Gangs of New York
review by Carrie Gorringe, 27 December 2002

"The blood stays on the blade," admonishes "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson, in a brief appearance) to his young son, Amsterdam, after the son tries to wipe away the remnants of his father's clumsiness during shaving. Vallon père is preparing for what will be his final battle against his arch-rival, William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Vallon and Cutting have come to their (quite literal) crossroads to decide once and for all which gang of men -- and, by extension, which way of life and religion -- will prevail in the Five Points area of New York City in 1846. Will it be ruled by the Catholic immigrant Vallon or by the Protestant nativist, Cutting? The answer soon follows, as Cutting, living up to his name and his profession (yes, he's a butcher), finishes off Vallon with one clean stroke to the throat at the conclusion of a rather bloody street battle. He then exhorts his followers to cut off as many ears and noses as they please from any of the wounded and dying enemies around them, but none of them are to touch Vallon's corpse; Vallon, according to Cutting, was a man of honor and therefore should go to Heaven intact. Additionally, he even has some of his followers take the young Vallon to an orphanage in the hope that it might "make a man of him." Cutting isn't an ordinary sociopath: he has a sense of what is proper in such post-martial situations, however antiquated and twisted it might seem.

Sixteen years later, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is released from the Hellgate Reform School and heads straight for the "gates of Hell" of his old neighborhood, eager to avenge his father's death. Cutting now has a solid control over the area ("Each of the Five Points is a finger, and when I close it, it becomes a fist."), courtesy of his innate ruthlessness and his affiliation with Tammany Hall political boss, William Tweed (Broadbent). Amsterdam knows that Cutting holds a yearly ceremony to celebrate and commemorate his victory over both Vallon and the values he represented. Amsterdam hopes to ingratiate his way into Cutting's inner circle and get close enough to Cutting to complete his coup d'état. In the process, he simply neglects to provide Cutting with his last name. His progress to the top is swift, but soon is threatened by two factors. One is his attraction to the lovely pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Diaz), whose past is also interwoven with Cutting's. Amsterdam also underestimates the strength of Cutting's charm; as he goes through the motions of being Cutting's right-hand man, Amsterdam soon begins to confuse reality with idealism, a situation not helped by Cutting's willingness to see the younger man as the son he never had (or, at least, the one that he didn't know about), or his continued, and oft-voiced, respect for Amsterdam's father (only religion divided them, Cutting declares during an unguarded moment). At his most vulnerable moment, Amsterdam must decide if, and how to commemorate his father, and at what price ("It's a funny thing being took under the wing of a dragon," Amsterdam muses in a voice-over, "it's hotter than you think.") Just to keep things interesting, Amsterdam's dilemma also happens to coincide with the Draft Riots (a four-day period in July 1863 when the Five Points -- and most of Manhattan -- erupted in fire and lynching over the exemptions from Civil War service for those rich enough to buy their way out), and that, it turns out, is the least of his problems.

The region in the Lower East Side of Manhattan that would soon become known as the "ulcer of wretchedness," and make the name "Five Points" a symbol of misery and depravity world-wide by the mid-1830s, was created from geographical and financial considerations as well as the changes in manufacturing and demographics during the early nineteenth century. Created from the five-cornered intersection of Anthony, Orange and Cross Streets, the Five Points, as detailed by author Tyler Anbinder in his history of the area (and of the same name), seemed doomed from its very inception. It was, in the early 1700s, a green pastureland, complete with a five-acre lake known as the Collect, where picnickers could gather on Bunker Hill and enjoy a peaceful afternoon. By the mid-1700s, however, it became the only area in New York City where slaughterhouses were permitted to operate (all residential development was now occurring northward rather than south). In the following fifty years, thanks to the slaughterhouses, the tanneries that accompanied them, and the stench from both, the area was declared a toxic nuisance. From 1802 to 1813, an attempt to improve the situation was made by filling in the Collect and leveling Bunker Hill. The tanneries moved out, but families like the Astors and the Lorillards (soon to be of tobacco fame) moved in, quick to spot a get-rich-quick bargain in cheap real estate. They constructed two-and-a-half story wooden buildings, which served as a combined living and work space for independent artisans, as well as shopkeepers and other professionals. Although the ward had the lowest per-capita income in the city, it was still a "respectable" place to live in the 1820s.

However, as manufacturing rose and independent artisans saw their incomes decline, artisans stopped taking out long-term leases on their property, and rented less living space for their employees. The concept of organizing neighborhoods by trade disappeared, resulting in a division between residential and occupational space. As immigration rose in the 1830s, housing prices increased dramatically, and landlords found it more profitable to subdivide their two-and-a-half story buildings into small apartments for individual families. Since many of the families who lived there were unrelated, the buildings were known as "tenant" houses, later "tenement" houses. As impoverished immigrants moved in (the area was attractive to them because it would take no more than a twenty-five-minute walk to go anywhere in the city, so many of them went there by default and kept coming -- and demand for housing always exceeded the available supply), the more prosperous moved out and up north. Since the ground underneath these buildings was damp and unstable (thanks to all of the landfill), and the buildings responded dramatically to these conditions; floods and extreme settling was not uncommon. Since the germ-theory of disease was as yet unknown, and most illnesses associated with so-called "vapors," very few wanted to live in the Five Points area, given a choice. Other aspects, such as the large number of immigrant and African-American residents, made it unattractive to those with nativist or racist sensibilities.

Worst of all, from the perspective of the rest of the city, the Five Points area had become the center of prostitution in the city by 1830, probably because of its centralized location. Add to this the desperation of thousands of immigrants who wanted to live as cheaply as possible in order to save enough money to bring over other family members and it's not surprising that Five Points inhabitants were left wide open for exploitation by potential landlords and employers. The larger, and even more horrible, tenement buildings that embodied the concept of a nineteenth-century slum for later photojournalists like Jacob Riis followed swiftly. Although it was not unheard of for Five Points' residence to experience upward mobility, it was a rare occurrence; wave after wave of immigration continually swamped available housing and employment, and nativist prejudice kept wages low and rents high by blocking immigrant access to better-paying work (it's a mentality inscribed by "Bill the Butcher" Cutting: "That's what preserves the order of things: fear." It's a sense of order informed by his fight against what nativists like Cutting felt was an inexorably rising tide of so-called "Roman Popery" streaming in from the New York City docks, the erroneous theory being, of course, that Catholics' first loyalty would always be to the Vatican and not to the American Constitution).

Moreover, this period would mark the beginning of organized crime and its pernicious influence over all areas of New York City life. In the introduction to his book, Asbury makes one of the worst, and inadvertently hilarious in retrospect, prognostications imaginable. He states, categorically (in 1928!) that " it is quite unlikely that it [another gangland war] ever will [materialize] again" because the protector of organized crime – the crooked politician – has had his day. Three years later, a bloody gang war would be initiated, and won, by "Lucky" Luciano, and the rise of the "Commission" would consolidate Mafia control over the city. From the Irish, to the Jewish, to the Italian mobsters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to today's Asian and Russian mobsters, it's clear that organized crime in New York City hasn’t been eradicated as much as it has ethnic overlap: immigrants who arrive at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, and find their upward mobility blocked, have the potential to create parallel, if illegal, pathways to success.

If Carl Sandberg hadn't already claimed the description "Stormy, husky, brawling, city of the big shoulders" for Chicago, it would have been perfect for summing up the atmosphere conveyed to the audience by Gangs of New York. -- and "atmosphere" is the operative word at work here: screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan may take liberties with the facts (the Five Points area had already undergone a few significant changes by the 1860s which aren't reflected in the film), but, as Anbinder noted in a current interview on National Public Radio, Gangs deserves an "A" grade for capturing the essence of what it would have been like for Irish immigrants who faced daily discrimination and repression in their own lives (and, even more unforgivably, political betrayal by their own people, in the form of the corrupt "Boss" Tweed). At over 160 minutes in running length, the film never lags in pace or content; you leave the theatre sated, but wanting more, simply because of the writers' skills. The visual style is pure Scorsese -- long tracking shots intercut with swift, almost violent, pans and rapid-fire editing (which is also a tribute to the skill of Scorsese's long-time editor, the gifted Thelma Schoonmaker). Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus adopts a marvelous visual feel for the film, veering from overexposed bleakness in the opening battle sequence, to warm interiors that are subtly saturated with sepia overtones, echoing the images of nineteenth-century photography. The result is a big, sprawling mass of historical verisimilitude, capturing the "you are there" atmosphere to perfection. It doesn't hurt that both of the principals -- Day-Lewis and DiCaprio -- make strong impressions with their characters from frame one and sustain that strength throughout.

Gangs of New York really is Scorsese's magnum opus through and through (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, for all of their considerable merits, have always felt as if the director was putting his own stamp on someone else's -- in all cases the screenwriters' – sensibilities). Gangs should also be the film that earns Scorsese his long-awaited, and long-deserved, Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. Whether or not, in this new, politically conservative era, a film which unequivocally slashes through the golden mythology of the immigrant experience can succeed in breaking through the usually conservative mindset of Oscar voters remains to be seen.

Directed by:
Martin Scorsese

Leonardo DiCaprio
Daniel Day-Lewis
Cameron Diaz
Jim Broadbent
John C. Reilly
Henry Thomas
Brendan Gleeson

Written by:
Jay Cocks
Steven Zaillian
Kenneth Lonergan

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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