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The Art of Making a B-Movie

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Martin Scorsese is approaching his fifth decade of work; a hefty achievement in itself. In that time, much to the chagrin of many ardent film-goers, he has received only one Best Picture Academy Award at the Oscars: for The Departed (2006) in 2007. Indeed, there has been a lot of disappointment that this was the film for which “Marty” would receive the greatest of film honours.

As a testosterone-filled adolescent, The Departed was my first contact with Scorsese’s body of work. Without scrutinising it too closely, if at all, I revelled in the raw intensity the narrative takes and the unruly bursts of bloody violence.

Not until recently did I recognise Scorsese’s intention in making The Departed. After watching Taxi Driver for the 10th time, I decided to do a little more research into Scorsese’s filmmaking style. This led me to a brief article on the Reuters webpage from 2007. At the Director’s Guild Awards in 2007, Scorsese announced that The Departed was his ‘B-movie’, which acted as a kind of homage to directors such as Don Siegel and Sam Fuller.

The B-movie was first conceived in the 1910s, well and truly within the silent film period. However, the B-movie was primarily capitalised on between the 1930s and 1950s. The B-movie was defined by its short running time, small budget, relatively unknown actors, and great reuse of plot, characters, and sets. The rationale for making these B-movies, which were often bad if not entertaining pictures, was that they turned over a lot of profit for the big studios, which included RKO and 20th Century Fox. The rise of double features and the apparent familiarity evoked by B-movies guaranteed that the studios made considerable money from them. In a sense, B-movies were piggybacked on the success of A-list films, such as Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944).

Scorsese’s second film, Boxcar Bertha (1972), was very much anchored in the B-movie realm. Film critic Roger Ebert described it as an “exploitation” film that succeeds “within the limits of the film’s possibilities.” The film was produced by Roger Corman, a man who is best known for his hand in producing B-grade, exploitative films from the 1950s right up to now.

Corman has over 400 producing credits to his name. Consequently, Boxcar Bertha was advertised and styled as a relentlessly violent gangster picture, designed only to entertain and indulge its audience. In typical Corman style, the film was made on the cheap, with a familiar narrative (the Great Depression begetting gang violence), and featured largely unknown actors and actresses. Despite the inextricable B-movie label, Boxcar Bertha nonetheless showcased Scorsese’s ability to churn out visceral films that speak to the class struggles of modern America. The violence depicted in the crime drama, like all of Scorsese’s films, is never romanticised, but rather depicted for what it is: an expression of an inability to cope with the overwhelming demands of life.

One might ask, ‘well, how does The Departed fit into this equation?’ The Departed is by no means a B-movie unto itself. It was helmed by one of the greatest directors still living, ran for about two and a half hours, operated on a $90 million budget, and featured a myriad of veritable movie stars (Nicholson, Di Caprio, Damon, Sheen, Baldwin, Wahlberg). The Departed is better understood as a kind of recognition or homage to the earlier prominence of the B-movie. In fact, due to these bolstering filmic aspects, Scorsese provided himself with a grander platform on which to honour the significance of the B-movie.

The Departed is a remake of the acclaimed Hong-Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, 2002). Despite Scorsese’s claim that he never saw Infernal Affairs, there are no real narrative differences between the two films, aside from the merging of Costigan and Sullivan’s love interest (a wonderful Vera Farmiga). As a result, the plot of The Departed is wholly derivative. Even without the aid of Infernal Affairs, the undercover and mafia ‘rat’ narratives Serpico (Lumet, 1973), Goodfellas(Scorsese, 1990), Donnie Brasco (Newell, 1997), The Godfather Part II (Ford Coppola, 1974), Traffic (Soderbergh, 2000),Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992) have been seen before.

Admittedly, Scorsese establishes The Departed differently from its Hong Kong counterpart, Infernal Affairs. There is a willful sense of levity that sneaks into the predominantly ruthless, calculated tone of the film. This is significantly facilitated by the likes of Baldwin, Wahlberg, and even Nicholson, who throw around meaningless profanities.

The use of plot in The Departed is in the vein of the B-movie, as it focuses on twists-and-turns, close calls and action more than anything else. At the height of B-movie popularity, one of the things that made it most successful was the similarity of narrative to other A-films. The Departed can obviously be traced back to Infernal Affairs and has plot connections with a number of other great films.

The Departed does not give its characters as much meat as other Scorsese films such as Raging Bull (1980) or The Age of Innocence (1992). Rather, the characters serve a greater narrative function that allows Scorsese to appropriately tinker with the suspense levels as the film unfolds. In other words, characterization seems to be subordinate to the gripping tension of the film.

Billy Costigan is a besieged, undercover cop embedded in the main Irish gang in Boston. Colin Sullivan is an imperious cop who acts as the eyes and ears for Costello’s gang in the Boston Police force. The totally antithetical circumstances of the characters creates an ever present friction. Again, the audience is only keyed into the interior lives of Sullivan and Costigan enough to recognise their materially different circumstances. Madolyn economically ties the two of them together in an attempt to depict the simultaneous distance and proximity of their worlds.

Scorsese’s preference of tension over character here works; the third act scenes with Costigan and Sullivan are explosive. This is also in line with the predominant use of character in the B-movie. As B-movies exist for their familiarity, characters too unique would subvert such a formula. Similarly, the B-movie relies much more on evoking feeling from the audience than on forcing them to examine character.

The deaths of Costigan and Sullivan are abrupt affairs. Unlike in the typical A, blockbuster film, both are gunned down unceremoniously. For example, the shot of the elevator door hitting Costigan’s corpse showcases one of the most demeaning deaths in cinema. Fans of mainstream film may have been surprised, even unsettled by the macabre ending to the film.

Their deaths assume more significance in respect of the actors who play these parts. Di Caprio and Damon are Hollywood’s Golden Men, who only ever otherwise die in momentous fashion in other films. However, in the 60s and 70s exploitation films, deaths like these were commonplace.

Scorsese also seamlessly weaves in thematic elements that stand true to the quintessential gangster movie. At the forefront of the film is a strong sense of community. Through his stringent focus on South Boston, both narratively and visually, Scorsese allows his film to develop an insularity that binds the disparate worlds of the Boston Police and Costello’s gang. Costello acts as the patriarchal overlord of his gang, ensuring that his subordinates stay in line and are taken care of. In a scene very reminiscent of Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) ingratiation into the mafia in Goodfellas, Costello successfully attempts to bring a young Colin Sullivan into his gangster fraternity. Costello is disconcertingly familial in this exchange, giving off the impression that Sullivan is gaining more family members than joining a gang.

Throughout the film, though, Costello is a crude father figure to both Sullivan and Costigan. He punishes them when they do wrong (and Costigan certainly suffers), and embraces them when they do right. Most of all, he offers advice to them. The way that the camera regularly captures Costigan or Sullivan in close proximity with Costello amplifies the impression of a father-son like relationship.

Similarly, the rest of the gang operates as a tight-knit organisation. Frenchy (Ray Winstone) is the enforcer of discipline and order in the gang, invariably by the side of Costello and prepared to push anyone into line. The rest of the gang’s members share banter and an indifference to seriousness; as though their membership to Costello’s gang makes them impervious to the danger of crime. In the aftermath of Queenan’s (Martin Sheen) death, Scorsese’s long shot of the gang cramped up in a shed holistically evokes an unspoken brotherhood. Even though there are instances in the Boston Police force of a budding sense of fraternity, such as during meetings, this particular institution is depicted as segmented. The Boston Police building is full of boxed-in offices and desk partitions that inherently isolate the Police officers that frequent the stronghold. William Monahan’s profanity-laden screenplay, in conjunction with the smug dismissiveness of Baldwin, Damon and Wahlberg’s acting, suggests division between the officers. In short, the sense of community is much stronger amongst Costello’s gang than the self-aggrandisement of the Boston Police force.

The Departed has clearly taken pointers from past films in its depiction of crime-ridden relationships. This certainly includes Scorsese’s own filmography, the most influential of which appear to be Goodfellas and Mean Streets (1973). In cinematic history, the criminal underworld has fertile ground for characters to forge close, personal relationships. More often than not, the cohesion of any given gang or organisation, by the end of the film, has haemorrhaged distrust and hostility. Scorsese’s approach in The Departed is less explicit about the inevitable demise of community than other preceding films, but it addresses it nonetheless. It would be fairly reasonable to infer that Scorsese has made this a thematic centrepiece of The Departed because of his fascination with criminal relations and its established status in a historical and cinematic context.

In a very similar vein, Scorsese’s film confronts the notion of masculine identity in a relatively conventional manner. That is, The Departed signals that the very nature of male character is fraught and conflicting. The film depicts the two extremities of such identity, seen in the characters of Sullivan and Costigan. Sullivan’s stable life should be embodied in his relationship with Madolyn, acknowledges that a life of honour is an ideal for which most modern men strive. Conversely, Costigan’s erratic existence, epitomised in his own problematic relationship Madolyn, shows the more primal side of masculine identity. Obviously, these two forms of identity are moulded by the character’s environment; as Sullivan has maintained an eminent social status through his position in the Police force, while Costigan has been consigned to the lower position of a gang enforcer. These respective positions facilitate the façade of action that both characters take. Sullivan is composed for most of the film in sterilised office buildings, while Costigan embraces violence and sullenness.

These are identities that are constructed by the force of circumstance which the characters find themselves. In this respect, Scorsese depicts masculine identity to be essential, but malleable nonetheless. This makes particular sense, as the audience really knows that Sullivan and Costigan are really imposters. Both seem to embrace their respective identities, but they do not conform to the motives and character of the men. This is not to say that a part of them, at least, delve into their identities. The rawness of DiCaprio’s physical performance indicates that Costigan is falling into his gangster persona.

Male identity is a theme often covered in crime-orientated films. Scorsese’s approach to this is perhaps more mainstream than some of his other films. In Goodfellas, Scorsese is more interested in depicting the world of the mafia than commenting on the merit of individual male identity. In The Departed, it is palpable that Scorsese rates Costigan over Sullivan. This is confirmed through the character of Madolyn, who weeps for Costigan’s death while shunning Sullivan for his insidiously constructed persona.

The Departed is aesthetically gritty, perhaps most visually similar to Boxcar Bertha or Mean Streets. The massive budget of the film is hidden under the inexpensive varnish with which Michael Ballhaus’s camera imposes itself on the action. The almost grainy image projected upon the screen is only augmented by the locations of the film; lowly lit restaurants, hardly inhabited apartments, soiled alleyways. Even a film like Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976), which depicts a virulent New York underclass, is not filmed with the same kind of uncompromised grittiness. Taxi Driver features a number of cinematically impressive shots that divorce it from a B-movie aesthetic. For example, the famous phone call shot is more likely inspired by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard or Orson Welles than a film produced by Corman.

The iris shot that depicts Damon’s Colin Sullivan in the middle of a Boston street is decidedly retrospective. The iris shot was first seen in the silent era and graduated to use in 1950s crime films. By no means, however, did the crime genre have a monopoly on the Iris shot. In The Departed, this shot has a cheaply grandiose quality to it.

Similarly, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing of the film, for which she deservedly won an Oscar, is discrepant to her editing work on other Scorsese films. A lot of the film’s power is derived from Schoonmaker’s quick, abrupt pace of the editing; she never lets her audience settle on a shot for too long. As a result, the film has an intensity to it that forces its audience to hold a growling suspicion of the fragility of undercover life (quite rightly, too). For example, the heightened encounter between Di Caprio’s Billy Costigan and Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello was so tense because of it. The jutting back-and-forth quality of the editing invites doubt and suspicion, especially in view of what the audience knows of Costigan’s undercover status. Quick, snappy editing is so often utilised in B-movies in order to maintain an intensity that audiences demand. Instead of merely being a tool to keep audiences sufficiently entertained, Schoonmaker’s editing harkens to the B-movie, but also delightfully transcends its deficiencies.

Not all of the film’s shots are rough. In a typical B-movie style, the shot of Sheen’s Captain Queenan falling to his death is depicted in slow-motion. At the point of the film when Queenan dies, the audience is not that well acquainted with him. He rather fills the position of the Boston Police Captain than anything else. Therefore, when he is pushed to his death, the audience is not overwhelmed by sadness. The slow-motion shot is sensationalistic, emphasising the ruthlessness of the criminal underworld. The floating feel of the shot does not pull at the heart strings, but exploits the grubby nature of such a death.

In terms of music, Scorsese is up to his old tricks. Early on, in the flashback scene focusing on Costello and Sullivan, the audience is embraced by the familiar warmth of ‘Gimme Shelter’. A lot of the songs that pop up are from Scorsese’s favourite music genre (you guessed it), rock. There is more music from the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters, and of course ‘I’m Shipping off to Boston’ by Dropkick Murphys. The pervasiveness of these rock anthems can be chalked up to Scorsese’s idiosyncratic infatuation with 60s - 80s rock music.

The music theme of The Departed is of more interest. Howard Shore’s ‘The Departed Tango’, is an understated, slick piece of music. It intermittently dabbles over the action of the film, almost cohering the similar yet opposing journeys of Costigan and Sullivan. The most prominent sound of the theme is the rhythmic strumming of a guitar; which apportions the theme a generic quality. It seems to have no narrative or emotional properties to dispense with, and it bears a distinct likeness to other past themes of 70s and 80s crime films. This indicates that Scorsese used the theme as a means to evoke nostalgia for this collective era of film.

In many ways, The Departed is an A-list movie. Upon examination of the different film elements, though, it becomes apparent that the heart of the film lies with the B-movie. The way that Scorsese balances the A-movie façade with the B-movie homage, as well as incorporating his idiosyncratic filmmaking style should afford The Departed a much higher regard than it currently receives. With due focus on its form, The Departed well and truly stands up to the likes of Raging Bull or Goodfellas.

Nick Bugeja