Gangs of New York Review
It has to be stated upfront that Gangs Of New York, the most recent film from Martin Scorsese - one of our finest directors - is a very flawed film. It shows signs of heavy pre-release cutting, the structure is somewhat unsatisfactory and the characterisation is often alarmingly superficial, especially coming from the same director who made Mean Streets and Goodfellas. Indeed, it's often on the verge of collapsing under its own good intentions and far-reaching ambitions. And yet... and yet... Gangs of New York is also a rather wonderful movie, packed with the kind of consummate technical skill and genuine passion for filmmaking that simply cannot be faked. Film on this sort of physical scale is rarely attempted nowadays and it's hardly surprising, considering what Scorsese is attempting and our own expectations for a film which took 30 years to come together, that the end result is, on some levels, unsatisfying. But at its best, Gangs is as glorious a testament to the power of filmmaking as other deeply flawed but truly visionary works such as Intolerance, Major Dundee 1900 and Heaven's Gate.
The story concerns 'Amsterdam' (DiCaprio), son of Priest Vallon (Neeson), who has been brought up in an orphanage after seeing his father killed at the hands of Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Day-Lewis). The murder took place during a street battle between various gangs; Vallon led 'The Dead Rabbits', challenged by Butcher Bill's 'Natives' in an attempt to establish a hegemony over the Five Points - the conjunction of five slum streets in Paradise Square, an area mentioned by Charles Dickens in his book "American Notes". Upon reaching adulthood, Amsterdam is released from Hellgate Orphanage and sent back to the city by boat, where he sees the appalling treatment meted out to immigrants from Ireland at the quayside. Determined to avenge his father's death, and find a role for himself in the society from which he has been forcibly removed, Amsterdam quickly establishes himself and begins to ingratiate himself with Bill, who looks upon him with an avuncular, if suspicious, eye. Amsterdam's involvement with Jenny, Bill's concubine, begins to suggest conflict with his patron and the revelation of his true identity leads to a rift between the two men which can only be resolved through increasing acts of violence. This takes place among the background of the historically significant Draft Riots, the first occasion on which the government militia was used against the ordinary American people.
Basically, Scorsese is attempting to create an epic about the birth of modern America by focusing on the slums of New York during the mid-19th Century. It's a logical step for him after tackling New York during the mid-20th Century in films such as Taxi Driver and studying late-19th Century New York high society in what remains, for me, his most underrated film The Age Of Innocence. Indeed, this period of history has seldom been dealt with in the cinema and it's a complex and fascinating time, a Dickensian melange where thugs rub shoulders with crooked politicians while immigrants from Europe are marching off the boats on a weekly basis. Scorsese has often been at his best among lowlifes and has a special facility for dealing with characters whose lives are blighted by their own violent natures. This comes off particularly well in the portrayal of Bill Cutting, an anti-hero in the grand Scorsese tradition of Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Judas. Cutting is a vicious bastard but he's also a surprisingly reflective and sad one, the kind of man who will beat you senseless while delivering a eulogy for the passing of his youth. He's not exactly sympathetic but he's easily the most interesting and involving character in the film and I found myself drifting more and more away from the central story of Amsterdam and towards Cutting's quest for power and influence. Cutting doesn't just want to control the present; he has his eye set on shaping the future and his racist ambitions for a 'pure' America in which immigrants have no place is undeniably a bold one, if decidedly unpleasant. The other aspect which makes him the most involving figure in the film is his sense of his own myth. Like a Fordian hero - who recognises that he's living in times which will one day become legend - Bill wants to enter the history books on his own terms, not as a villain but as a far-seeing visionary who leaves an indelible mark on the progress of his country. But he also knows that history is inevitably written by the winners and, as control of the Five Points begins to slip out of his grasp, he becomes increasingly philosophical about how insignificant he will seem in the broader scheme of events.
Bill Cutting is a marvellous creation and Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a performance to match the conception. Looking simultaneously intimidating and ridiculous in a dandified outfit that clashes with his profession and his dubious intentions, Day-Lewis is unforgettable; terrifying when he needs to be but ultimately very affecting and strangely tragic. One scene, where he explains how he got his glass eye, is a masterclass in restrained power and Day-Lewis rises to the occasion with a haunting monologue that's all the more memorable for being so quiet. The inspirations for the performance come from all over the place; on the commentary, Scorsese mentions the villain in Les Enfants Du Paradis but there are shades of De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel here as well. But it all comes together in a piece of acting which transcends the film and is certainly the best performance Day-Lewis has given since In The Name of the Father.
The other actors - and indeed characters - are in the shade of Bill the Butcher, for two reasons. Firstly,with one exception, none of the actors quite hold the screen with the same force as Day-Lewis, and secondly, none of the other characters are given as much dominance or shading in the screenplay. Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam is a somewhat pallid hero, lacking the moral force of, say, Charlie in Mean Streets - in which Keitel was similarly in the shade of De Niro but used that as part of the character. This is no reflection on DiCaprio who gives a sincere and touching performance but there's nothing in the writing which allows him to create anything new or unexpected. Amsterdam is simply a juvenile lead who has been given a past to try and make him less colourless. It doesn't really work and DiCaprio seems to be drowning rather than waving in the scenes where he's meant to be impressing Bill with how tough he is. However, DiCaprio does score a little triumph in the memorable moment when his true past is revealed to Bill and he has to express the terror of realisation that he's about to be seriously hurt. As the red-haired Jenny, the girl who goes with Bill in payment for his protection and falls in love with Amsterdam, Cameron Diaz is perfectly adequate but rather wasted. She plays much better with Day-Lewis than with DiCaprio, an early flirtation scene on the street with Amsterdam suggesting more chemistry between the young leads than becomes apparent. Her grace and humour on her first appearance seems to fizzle away as well, returning fitfully in moments such as when she is required to choose a young man to dance with at a church social or in her best scene, when she helps Bill to perform 'The Butcher's Apprentice', a knife-throwing turn at the local theatre.
In the supporting cast, a fine array of actors have a lot of fun without getting much of a chance to show off their considerable talents. Jim Broadbent comes off quite well as William Tweed, the corrupt local politician who later became the infamous Boss Tweed, and he gets some nice comic moments in which he seems to be revelling in his duplicity and his ability to please all the people all of the time while secretly screwing them out of their livelihoods. But strong performers like John C.Reilly and Henry Thomas have little to do, although in the minor role of a brutal cop Reilly swings his truncheon with relish, and some distinguished British performers - David Hemmings, Michael Byrne, Alec McCowen - drift in and out of the story seeming amused at how little is asked of them. This trend was first in evidence in The Age Of Innocence and seems to be something Scorsese likes doing, possibly because British actors provide a link with his beloved Powell-Pressburger films or maybe because they have such wonderful gargoyle faces - David Hemmings has grown into an unforgettable creation, a shock of white hair crowning eyebrows which point in three directions at once. It's certainly nice to see all these actors - Gary Lewis is a long way from Billy Elliott here, although still playing a hard bastard - but you want them to have more to do, especially when DiCaprio and Diaz are sparring rather boringly in the foreground.
The major exception is Brendan Gleeson, an actor who seems to be getting better with every film. It's only in the past five years that he's got much attention - despite his scene stealing in Braveheart - and after his tour-de-force in The General he's become one of those actors who is totally reliable. In the past couple of years he's worked with Spielberg, Boorman and now Scorsese and his work here - as Monk, the local barber who fights for money and refuses to join any of the gangs - is exceptional. When Gleeson is on screen, he dominates and even with the relatively small amount of screen time he's given, he creates a totally believable character. It's a shame that he's not seen more with Day-Lewis because the two of them together would generate enough dramatic heat to take the film to another level. That would need another movie though and not this painstaking and occasionally stifling historical epic. One of the problems with big movies is that you tend not to get the quirkiness that a small film can provide, where a good actor can carry the film off into another realm and make it something totally fresh. An example of this is M.Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple, turning a fairly standard film noir plot into something deliciously warped with his lip-smacking perversity in what would otherwise be a nothing role. Gangs of New York simply cannot offer that kind of pleasure.
It does, however, offer a good number of other pleasures, because Martin Scorsese is a remarkably talented director. He is mad about movies and the possibilities of movies and this communicates itself to the viewer with a directness which is quite irresistable. As with many of his works, Gangs is as much about other films as it is about 19th Century New York, and it's no surprise that Scorsese spends a good part of the commentary talking about the influences on the film's style. The opening battle scene, all fast cuts and intense but stylised violence comes from Chimes At Midnight according to Scorsese, but it also reminded me of Godard. There are nods to the Russian masters, with more than a few moments derived from Eisenstein. On a broader level, Bill is a character who is reminiscent of Ford and Peckinpah, and some of the supporting characters, notably William Tweed, are shown with the good-natured satire which Ford brought to his politicians in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and, more sentimentally, The Last Hurrah. Scorsese speaks of his film as an opera, bringing to mind both Visconti - Scorsese is a huge admirer of The Leopard - and Bertolucci. The scale of the film and the hubris of it brings to mind Bertolucci's own massive folly 1900, another film which never stood a chance of containing its own ambitions but which is often overwhelmingly beautiful to watch. The view of history in the film - the simultaneous overpowering inevitability and basic banality of great events when brought down to human terms - derives from Tolstoy but also , and more immediately, from Anthony Mann's El Cid and The Fall Of The Roman Empire. Scorsese's decisions are fascinating, sometimes effective and sometimes infuriating - I found some of the slow-motion rather self-consciously myth-making - but you never feel that anything is accidental. You are always in the hands of an individual vision, never a competent hack.
The scale of Gangs is impressive in itself. Based on Herbert Astbury's popular study of the period, the film masterfully recreates a whole community. Filmed largely on a vast set at Cinecitta, Mussolini's film studio in Italy where Fellini made many of his films, it has an opulence which is very old fashioned but quite appropriate to the subject. The long genesis of the film began with Boris Leven and the production design was passed on to Dante Feretti, and it's a staggering achievement. It's not exactly realistic, per se, it's a historical environment filtered through memory and other films - much as the New York of Leone's Once Upon A Time In America was. There's an authentic shabbiness though and nothing looks so new and clean that it immediately cries "fake" the moment you see it. The sense of a people beginning to form closed communities is powerful here, as it was in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The costumes are consistently marvellous, though you would expect no less, and Michael Ballhaus' lighting is sometimes hazily elegaic and sometimes harshly realistic. The use of fog in the final battle is particularly beautiful. The costumes by Sandy Powell are painstakingly accurate as well. Thelma Schoonmaker's editing has come in for some criticism, but it seems to me that those who say it's bad are missing the point. Every cutting decision was clearly made for a reason. You can disagree with the choices she and Scorsese made, but in terms of what she's doing then she cannot be faulted. Scorsese is going for a very original look here and the editing - sometimes deliberately choppy - is part of that. There are some continuity errors but Schoonmaker can't be blamed for those.
The biggest problem with the film has been much discussed and is that, even at over 160 minutes, it feels somehow curtailed. Apparently, Scorsese's own cut was well in excess of three hours and Harvey Weinstein prevailed upon him to shorten it. The truth about this will problem never be known but there's no denying that the film itself feels as if its missing something. If you watch Casino, for example, which runs over three hours, you feel a totally satisfying sense of a narrative which coheres and resolves within itself. Gangs seems to fade in and out of its various stories in a rather random manner and the ending, though moving and appropriate, is also a little arbitrary. Compressing of fictionalising factual events and characters is fine in itself but we do need to feel as if, within the film, each individual element is carefully placed and makes complete sense. Some elements here - the relationship between Jenny and Bill for example of the friendship of Amsterdam and Johnny Sirocco (Thomas) - aren't satisfying because we don't really understand what makes them work. The final images are moving and, in the wake of 9/11, inevitable but they round off the film without leaving us totally satisfied.
But, flawed as it undeniably is, Gangs is still a joy to watch. Some moments - the soldiers wading through the blood during the riots, Jenny revealing her scar, Bill playing to the crowd in the theatre, the sudden stabbing of a flunky who can't play cards, Bill riding on the front of a fire engine like some demon erupting from a smoky hell, the raid on the ship in the fog, Monk booting open the door to join the battle at the start - have such immense vitality that they stay with you after the film and some of them will stay with me in the way other classic scenes do. Scorsese's love for film and for the subject gives the film a vitality which it would otherwise lack and in the character of Bill the Butcher, he has found an ideal hook upon which to hang this great story. If he had possessed the courage to place Bill right at the centre of the film, then we would be talking about a masterpiece. As it is, and in a form which seems curtailed, Gangs is a flawed but fascinating film. Before we become too dismissive, it's wise to remember that most movies coming out of Hollywood struggle to achieve even half as much as Scorsese achieves here.
The news that Entertainment In Video would be releasing this film was greeted with groans of negativity from virtually every quarter, that distributor having gained one of the worst reputations of any British distributor. However, it's not a reputation which is entirely deserved. Their first series of releases back in 1999 was generally abysmal, but even then there were exceptions, such as Wag The Dog. Since then they have provided support for DTS when virtually no other distributor bothered, brought us faithful transpositions of R1 special editions - albeit in vastly inferior packaging - and generally offered as reliable a product as any of its competitors. Certainly, the likes of Tartan, Artificial Eye, Pathe and MGM have been just as variable, especially when it comes to back catalogue releases. I suspect that EIV's art and publicity department is largely to blame for their bad press, plastering hysterical quotes over the front and neglecting to give an accurate listing of the picture and sound formats and what extras have been included. But the discs themselves have become gradually more impressive and sometimes exceptionally good.
Gangs of New York has received a 2 disc special edition but, to be honest, it's not all that special. It's undoubtedly a pleasing release on most levels but when you get through the discs there is a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that it wasn't more substantial.
There has been much debate about the quality of the picture. No complaints about the basics - an anamorphic transfer framed in the correct 2.35:1 ratio. However, the region 1 disc divided the film into two halves and the higher bit rate resulted in a picture which was reportedly very good. The region 2 disc places the film on one disc and the extras on the other. The bad news is that this seems to have resulted in some unsightly artifacting which is particularly unpleasant during the interior and night scenes. There is also rather a lot of grain; some of this is clearly intentional but some just looks like poor encoding. A certain amount of print damage is evident, as on the region 1 disc according to some reviewers. However, on the positive side, the level of detail is exceptional, the picture is sharp and clear and the colours are fantastic throughout. The scenes in Satan's Circus are particularly wonderful. Overall, I've seen much better transfers and a recent film such as this should have been reference quality but it's certainly above average and not a deal breaker when it comes to buying the disc.
There are two English soundtracks on the disc. The first is in Dolby DTS and I cannot comment on this as I do not have a DTS decoder. A comment will be added on this as soon as possible with the assistance of one of my colleagues. The second is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. This is, quite simply, gloriously alive with all sorts of surround effects, impressive work from the subwoofer and crystal-clear dialogue and music. Howard Shore's score comes across very well, notably in the scenes during the concluding riots when one might expect it to be drowned out. I really can't fault this track and as far as I'm concerned it is reference quality. I would be surprised if the DTS track was any less impressive.
The best of the extras is on disc one and it is, predictably, the commentary from Martin Scorsese. Exploding with enthusiasm, he is one of the few directors who can make you see something in a different way through sheer force of will. His comments here centre on the background to making the film and the history behind the story. There is disappointingly little about the process of shooting the film and nothing at all about the reported cuts he was asked to make before it was released. More surprisingly, he doesn't say all that much about the other films which were an influence on him. However, there's still plenty here to interest most viewers and there are refreshingly few dead spots. .
The second disc looks fairly feature packed until you actually sit down and watch it. The features are interesting enough, if repetitive, but they're not particularly substantial. There is much emphasis on the set and costume design and two features on the real life history behind the events depicted.
The first three featurettes concentrate on the design. "Set Design" looks at the, er, set design and contains various interviews and some footage of the set being built and used. Most interesting to me was how much Dante Feretti looks like Fredrico Fellini. "Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York" features Marty and Dante wandering about Cinicitta and, every so often, a big red ellipsis appears so you can press the OK button and explore a 360 degrees view of the set. This is quite fun for the first few times but I have to confess that my excitement wained by the fifth or sixth occasion. Mind you, the effect works remarkably well. "Costume Design" is, amazingly, about costume design and is very similar to the set design featurette. None of these outstay their welcome but I would have preferred something more about the editing style and the cinematography. However, they are certainly worth a look and some of the comments from Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson are surprisingly insightful. The most revealing moment is when Sandy Powell mentions that there was some considerable conflict between actor and director on the conception of Bill the Butcher but, sadly, it's not followed up.
More valuable, to this viewer, were the three features on the history behind the film. "History of the Five Points" is a brief but fascinating introduction to the background of New York in the mid-19th century and Luc Sante - the historical advisor - is a most compelling speaker. Loads of good photographs and sketches from the period and at only 14 minutes it packs a lot of information into a short space. The longer, 30 minute Discovery Channel special "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York" contains much of the same information but in a little more depth. Very interesting if, like me, you enjoy historical documentaries but casual viewers aren't likely to watch both of these background pieces. Equally likely to be passed by but actually fascinating is the "Five Points Study Guide", containing a text history of the period and a wonderful dictionary of the slang used in the film.
We also get a 10 minute making-of promotional featurette which is the usual self-congratulatory bullstuff, and the theatrical trailer. Finally, there is the U2 music video for "The Hands That Built America", which is ludicrously over the top and very amusing. I didn't like the song much in the first place and this hasn't altered my opinion. This is presented in a 2.0 stereo mix.
None of the special features has subtitles. The film itself has English subtitles. There are a miserly 24 chapter stops.
Gangs of New York has all sorts of things wrong with it but I doubt I'll see a more ambitious failure for quite some time, and ambitious failures have a fascination all of their own. Some people hate this film, and it's easy to see why, but I think that if you love movies then you love the possibilities that movies offer - and failed movies can be just as full of possibilities as more successful ones. Let's put it this way - would you rather watch the competent, deeply dull Oliver Parker version of Othello or the ragged, half-inaudible, hopelessly messy but totally beautiful Orson Welles version ? If you choose the latter then you might see what I mean about Scorsese's vast folly. The DVD is generally pretty good, if overpriced, and worth considering although there might be some merit in choosing the R1 for its apparently superior picture quality.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 16:04:29