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The Sins of Irish Fathers

Just as 'Perdition's' gangsters can't ignore Catholicism, real-life towns can't escape the mobsters' shadow

July 07, 2002|SEAN MITCHELL

The first big scene in the "The Godfather" takes place at a wedding. In "Road to Perdition," it's a wake.

Therein lies a signal of how director Sam Mendes' new film, starring Tom Hanks as an Irish American hit man in Depression-era Illinois, will offer a variation on Hollywood's long fascination with gangsters. The gangsters in "Road to Perdition" are primarily Irish, not Italian, and their moral failings are dramatized in a fatalistic universe dominated by the Irish Catholic Church.

"I think the Catholicism in the film is crucial," says Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of "American Beauty," "because it gives these people a structure that tells them it's still possible to be saved."

Paul Newman is cast uncharacteristically as a vicious Irish godfather, Rooney, who rules a criminal empire in rural Illinois in 1931. The story focuses on his most trusted henchman and surrogate son, Michael Sullivan (the Hanks character), depicted as a once-poor immigrant who took up with Rooney when it was the only work he could get. But Sullivan is not proud of his violent job and tries to keep it a secret from his two young sons.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 307 words Type of Material: Correction
*Incorrect state--A July 7 Sunday Calendar story on the film "Road to Perdition" put the city of Moline in the wrong state. It's in Illinois.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 14, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect state--A July 7 story on the film "Road to Perdition" put the city of Moline in the wrong state. It's in Illinois.

From "Public Enemy" to "GoodFellas" movies have developed their own gangster mythology--and like most mythology it's one that is only loosely related to reality. "Road to Perdition" relies upon this mythology but gives it a different twist, one that's rooted in a religion in which even the priests are part of the gang.

Like the Mario Puzo-Francis Ford Coppola scenario for "The Godfather," "Road to Perdition," which opens Friday, is an immigrant's story, but one with a bleaker mood and perhaps more preoccupation with the wages of sin. In a scene between Rooney and Sullivan, set in a church, the older man tells the younger one, "No one in this room is going to heaven," an acknowledgment that both are damned for the choices they have made.

But bad as they are, Mendes takes pains to show these two main characters attending Mass and observing church rituals because "their faith saves them from sinking into the moral chaos" represented by another hit man, a mercenary sociopath played by Jude Law who is hired to kill Sullivan and one of his sons. "How do you marry an absolute morality with personal morality?" is the way Mendes poses the film's thematic question.

"There's a very strong Catholic sensibility there," says David Self, the screenwriter who adapted the film from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins (with illustrations by Richard Piers Rayner). "Michael Sullivan is a man haunted by his religion."

Whether actual hit men think this much about spiritual issues is open to question (and if they do, whether they are more apt to be Irish than Italians or Jews), but "Road to Perdition" is a reminder that based on a closer look at American history, the Irish have been underrepresented in the cinematic gangster parade.

The films "Miller's Crossing," "State of Grace" and "The Cotton Club" all dealt with Irish criminals, and director Martin Scorsese will also include early Irish American gangs in mid-19th century New York in the upcoming "Gangs of New York." But Italians have long held top billing in the American iconography of organized crime, from "Scarface" and "The Untouchables" to "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos," with Jews ("Once Upon a Time in America," "Bugsy," "Billy Bathgate") a distant second.

"It's not a big secret that the Irish have been involved in this stuff," Self says, "but it hasn't been explored because they didn't produce as many self-promoting charismatic figures."

Mark Haller, a professor of history and criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia who for 30 years has been studying the rise of illegal enterprise in the United States, says, "By the 1890s, the Irish dominated gambling in the U.S.," having brought the custom of betting on horse races with them from the old country. Bootlegging followed and blossomed during Prohibition.

"I think it's important that they're Irish," Mendes says of his main characters, "because something happens to a community that arrives on these shores with nothing, and their national identity provides them with sustenance."

Although "Road to Perdition" is only loosely based on real events, the idea that a crime syndicate in western Illinois during the Depression was run by an Irish gang "would not be surprising to anyone familiar with the underworld at that time," Haller says, pointing to the prominence of the Irish in 20th century Chicago politics. "It was common for a guy who was the major bookmaker in an area to run for city council."

Haller meanwhile attributes the rise of the Sicilian mafia mythology not only to the influence of "The Godfather," but also to "scholarship in the late 1960s that suggested Italian dominance in crime," which he believes was flawed, stemming from earlier congressional hearings that focused too narrowly on Italians and subsequent FBI wiretap reports that did much the same. He even argues that Al Capone was overrated.

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