail and solitary as he recounts his crimes to the camera. However, most audiences, don’t just see Frank Sheeran: they see Johnny Boy, the wild troublemaker from “Mean Streets,” and Jake LaMotta, the brutish, self-crucifying boxer from “Raging Bull.” They see Travis Bickle, the alienated man turned vigilante/wannabe assassin in “Taxi Driver,” and Jimmy Conway, the paranoid, coolly violent gangster from “Goodfellas.” He was once an unstoppable force of nature, upending (or just ending) the lives of everyone around him; now, he’s just an old man, and aside from the ghosts in his head, he’s alone.

"The Irishman” (also known by its more evocative alternate title “I Heard You Paint Houses”) is among Martin Scorsese’s saddest and most haunting films, a farewell of sorts to the mob genre he helped reinvent, as well as a reckoning with its legacy. Where “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino” show us the excitement and seductiveness of the gangster life before things spiral out of control, “The Irishman” is suffused with death and decay from its opening shot. It’s also a reunion not just with De Niro, but with Pesci and (more briefly) Keitel. Where De Niro is Scorsese’s most important actor-partner, Keitel was his first muse, and Pesci a key collaborator in his mid-career. All three bring distinct energies to Scorsese’s films, and all three bring out different, specific interests from their director. Where De Niro is a dominating force in Scorsese’s works, often damaging those around him out of deep fears and insecurities, Pesci represents the filmmaker’s interest in ambitious men at varying levels of power and security. Keitel is, alternatingly, either a figure facing a profound moral quandary or a figure of total amorality. They are all Scorsese’s dangerous men, but they are dangerous in different ways. It is instructive, then, to look at what the director and actors bring out of each other, and how their work informs “The Irishman.”

Scorsese and Keitel: A Question of Morality

Keitel is only in “The Irishman” for a few scenes, but his presence as the calm but intimidating mob boss Angelo Bruno feels like Scorsese bringing things full circle, one last exploration of moral failure through the lens of organized crime. Scorsese and Keitel burst onto the scene together with 1967’s “Who’s That Knocking at My Door,” Scorsese’s first feature and Keitel’s first leading role. As J.R., a deeply Catholic, movie-obsessed Italian-American in New York City, he’s as close to an on-screen surrogate as Scorsese ever had; in a scene where he talks film with his soon-to-be girlfriend Zina Bethune, he seems like he’s doing an impression of Scorsese’s own motormouthed, evangelical way of talking about movies (“...would solve everybody’s problems if they liked westerns”). More notable, however, is how J.R. processes the news that Bethune’s character was raped by an ex-boyfriend: having previously joked (but not really) that “there are girls, and there are broads,” he stews with rage after she tells him, his shoulders stooping as he launches into a cruel rant. Still, it’s somehow less cutting than when he meets her later, appearing vulnerable as he holds her hand and toys with her thumb, only to say, in a pleasant and offhanded way, “I understand now, and I forgive you.” When he’s rebuked, he lashes out. “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” gives us a clear understanding of a man’s warped sense of morality and sin—the belief that he’s the wronged party—without minimizing the pain he causes by not realizing he’s the sinner.

That question is also at the heart of 1973’s “Mean Streets,” Scorsese’s first great movie and last film with Keitel as the protagonist. Like J.R., Charlie Cappa has a warped sense of morality, punishing himself with a finger in the flame while carrying on his work for his gangster uncle. He compares himself to St. Francis of Assisi to his girlfriend’s amusement (“St. Francis didn’t run numbers”) and gives mock benedictions at the start of a meeting, showing both his good-humored nature and his reputation as being a bit sanctimonious. That same mix comes through in every interaction with his wild best friend Johnny Boy (De Niro): he’s amused by Johnny Boy’s sheer shamelessness and gift for bullshitting, but there’s always a bit of a forced patience to his smiles, suggesting a man who puts up with a lot and makes sacrifices on his behalf but always holds himself above him. And it’s present in his relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin Teresa, whose epilepsy has made her a social outcast; as much as Charlie tries to ignore his uncle’s claim that she’s “sick in the head,” he still treats her like an embarrassing secret. The most painful scenes in the film see him rejecting those who are important to him, trying to break up with Teresa and reason his way out of her embrace, or finally snapping at Johnny Boy and striking him. Keitel’s performance is measured, but its every gesture suggests a man trying to reason his way through things that can’t be reasoned with, trying to take a shortcut to get around his guilt over sex, crime and forbidden relationships and friendships, only to end up feeling guiltier because of it.

That said, maybe it’s better that he does feel guilt, as opposed to Keitel’s characters in 1974’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and 1976’s “Taxi Driver.” In the former, he’s introduced as a charming suitor to Ellen Burstyn’s Alice before revealing himself to be a violent, duplicitous creep. He’s even more grotesque and unnervingly charismatic in “Taxi Driver” as the pimp Matthew/”Sport.” The performance is notable for how Keitel contrasts with De Niro: where the latter was the untamed flipside to Keitel’s more controlled character in “Mean Streets,” here Keitel is as loose and relaxed as De Niro is uptight, leaning in and bouncing around as he jokes with Bickle, going from goofy anecdotes (“I once had a horse in Coney Island ... she got hit by a car”) to the hard sell, describing all the things Bickle can do to the pre-teen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) in graphic detail. Both “Alice” and “Taxi Driver” show an amoral man’s ability to manipulate people, and Keitel plays that beautifully in his dance scene with Foster, whispering sweet nothings to her and holding her uncomfortably close as he persuades her to keep working for him. In these films, Keitel and Scorsese portray men without even the flawed conscience of Charlie Cappa, two lowlifes who stopped caring long ago whether what they were doing was right, if indeed they ever gave a damn at all.

Keitel’s sense of morality returns in 1988’s "The Last Temptation of Christ,” his last appearance in a Scorsese film before “The Irishman,” and as a character considered in most Christian teachings as an irredeemable traitor. Keitel and Scorsese’s version of Judas Iscariot is in many ways the most admirable character in the film, a true believer, but not an unquestioning one. He implores Jesus (Willem Dafoe) to lead a rebellion against the Romans and voices deep frustration that Christ’s liberation is of the soul rather than the body. The scene in which he accepts the nature of Jesus’ sacrificial mission is one of the best moments Keitel ever played, with his deep love and growing exasperation for his master intertwining as he finds himself unable to look at him anymore, the weight of the world coming down on his shoulders as Jesus tells him that “God gave me the easier job.” Like Charlie Cappa, he’s a man of torn loyalties and deep guilt, one given an impossible burden by his closest friend. And like Cappa and J.R., he’s the closest thing to a surrogate for Scorsese’s own conflicted feelings about faith, guilt and morality, a depiction of a Christ-follower as a flawed man trying to make the right decision. “The Irishman” may wind up being the last film Scorsese and Keitel make together, but “The Last Temptation of Christ” feels like the true conclusion to their collaboration.

Scorsese and Pesci: The Nature of Power

Joe Pesci had reportedly given up as an actor when Robert De Niro spotted him in “The Death Collector” and recommended that Scorsese cast him as his brother in “Raging Bull,” the film that made his career and garnered him an Oscar nomination. It's an unlikely start to a rich partnership, one that with each film gives the actor a chance to portray someone with a greater ambition and level of power. In “Raging Bull,” Joey LaMotta is Jake’s manager and flawed conscience, a sort of Jake whisperer who attempts to guide his volatile brother both through the complex world behind the scenes of professional boxing and through his personal problems. Pesci plays Joey as someone who’s simultaneously put-upon by his brother’s insecurities and someone who has his own: one watches the scene in which Jake forces Joey to punch him in the face and sees someone who dutifully puts up with Jake’s violence and desire for self-punishment. The key moment for Pesci’s character isn’t his mounting irritation that his brother is asking him to do something stupid again, but the quietly furious muttering of “I ain’t a faggot” when Jake taunts him, his inferiority complex flashing through as Scorsese contrasts De Niro’s hulking frame with Pesci’s diminutive stature. One sees Joey’s sins not only through his guidance of Jake through the ugly realities of the boxing world (convincing him to throw a fight for the mob) to further their shared ambition, but also in how he unintentionally reinforces Jake’s worst instincts, beating up a friend (Frank Vincent) for taking Jake’s wife Vikki (Cathy Moriarty) out on the town or mocking him for his weight problems. The argument before their split sees him beautifully blending Joey’s righteous anger and hurt with his mocking of Jake’s weight, a defense mechanism that only serves to augment his brother’s problems. He’s a victim of his brother’s bullying, but he’s also a victimizer.

Pesci and Scorsese make that Napoleon complex central to his character in 1990’s “Goodfellas,” but with less sympathy and a more frightening defense mechanism. Pesci’s high voice and short stature were never put to better use than in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Tommy DeVito, a psychopath whose violent reactions to even the mildest mockery or perceived insult indicate decades’ worth of being made to feel like a kid or a joke, only to show people what he can do once he’s given a modicum of power. Much has been made of the “how am I funny?” scene in the film, in which Tommy, a natural cut-up with spectacular comic timing, feigns offense at being perceived as “a clown,” the actor turning on a dime from boisterous jokester to a man with no sense of humor about himself. He drains himself of all warmth and humor, his delivery becomes more clipped and breathless, before he breaks...only for his real embarrassment, and violent reactions, to come through when someone who isn’t part of his crew makes him feel small. That same insecurity comes through in his confrontations with Frank Vincent’s Billy Batts and Michael Imperioli’s Spider. The former sees him trying to ignore the slight and hold back his anger until Batts pushes him too far; the latter sees his whole body freeze with disbelief that some punk kid had the balls to tell him off, and, more to the point, that his friends do find him “funny.” He’s got more power and respect than Joey LaMotta, but it’s not enough for him to stand any insult, and he’ll prove he’s a big shot if you force him to.

Pesci’s character in 1995’s “Casino” is sometimes criticized for being too similar to Tommy, too reliant on his ability to go from zero to 100 to give a scene a violent charge. It’s true that Nicky Santoro has Tommy’s hair-trigger temper and jocular psychopathy, but what distinguishes him is his greater level of power and ambition. Where Tommy was a mid-level mobster whose relative level of power gave him the ability to fuck with other small fries, Nicky is a made man defined by a deeper megalomania and desire to build his own criminal empire. A scene in which Nicky tears into a banker who won’t give him back his money on an investment has a similar humorous menace as the “how am I funny?” scene, but where the earlier film traded on his small-fry status as a way of getting at his sense of inferiority, “Casino” sees Pesci playing the scene with a greater sense of authoritativeness. His interactions with a squarer power figure and his friend Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) suggests someone who’s not just flaunting the rules but in the process of rewriting them, as well as one who can’t help but be irritated that his friend can’t see what he’s creating. That anger and megalomania boil over in his desert confrontation with Ace, in which one can finally see the sheer extent to which he's decided that he can and will do anything, and anyone who gets in his way, even a lifelong friend, is a threat.

“Goodfellas” and “Casino” both see Pesci as someone whose ambition and recklessness ultimately get the best of him; his character in "The Irishman,” then, shows what happens when a gangster actually has the level of power Tommy and Nicky aspire to and has nothing left to prove. Where Tommy and Nicky’s explosive tempers often get the best of them, Russell Bufalino hardly raises his voice and conveys his power with a false courtliness that belies his level of control over the people around him. He dips bread in wine with De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, but his chilling stare and slight lean whenever he orders him to kill someone shows a man who has the ability to dominate by quiet manipulation and suggestion. His interactions with Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa are just as frightening, with Pesci’s expression hardly changing as he realizes he can’t push this guy around and will have to reassert his control more violently. When Pesci does give the order, it’s with a unique combination of weary resignation and cold calculation rather than the impulsiveness and explosive emotions that motivates Tommy and Nicky. For Pesci and Scorsese, power doesn’t just corrupt; with each step up on the ladder, it makes you less human.

Scorsese and De Niro: Domination and Destruction

Keitel and Pesci are, respectively, key figures in Scorsese’s early and mid-career (just as Leonardo DiCaprio is the director’s defining late-career creative partner), but no actor-director pairing of the last 50 years captures the public imagination quite like his long-term creative partnership with Robert De Niro, his most important collaborator aside from editor Thelma Schoonmaker. De Niro’s devil-may-care strut as he enters the club in “Mean Streets” spoke volumes about how he and Scorsese would serve each other: for Scorsese, De Niro is a dominating force, a figure who can’t help but command the attention of the room and the screen as he upends the lives of those around him; for De Niro, Scorsese, more than anyone else, knows how to frame and accentuate both his dynamic instincts and the finely shaded details that give his characters life. Together, they create portraits of men whose domineering behavior suggest a deep-seated insecurity and self-loathing that pushes them to hurt themselves and those who are most important to them; it’s no shock that most of them ultimately end up alone.

That’s something that doesn’t reveal itself until near the end of “Mean Streets,” in which Johnny Boy’s live wire energy and brazen disregard for any code initially suggest someone who simply doesn’t give a fuck; there’s an electricity as he looks for any reason to piss everyone else off, his every gesture and clownish smirk communicating total contempt for pretty much everyone but Charlie (but especially Michael, the schmuck loan shark he refuses to pay back). At the same time, he’s genuinely upset when he and Charlie come to blows (prompted by his pushing Charlie’s buttons one too many times), sending him into furious sobs as he asserts Charlie “didn’t do nothin’ for me,” staring downward with a sense of both betrayal and possibly unconscious shame that he’s pushed away the only person who looks out for him. Still, that’s not going to stop him from wasting all of his cousin’s hard work and good will if it means getting one last “fuck you” in to the only jerkoff who’ll still lend him money, his neck be damned.

Johnny Boy has one real friend. In “Taxi Driver,” Travis Bickle has zero, and little of Johnny’s ability to win people over through sheer force of will (indeed, his early attempt at a joke with a supervisor is so ill-timed and odd that it only pisses the guy off). The performance is startling in part because De Niro narrates with an affectless exhaustion that hints at his isolation while playing his initial encounters with others as socially inept but essentially earnest, whether he’s trying to pick up a cashier at a porno theater or connect with Cybill Shepherd’s angelically lit campaign worker. His date with her might show he has little faculty with other people outside of absorbing their interests and pretending they’re his own or repeating inspirational poster pablum, but he always seems to be trying. By the time he shouts at Shepherd that she’s “gonna die in a hell like the rest of them,” however, the loathing that suffuses his narration spills out into the open, showing an alienated young man whose discomfort with others morphs into full-blown misanthropy and rage at a world he feels has rejected him. What’s more unnerving, however, is that De Niro doesn’t flip a switch, exactly, from self-loathing to outwardly hateful or mild-mannered to violently confrontational so much as he continues to display that off-putting but seemingly benign public persona while privately retreating into his rage. 

The famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene is chilling because we see Travis embracing his worst instincts, imagining himself as put-upon rather than the aggressor and giving himself permission to indulge in violent fantasies. His Dirty Harry act is creepy in part because his delivery is so stilted and strange, a man transferring his self-loathing onto women and the men they choose to be with while pretending he’s someone “who stood up against the filth.” He doesn’t distinguish between an adult woman making her own choices and a pre-teen girl being exploited, or between a pimp and a politician—they’re all products of the same city that rejected him, and in a brutal act of violence, he’ll show he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Scorsese and De Niro teamed up again for 1977’s flawed but staggering “New York, New York,” in which the director explores his fascination with mixing extreme artifice and extreme verisimilitude and the actor sees just how far he can push his ability to play an obnoxious, bullying creep. The two would follow it up three years later with 1980’s “Raging Bull,” a more palatable portrayal of extreme jealousy and deep-seated insecurity that won De Niro his Best Actor Oscar. Much has been made of the actor’s physical transformation as a fatter, punchier Jake LaMotta in the film’s later sections, but what’s more impressive is how De Niro physicalizes Jake’s pathology, staring at his small hands and large gut with a look of deep inadequacy or fuming with inarticulate rage at imagined or exaggerated slights; any attempt by Joey or Vikki to express their love for him falls on deaf ears, and any attempt to defend themselves only stokes his paranoia, his sense that anyone who loves someone as rotten as him must be bad. The punishment he inflicts on himself and others takes on mythic proportions when he enters the ring, where he glares with hatred after destroying the face of a boxer his wife said was attractive or opens himself up to attack to pay for his sins. "Raging Bull” is one of the richest works of Scorsese and De Niro’s filmography because the two understand how self-loathing turns someone who feels small and unworthy of love into a tyrant; it’s only in the final minutes, when he’s hit rock bottom and his self-punishment lands him in real trouble, that he allows himself some humanity. De Niro’s full-body wails and exhausted, futile punches at the concrete wall are his final attempts to lash out before accepting both his failures and the idea that he’s worthy of love. The film does not pretend his treatment of Vikki and Joey is something they can easily forgive, but it does understand that redemption is only possible with the acceptance of one’s own humanity.

No such self-awareness comes in 1983’s “The King of Comedy,” Scorsese and De Niro’s last collaboration of their early careers and the funniest and most bizarre variation of De Niro’s domineering men. Rupert Pupkin might not be the most unpleasant character De Niro has ever played, but he’s almost certainly the most obnoxious, barreling through everyone’s polite dismissals and requests that he please come back tomorrow with a singular combination of obliviousness and unctuousness. One watches his fantasies, in which he’s reserved and calm about all opportunities casually thrown his way, and contrasts them with his whining desperation and insistence that everyone pay attention to him. He’s a variation on Travis Bickle, another lonely man striking back at a culture that’s rejected him, but without Bickle’s sexual hang-ups. Indeed, his dates with poor Rita (Diahnne Abbott, De Niro’s wife at the time) show few attempts at sexual or emotional connection, instead serving as a way to prove to everyone that they were wrong about him. The scene in which Rupert and Rita show up uninvited to the home of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a talk show host who grudgingly gave him a few minutes of his time and didn’t explicitly tell him to piss off, is among the most hilariously uncomfortable scenes in American movies, with De Niro playing host to a silently fuming Jerry, refusing to take a hint as his act grows increasingly labored. He remains on, slapping Jerry’s arm like they’re old friends and grinning like an idiot until the star finally loses his temper; even then, it’s Jerry who’s done wrong to him. The film’s climax, in which he performs middling stand-up on Jerry’s show (only after kidnapping him and demanding to get a spot), gets at a certain truth about his existence even as we’re not quite sure how many of his anecdotes about his life and family are truthful; he’s someone who’s so empty and unhappy outside of his dreams that his drastic actions and generally assholery make bizarre sense. Or, as he puts it, “better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”

De Niro and Scorsese revived their partnership in 1990 with “Goodfellas,” and while Pesci’s performance understandably drew the most attention, the film gives De Niro an opportunity to further demonstrate his gift for playing all-consuming paranoia and contempt. Jimmy “The Gent” Conway’s intro is similar to that of Johnny Boy, entering the room with great fanfare and a shit-eating grin as he promises that “the Irishman is here to take all you guineas’ money.” His reputation is fearsome, but for a while we mostly see his gregarious side, dominating a room and pulling young Henry Hill (played by an adult as Ray Liotta) in to tell him how proud he is of him. We first get a sense of how dangerous he is when he loses his patience with Morrie (a spectacularly irritating Chuck Low), looming in the background with a scowl until he finally snaps, stomping in like an animal and putting the offending wig salesman in a headlock. But it doesn’t compare with how frightening he becomes late in the film, where the actor’s eyes dart in a million different directions as he determines how much he could save in money and aggravation if he just killed everyone around him, going from understandable apoplexy to cold-blooded calculation. As the film gets more frenzied and his friends get deeper into trouble, De Niro’s performance becomes greater as Jimmy turns into a bad actor, feigning concern and trust as he inelegantly tries to get information from his friends or push them toward an ambush; the emptiness in his eyes in his last breakfast with Henry are as chilling as anything the actor ever played. Pesci’s Tommy DeVito might be the most immediately frightening character in “Goodfellas,” but it’s Jimmy who you have to watch out for, the one who'll gladly kill everyone he knows if it means keeping himself in the life.

Following a broader but still riveting turn as another psychopath in Scorsese’s 1991 remake of “Cape Fear” (in which he again plays a man with no real sense of how he’s wronged others, only of how he’s been wronged), the actor scaled way back for 1995’s “Casino." As Sam “Ace” Rothstein, he’s a cold perfectionist, someone whose eyes suggest someone whose brain is always on a million things at once but somehow processing all of it thoroughly, seeing exactly how everyone else is doing everything wrong and how he can do it better. He’s far less reckless than his gangster pal Nicky but equally ruthless, explaining with chilly disdain that a card cheat can “have the money and the hammer or walk out of here.” That desire for complete control carries over into his personal life, in which he bullies his girlfriend Ginger (Sharon Stone) into marrying him despite her honest admission that she’s not in love with him, then makes her life a living hell by demanding that she do everything his way. He’s not necessarily wrong to feel betrayed when she takes his money and gives it to her sleazy ex-boyfriend Lester (James Woods), but he refuses to see how he’s put himself in the situation, or how his megalomania has pushed a once vivacious woman to total despair. As her actions grow more desperate and less defensible, his cruelty grows more obvious, his voice oozing with hatred as he threatens his wife and calls her unforgivable things, coldly rejecting her begging him to just “let me go,” hitting the “p” in “you fucking pig” like one of Jake LaMotta’s punches. “Casino” is rarely listed as one of the actor’s best performances, but it’s no less impressive in its emotional remoteness than any of his work with Scorsese, showing that one doesn’t have to be a crazed lunatic or outwardly violent man to be an abuser.

Frank Sheeran doesn’t have Ace’s power and influence, Jimmy Conway or Johnny Boy’s life of the party attitude, Rupert Pupkin’s ambition or Jake LaMotta’s talent. He’s a blunt tool at the service of more powerful and important men; it’s the most recessive character that De Niro has played for Scorsese, a man seemingly content to be carried along by history at the behest of those who make it. In his personal life he’s emotionally absent: his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult and Lucy Gallina as a child) knows him less as a father and more as a looming criminal presence. It’s only when he’s forced to kill his dear friend Jimmy Hoffa, the capital-G Great Man and father figure to his daughter that he’ll never be, that one sees doubt creep across his face, and even then, he carries out the task dutifully; De Niro wisely allows us to project our own feelings onto him in the long, torturous build-up to the murder, burying his own torment. His call to Hoffa’s wife, in which he nervously babbles noncommittal nothings, is the closest thing to an emotional outburst he has, a man realizing too late what he is, how much he’s allowed others to make decisions for him and how damned he is for it. By the time he reaches the end of his life, he’s forced to reckon with these things by himself. 

The film is among the most painful of either De Niro or Scorsese’s career not just because we see De Niro, Pesci, Keitel and others as they approach the twilight of their lives, but because they show how easily the world forgets those who dominate and those who are dominated, those who try to live a moral life and those who do not. Frank Sheeran has been a quietly important figure in history and an all-encompassing void for his family. Few will remember him, and nobody will miss him.

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