Friday, November 2, 2018

Public Enemy: The Life of Whitey Bulger Comes Full Circle

Not so long ago, my mother and Whitey Bulger had some nice sidewalk chats. It was June, 2011. She was in her nineties, and in the aftermath of a bad fall she was stuck in a rehab facility on 4th Street in Santa Monica. Her caregiver liked to take her out for walks in the neighborhood, and they both enjoyed kibitzing with a white-bearded gentleman who was frequently seen walking his dog. Then one day the street was ablaze with police cars and emergency vehicles. The notorious James “Whitey” Bulger, a Boston mob boss who’d been on the lam for 16 years, had just been caught. The FBI’s Most Wanted Man had been living a quiet life in a Santa Monica condo down the street from where my mom was staying. Obviously—given his background in organized crime—he was no gentleman. But he’d always be my mother’s favorite gangster.

Now both Mom and Whitey Bulger are gone. She passed on in 2014, at the ripe old age of 96. He lived until the day before Halloween: October 30, 2018. When I first read that he’d died  behind bars, I figured old age had caught up with him. Yes, he needed a wheelchair, but his end was apparently not as uneventful as that. When he was found unresponsive in his cell at the high-security prison in West Virginia to which he’d just been transferred, authorities immediately began investigating. Now the word is that he’d been beaten to death by a fellow inmate, who just happens to be a Mafia hitman.

More to come, I’m sure.

And this story will of course once again ramp up our fascination with the life (and death) of mobsters. Bulger himself inspired more than one movie and television drama. TV series ranging from Law and Order to Ray Donovan have included characters based on Bulger. In Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning 2006 film, The Departed, Jack Nicholson plays a colorful Bulger-like mob boss. The film Black Mass, released in 2015, is based on a 2001 non-fiction book, Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. To quote Wikipedia, “The film chronicles Bulger's years as an FBI informant, and his manipulation of his FBI handler as a means to eradicate his rivals for control of the Boston underworld, the Italian Mafia.” A heavily made-up Johnny Depp nabbed a Screen Actors Guild award for his lead performance.

Let’s face it: we love on-screen gangsters. Think of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films. Think of Scorsese over and over, probably hitting his peak with 1990’s Goodfellas. Now think back in time to the glory days of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Cagney’s  The Public Enemy and Robinson’s Little Caesar, both 1931, helped pave the way for bigger, bolder films about vengeful hoodlums who somehow won the audience’s affection. They also paved the way for the enforcement of the Production Code, which tried (but failed) to staunch the public’s yen for bad guys who were blood-thirsty but appealing.

Gangster stories are also fairly economical to film, which is why low-budget moviemakers of the Roger Corman ilk often put them on their production schedules. They mostly require prop weapons, lots of blanks, and gallons of fake blood. Corman made I Mobster, Machine-Gun Kelly (with the young Charles Bronson), and lots of others. I personally worked on Capone (starring Ben Gazzara) and—much later—Dillinger and Capone (with Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham). In Hollywood, at least, bad guys make good.


  1. Myself, I love a good caper. In real life I'm honest and law-abiding and theoretically what those people are doing onscreen is breaking the law. Yet it's fascinating to watch an art theft or a jewel heist.

  2. Thanks for reading -- and commenting -- Donna. And do visit Movieland again soon!