The final scene in the brilliant television series The Sopranos is set in a diner where Tony’s family is gathered for a meal. Daughter Meadow is parking the car.
For all those Speccie readers who are also devoted fans of Bill and Hillary Clinton, people may recall that Senator Clinton announced her candidacy for the presidency of the United States while also being seated in a diner. Daughter Chelsea is parking the car.
In both The Sopranos original and the Clinton satire, a bell rings as a door is opened, the characters look up and the screen goes black.
Marvellous television. A wonderful spoof, especially given the irony of Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) referring to Hillary Clinton as being a role model for mobsters’ wives. Bill’s philandering is mirrored by all the gangsters in the series.
Now director Alan Taylor has taken us to a very early time in the emergence of the Soprano crime family. It is Newark 1967, and the young Tony is a lad at high school thinking about his future. Most of his family are already enmeshed in organised crime and some are in jail for their transgressions.
Here is the fascinating element of the movie The Many Saints of Newark. James Gandolfini was outstanding as Tony Soprano, the adult boss of the family, who tragically died too young at age 51 in Rome. He was accompanied at the time by his son Michael who now emerges as the young Tony in the Newark of the 1960s.
The city is at a crossroads. Criminally, the mafia still dominate organised crime in all its ramifications. But challenges are emerging from African American criminals who are determined no longer to be subordinate to their Italian American overlords. In particular, an enterprising young racketeer played by Leslie Odom Jr (Harold McBrayer), boldly challenges the existing order and does not baulk at returning violence upon those who stand in his way.
As a backdrop, the racial tensions in Newark explode in riots, looting and arson, met by an equally violent response by the local police and the New Jersey National Guard. This is America in 1967. The promise of greater respect for marginalised American citizens, inherent in the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), has scarcely been realised. Lyndon Johnson’s brave new Great Society has not delivered the improvement in lives of Americans in the inner-cities that its supporters had hoped for and its detractors had said was impossible.
So against the backdrop of the civil disorder downtown, the Moltisanti/Soprano family, led by Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) takes full advantage of the chaos, concealing a murder. The murder is a consequence of an internal family dispute that crosses the generations.
With a powerful script by David Chase and Lawrence Konner, The Many Saints fits seamlessly as a prequel to the television series with which we are so familiar. This is no surprise as both Chase and Konner wrote extensively for The Sopranos television series. It is a fascinating pastime to watch the characters who all came to be so familiar on television strut their stuff in their younger incarnations. It is always worth remembering how they finish, confirming Sophocles’ brilliant observation that you cannot judge a day until the arrival of evening.
And this does not only apply to the male characters. There are some first-rate performances offered by Vera Farmiga (Livia Soprano) and Michela de Rossi (Giuseppina Moltisanti). They are utterly convincing and add both depth and momentum to the storyline. Livia Soprano shows flashes of the domestic unhappiness which will prove so disturbing many years later. Perhaps her husband firing his handgun through her beehive hairdo to register his displeasure has something to do with her mental state.
No gangster film from the US seems complete without Ray Liotta (Aldo and Sal Moltisanti) these days. Put simply, he completes the film with his portrayal of two characters, Aldo Moltisanti and his imprisoned brother, Sal. Sal brings a curious criminal perspective mixed with a recessive affection for Tony. Within the confines of prison, Sal counsels Tony and had Tony followed some of his advice, his future life would have been very much better.
For an underlying subplot in Many Saints is whether Tony Soprano joins the family business.
The gangster film is a uniquely American cultural idiom: as American as baseball and the Bill of Rights. True, both the Brits and the French produce gangster films that are admirable in their craft and compelling in their storylines. However, from the earliest days of the American cinema, perhaps beginning with Public Enemy (1931), building authority through a series of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney films, especially The Big Sleep (1946) and White Heat (1949), celluloid gangsters took root.
The inevitable end of this quality of riveting film-making is to be found in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Martin Scorsese is a master of the ‘wise guy’ genre, reflected best in Goodfellas (1990) and most recently in The Irishman (2019).
Appropriately, accelerating in 1967, the year in which the movie is set, the city of Newark progressively fell apart during the administration of Mayor Hugh Joseph Addonizio. Mafia dominance had gutted the city’s economy and corrupted public office to the extent that basic services were failing. Extortion was among the orders of the day in Newark at City Hall. The riots provided the triggers and state and federal investigations led to Addonizio’s fall and ten years of imprisonment. The collapse in Newark perhaps explains in part why the Soprano family spent so much of its later time in New York City, still under the influence of the Five Families, under pressure from the RICO Act.
Newark in 1967 appears to have had few saints, at least to judge by the movie. But it is an excellent film showing how the urban culture that produced Tony Soprano was a nurturing criminal milieu based ultimately on The Family. Oh, and by the way, stay for the credits.
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Stephen Loosley is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
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