Martin Scorsese is one of America’s masterful moviemakers. In 2006 he won the Academy Award for the crime film “The Departed.” It’s not Scorsese’s best movie, though it was a return to a theme he’s visited often in his career—gangsterism.
This Sunday, Sept. 19th, Scorsese has teamed with one of the most talented writers of “The Sopranos,’ multiple Emmy winner Terence Winter, to revisit that theme once again. The new series, on HBO, is “Boardwalk Empire,” set in 1920—at the dawn of Prohibition—primarily in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The show is swell. It’s ritzy, spiffy and spanky. It’s the bee’s knees and the cat’s meow. In other words, it’s that rare beast in any art form: The Real McCoy. It’s Jake.
You’d be all wet to miss it.
Fifteen years ago, Scorsese made another of his gangster films, “Casino.” At the same time he made a four-hour documentary for the British Film Institute entitled “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Film.”
At the time Scorsese said, “In the long run, this documentary is probably more important than ‘Casino.’“
He was probably right. The documentary is a stunning tour through Scorsese’s mind, focusing on his view of filmmaking in America and what it means, from D.W. Griffith up to the time when Scorsese himself started making movies. (Aside: HBO should acquire the rights and show this documentary sometime during the run of “Boardwalk Empire.”)
In his “Personal Journey,” Scorsese says that “to me, the most interesting of the classic [film] genres are the indigenous ones.” He identifies those as the American western, the American musical and the American gangster film.
These genres, he explains, “remind me of jazz—they allow for endless, increasingly complex, sometimes perverse, variations. And when these variations were played by the masters, they reflected the changing times. They gave us fascinating insights into American culture and the American psyche.”
He then talks specifically about the gangster genre. First he quotes Howard Hawks, who in 1932 made the original “Scarface,” one of Scorsese’s touchstone movies: “There is action only if there is danger.”
To “stay alive or die, this is our greatest drama,” Scorsese intones.
He talks about the origins of the gangster picture, before World War I: that D.W. Griffith made a short, silent gangster film called “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and that in 1915 director Raoul Walsh made one—“The Regeneration”—that was filmed on location on New York’s lower east side.
In these films, Scorsese tells us, it was a depressed environment that made kids turn to gangsterism.
“But 10 years later,” Scorsese says in his “Personal Journey,” “Prohibition brought about a time of movies that signaled a tremendous escalation of urban violence. What struck me in ‘Scarface’ was Howard Hawks’ cool and distant objectivity. He showed [the main character] Tony Camante—really Al Capone—as a vicious, immature, irresponsible character. Yet that world was almost attractive because of its irresponsibility. And that was disturbing.”
Which is exactly what Scorsese and Winter do in “Boardwalk Empire.”
In the documentary Scorsese also notes that Hawks—being Hawks—also put nice touches of humor in “Scarface.”
Again, the same can be said of the first episode of “Boardwalk Empire,” which Scorsese directed. Most particularly the scene where the Feds are on the phone trying to identify a bunch of well-known gangsters who are meeting in Atlantic City.
Jumping back to Scorsese’s “Personal Journey,” he continues about the gangster film: “At the end of the ‘30s came a really pivotal film—Raoul Walsh’s 'The Roaring Twenties.' This chronicle of the Prohibition era was the last great gangster film before the advent of film noir. It reads like a twisted Horatio Alger story—the gangster caricature of the American Dream.”
Scorsese continues, “This was the gripping saga of the war hero turned bootlegger and his downfall after the stock market crash,” and how “the gangster had now become a tragic figure.”
Furthermore, Scorsese says that “The Roaring Twenties” “was actually the inspiration of my student film, ‘It’s Not Just You, Murray!’ And I’d like to think that ‘Goodfellas’ comes out of the tradition of something as extraordinary as ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘Scarface.’”
And, clearly, “Boardwalk Empire” comes out of the tradition of these movies as well.
Reportedly, Scorsese, who is also an executive producer on “Boardwalk Empire,” worked closely with show creator Terence Winter on all aspects of the series, not just the one episode that Scorsese directed.
How wonderful for Scorsese that he’s now working on a project set in the era of those early gangster films that he so dearly loves. No longer does he have to be confined to a more modern gangster film that just pays homage to that era.
And even more wonderful for us. “Boardwalk Empire,” like all great entertainment, works on multiple levels. Thanks to its “Mad Men”-like attention to detail—including the music—and great ensemble acting—starting with an extraordinary performance by Steve Buscemi, who doesn’t just play the lead character, Nucky Thompson, but who disappears into the man’s soul—the show is a wonderful period drama.
But as Scorsese and Winter know, both of them steeped in gangsterism as they are, from the original “Scarface” to Tony Soprano, it’s not just the gangsters who are gangsters. Gangsterism pervades Americana, past and present, up to and including our presidents, who nonetheless proclaim they aren’t crooks.
What’s so brilliant about the metaphor Scorsese and Winter have in choosing to set “Boardwalk Empire” in Atlantic City during Prohibition is the pervasiveness of gangsterism during that period; the blurring of the line between politics and illegal activities as well as between regular folk and criminals.
The Scorsese-directed first episode sets the tone for the episodes that follow. I’ve seen the first five episodes of the show, and I think the series improves week-to-week. I love the look of the show—it seems to marry noir with the gangster genre more and more with each succeeding episode. Of those first five episodes, I think no. 5 is the best.
Besides the excellent ensemble acting—and special kudos to Gretchen Mol, who practically steals every scene she’s in once her character gets going—the writing is first rate. Besides Winter, other writers on the show include Lawrence Konner, Tim Van Patten, Howard Korder, and Margaret Nagle. Some may quibble that “Boardwalk Empire” is, at times, too reminiscent of some of the storylines used in “The Sopranos,” but I don’t have that beef.
As you begin to watch “Boardwalk Empire” you’ll likely find yourself not wanting to miss what happens next. It’s like Scorsese says about movies in “Personal Journey": “As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film.”