Friday, June 24, 2011

Movies and the Real-Life Mob

When special agents of the Boston FBI reported that gangster James “Whitey” Bulger finally had been captured after 16 years in hiding, the story immediately became front page news across the country. Bulger, a former South Boston mob figure implicated in 19 murders and various other nefarious activities including drugs and prostitution, literally vanished just hours before he was supposed to be taken into custody by FBI agents in January, 1995. As it turned out, Bulger was tipped off that he was going to be arrested by one of the FBI’s own, former agent John J. Connolly, Jr., for whom Bulger was working as an informant while he was still involved in his hugely profitable criminal enterprise. Bulger finally made his way to Santa Monica, California, where the now 81-year-old fugitive was quietly taken into custody on June 22.

This provocative three-volume encyclopedia is a valuable resource for readers seeking an understanding of how movies have both reflected and helped engender America's political, economic, and social history.

It seems fitting that Bulger was finally found living in Santa Monica, just down the road from Hollywood, as his life played out much like a character in a gangster film. Indeed, once the news about Bulger’s arrest broke, the Internet lit up with stories about how Jack Nicholson’s character in the film The Departed was at least loosely based on Bulger. Made by Martin Scorsese, The Departed finally earned the renowned director his first Oscar for Best Direction. As the encyclopedia entry on Scorsese that appears in ABC-CLIO’s newly released Movies in American History points out, Scorsese grew up in different Italian-American neighborhoods in New York City, where “he experienced a stark contrast between authority figures—wise guys and Catholic priests. Interestingly, as he grew up, Scorsese, although drawn toward the wise-guys, thought seriously about becoming a priest. Though he obviously joined neither group, his fascination with both shines through in his movies.”

Scorsese was perfectly placed to direct The Departed, having already made other gangster films, such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino. One of the things that have made Scorsese’s gangster movies different from others like those in The Godfather series is that he focuses on the lives of local, neighborhood mobsters—like Whitey Bulger. These distinctions are discussed in detail in Movies in American History, in which you’ll find in-depth pieces not only on particular movies, but also on the people and subjects that make film and its relationship to history so powerful. 

By Philip C. DiMare, Editor, Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia

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