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Now you’ve tasted my mutton, how do you like it, huh?

Movie

Gangs of New York
(2002)

 

You’d be hard-pressed to recognise the same director of Goodfellas, Taxi Driver or even Bringing out the Dead at work here. The clearest post-Corman precedent to Gangs of New York’s hack-schlock period gangster posturing is Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake, and even that seems like a relatively pure genre spin in comparison to the uncertain, malformed storytelling and jarring editing and technique on display here. Marty’s epic is occasionally anchored by its performances, but even they are frequently adrift on an ocean of paper-thin characterisation. 

While he’d made a few missteps in the past, then, none were nearly as visible as this ill-fated collaboration with the Weinsteins, well into their phase of hubristic overspending for Oscar glory. Even the later Shutter Island, doomed to hit the rocks of derivative pulp, had a clear sense of what it wanted to be (one might add to the ranks of that ultimately doomed boat Scorsese’s alleged tenure as High Priest of the Church of Satan, replaced by one Jim Carrey). Gangs of New York is an overblown, unruly mess of a movie, a wannabe epic that stumbles in almost every department and often ends up looking a little silly. That it still wound up with ten Oscar nominations testifies to the campaigning clout of Harvey and Bob. That it won none tells you voters weren’t buying what they were selling this time.

Scorsese’s interest in this period of American – and more specifically New York – history extends back to childhood, wherebyhe had noticed there were parts of his neighbourhood that were much older than the rest”. His line of inquiry followed official history, whereby “I gradually realized that the Italian-Americans weren’t the first ones there, that other people had been there before us. As I began to understand this, it fascinated me. I kept wondering, how did New York look? What were the people like? How did they walk, eat, work, dress?” 

This is the history that has New York as a Dutch trading post (New Amsterdam) before coming into English hands (during the 1660s). As opposed to a pre-existing centre wiped out circa 1700 by global disaster/flooding and then requiring exhumation and repopulation (immigration). 150 years later and a very different narrative has been sculpted. Even the period Scorsese is covering has its share of debate – well, obviously; we’ve seen recently how easy it is to remould history in situ and distort or replace facts – not helped by the director playing fast and loose. It’s been speculated the Draft Riots, rather clumsily and unsuccessfully muscled into the movie in an attempt to provide a momentous event as historical backdrop, might have had something to do with the presence of the Russian Atlantic Squadron in New York in 1863; notably, the picture’s climactic scenes include a naval bombardment, something Scorsese and his writers added for the purposes of dramatic crescendo.

The director first read Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (1927) in 1970; lest he be taken as a reliable source, even Wiki notes suggestions Asbury “took journalistic liberties with his material”, which would be par for the course for the profession. Scorsese had gone through various versions of the movie he was aiming for with Jay Cocks, usually falling at the hurdle of costing. Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Mel Gibson, Willem Dafoe, Malcolm McDowell and Robert De Niro were all mooted at various points during these stages; it was only with Leo’s interest that there was confidence in securing a budget, thanks to a couple of enterprising CAA execs, Rick Yorn and Cathy Schulman, but there was still the problem of, as Peter Biskind puts it the “lengthy, convoluted script”. Which included, per Schulman: “the story of these gangs… the conscription riots, Lincoln’s presidency, the city burning down – twice, immigration policies, Tammany Hall politics, on and on… It was way too long. And way too dark. We did a couple more drafts with Cocks, but we felt we weren’t getting anywhere”.

Steven Zaillian (later of de-aging atrocity The Irishman) and Kenneth Lonergan honed the material sufficiently to gain credits, but the story was never really there; the kiss of death was entering production before it was ready, however, with Harvey on board and New York built in Rome. However formidable the issues with the material were, they were only exacerbated by the interfering Miramax boss, who was full of the possibilities in adding Scorsese to his stable: “For Harvey, it would be a triumph of branding”. In contrast, the more circumspect brother Bob “thought the project was a sinkhole and didn’t like the script”. 

Harvey was insistently on set and impinged on the director: “Harvey, with his suggestions and his huge ego, was an enormous encumbrance on his creativity… stopped him from being able to see the total picture”. Once the shoot – which went way over schedule and 25 percent over budget – was completed, clashes over the content continued. Scorsese had to contend with Miramax spin on top of the wrangles, with an early cut that was to be whittled down suggested as an overlong director’s cut, fuelling the idea “that the director was out of control”. The picture ended up being released a year after it was planned – anyone would think a plandemic was on, but it was just 9/11 – with the legacy that “Marty feels that this was not his best work. He was unhappy with the film”.

To his credit, we won’t see another best version, as Scorsese doesn’t believe in director’s cuts. Although, I rather suspect this is an Alexander, where no amount of tinkering could make a silk purse out of a sow’s – or one of Bill Butcher’s collection of human ones – ear. The irony is, by the sound of it, Harvey’s instincts were more on point than the director’s. There still would have been insurmountable issues in some of the casting, and the visuals, and the soundtrack – what was going on there, had Scorsese been watching Moulin Rouge! on a break period? – but the idea of dropping the draft riot and sprinting to finish isn’t so off beam; because the building blocks aren’t there, it feels superfluous, or at least inessential. 

But then, nigh-on anything he does to integrate the picture’s political backdrop fails to hold lustre, godfather like, probably because his protagonist and antagonist have very little interest in such matters. They’re too tangential to bring that aspect of the milieu into focus. So when the elements like Hemmings’ Schermerhorn stride into view, you’re left wondering quite what he’s in aid of. And when the riots begin, and we’re given a narration on their provenance, including detail of African-American casualties, we wonder why, if that’s so important, only one notable character of said ethnicity has featured (Lawrence Gillard Jr, of the same year’s The Wire) and in only a couple of scenes at that.

Were the main story robust, rather than hackneyed, it might have done something to limit the damage. Instead, we’re offered a “classic” revenge story, as Leo’s Amsterdam Vallon seeks revenge on Natives’ leader Bill the Butcher Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) for slaying his pappy Priest (Liam Neeson) in a street battle sixteen years earlier. Vallon’s a Roman Catholic, but Scorsese handles the paraphernalia in heavy-handed fashion, along with themes of betrayal (Henry Thomas’ Johnny Sirocco is the Judas, betraying Amsterdam’s true identity to Bill) and resurrection (having been “slain” by Bill, Amsterdam recuperates and returns for a showdown). 

Scorsese perversely fails to deliver the climactic fight we expect, interrupting it with a barrage and having Bill done in by shrapnel. Perhaps he recognised that DiCaprio was entirely unconvincing as a street tough; you don’t for a second think he’d be a match for Bill. I was unimpressed by Leo’s attempts at adult showings at the time, but aside from the physical limitations, he’s notable for holding his own against his peers in terms of performance (despite, reportedly, partying hard during filming). He’s hampered by Amsterdam’s lack of substance, though, which variously leads to his being foisted with a gangfellas narration and occasional lapses into Cruise-ish coasting. There are clearly competing aims here, such that Harvey nixed Scorsese’s choice of Sarah Polley for Cameron Diaz (rather like Samantha Morton and Brothers Grimm, then), in an attempt to bolster a Titanic romance selling point (Diaz received a lot of stick for the movie, not least her accent, but aside from being a boy, she’s fine; at any rate, she’s no more or less anomalous than DiCaprio in context).

Harvey wanted the movie to be more audience friendly, so stinting on the ears, rats, ultraviolence and slang dialogue. Some of those things are nonsense (the slang is one of the few inarguable pluses in the picture), but when you look at the violence and know it was worse (Priest was originally thoroughly dismembered), you’re left thinking he had a point.  Bill, with his cleavers and speeches on how “The nearest thing in nature to the flesh of a man is the flesh of a pig”, is on the path of Leatherface by way of Deadwood; you wouldn’t be surprised to see him chowing down on a victim, or cheerfully pushing it into the food chain (so making him an early architect for Happy Meals everywhere). 

Scorsese’s’ often-attuned judgement seems in short supply throughout, Biskind refers to the movie’s “stunning opening” with its “refugees from a Mad Hatter’s tea party”, but the first street fight is really quite awful, preceded by a setup out of Beyond Thunderdome and replete with a really badly edited fight sequence, coming off like a scrappy pop promo due to the Peter Gabriel, choppy choice of film speed and flying Hell-Cat (Cara Seymour). Michael Ballhaus worked wonders on Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence, but he comes unstuck with a movie that feels as overproduced as Hook; some of the photography is great, some of it terrible, such that you’re never in any doubt that you’re watching spectacle on grand sets. It adds to the sense that at no point does Scorsese really believes in his world; there’s no sustained verisimilitude, only thesps in hats and hair.

Day-Lewis? Yeah, he’s memorable. He always is. But here, he’s got a Johnny Depp, Keith Richards performance going on for him, one that sounds for all the world like Vic Reeves’ Kinky John (bizarre that Guantanamo Hanks was offered the part, but I guess someone with his Instagram fetishes would be a natural go-to for severed ears in jars). It’s a lot of work in aid of not very much beyond the actorly excess of it all. His dialogue consists of some choice phrases and slang, but also sub-Pesci violence and waxing on and on and on about how Priest was the last honourable man he killed. The extravagances of costumery – the eagle eye; Charles Dance’s were better in Last Action Hero – go to underline that there’s a lot of effort attempting to masking over the cracks in the construction. Inevitably, the actor remained in character throughout, and inevitably, he wasn’t keen on reuniting with Harvey, whom he knew from his Oscar win a decade back (“Daniel Day-Lewis, who is not a fan of Weinstein’s, was a reluctant participant. He said, ‘What he doesn’t understand is that I did Gangs in spite of Harvey, not because of Harvey’”).

This was, of course, the beginning of the director’s blossoming relationship with DiCaprio, one that would improve Scorsese’s box-office clout, even if the results were never better than decent-enough until The Wolf of Wall Street. In the immediacy, though, their first reunion would yield another expensive period piece, one that would underperform and, much to the director’s horror, reveal Harvey involvement after the fact. No one much talks about The Aviator now because it’s merely a respectable and – in its director’s terms –journeyman effort. Gangs of New York is hardly that, but it’s something altogether less satisfying: a director who has lost his bearings.

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