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Departed, The Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007

Image Many people around the world sighed with relief when not only did Martin Scorsese finally, FINALLY, win a best director Oscar for “The Departed,” but the film itself was named Best Picture of the Year. It seemed about bleedin’ time that Scorsese won this most prestigious movie award; too bad it couldn’t have been for one of his more personal, distinctive movies, but “The Departed” is terrific, grand entertainment with a good cast, excellent production values and enough violence to equip three or four standard horror movies. But this is a Martin Scorsese gangster movie; he always emphasizes the blood and gore attendant upon the gangster lifestyle, and he’s right to do so. His movies aren’t for those disturbed by realistic depiction of violence, but they’re also not exploitative—Scorsese is nothing if not honest.

And this time he was playful, too. “The Departed” is the first Scorsese movie to have an intricate, surprise-packed plot, but, not unexpectedly, he handles these elements with skill, finesse and conviction.

Beginning in 2007, Warners Home Video has embarked on a somewhat puzzling endeavor: they’re releasing DVDs with a high-definition print on one side, a standard-definition print on the other. It’s hard to envision the market this is intended for, but it’s nothing that deserves to draw complains, just puzzled shrugs.

“The Departed” was a top-of-the-line production, and that’s the kind of treatment it’s been given in this two-sided disc. The movie is on both sides; on the first side, it’s in crisp, rich high definition which makes the excellent cinematography by Michael Ballhaus as rich as it’s likely to be in a home video release. Unlike a lot of gangster stories, “The Departed” has many daylight scenes, often outdoors; there’s a broad, expansive feel to the movie, sharply rendered in high definition. Ballhaus and Scorsese use lighting very well; faces are modeled, sets are clearly delineated. Also, the use of composition is very strong, often adding to the story. And yet there’s nothing at all flashy about the film—it’s straightforward storytelling, and the plot and subject matter dictate the visual style, rather than the story subjugated to a pre-chosen “look.” Night scenes are velvety, often suffused with a light fog—Boston, the setting, is very near the sea, after all. The sound is also of high quality, which means that the impact of bullets on frail human bodies, the sounds of heads colliding with windshields, and the distinctive sounds of the many guns fired are rendered with great fidelity and conviction.

Scorsese is also playful enough this time around to borrow elements from older movies that he’s loved for years. In the worthwhile documentary, “Crossing Criminal Cultures,” he points out how favorite movies inspired specific elements in “The Departed,” from the X’s frequently seen which he borrowed from Howard Hawks’ classic “Scarface,” to other details from movies like “Public Enemy” and “White Heat” (the latter one of the best gangster movies ever made). Scorsese is a movie buff since childhood, but it’s rare for it to be as clear as it is in “The Departed.”

This documentary also talks about “Infernal Affairs,” a Hong Kong movie on which “The Departed” is based. Tom Duffy, a retired Massachusetts state police officer, who was the film’s technical advisor, praises Scorsese’s realistic treatment of gangsters, especially in “GoodFellas.” Film critic Peter Travers is frequently seen, linking Scorsese’s various gangster outings together; others who talk include Louis B. Schlesinger, Ph. D., with the unlikely-sounding profession of forensic psychologist, Patrick Nee, author of “A Criminal and a Gentleman,” journalist Kevin Cullen, and “Departed” actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Alec Baldwin.

Another documentary, “Stranger Than Fiction: The True Story of Whitey Bulger, Southie and ‘The Departed,’” is an eye-opening examination of Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, on whom Jack Nicholson’s “Departed” character, Frank Costello, is loosely based. There’s documentary footage shot in “Southie,” the Irish area of South Boston, and brief commentary from people who live there. William Monahan, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of “The Departed,” is from Boston himself, and adds some insights about Bulger and the Irish Mafia. “Departed” actors Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg are also Boston natives, and offer some of their life experiences. Wahlberg says he’s playing a cop like those who regularly arrested him when he was a rowdy teenager.

Tom Cullen also appears, as well as journalists Shelley Murphy, Wemily Sweeney and Kevin Cullen. One of them points out that Whitey actually lived the subplot of the Jimmy Cagney gangster movie, “Angels With Dirty Faces:” he turned gangster and his brother Billy became a prominent Boston politician. One of the more surprising “talking heads” is Kevin Weeks, who was himself a member of Whitey’s gang. When he learned that Whitey was, like Costello in the film, an FBI informant, he turned states’ evidence, winding up spending years in jail. Whitey’s right-hand man Flenni is also in jail, as is John Connolly, the FBI agent who was corrupted by being Whitey’s contact. As for Whitey—he’s still out there somewhere, and is still on the FBI’s list of ten most wanted men, right under Osama bin Laden.

This revealing, entertaining documentary was directed by Barbara Toennies and Gildin Phillips; it alone is almost worth the purchase price of this DVD, which overall is an ideal purchase for film buffs, gangster movie fans and those trying to amass the best-quality high-definition DVD releases.

And yet it’s not all it should have been. Where’s the commentary track? A man as genial, eloquent and well-informed as Martin Scorsese would be an ideal commentator for this film even if he HADN’T directed it—so where is it? DiCaprio, Damon and Baldwin are also very effective talkers, and should have done a track, too (perhaps with executive producer Brad Pitt). For this movie, Scorsese encouraged Jack Nicholson (the first time they’ve worked together) to improvise a lot, resulting in bizarre but strangely convincing material that a writer is not likely to have created. Again, Nicholson also could do a great commentary track for this movie.

Perhaps Warners has an even more super-duper DVD release in mind somewhere down the line, but that feels like something of a trick, a device to require fans of “The Departed” to end up buying both versions. Not far, boys—but that’s mostly because your movie is so damned good.

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