2020 Film Essays

Leopards in Winter: ‘The Irishman’ and the Banquet Sequence

The Irishman Banquet

Late in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 epic The Leopard, Prince Fabrizio Salina shares a drink with a government official who has come to encourage the Prince to accept an appointment as a Senator. Salina (Burt Lancaster), a wealthy aristocrat whose culture is passing him by, rejects the appointment and confides in the official, Chevalley (Leslie French), that he sees little hope for himself in the future of his country. He says: “Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep, that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts. And, between ourselves, I doubt very strongly whether this new Kingdom has very many gifts for us in its luggage. All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is… for death again.” Though Salina is dubbed into Italian and subtitled in English in The Leopard’s full-length version, Lancaster’s expressive visage wears the pain of years gone by, mixed with the mournful weight of someone who knows that his best days are over. Tomorrow, when it comes, will only remind him of what he had yesterday. 

The Leopard’s stirring climax is a society ball that occupies 45 minutes of screen time, attended by the landed gentry equal to Salina’s station. Visconti’s camera floats above the whirling dancers, their polite waltzing carrying on through the night. The tone is solemn, despite the ostensible celebratory occasion. Salina moves through the party like a ghost, intermittently bowing to fellow members of his class, but mostly, standing at a remove. The young occupy the stage — Salina is ceding the space to those who will replace him. Mostly, The Leopard personifies generational shift in his nephew, the impetuous Tancredi (Alain Delon), who begins the film as a revolutionary fighting alongside republican general Giuseppe Garibaldi, and ends it as a solider in the king’s army, his loyalties as fungible as his romantic attachments. Early on, Tancredi appears destined to marry Salina’s daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), but is bewitched by the stunning Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale) and weds her instead. Once Tancredi has abandoned his freedom fighting, he grows a mustache that echoes his uncle’s, cementing the generational echo. During the ball, Salina performs his aristocratic role, being seen mingling at the party despite his taking no joy in it; he drifts to the margins at every opportunity, finding small corners of the room or antechambers in which to hide. The sight of the young, who will upend the world as he has always known it, dancing blissfully in a crowd, is too much for him to bear. 

The Leopard, and especially its climactic ball, is surely on Martin Scorsese’s mind in the final third of The Irishman (2019), his gangster epic. In the film’s analog sequence, mob enforcer Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is being honored by the Teamsters Union for a lifetime of service at a banquet that brings together his friends, family and colleagues. He shares the dais with then-former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who Frank has protected and befriended over the previous decade, and whom Frank has selected to give him the prestigious award. Not all is well at the banquet, however. Hoffa has run afoul of his silent partners, the mob, who are also in attendance. Philadelphia boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) sits in the crowd, as does New York heavy hitter Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi), each staring at Hoffa with anger throughout the dinner. Hoffa’s rival in the Teamsters Union, Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham), scowls from his seat. Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who orders murders throughout The Irishman with little more than a nod, attempts to play sober peacemaker, to no avail. Frank spends the dinner reveling in his honorific, but always with a sidelong glance at the quiet, menacing exchanges between Hoffa and the men who mean him harm. Frank does so at the expense of his own family, who are also in attendance — his wife, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and his daughters, led by Peggy (Anna Paquin), whose contempt for her father’s way of life, an open secret in the Sheeran household, manifests itself in her defiant silence (save seven crucial words late in the film). A number of confrontations between the major players occur in hushed tones at the margins of the party. Scorsese crafts the relationships between the characters visually, cutting to disgruntled gangsters shooting contemptuous looks at Hoffa, and returning to Peggy’s icy stare as a refrain.  

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The Irishman Banquet

The Irishman is more than its gangster genre, as it always is with Scorsese. He uses the occasion to populate the film with a number of his frequent collaborators (De Niro, Pesci and Keitel foremost among them), but also stretches deep into the background casting. Following in the tradition of John Ford’s late 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Scorsese merges his old stock company with his new one: Graham, Lombardozzi, Louis Cancelmi, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston, Ray Romano, Kevin O’Rourke and Aleksa Palladino all appeared in Boardwalk Empire and/or Vinyl, the two HBO television series he executive produced and directed the pilots for. Scorsese has summoned Welker White, the lucky-hat babysitter Lois from Goodfellas to play Hoffa’s wife; Vinny Vella, loose-lipped grocery store owner Artie Piscano from Casino, makes a quick appearance; JC Mackenzie, Katherine Hepburn’s brother in The Aviator, a real estate agent in The Departed and a prosecutor in The Wolf of Wall Street, plays yet another District Attorney here; Scorsese reaches back all the way to Boxcar Bertha, his film for Roger Corman, to cast Barry Primus as one of Hoffa’s Teamster officials; Paul Herman, playing “The Other Whispers,” previously appeared in both Goodfellas and Casino; during a shakedown in a jewelry store, Pesci is reunited with Philip Suriano, who played his brother Dominic in Casino; Joseph Bono plays a background mobster in Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, and does likewise in The Irishman; the list goes on. Also present, conspicuous by their absence, are the ghosts: insult comic Don Rickles, who played a key role in Casino, is represented here in his relative youth by Jim Norton; singer Jerry Vale, who serenaded the Copacabana in Goodfellas and the Tangiers in Casino is portrayed in lip-synching glory by Steven Van Zandt of The E Street Band; actor Frank Vincent, a friend of Pesci’s who served as on-screen foil in Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino died in 2017, but surely would have filled a role; Victor Argo, who appeared in Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, might have as well, but he died in 2004; of course, Catherine and Charles Scorsese, who were cameo fixtures in a number of their son’s films — especially Catherine — must be here in spirit. Each presence feels like a tribute to a life’s work, a community of collaborators who have come together for what will almost certainly be the last time; each absence reminds them all of the impermanence of their time together.

The Irishman’s banquet brings all of this together. Nearly the entire cast is present. Scorsese luxuriates in showing these people together, a series of reflective, somber shots that imbue the scene with the simultaneous energy of a wedding and a funeral. In this approach, he recalls The Leopard’s twin tones — the joy of the room, its music, its dancing, its community, undermined by the sense of tragedy it seeks to mask. Despite his cinematic roots in Italian Neorealism, which honored the working class, Visconti was the son of wealth, and he is truly at home photographing the palatial grandeur of The Leopard. He hasn’t lost his working class sympathies, though — he deftly crossfades from a group of peasants toiling in the hot sun to the first shot of his banquet, marking the gap between rich and poor in a single dissolve. There is also the reminder of violence outside the ball; a group of partisans have been rounded up and will be executed at dawn. When the morning light has broken and the party is coming to an end, Tancredi will ride away in a coach with Angelica, and the crack of gunfire breaks out — the executions have been carried out. Visconti’s argument is clear, bookending the sequence at the ball; the aristocracy has sustained itself on its indifference to the poor and used violence to maintain its hold on power. The beauty of the swirling gowns at the ball, the gold-framed paintings that decorate the sitting rooms, the elegance of the chandeliers that hang from the ceiling — all of them are distractions from the blood in the streets. 

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Scorsese’s gangster films have long been interested in the same contradiction. In his movies, the gangsters protect themselves from the violent consequences of their work through twin commitments to ceremony and consumption. Think of the wedding sequence in Goodfellas. The camera glides through the banquet hall, with the gangsters and their wives and children in attendance to celebrate the marriage between Henry (Ray Liotta) and Karen (Lorraine Bracco). In slow motion, while “Life Is But a Dream” plays on the soundtrack, Henry and Karen dance in wedded bliss; Scorsese interrupts the harmony with a smash cut to Karen, at home, harangued by her mother because Henry has stayed out all night with his fellow gangsters once again — married life is a pale shadow of the joyful celebration. The juxtaposition goes far beyond a simple observation about the way love fades, however. In the gangster world Scorsese creates, the wedding ceremony represents normalcy; it acts as a cover for the other lifestyle. Its harmony allows Karen and even Henry to pretend that they have a normal life, when the truth is much darker. Karen’s mother is right when she asks: “What kind of people are these?” Later in Goodfellas, Henry celebrates a windfall from his gang’s latest heist by bringing home “the most expensive tree they had” at Christmas, and stuffing a wad of bills into Karen’s hands with a “Happy New Year.” In the next scene, a pair of assassins will awaken and then murder one of the gang members on the orders of their leader, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), while Scorsese reprises “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” The Hills’ Christmas is paid for in blood — the expensive gifts allow them to pretend it isn’t. Scorsese’s gangsters depend on cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization in order to live with their actions. 

During The Irishman’s banquet, Teamster official John McCullough (O’Rourke), the Master of Ceremonies, draws attention to the cognitive dissonance in one of his jokes –after going around the room and mentioning some of the people in attendance, he makes reference to the FBI, outside in the trees. Nervous laughter rolls over the crowd. The off-color remark perhaps supplies additional motivation for the subtitle that notes McCullough will be “Shot six times in the head in his kitchen” a few years after his appearance at Frank’s dinner. Scorsese uses these parenthetical subtitles throughout The Irishman to offer contrapuntal reminders of violence. McCullough’s comes in the middle of one of his jokes to the audience, heightening the contradiction between his role as amiable MC and the consequences of his involvement with the people he lightly roasts. Some of the gangsters do laugh at McCullough’s material; that they will order his execution some years later only underlines their duplicity. McCullough’s joke drags the room’s open secrets into the harsh light, drawing attention to that which the gangsters would rather leave in the dark. The mob has been engaged in something of a cold war with Hoffa since his release from prison, with Hoffa fighting to reclaim the union presidency by any means necessary and the mob urging him to fade away into retirement. They prefer the more malleable Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba), who carries a lower profile and is freer with the Teamsters’ money, which he loans to the gangsters so that they can finance casino projects in Las Vegas. Hoffa has no interest in letting Fitzsimmons stay atop the union he considers his own, and has increasingly challenged the mob to call his bluff. Bufalino, Bruno and Salerno are “more than a little concerned,” to use The Irishman’s coded language for “infuriated and ready to kill someone to make it stop.” Scorsese uses the scene’s staging to emphasize the separation between the gangsters and Hoffa, placing his camera on the ground between them. Salerno and Bufalino talk over their table about Hoffa’s latest offense, his threat to call in old mob loans, with interest, as soon as he is installed as president. Salerno and Bufalino look up at the dais where Hoffa sits next to Frank, and Scorsese cuts to Pacino, chewing his steak in their general direction, staring down at them with “what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it?” arrogance. For much of the banquet, these conflicts, which will, of course, result in events of major historical significance, play out in aggressive stares and contemptuous glances. As in Visconti’s The Leopard, The Irishman’s history hovers over the narrative events on screen, fracturing its characters’ egos and forcing them into corners. 

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The Irishman Banquet

After the formal dinner gives way to dancing and socializing, following a few photo opportunities and Hoffa’s bequest of a gold watch to Frank, Scorsese’s camera moves through the banquet hall more freely, finding small interactions between his characters. While dancing girls perform “The Time Is Now” on stage in front of Frank and other men on the dais, Russell and Hoffa find a quiet corner to talk. Russell urges Hoffa, in his subtle way, to respect the mob’s decision and to retire from the presidency. The recalcitrant Hoffa is having none of it, claiming ownership over his union, which he will not cede. While the two men argue — Russell quietly and Hoffa animatedly — Scorsese cuts to Frank sitting on the dais, who catches a glimpse of his two friends in heated discussion. Though Frank is trapped on the other side of the room, he knows that the conversation is not going well; he is powerless to stop it, unable to play the mediating role that has occupied him since Hoffa’s release from prison. The girls sing, “Yesterday is over, tomorrow’s on its way,” a devastating reminder, unheard by Frank or any of the other gangsters at the banquet, that the mob’s aristocratic hold on the American economy and political power is about to slip away. While Visconti’s society ball is built around Salina’s recognition of his own demise, the gangsters in Scorsese’s banquet remain too preoccupied with their interpersonal conflicts to see the end coming.         

The Irishman hinges on a fateful confrontation between Hoffa and Tony Pro while both are incarcerated; Hoffa refuses to help Provenzano secure his pension, and after Pro takes offense at what he deems to be an ethnic slur by Hoffa, he lunges at the union boss and they’re broken up by prison guards. After the fight, Frank notes from his reflective vantage point in the nursing home, “Right then, you knew it was all gonna fall apart.” The banquet dramatizes the collapse in a series of hushed conversations. The first, the disagreement between Hoffa and Russell, convinces the mobster that Hoffa is beyond help, and the only way to deal with the problem is to have him killed. While Jerry Vale (Van Zandt) serenades the room, Bufalino and Frank meet aloft, sitting in a pair of chairs on a balcony overlooking the dance floor. Here again, Scorsese draws upon Visconti’s staging, which places Salina at the margins of the celebration. Frank, an observer throughout The Irishman until the moment when he is called upon to pull the trigger, divides his attention between Russell and the action below. Russell offers him a token of their friendship — a gold ring that the mobster slips on his hitman’s finger. Frank is stunned, especially when Russell emphasizes the ring’s value: “Only three people in the world have one of these, and only one of them is Irish. Angelo has one. I have one. And now you have one.” Frank is stunned, rendered into stammering and stuttering, as he is throughout The Irishman when he gets too close to confronting his own genuine emotions; De Niro invests Frank with surface composure that cracks when he is forced to reckon honestly with his feelings, as it will when he chokes out meek, unconvincing reassurances to Hoffa’s wife over the phone after the union boss has already been executed. Russell’s offer of the ring carries genuine feeling, but also cements Frank’s loyalty, a crucial chess move that prepares him for the next topic of conversation — Hoffa has to go. “We did all we could for the man,” Russell insists. Frank refuses to see the writing on the wall, finding brief respite in a glance down to the tables below, where Hoffa and Angelo exchange a seemingly pleasant handshake; Frank looks back at Russell with a glimmer of hope in his eye. Russell appears unmoved, but Frank will try to convince Hoffa anyway. “I gotta make him listen,” he says. Following Visconti’s approach in The Leopard, Scorsese invests each glance with meaning; throughout The Irishman, these gangsters only rarely say what they actually feel, instead preferring to cloak their orders in euphemism and inference. They hold power through custom, relying on the intangibility of their authority to preserve their unpredictability. They stay in control because of their willingness to use violence, yes, but it is the possibility of violence more than the act itself that does the real work. Visconti’s aristocrats rely on a long history of tradition and accumulated power, which insulates them from the changes taking place in their surrounding environment. Prince Salina’s tragedy is his realization that history will no longer protect him, the individual, from inevitable decline. Though the aristocracy may continue to reign in the person of Tancredi, he has devoted his life to preserving a social order that will not preserve him. It may be this recognition that is on his mind when, in a stolen moment away from the crowd, Salina stares into a mirror as a few tears slowly roll down his cheeks. Lancaster, who gained a reputation for his acrobatic action roles and noir heavies, has rarely been more affecting. As Lancaster aged, he played more characters who walked the earth with their wounds exposed, yielding incredible moments of on-screen vulnerability.   

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The third hushed meeting at Scorsese’s banquet occurs on the floor, seemingly within earshot of the other attendees, between Frank and Hoffa. Just as in their first on-screen scene together across the table at a diner in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), De Niro and Pacino have an intimate conversation surrounded by the unaware, people engaged in their own personal dramas. Frank has been given the order by Russell to tell Hoffa, in no uncertain terms, that if he doesn’t go along with the mob’s wishes, they’ll kill him. Frank tries desperately to get his friend to understand that the gangsters have had enough of his threats, and Hoffa responds by making another one, suggesting that he’ll use the cache of documents and tape recordings he has accumulated of their business dealings to ruin them. Frank, thrust once again into the role of mediator, has no choice but to turn the temperature up. To make Hoffa see the light, Frank stresses: “It’s what it is.” This ultimatum yields Pacino’s best moment in the movie; when Frank intimates that he’s in mortal danger, Hoffa, ever the showboat, lets his guard down. Pacino lets Hoffa’s vulnerability shine through, allowing himself a brief moment of genuine pain and betrayal that his friends would threaten his life. The realization that he may be killed, that even he, the celebrated leader of the most powerful union in the country, may push his luck too far, appears to take his breath away. Then, he quickly steps forward again, bravado restored, and says, “They wouldn’t dare.” This is the coded language Frank uses to tell Hoffa that he’s about to cross the line. He will die if he doesn’t do what they’ve ordered him to do — retire and enjoy his grandchildren. Hoffa can’t. He won’t. Hoffa stalks away, defiant, naively suggesting that Frank may also be in danger, underestimating the depth of his friend’s commitment to his other master, Bufalino. The Irishman has already literalized this division in Frank; as Frank prepares for the fateful drive to Detroit from Philadelphia that will serve as one of The Irishman’s convergent framing devices, Scorsese, in close-up, shows Frank snap on the golden watch given to him by Hoffa and the gold ring given to him by Bufalino. Hoffa steps onto the dance floor, pulling Frank’s daughter Peggy along with him. Frank stares into the dancing crowd as Hoffa and Peggy spin, the close-up of De Niro one of Scorsese’s most overt quotations of The Leopard in the sequence. The high point of Visconti’s society ball comes when Salina agrees to waltz with Angelica, his nephew’s fiancée. When they step onto the floor, it clears, and the other aristocrats watch him twirl her around the floor in a dignified, but undeniably skilled display of the romantic soul within his polished, sober exterior. The waltz concludes, and Salina leaves the floor with Angelica, who then changes her partner, taking the younger Tancredi back out. Salina watches — the whole world is passing him by.

Salina has contemplated the end just a few moments before, finding a quiet antechamber in which to hide. Salina sits on an elegant couch and stares at a painting, “The Son Punished,” by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. It depicts an aging patriarch at or just after the moment of death in his bed, with the man’s family grieving around him. The painting captures the mourners the midst of great pain; one daughter looks up to the heavens, reproaching God for taking her father, while a son buries his face in his hands, and another daughter reaches over the man’s body as though she might stop the upward movement of his escaping soul. For a moment, Salina is alone with the painting. When Tancredi and Angelica find him, he turns the conversation to it. “I wonder if my own death will be like that,” he says. “The linen will be less impeccable. The sheets of the dying are always so filthy.” Salina’s observation about the painting’s refusal to accept the reality of death in all of its ugliness echoes his own aristocratic protections from the harshness of the world outside. His self-awareness invests The Leopard with its great tragedy; he has no power to stop what’s coming — perhaps even soon, as Visconti suggests, with Salina briefly rubbing his chest at one moment during the ball, stopping to sit down to catch his breath at another. Tancredi’s discomfort at his uncle’s preoccupation with death manifests in a gesture that Scorsese repeats in The Irishman; Tancredi grasps Salina’s hands in his own, which Russell will also do with Frank as he passes him the ring. “I often think about death,” Salina says. “The idea doesn’t frighten me. You young people can’t understand. To you, death doesn’t exist. It’s something that happens to others.” In The Irishman’s banquet hall, Frank watches Hoffa dance with Peggy, the daughter he will soon lose forever, after she realizes that he has coldly participated in Hoffa’s execution. Scorsese’s close-up of De Niro leaves room for ambiguity: is Frank quietly envious of Hoffa’s close relationship with Peggy, the daughter he alienated in childhood when he savagely beat a grocery store owner for pushing her? Or, does Frank not even see Peggy, instead fixated on Hoffa, whose demise he will not only be unable to prevent, but must actively bring about? Does he imagine the lies he will have to tell to Hoffa in order to gain enough trust in order to kill him? Does he imagine the lies he will tell Peggy when she wonders what happened to her beloved Uncle Jimmy? Does he see a daughter with her surrogate father, his own relationship too far gone to salvage? Soon, they will both be gone. Frank will pull the trigger, and Hoffa will be dead. After the murder, Peggy will finally speak, only to use her words to twist the knife in, shaming her father for not calling Hoffa’s widow after the union boss’s disappearance. 

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The Irishman Banquet

The Irishman may be the last film of an era. The banquet scene ranks among the most powerful sequences of Scorsese’s career because he allows it, following Visconti’s example, to linger. Though the film continues after the banquet ends — there’s still nearly an hour left — it is difficult not to think of it as the climactic set piece. Nearly all of Scorsese’s people are there to say goodbye. The tone is funereal, papered over by the ironic use of a celebratory occasion that masks the inevitability of violence and dissolution. Longtime Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader has compared The Irishman with The Wild Bunch (1968), Sam Peckinpah’s elegy to the Western that, for all intents and purposes, acted as the genre’s closing chapter, at least in its classical iteration. So too may Scorsese’s The Irishman act as such for the gangster genre, but it may also signify the death of a certain kind of filmmaking, which Scorsese and his collaborators have stood for since they blew the doors off in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The further away we get from The Irishman, the clearer that will become. It’s hard to know what comes next. The Marvel-infused bubble in Hollywood studio filmmaking seems destined to burst eventually. Maybe that clears the way for a new generation of filmmakers to storm the gates, just as Scorsese and his collaborators did. That’s the hopeful outcome. The hopeless one looks a lot more like the final image of The Irishman, where a lonely old man waits in his nursing home room, a near-prison cell, with no audience for his stories, for death. As The Leopard’s Salina bids goodbye to the clerk who traveled to his estate to offer him the Senate seat, he tells the departing official: “We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us — leopards, lions, jackals and sheep — will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth.” Salina knows that the passage of time is the only certainty. The work we do will ultimately be finished by someone else. It’s what it is.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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