It seems that my “Best of 2013” recaps keep getting pushed back by films that jump in my face and demand to be dealt with. That’s definitely the case with this one. Last Thursday through Saturday the Ziegfeld Theater here in New York, which has been showing The Wolf of Wall Street in a regular run, presented all five films that Martin Scorsese has made with Leonardo DiCaprio. In addition to Wolf, these include Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), and Shutter Island (2010). Of all these, I most wanted to see The Departed again, especially in a theater like the Ziegfeld, which has the second-largest screen in the city (not counting IMAX screens), and with digital projection the image was as sharp as a razor. I’m here to report that The Departed does not disappoint. If anything it surpasses what I’d remembered.
The Departed is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Brad Pitt and producer Brad Grey had obtained the remake rights in 2003. William Monahan was hired to write the screenplay, which located the story in Boston. Scorsese read the script and liked it, and signed on as director. Pitt, who was a producer on the film, and was initially set to also star with Leonardo DiCaprio, stepped aside in favor of a younger actor, Matt Damon. Jack Nicholson played Boston mob kingpin Frank Costello, a character based on the Irish gangster Whitey Bulger. Nicholson invests the character with a sense of menace that frequently becomes volcanic.
In The Departed DiCaprio’s character, William Costigan Jr., is recruited out of the police academy to go undercover in Costello’s gang. Likewise, Damon’s character Colin Sullivan is recruited by Costello to go undercover inside the police force. This might sound like a contrivance, but it works beautifully.
The Departed hits the ground running and does not let up. I hadn’t seen it for several years, and was struck by the freshness of it, the fierceness of it, and of how tight and controlled it all is. The following scene is a good example. Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, Jr. is ostensibly minding his own business in a convenience store in Boston until two hoods from Providence start shaking down the proprietor. Nobody does this like Martin Scorsese. Let ‘er rip.
Notice how the music that flares up when the fight starts supercharges the scene and takes it to another level entirely (the cut is “Nobody but Me” – The Human Beinz). Scorsese has used pop/rock songs in his features from the very beginning, starting with Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1967, his first film with Harvey Keitel (as well as Keitel’s first credited role in a motion picture). What surprised me when I saw it again was that I’d somehow forgotten about all the music in The Departed, but as soon as “Gimme Shelter” came up on the track at the beginning under Jack Nicholson’s voice-over, I was back in it. The Departed also has a score written by Howard Shore, but I don’t remember that at all, though I’m sure it’s fine. What I remember are the Stones, the Allman Brothers, and Roy Buchanan. I think it was Easy Rider (1969) that really put across the idea that you could score a movie entirely with rock songs. For me, it was when I’d first heard Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” under the main title credits of Blackboard Jungle (1955) that I knew something was shifting. The excitement I felt was very personal, and continues to be that way. The associations we have with music that we’re now hearing re-purposed by a filmmaker like Scorsese in a violent scene, for example, create a connection to the film that’s stronger and more personal than if we weren’t familiar with that music.
The Departed doesn’t need any help from me at this point. It appeared on thirty-seven top-10 lists of films of 2006, and won four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing. Additionally, Mark Wahlberg was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It’s obvious that everyone in the cast and crew was operating at the top of their game, and even above that. The acting is amazing from top to bottom. Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, and especially Alec Baldwin and Wahlberg are stand outs.
The Departed may not be as expansive as Goodfellas or as personal as Mean Streets (1973) or Taxi Driver (1976), and it may not contain as many F-words as The Wolf of Wall Street (237 vs. a record-breaking 506 for Wolf), but I think it’s definitely one of his strongest films, a tightly focused, uncompromising piece of work that gives us everything he does best.
The first time I ever heard of Martin Scorsese was in a film class taught by Dr. John Kuiper at the University of Iowa in 1964 or ’65. My memory is a little unclear on this, but I think Dr. Kuiper knew Scorsese at NYU. In any event, he showed two of Scorsese’s student film shorts in our class, The Big Shave and It’s Not Just You, Murray (1964). They seemed amazing to me at the time, particularly the inventive playfulness of Murray. A mystery at present is that The Big Shave is listed as a 1967 film in nearly every source I’ve checked except one, which has it as 1963. Maybe it wasn’t released by NYU until ’67, but I know I saw it in ’64 or ’65, unless I was time traveling. In any event, The Big Shave, which has become somewhat famous, is particularly interesting in that it foreshadows Scorsese’s use of music and fondness for blood, lots of it. Here are the shorts.
All of the films I’ve referenced, with the exception of The Wolf of Wall Street, are available on home video via a variety of venues. – Ted Hicks