Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Whitey Bulger: The Godfather, Part IV

So they got Whitey Bulger, just down the street from the rehab facility where my mom is recuperating from a fractured pelvis. It’s a quiet street: folks walk their dogs there, and take strolls toward the ocean two blocks away. Bulger, on the lam after racketeering, narcotics, and murder charges put him at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list, had slipped into Santa Monica fifteen years ago. He and his longtime lady friend posed as a mild-mannered pair of retirees, shopping at the 99 Cents store and becoming familiar faces to neighborhood residents. Bulger’s arrest on June 22 was a great moment for law enforcement, as well as for the geriatric folks whose day was brightened by all the TV vans and other commotion in the vicinity.

The thought of Whitey Bulger growing old and grey in Santa Monica put me in mind of Henry Hill, the leading character (played by Ray Liotta) in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In the course of that film, Hill (based on a real-life mob henchman) swindles, robs, murders, and betrays; by the end he is under the wing of the Witness Protection Program, surviving a dull, law-abiding life in suburbia. His final voiceover tells the tale: “I'm an average nobody. . . I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Scorsese’s film is a brilliant exposé of a Mafia sidekick, but -- from what I hear --Whitey Bulger played second fiddle to no man. So, though of course I’m relieved that he was arrested peaceably, without recourse to any of the thirty weapons he apparently had stashed in his modest apartment, I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed that his demise was so, well, uncinematic.

Yes, I’m a sucker for the classic gangster films of the 1930s. Those early crime-does-not-pay flicks, with their dramatic finales, set the pattern for decades of movie bad guys. (Warning: spoilers ahead!) Remember James Cagney in The Public Enemy unexpectedly coming home in a box? Remember Paul Muni in Scarface, felled in a shoot-‘em-out with the coppers? Best of all, remember Edward G. Robinson as Caesar Enrico Bandello in Little Caesar? In a sorry state following a life of crime, he is lured from his flophouse by his nemesis on the police force.. When Sgt. Flaherty guns him down beneath a billboard that bears the image of his glamorous former love, he raises his eyes to the heavens and utters a deathless line, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

Over the decades, the endings of gangster movies have kept getting bigger. White Heat (1949) has one of the all-time great death scenes, featuring gunfire, explosions, and Cagney on high shouting, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!” I don’t pretend that the characters played by Cagney and the others were heroes. But they were bold, forceful, charismatic figures, pursuing the American Dream on their own terms. As a red-blooded American, I can’t help rooting for guys like these on the movie screen, if not in real life. They went out in a blaze of glory. Whitey Bulger, though, met his fate quietly—not with a bang but with a whimper.


  1. I've seen a few of Cagney's movies, the earliest being WHITE HEAT. Not sure if I've seen PUBLIC ENEMY, but it sounds good. I think there's a box set of his movies available. Have you seen this obscure and underrated little psychological pseudo horror movie called FADE TO BLACK? Dennis Christopher plays a movie obsessed outcast who patterns his life after a myriad of movie characters particularly Cagney and the ending is a recreation of the end of WHITE HEAT atop the Grauman's Chinese Theater.

  2. No, that one's news to me. Sounds remarkable!

  3. It's a top film in my book and definitely a 'film fan's' film. Lots of old movie clips spread throughout that act as extensions of the main characters conscience--the old gangster films you mentioned as well as stuff like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It's also got an early role by Mickey Rourke. I think you'd like it. Vernon Zimmerman was the director.

  4. It's definitely going on my (very long) list!

  5. I love Fade to Black - and I do recommend it - but the idea might have the film a little more lofty in your imagination than the end result. Keep expectations lowered - it was released as a part of the horror glut post Halloween and Friday the 13th in the early 80's; has a somewhat miscast (but charmingly so) lead; and switches tone between drama, melodrama, horror, and goofy comedy from Tim Thomerson. That said - I adore it and hope you like it too!

    I love the old gangster pictures - anything from the 1930's with Cagney is well worth a watch or three!