In Retrospect – New York, New York (1977)

Analyzing De Niro

I’m delighted to have contributed this review to You Talkin’ To Me‘s excellent Analyzing De Niro Blogathon, run by Mark at Marked Movies and Tyson at Head In A Vice. As the title suggests, the Blogathon focusses entirely on the movies of Mr Robert De Niro and this post covers Bobby’s third collaboration with Martin Scorsese, 1977’s New York, New York.

The long and fruitful partnership between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese has spawned a multitude of enduring classics forever etched in our collective cinematic consciousness.

A misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless, New York, New York is the oft neglected offspring of the formidable Scorsese/De Niro partnership

A misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless, New York, New York is the oft neglected offspring of the formidable Scorsese/De Niro partnership

In the four years between the release of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, De Niro and Scorsese collaborated on New York, New York, the oft neglected offspring of their remarkable relationship.

After the critical and surprising commercial success of the apocalyptically dark Taxi Driver, an emboldened Scorsese used the bigger budget he was able to command to break away from down and dirty depictions of the Big Apple to instead direct what amounted to a love letter, both to the city of his birth and to the old Hollywood musicals he grew up watching.

Start spreading the news, it's Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) in New York, New York

Start spreading the news, it’s Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) in New York, New York

Scorsese cast De Niro in the lead role of Jimmy Doyle, a smooth talking egotist with a zany streak and a gift for the saxophone. Audiences at the time were used to seeing Bobby play wiseguys and sociopaths, so to watch him clowning around on screen must have been a novelty.

The film opens in New York on V-J Day in 1945 and spends the first 20 minutes inside a nightclub in full swing, with Jimmy, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a shiny pair of spats he won in a bet, trying to work his magic on Liza Minnelli’s demobbed singer Francine. Through sheer force of will it seems, Jimmy eventually manages to woo Francine and the pair discover that her voice and his sax are made for each other.

Robert De Niro learned how to play the sax to play Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York

Robert De Niro learned how to play the sax to play Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York

A marriage and a child follow but, as Francine becomes more successful in her own right, Jimmy’s inherent insecurities, bullying nature and jealousy threaten to tear both their personal and professional ties apart.

De Niro could do no wrong at the time and prepared for the role in typically methodical fashion by learning to play the sax (although the arrangements were actually dubbed in post-production by the esteemed Georgie Auld). As such, he looks at home on stage leading his band and handles the sax with aplomb instead of looking like he picked it up five minutes before the cameras rolled.

New York, New YorkWe now know that De Niro can ‘do’ comedy almost as well as he does drama, but at the time it was uncertain if the actor, renowned for his on-screen intensity, would be able to sell funny. Minnelli’s reaction to some of De Niro’s goofing is priceless, while the scene with Jimmy feigning a war wound to get out of paying a hotel bill is pure slapstick.

The comedy gradually wears off as the picture becomes more of a relationship drama and it’s here Bobby spreads his wings. De Niro is a master of the long silent stare (the one where you’re unsure whether he’s going to explode with violent rage or not) and employs it to disquieting effect here on more than one occasion. Minnelli’s genuine unease in these moments is palpable.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) gets into a spot of trouble in New York, New York

Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) gets into a spot of trouble in New York, New York

As Cabaret had shown back in 1972, there was still an audience for musicals. However, unlike the Hollywood greats it was hoping to emulate, New York, New York suffers from confused plotting and a flabby narrative (the film is almost three hours long). Apparently, the actors ad-libbed much of the movie and it shows; scenes are allowed to play out for far too long and things aren’t helped by the tepid on-screen chemistry between De Niro and Minnelli.

A typically memorable Martin Scorsese shot in New York, New York

A typically memorable Martin Scorsese shot in New York, New York

Sandwiched between Travis Bickle and Jake Lamotta, De Niro’s Jimmy Doyle ain’t all that, but when considered as part of his overall career it’s a notable chapter for opening up audiences’ eyes to a part of his repertoire that he’s since gone on to enjoy considerable success with.

If for nothing else, the film gave Frank Sinatra one of his most iconic hits and provided nightclubbers with an end-of-evening drunken anthem.

Scorsese’s description of New York, New York as a ‘film noir musical’ is apt one –  both Old Hollywood (the lovely moment Jimmy watches a sailor dancing with his girl under the subway tracks is an affectionate wink to On The Town) and New Hollywood are fused into what might end up being a misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

In Retrospect – The Departed (2006)

This review forms part of the Martin Scorsese Guest Review series on the very impressive Rorschach Reviews site. If you’re a lover of film like me, you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff over there.

One of cinema’s great injustices was finally laid to rest at the 2007 Oscars when Academy voters ended Martin Scorsese’s 30-year wait for a best directing award.

The Departed

The Departed will be best remembered as the film that bagged Scorsese that elusive Oscar. Judged against the director’s other work, however, it’s an entertaining footnote, but a footnote just the same.

That it was for The Departed, a solid, entertaining crime thriller and not for any one of his five previous nominations, most of which are better pictures, must have been a bittersweet feeling for Scorsese, who joked it probably won its accolades because it was “the first movie I’ve done with a plot”.

After directing what were arguably the landmark American films of the 1970s (Taxi Driver, 1976), 1980s (Raging Bull, 1980) and 1990s (Goodfellas, 1990), Scorsese entered a new phase of his career in the 2000s, flip-flopping between prestige studio pictures like The Aviator and personal documentaries, such as his Bob Dylan project No Direction Home.

William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover in The Departed

William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover in The Departed

Arriving in 2006, The Departed feels like the last throw of the dice for Scorsese, who at this time must have been wondering if he’d ever collect one of those little golden statuettes.

A remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s superb Infernal Affairs (2002), William Monahan’s script stays pretty faithful to the original, but transfers the storyline from Hong Kong to the mean streets of South Boston.

Psychopathic mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed

Psychopathic mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed

Irish mob kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) plants young acolyte Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as a mole within the Massachusetts State Police. At the same time, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), a kid trying to escape his family’s criminal ways by becoming a cop is persuaded to go deep undercover into Costello’s notorious gang in order to expose its murderous leader. Essentially negative images of one another, the stakes are raised as each risks life and limb to expose the other ‘rat’.

The Departed feels like a Scorsese Greatest Hits package in many ways. With long time Editor Thelma Schoonmaker once again on board, the kinetic editing style he employed to such great effect in Goodfellas and Casino is used throughout the picture, as are the director’s trademark freeze frames and restless, back-and-forth camerawork, lending the film a hyper-reality.

Costello's mole in the police, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed

Costello’s mole in the police, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed

Music has always played a major part of Scorsese’s oeuvre and here it’s no different. Although the soundtrack is fantastic the songs tend to telegraph the action on screen a little too obviously. The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter (seriously, how many times has Scorsese used that song in his films?) is played as Costello takes Sullivan under his wing, while Comfortably Numb (the version featuring Roger Waters, Van Morrison and The Band) soundtracks Costigan finding solace with state-appointed psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), and Roy Buchanan’s cover of Sweet Dreams is used to ironic effect over the closing credits.

A celebrated film historian, Marty also litters the movie with homages, from Scarface (both versions) to Night and the Hunter and The Third Man among others.

Psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), torn between two men in The Departed

Psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), torn between two men in The Departed

One of the film’s biggest diversions from Infernal Affairs is its preoccupation with Catholicism, specifically its hang-ups with sin, guilt and redemption. For someone who almost entered the priesthood in his formative years, it’s no surprise many of his films deal with these issues, although not since his breakout film Mean Streets has Catholicism been so integral to the story.

The church and the streets (literally) bleed together, most viscerally when Costigan uses a picture of Jesus to smash over a guy’s head. Costello represents the devil, luring an impressionable Sullivan into his fold, while Sullivan tellingly purchases an apartment in view of the local church. Also, the guilt Sullivan feels manifests itself in his struggle to perform sexually with Madden.

Foul-mouthed cop Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in The Departed

Foul-mouthed cop Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in The Departed

The concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are integral to The Departed and fascinated Scorsese, who said in an interview: “Good and bad become very blurred. That is something I know I’m attracted to. It’s a world where morality doesn’t exist, good doesn’t exist, so you can’t even sin any more as there’s nothing to sin against. There’s no redemption of any kind.”

The film is full of memorable performances, including Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, who make a great double act as Costigan’s chalk and cheese undercover handlers. Likewise, Alec Baldwin has a ball playing big as Sullivan’s boss, while Farmiga holds her own in the picture’s only significant female role.

Martin Scorsese with the Best Director Oscar he won for The Departed

Martin Scorsese with the Best Director Oscar he won for The Departed

Damon, a far more talented actor than he’s given credit for, gives a performance of impressive restraint. DiCaprio on the other hand goes in the other direction and too often falls back on that trademark look he gives of squinting his eyes, pursing his lips and jutting out his jaw to imply anger or stress. It’s to DiCaprio’s credit as an actor that in spite of all that he still gives an impressive performance.

But DiCaprio’s positively catatonic when compared to Nicholson. A legend he may be, but when let off the leash he generally can’t help going way overboard. It’s well established that Costello is a psychopath (his reaction to executing a woman says as much – “Jeez, she fell funny”), but Nicholson’s rabid portrayal bypasses unhinged and goes straight to cartoonish.

The Departed will be best remembered as the film that bagged Scorsese that elusive Oscar. Judged against the director’s other work, however, it’s an entertaining footnote, but a footnote just the same.