The Departed is being hailed as Martin Scorsese’s best film since Goodfellas (1990). The new film is a great, solid work that ranks among the director’s great achievements, but the comparison is a bit unfair. Why is Goodfellas, possibly Scorsese’s most overrated film, viewed as the yardstick of his career? Too much of the action in Goodfellas is contained in the narration, and it loses steam in the last act. Why are his better films, Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Aviator (2004), so often dismissed? The yardstick should be a director’s best film, and, for that, Goodfellas isn’t even close. The worst fallout from the deification of Goodfellas is the criminal neglect of Casino. “Rip-off” is the usual accusation, but the storylines are quite dissimilar. Casino is a grand epic of the mob’s infiltration of Las Vegas and never delves into the heist world of Goodfellas. Casino also benefits from the move of Robert De Niro into the central role. Despite the film’s three-hour running time, the action never lags for a second. No one criticized Alfred Hitchcock for making 50 different murder thrillers, but Scorsese must have committed a mortal sin by making two mob movies in the same decade.
Mean Streets (1973) put Scorsese on the map as a major filmmaker, and his gritty examination of the mob from the bottom up set a new standard for gangster films. Harvey Keitel stars as a mob enforcer who is being groomed to rise in the ranks, but his plans are continually thwarted by his loyalty to a reckless sociopath, brilliantly played by De Niro. The nervous energy became a hallmark of Scorsese’s style. Scorsese was sidetracked with a brief fling in Hollywood known as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), an excellent film that any number of skilled directors could have made. Alice’s success led to Scorsese’s next film, which is the true yardstick of his career. Taxi Driver (1976) is a blistering inferno of a film so daring in its subject matter and approach that it’s difficult to imagine any major studio bankrolling it. I guarantee you, no studio would touch it today. De Niro stars as the iconic Travis Bickle, an insomniac loner who prowls the dark streets of New York in his cab. His internal rage eventually explodes in a cathartic orgy of violence that rivals the splatter found in slasher films. The Scorsese of today may have lost some of that rage, but The Departed does offer a powerful glimpse into his tormented world.
New on DVD this Tuesday (Oct. 17): Monster House, Nacho Libre, and Slither.