DECEMBER 27, 2020
“WHAT IS YOUR greatest ambition in life?” the novice reporter asks the noted author. “To become immortal and then to die,” he replies. This scene from Breathless (1960) epitomizes the cheeky erudition that made Jean-Luc Godard a name to conjure with. It’s also a touchstone for the other parties involved. Thanks to Breathless, Jean Seberg revived her then-stalled career, and Godard went on to enjoy three decades of international fame. Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre Melville has achieved the immortality he spoke of so suavely in Breathless: his stylish thrillers Bob le Flambeur (1956), Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Un Flic (1972) have, thanks to Blu-ray, won the recognition of a new generation of fans.
Today, Godard is no longer thought of as Melville’s heir; that honor has gone to Martin Scorsese, whose gangster films are every bit as powerful as the French master’s, particularly his most recent work, The Irishman (2019). This account of the career of a truck driver who became a freelance hitman for the mob matches — in its austere mise-en-scène, clipped, pointed dialogue, and mood of ever-encroaching dread — the look and feel of Melville’s masterpiece Army of Shadows (1969), a very different but equally dark “based on a true story.” In these two movies, Melville and Scorsese show that to “become immortal” is an artistic strategy as well as a personal choice.
Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in 1917, the future filmmaker adopted the name Melville (after the author of his favorite novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities) when he joined the French Resistance, an underground anti-Nazi organization operating in a world of constant peril. “With the passing of time we are inclined to recall what suits us rather than what actually happened,” Melville has said of his wartime experiences. Army of Shadows, however, is not a comfy crime thriller, but rather an intense, detailed, and disturbing recreation of the dangerous world he knew. In many respects, it sports the look and feel of a Melville genre exercise like Le Samouraï or Un Flic, but it’s after something quite different than kinetic thills. It wants to make the truth about the German occupation cinematically palpable, with all the gut-wrenching horror that portends.
Born in 1942, Martin Scorsese has declared that, “[a]s I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more of a tendency to look for people who live by kindness, tolerance, compassion, a gentler way of looking at things.” But compassion doesn’t obviate insight, and with The Irishman he shows that he can, like Melville, stare right into humanity’s dark heart — and not blink. This new Scorsese work may, at one level, be the latest in his line of gangster epics — stretching from Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995) to his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006) — but The Irishman isn’t standard Scorsese. His previous gangster films were based on the lives of real people, but these were largely obscure individuals. The Irishman, by contrast, pivots on the life and death of Jimmy Hoffa, the most famous union boss in American history.
Adapted by Steven Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, the film traces the life history of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver who becomes a hitman for the mob, thanks to both his personal acquaintance with mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and the Teamsters trucker union, which has become a mob asset. In its heyday, the Teamsters, led by its voluble and exceedingly effective leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), ruled the labor roost. But that heyday didn’t last due in no small part to Hoffa’s ego and bottomless ambition, which led to his joining forces with the mob — and then tangling with them. As a result, he vanished off the face of the earth in 1975 and was declared dead in 1982. His body was never found.
In I Heard You Paint Houses, Frank Sheeran claims responsibility for Hoffa’s death. Other parties have alleged that he did not dispose of Hoffa, but Scorsese takes Sheeran at his word. His main interest in bringing this story to cinematic life is to explore the mindset of man who kills without conscience or remorse.
The Irishman isn’t filled with the criminal glee of Goodfellas or the mournful romantic frustration of Casino. It’s as ice-cold as its antihero. It doesn’t feature extravagant acts of violence; rather, we see Sheeran walk up to his marks in medium long shot, fire his gun at them, and then calmly walk away. This terseness is very Melville, not in terms of a duplication of his style, but rather in relation to his cinematic taste: it emulates the kind of low-key dramatic action the great French director admired so much in the films of John Huston (especially The Asphalt Jungle ) and Robert Wise (especially Odds Against Tomorrow ).
At the time of Melville’s death in 1973, only Scorsese’s first feature would have been available for him to see. There’s no record if he ever had a chance to view Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1969), but it’s clear that Scorsese, inveterate cineaste that he is, has seen all of Melville. Though none of his movies echo Melville directly, the great auteur’s directorial principles can be seen quite clearly in The Irishman, which is redolent of the bleak despair of Army of Shadows.
A film about the French Resistance might suggest a drama of action and intrigue, but Melville’s movie is entirely about death — hair’s-breadth escapes from it and sudden surrenders to it. Trying as best they can simply to survive in occupied France, these heroic figures — played with supreme skill and modesty by Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Serge Reggiani, and Simone Signoret — struggle ceaselessly to keep from being captured, tortured, and executed. Sometimes they succeed, as in an amazing scene where the Nazis force members of the group to run through a tunnel while being fired upon, and two of their number manage to escape. In another equally intense scene, a group of Resistors disguise themselves as doctors and nurses in order to rescue a comrade who’s in a military hospital, only to discover that he’s on the brink of death, thus making escape pointless. But that’s not the worst of it. Toward the film’s conclusion, they’re obliged to kill one of their own, not because he betrayed them but rather because of the fate worse than death he would face were the Nazis to capture him. Rarely has there been a film quite so grim — until, arguably, The Irishman.
“I heard you paint houses” is Mafia-speak for “I understand I can hire you as a hitman.” Hoffa says this to Sheeran when seeking his services, only to discover that he’s hired his own murderer. The foundation for Sheeran’s brutal skill was laid in World War II, in a scene where he has two captured German soldiers dig their own graves before calmly shooting them dead. It was this, to many, perfectly “admirable” setup that made it possible for him to kill without conscience over and over again for the rest of his life.
In his other gangster films, Scorsese has shown murder at its most savage. In Goodfellas, a man is pistol-whipped nearly to death. In Casino, one pathetic soul has his head crushed in a vise, while the victim in another scene is beaten with a shovel and then buried alive. By contrast, the killings in The Irishman are all quick and bloodless. “Just business” is the watchword, and Sheeran is able to “paint houses” with agile cool. What he isn’t able to do is deal with the consequences that loom so dramatically at the end of his life.
These consequences come in the form of his daughter, Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a teenager and Anna Paquin as an adult). Peggy is virtually silent throughout the film. We see her observing her father’s strange world and commingling with his friends and associates at family gatherings, but she knows nothing of the particulars of his business. She is warm and convivial with Jimmy Hoffa, whom she treats as if he were a surrogate father, and when she intuits that her own father is responsible for Hoffa’s death, she refuses to speak to him ever again. At the film’s end, Sheeran, now in a nursing home and with a very short time left to live, only wants to speak to Peggy. She isn’t his only daughter — he has four. But Peggy is the one he longs for because she has seen into the depths of his dark soul. And her refusal to acknowledge him is a fate worse than death, every bit awful as those faced by Melville’s army of shadows.
In one memorable scene in that matchless work, a captured Resistance member asks another if he’d like one of his cyanide capsules, to finish himself off before the Nazis can. His comrade is too weak to answer. Frank Sheeran is just as weak at the close of The Irishman, and if the priest who’s visiting him had cyanide capsules available, he would surely ask for one.
Thanks to its producer-distributor Netflix, The Irishman has been widely available for both home and theatrical viewing. Army of Shadows, which was screened theatrically stateside in 2006, was released this year by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray. It’s a film as serious as a heart attack, and every bit as devastating. And it remains an example for all filmmakers to follow — Martin Scorsese scarcely being the least of them.
David Ehrenstein is a critic who focuses on film and LGBTQ issues. He has written for Film Culture, The Village Voice, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Rolling Stone, Cahiers du Cinéma, and many other venues. He is also the author of Film: The Front Line 1984, Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese, and Masters of Cinema: Roman Polanski. He blogs at fablog.ehrensteinland.com