May 21, 2020

The Iconic Chapters of Moe Greene and Joe Gallo: Masterworks of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese

By Vishal /
The Iconic Chapters of Moe Greene and Joe Gallo: Masterworks of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese
Crazy Joe with Frank Sheeran

In the gangland sagas of Godfather and Irishman, we witness death as the defeat of every individual mobster who had contributed his life in the world of Organized Crime in America. Death as synonymous to defeat provokes the reader to accept it as the leitmotifs of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather and Martin Scorsese’s Irishman. The Pre-death scenes of two supporting yet significant characters are celebrated in a sublime spirit in these films but not with regards to the fall of the ones considered as leading men. In the cinematic tradition of Hollywood, the definition of ‘character actors’ has gone through many changes with consideration of the time as well as the epochs in which they appeared. Sometimes the term is used interchangeably with ‘method actors’ allowing the condition that a method actor can be anyone who immersed himself totally into the persona he has been offered to play. The historical clarification on the subject of character actors denotes a kind of fact that can be traced in Bilge Ebiri’s article- “The New Generation of Character Actors” published in the New York Times in 2017, whereby mentioning supporting actors like J.K Simmons and Michael Shannon, he stated that, “Hollywood has always run on these journeymen, but it’s these actors who have replaced movie stars as the essential human labour in cinema. That’s because celebrities can no longer be monetized the way they had been in the past.Everything is rested upon the audience to decide who they are going to memorize the most after their exit from the theatres. Hence, in that context, I would like to include the two frisky performances of Moe Greene in Godfather and Joe Gallo in Irishman who are also equally worthy of lionization along with the films.

          Chronologically speaking, the character of Moe Greene performed by Alex Rocco turns up on the scene in context to one of the most significant appearances in gangster genre movies and his moderately limited screen presence contributes eminently to the new ‘legatee’ of the Corleone Family Business- Michael Corleone, who wants to whitewash or put up a legitimate layer to his organized crime business by annexing the Casino business of Moe Greene in Las Vegas. The Godfather incepts with the elevated notion of ‘American Dream’ where Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) listens to the mortician’s words, who is trying to solicit the Godfather by expressing his loyalty to him and the country for a revenge service- “I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” The story thence moves forward ironically by portraying the ‘ethical side’ of Vito Corleone’s business which includes gambling, extortion and others which directly doesn’t involve ‘violence’ but it is taken to be a sort of deduction which is strictly required in business. Whenever the henchmen of the Five Families helmed any violent project against anyone, it was hidden under the professional belly of their business and the familial vendetta that was encouraged by Sonny and the members of the Barzini family after the attacks on Vito Corleone concluded to a halt after a meeting with all the families. The first kill is initiated with Luca Brasi’s choking to death and simultaneous killing attempts on the Godfather followed by Sonny’s massacre on the tollbooth which is more of an aesthetic spectacle on the screen with parallel to the Bonnie-Clyde death scene so that the audience can relish rather than dreading violence which was about to follow.


To track the new avatar of Michael Corleone as the Don, the Las Vegas incident with Freddy and Moe Greene can be recognized as a major climacteric to his character development. This Las Vegas meeting with Moe comprises of 4-5 minutes and this scene takes place only after he has ascended his father’s throne which came as a seething decision to the old henchmen of Vito and especially to the former consigliere, Tom. It is Tom, who later in this particular ‘Moe Greene scene’ clarifies the titles that Michael holds, weighing from the in-charge of the family to the consigliere and lastly, the new Godfather. As soon as in the room Johnny Fontane pledges to do anything for the Godfather and makes a deal with Michael, Moe Greene steps in with a ‘thud’ in the room. What makes Moe Greene’s character seamless? It is basically due to his signature lines in the whole conversation where the dominating element in his dialogues is the ‘conciseness’ which is also defined by the Shakespearean character Polonius in Hamlet (Act.2, Sc.2) as – “Brevity is the soul of wit.”


Alex Rocco is quite well known for his gravelly voice which he has utilized in doing voice-overs and with this kind of voice blended with brief dialogues helps him polish this great character. Secondly, it’s the face-to-face hardy attitude that makes him stand out from the rest of the characters and this is clear by the brutal dialogues that he shoots to Michael who for the very first time is consuming all that. Comparatively, the truce meeting with Solozzo was more in a lighter tone, where actions mattered more than the speech. Even though Moe Greene finally meets his fate on a massage table with a bullet through his glasses, the splendiferousness of this character is put into detail by Hyman Roth in a conversation with Michael Corleone in the second instalment of Godfather where he tells him the time and reason, when Hyman started to desist from pondering about the notion of ‘who called the shots?’ – “As much as anyone, I loved him and trusted him. Later he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for G.Is going to the West Coast. That kid’s name was Moe Greene. This was a great man. A man of vision and guts. And there isn’t even a plaque, statue or signpost of him in that town. Someone put a bullet through his eyes. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard I wasn’t angry. I knew Moe, I knew he was headstrong. Talking loud and stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said it to myself- ‘this is the business we have chosen’ I didn’t ask who gave the order because it had nothing to do with business.”


One of the notable dialogues spat by Moe on Michael: “I am Moe Greene! I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders” signifies the fact that for him, Michael is just a mere amateur in the chain of hotel and casino business. On the other side, critics and theorists like Eric T. Kasper in the book – ‘Homer Simpsons Ponder Politics: Popular Culture as Political Theory’ addresses Michael Corleone as a Machiavellian lion as well as a fox particularly due to his application of that one line by his father- “Keep your friends close but enemies closer.” Even in the novel, Moe appears in the 27th chapter (nearby the climax) and a fact that is more subtle in the film but not in the novel is that after Apollonia’s assassination Michael goes through a plastic surgery which is confirmed by Freddy in this Las Vegas scene when he compliments the doctor who has gifted a new face to Michael. Freddy himself was one of the reasons that led to the death of Moe Greene since from the very beginning of the scene in Vegas, we can recognize the same softness that Sonny had for women is also being tamed by Freddy which insults the Corleone family and furthermore the insult Freddy brings in when he takes the side of the antagonist openly. Hence it is this feebleness whose credit Michael eventually gives to Moe who earlier exploitatively had slapped Freddy publicly in the Casino. The final nail in Moe’s coffin is invited by himself through his stern statement by including the ethnic slur -‘Guineas’ against Michael. The climax is settled with the killings of the heads of other families with an exception of not identifying the shooter of Moe Greene (making the persona mystic) solely. Though Albert Neri, the bodyguard of Michael had an eye on him since the time Moe enters that famous room in the Las Vegas hotel where his fiery speeches assume the role of bullets shot on the other.


If Godfather raises the guns for ostracizing the ageing Gangsters then the Irishman puts everything at stake to eradicate the young ones from the cosmos of organized crime making sure that the dyad of Age and Experience rules in the underworld and most important of all, the family. An understanding is required when we are summing up the concept of family in the context of organized crime, starting with Vito Corleone’s brief lectures on the family. Vito as a representative of the ideals of the organized crime business in reality/fiction opined that family is not only about blood ties but also pertains to business ties and that family is what makes the man. Beginning with this point from Godfather, we wholeheartedly can perceive Frank Sheeran’s justification for his cruel deeds that he presented in front of his daughters by confessing that his deeds were helmed only to sustain the family.

           Irishman PosterIrishman starts with the geriatric Robert de Niro in a nursing home narrating his story by occasionally hammering the fourth wall and then it switches to different timelines within its plot structure. He came across phases that shaped his life and defines his character more to be a fortunate one who likes to obey and is treated as the adopted child of Joe Pesci – Russell Buffalino who somewhat pushes Sheeran to be a part of the carnage crimes. Apparently, the film is based on Charles Brandt’s book- ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ which is also one of the catchy dialogues that exist in the first converse between Jimmy Hoffa and Sheeran. In lieu of the confutative fact of killing of Crazy Joe revealed by the Irishman in the book faced a long list of flak and was also contrasted with different theories but Martin Scorcese being the sailor of this film relied on the truth which was best suited to his masterwork and to achieve grandeur with regards to a significant event in this narrative film, he inserted the persona of Crazy Joe in the most appealing manner by facing him off with the two leading gentlemen of Irishman – Sheeran and Buffalino. Russell incepts with the history of Joe whom he thinks is a flamboyant gangster, negates the certain codes of their world and goes into giving interviews to the reporters. Joe’s appearance from the inception can be equated with a Hollywood star’s walk in a premiere and especially when he walks towards the court; it is the shutterbugs that create the aura of a celebrity around him, who also pens autograph to his fans which is quite unimaginable. Russell even let go this audacity of Joe until the latter reaches the zenith and confronts Russell himself for putting on the badge of Italian-American Civil Rights League.

Joe Gallo in Court Room SceneJoe’s rapport with the history of America’s mob and pop culture:-  As far as history reveals, the real Joe Gallo’s (1929-72) path to pop culture is his own interest in the heroes of his times and what enticed him most was the character of Tommy Udo (played by Richard Widmark) in the Kiss of Death (1949).  Scorsese in the film has employed a fine rendition of the assassination of the Italian-American mobster, Albert Anastasia in a barbershop, allegedly done by Joe but in the film, it is situated in the very outset. This hit has been described by the New York Daily News as ‘one of the most sensational mob hits ever’. Tabloids and broadsheets aided him to transcend from the natural shade of a hatchet man to inspiration for the artists on whom even Bob Dylan dedicated a 12 verse ballad titled – Joey and worth mentioning is his views on Joe- I never considered him a gangster… I always considered him some kind of hero… an underdog fighting the elements.”  While glorifying the gangster, many considered him to be a voracious reader of classical literature and follower of thinkers like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka et cetera.  During his time in prison, he recruited African-American men to work for him and we do witness the outcome of it in the (Irishman’s) film version of Italian- American Civil Rights rally. A year before his death, Joe Gallo was elevated in the sphere of pop culture and this contribution was through the mafia comedy flick based on the gangster’s life, titled – The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971) and this was further followed by the Italian director Carlo Lizzani’s film ‘Crazy Joe’ (1974) based on Gallo’s life. His references in the circle of pop culture are actually elephantine, most importantly in the gangster genre films as late as in the 90s; Goodfellas by Scorcese, where Ray Liota through a voice-over narration tells that there were glorious days until “Crazy Joe decided to take on a boss and start a war.”  It all started with Joe being the hitman of the Profaci family, later turning against them and allegedly the repercussion that turns up in the form of Gallo’s death is his involvement in the 1971 shootout of Joseph Colombo of the Colombo Family in his Second League Rally in the Columbus circle. Martin Scorsese ferociously installed this larger-than-life man (portrayed by Sebastian Maniscalco) in Irishman just to acknowledge a slight cinematic tradition of a hellacious villain. Crazy Joe appears immediately after the fight between Jimmy Hoffa and Tony Pro in the prison. It’s evident during the narrative of Russell Buffalino that how far he is offended by what Joe did in the rally which had better chances of provoking the Government against their underworld-“There’s only one guy who had to have the balls to do that.”  Scenes concerned with Crazy Joe played by Sebastian Maniscalco, are in dark shots compelling the audience to deem him as the embodiment of the ‘dark angel’ who insulted Russell and Frank – our somewhat heroes. No other kills in the film have many efforts than that of Crazy Joe’s and comparatively, with Hoffa’s – he was killed only because he thwarted the healthy alliance that existed between the authorities of the teamsters and the mobsters. Even Sally Bugs was killed when Frank Sheeran was flummoxed by Bugs’ entry into the Federal building. The scene that escalated Joe Gallo’s death is the night club scene where Joe watches a stand-up comedy by Rickles and on his movement towards the exit he insults the elderly Mafia boss Russell for wearing a tiny badge of the Italian-American Civil Rights League. Russell being a man of more brains than balls preserves the heat at that very moment by sipping his wine but with his unblinking eyes inferring Frank to act with equal and inevitable fervour. Thus, the favour is returned within hours when Russ sends Frank (with .32 and .38 revolvers) in the Umbertos Clam House to shot down Joe.


Moe Greene and Joe Gallo emerged as the two bold-faced characters in the history of gangster films. In the present era, it is the cult audience who demythologizes the primitive notion of a popular/lead actor dominating every inch of the silver screen.

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