Down These Mean Streets
Great artists do more than express emotion; they also invent it. The difference comes through most clearly when there's no subject matter to distract you--when you listen to Beethoven and Chopin, for example, or Armstrong and Coltrane, and hear how they called up ranges of feeling that were new to the world. But you can just as well experience this opening of emotional territory when you look at a Velázquez painting, or read Dubliners, or watch a sequence of classic filmmaking.
Here's something of the mood that Martin Scorsese invented: The Rolling Stones churn and rumble and keen on the soundtrack as the camera cruises like a vintage Chevy into a low-ceilinged urban storefront. You take in all at once an atmosphere of shadows, tribalism and menace; you sense the directorial momentum, as if the engine that drove you inside had been left running.
Scorsese introduced this feeling many years ago, in Mean Streets; but since then he has ventured far from the Little Italy that served as a platform for the emotion. He went to Las Vegas and Tibet, 1930s Hollywood and ancient Judea, testing and stretching himself as great artists do. In so doing, he left behind the mood that was initially so striking, and so peculiarly his. I thought it was missing even in GoodFellas. I hadn't expected to encounter it again.
Yet here it is once more, revived for two and a half hours nonstop in The Departed. You might be surprised that Irish Catholic South Boston should have provided the opportunity for this stunning return, but I tell you the range of emotions would be characteristically, authentically Scorsese's even if The Departed were set in Kowloon.
Which, in a sense, it is.
Sources close to the production inform me that Scorsese was initially reluctant to direct The Departed, since this producer-initiated project is a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (2002, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak). Fans of Infernal Affairs (who are many, like the sequels) know it to be a clever, stylish, fast-moving and superficial action movie focused on the game-playing of two men who lead double lives. One, known to everyone as a police detective, works secretly for a mob boss. The other, known to everyone as a gangster, works undercover for the police. How these two deceivers chase each other through Infernal Affairs is far more important than anything they might feel during the pursuit. The characters' one or two moments of obligatory heartsickness do nothing to disrupt the picture's conventional sentiments of loyalty toward elders, chivalry toward women, fraternal respect toward a worthy adversary.
To Americanize this story, the producers of The Departed (who are also many) handed a translation of the script to screenwriter William Monahan. With considerable energy and a great trust in the power of foul-mouthed insult humor, Monahan went about transposing the events and characters to South Boston, a milieu he evidently knows something about. (I take it on faith that his grandfather was not originally a Manischewitz.) This package then went to Scorsese, who might have turned it into a mannerist exercise, like Cape Fear, but instead directed the movie as if every moment meant life or death, not just for the characters but for himself.
Start with the voice: a low, rattling sound, at once angry and mocking, that introduces the story of The Departed with a patch of seemingly omniscient narration. Later, when this frightening noise issues from an identifiable character, someone will guess that the speaker suffers from throat cancer. But nothing is truly eating this man, except the acid of his own amoral power. The voice belongs to mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who very soon will be a player in the drama but who for the first crucial moments of The Departed figures more as the genius loci of South Boston.
Images as ragged as the voice--shaky, fuzzy, archival--accompany his opening words, showing you the street fights that broke out in this neighborhood during the school-integration struggle of 1974. Then Costello himself steps onto the screen in devilish silhouette, a lean and stooping Spirit of South Boston, with long hair sweeping back from the forehead and a scraggly beard pointing down from the chin. Costello will prove to be an artist of sorts, a social philosopher, even a mentor; but he is first of all a man who rules by torture and murder, which leaves him looking none too clean. Like the people who attacked the school buses, he prefers his neighborhood to remain as it is: his own private hell, where "I beg your pardon?" is registered by smashing a beer stein against somebody's skull.