There is a tradition and cycle to Martin Scorsese’s gangster films. He kick started his career with Mean Streets (1973) and gave an insight to a new exciting kind of director who would emerge in the seventies. In Mean Streets Scorsese was able to draw on his own youth and New York upbringing. His next crime film was Taxi Driver in 1976. This continued in the same vein as Mean Streets depicting the isolation, loneliness and existential nature of someone growing up in such an urban environment as New York. Although not a crime film, Raging Bull (1980), does have an element of continuity to it in that the film charts the life of Jake La Motta, an Italian-American boxer who chose a sporting career instead of a criminal one (as Scorsese chose to be a filmmaker). It was another ten years before Scorsese would make another proper crime film and that was to be the excellent Goodfellas, charting the lives of career gangsters from the sixties through to the eighties, which was followed in 1996 with the Las Vegas set variation of Goodfellas in the form of Casino. Ten years after Casino, Scorsese returned to the genre he does best with The Departed and still continues to pleasantly surprise. This time Leonardo DiCaprio was to star, an actor who has taken over from Robert De Niro in becoming Scorsese’s regular. But taking over the mature and malevolent role of the villain was Jack Nicholson in one of his best performances for many a year as the ruthless and unpredictable gangster Frank Costello. But it is not just Nicholson and DiCaprio who are good here. The whole ensemble cast is impressive, from the sharp, crude and rough talking Marl Wahlberg to the always reliable gruff macho Alec Baldwin.
The plot of The Departed is lifted directly from Wai-Keung Lau and Alan Mak’s excellent thriller Infernal Affairs (2002). Scorsese and Warner Brothers bought the rights to that film for $1.75 million. It is no secret that Scorsese is a lover of world cinema and in most of his films there are shots or references to a whole host of world films and classics. The plot of The Departed (the title for the film does not appear until 18 minutes into the film) does not deviate too much from the Hong Kong film in that it is about a pair of recently trained cops (although this time they’re from the Massachusetts Police Department) who follow opposite paths of crime and crime enforcement. One, Billy (DiCaprio), has been ordered to go deep undercover for more than a year, infiltrate the gang of Frank Costello and gain his trust in order to bust him. Over this period of time Billy becomes concerned that he will eventually lose his identity and empathise with those he is mixing with. On the other end of the scale, recruit Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is closely linked to Costello’s gang and is promoted internally in the police force to becoming a member of the Special Investigations Unit and is able to keep tabs on the police force, their activity and warn Costello should the police get too near to his operation. He faces the same problems as Billy. As time goes on and the police ready themselves to make a move, matters become dangerous for everyone.
Few who went to see this film, even with the cast and Scorsese credited as the director, could have expected this film to garner plaudits placing it alongside Goodfellas, but some did. Like Goodfellas, with Nicholson unleashed as Frank Costello he brings that usual blend of comedy and sinister violence to the role – which was the real motivation that Nicholson had in signing up. One has to ask why it has taken so many years for Nicholson to appear in a Scorsese film. Nicholson did not agree to take the part until a meeting with Scorsese and DiCaprio took place and that allegedly took some convincing. To give a measure of the trust Scorsese placed in Nicholson, many of Nicholson’s lines and scenes were improvised by the veteran actor and work particularly well. Nicholson’s character, as well as coming from Infernal Affairs was actually based off a real gangster called James J. ‘Whitey’ Bulger, an Irish-American Boston gangster who had been working as an FBI informant for three years – when this story broke a big scandal ensued.
The film was originally to be shot in Boston, but due to political wrangling and the high tax which was going to be levied for filming in the city it was considered more prudent to film in New York. For some directors and actors, such as Ben Affleck, Boston has taken over the mantle of New York as a tough crime city and The Departed merely adds to that canon. Scriptwriter William Monahan himself hails from Boston (though Nicholson refused to wear a Boston Red Sox baseball cap and sticks to his New York Yankees cap). It is (deservedly) Nicholson’s performance that receives all the plaudits, but Wahlberg’s foul-mouthed cop is a pretty impressive turn – and witty too. Full credit to Monahan for his caustic, sharp tongued speech. There is a stellar cast here. Just the line up makes for impressive reading: DiCaprio, Nicholson, Damon, Wahlberg, Baldwin and Martin Sheen.
Needless to say Scorsese’s film was well received and received many plaudits from critics; comparison with his early work and the gangster films was inevitable. I for one have only seen this film once, did not have high expectations and was pleasantly surprised and will be viewing the film again. Scorsese continues to surprise as he did again with last year’s Shutter Island and although he might not be as productive as he once was, his first films never the less still have an impact.