Peter Bart: Wise Guys Take Center Stage For Netflix As Cinephiles Mourn Genre’s Demise

The Irishman, released this week, represents Netflix’s boldest entry into the feature business, but for cinephiles it also reflects a likely farewell to one of Hollywood’s classic genres — the gangster film.

Gangsters, like cowboys (or drama in general) have essentially been put out to pasture by superheroes, a phenomenon Martin Scorsese deplored Tuesday in a passionate op-ed piece in the New York Times. His view, previously endorsed by Francis Coppola, suggests that Marvel and its imitators are dominating the marketplace by remaking the same films and re-visiting the same characters.

“It’s a perilous time,” Scorsese writes, “when franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen.”

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To be sure, the superhero auteurs promptly, if respectfully, turned the charge right back on them.

Despite strong reviews, The Irishman was, to some critics, Goodfellas on steroids — “Greatfellas” was the Wall Street Journal’s label. It’s a Mean Streets milieu — a franchise — that Scorsese has regularly revisited through the years. Indeed, some argue that the gangster genre likely reached its true zenith 50 years earlier with the release of The Godfather (which was 32 minutes shorter).

In sharing their points of view, Scorsese and Coppola inevitably invited comparisons in terms of topicality, structure and overall approach to their own styles of storytelling. Given their divergent sensibilities, for example, could Scorsese ever have made The Godfather? Or could Coppola have ever directed The Irishman?

Both films are great sagas about wise guys, but with key differences: Residing at the center of The Godfather is a gangster oligarch ruling his family enterprises in the tradition of his Sicilian roots. By contrast, The Irishman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), does not occupy command central, but faithfully follows orders from various bosses (Jimmy Hoffa being the final one). His soulless loyalty helps him survive through a succession of turbulent decades.

Another contrast: Scorsese’s films and public statements reflect more of an emotional connection to his wise guys not present in Coppola’s work. Scorsese’s narratives unfold amid a maelstrom of violence. Coppola, on the other hand, displays an ambivalence toward both gangsters and violence. He shot the famed tollbooth scene in Godfather I under protest because he felt the movie already was steeped in violence.

Indeed, when Paramount initially optioned the unfinished manuscript by Mario Puzo 50 years ago, and urged Coppola to direct it, he repeatedly declined, insisting “I am not a gangster director.” His overall selection of film subjects over the years has reflected far-ranging interests from Apocalypse Now to Tucker to Cotton Club. Scorsese, too, moved to other arenas (spiritual films like Silence or The Last Temptation of Christ) only to return to the wise guy circuit, which he now says he intends to abandon.

Women play an important dramatic role in the “mob royalty” of The Godfather — witness Kay’s (Diane Keaton) dramatic revelation to Michael (Al Pacino) of her abortion. Women characters abound in The Irishman, but they are ghostly bystanders. The wives of Frank and Russell (Joe Pesci) go along on the long automobile ride that serves as a narrative centerpiece, but they do little except smoke and complain. The accusatory gaze of Frank’s daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin), is revealing, but devoid of dialogue that might have expressed her conscience.

In its own mythical way, The Godfather serves almost as a celebration of its moment, while the mood of the elegiac Irishman, as critic Anthony Lane puts it, “feels sadder and slower.” It was, he wrote, as though its auteur was “seeking to reckon with his reverence.”

The Irishman surely will have its important impact on the awards season as well as on the size of Netflix’s global audience. Whether it will occupy the mythic status of The Godfather will surely be the subject of endless cinephile debate.

In any case, the wise guys likely will disappear into the sunset, winking a fond farewell to their superhero successors.

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