News broke yesterday that the upcoming $100 million dollar Scorsese film The Irishman has landed a Chinese distributor, highly boosting its chances for box office success. It was bought by Hong-Kong based Media Asia. General manager Fred Tsui issued a statement saying that:
"The film has every indication of becoming a magnum opus that will go down in film history as one of the best gangster flicks ever made."
With all-time cinematic legend Martin Scorsese behind the camera, and Robert De Niro attached to the lead role alongside Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, The Irishman certainly has a vast amount of potential. Equally intriguing is the story itself, which done correctly has enough potential to be a contender for Best Picture. But what exactly is The Irishman about?
Here are the life and times of Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, one of the mob's most feared hitmen.
Desensitised To Violence Early On
Born in the working-class Derby, Pennsylvania in October 25, 1920 Irish-American Frank Sheeran was only 20 when he enlisted in the American army. Two years of training and working for the military police later he was shipped to North Africa to join the Italian campaign. He was part of The Western Taskforce spearheaded by General Patton that took part in the Sicilian Invasions.
All in all, his campaign lasted an extremely long 411 days, witnessing and taking part in many horrors. According to Frank:
"You get used to death. You get used to killing. You lost the moral skill you had developed in civilian life. You developed a hard covering, like being encased in lead."
It was in learning to forget basic tenants of morality and empathy that later made Frank the perfect man for the mob. He was seen as totally devoid of remorse. As his former attorney Charles Brandt once said:
“Remorse is something you could feel with Sheeran, but it’s something he had no vocabulary for.”
He was part of the squad that liberated Dachau, and took part in the infamous bloody reprisals against the German officers which amounted to nothing less than illegal summary executions. Coming across a Wehrmacht mule train, he stopped them, made them dig their own graves and then shot them.
He later explained that:
"I had no hesitation in doing what I had to do"
As well as learning how to kill, Sheeran developed a fascination with Italian culture, spending fifty days AWOL "mostly spent drinking red wine and chasing Italian, French, and German women".
He finished with the army on 24 October 1945, taking a job as a trucker.
Working For The Mob
It was on a drive from Philadelphia to New York in 1955 that he met Russell Bufalino, otherwise known as 'The Quiet Don'. His truck broke down, but Bufalino was there to make sure it went smoothly again. In the process they struck up a friendship and soon Sheeran was working for him as a professional hitman. In the mob he found a vocation that appealed directly to his emotionally stunted and callous nature.
Through Bufalino, Sheeran was introduced to Jimmy Hoffa, the President of The International Brotherhood Teamsters Union. At the time the Union was heavily involved with the mafia, with accusations of fraud, bribery and jury tampering all circling around Hoffa. Sheeran worked his way up to become a senior member of the union.
He was 6.4, hard-skinned and a ruthless killer. He used to use his light Irish skin as an advantage: as other mob members didn't see him as Italian he could pass by undetected, usually dressed as a truck driver pretending to use the restroom, before killing them in cold blood.
He claimed the murder of "Crazy" Joe Gallo, who he apparently shot down on his 43rd Birthday at Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy, Manhattan. More outlandishly he also claimed to be involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Apparently, Bobby Kennedy was getting too involved with Hoffa's union, leading Hoffa to take out a hit on the president. Although Sheeran claims not to have been involved in the murder himself, he provided three rifles to David Ferrie, a possible suspect in the Kennedy Assassination. Despite these wild claims, the murder he is most famous for, and I suspect the film adaptation will focus on, is of his friend Jimmy Hoffa.
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The Murder of Jimmy Hoffa
Jimmy Hoffa - who had previously been convicted for 13 years for corruption in the union but was let out after five by President Nixon himself - was viewed by the mob as a liability. Being barred from taking part in any union activities, he grew frustrated, and his hotheadedness was seen as something that could compromise what Bufalino had built. So a hit was taken out on his head. Sheeran's loyalty to Bufalino meant he had no qualms about committing the murder.
Sheeran would only admit the murder in order to ensure posterity and on the promise that it would be published only after his death. In the Spring of 2001 he met with Journalist Ed Shawn and confessed everything. Hoffa's disappearance in 1975 had remained largely a mystery, witnesses last seeing him in a car park in Detroit getting into a maroon Mercury Marquis Brougham.
According to Sheeran, he picked him up at the car park with two other friends, telling Hoffa that they were taking him to a mob meeting. They took him to an abandoned house in Detroit. Once Hoffa stepped inside that empty building Sheeran shot him twice in the back. His two friends dragged the body down the hall, and it was later taken to a mob-connected funeral home to be cremated.
Although Sheeran was never convicted for his murder, the way in which his confession links up to the evidence is hard to deny. When Shawn looked into the alleged house, he found that Frank's description "fit the interior to a tee". There was blood found on the carpet that matched up with Frank's reports although the DNA could not confirm an exact match. Additionally, a single hair of Hoffa's was found in the same reported car. The FBI had tried previously and continuously to gain his cooperation but he denied them every time.
He died in December 14th 2003 at the age of 83. His life story, entitled "I Heard You Paint Houses" was published by his attorney the following year.
Why This Story Could Be Scorsese's Best
Although he is an incredibly diverse filmmaker - name two films further apart than Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Kundun - Scorsese does it best when he focuses on the nature of sin: think Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ. Arguably more entertaining are his epics about gang mentality, the more stereotypically "Scorsesesque" Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf Of Wall Street, The Departed and Gangs of New York.
Raised as an Italian-American and a Catholic, Scorsese has been grappling his whole life between the concept of sin and redemption and the more practical matters of living day-to-day and on the rough-and-tumble streets. As he says at the beginning of Mean Streets:
"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets."
The Irishman provides a fertile ground for Scorsese to play around with these themes again. The fact that this is a story about an Irish-American working for Italian-Americans works for his advantage, having experience writing and directing about the Irish in Gangs of New York and The Departed, and Italians in every other one of his gangster pictures apart from Boxcar Bertha. The combination of the two could lead to some dynamite results, as well as the fascination factor of the two sides of Sheeran; cold-blooded killer and women chaser. Think when Pesci visits his mother in Goodfellas and imagine that dichotomy being the basis of De Niro's character. With old team-mates Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (who hasn't been in a live-action film since 2010) on board, coupled with his first time ever with legend Al Pacino, The Irishman could be an epic to match some of his best work.
Additionally the story of Hoffa - a union man who raised millions out of poverty by guaranteeing workers rights, yet due to his corruption ended up dying for it - has a tragic air about it reminiscent of season two of The Wire. By pinpointing the rise of mafia activity and the dissolution of Union morality against the fallout of the Second World War, Scorsese is in a strong position to create a powerful and vital work about the American Dream, all scored to at least one Rolling Stones song.
What Do You Think? Can Scorsese Equal or Better His Best Work?
Source: Brandt, Charles (2004). "I Heard You Paint Houses": Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa