To appreciate just how well director Stuart Rosenberg and writer Vincent Patrick captured wiseguy street corner ethos in this classic mob tale, you have to understand the meaning of an Italian phrase that has come to define the way certain mobsters act.
The phrase is faccia una bella figura. Literally, it means “make a good impression.” But in fact the phrase conveys much more. It describes an attitude, an approach to life that is more typically found in the southern half of Italy, especially in Naples and points south.
It’s part of a philosophy built around the idea that while it may be important to be good at what you do, it’s even more important to look good while you’re doing it.
Faccia una bella figura is what The Pope of Greenwich Village is all about. You have to understand it to understand where Charlie (Mickey Rourke) and Paulie (Eric Roberts) are coming from.
Take the classic scene (one of dozens in this film) between Paulie and his hospitalized father (Philip Bosco). They’re walking down a hallway, the father in a flimsy hospital gown, Paulie dressed to the nines, discussing Paulie’s investment—with borrowed shylock money—in a racehorse. From there, the conversation shifts to life and success and how you have to make it on your own.
“Your mother’s not doing you no favor bringing you manicotti twice a week and washing your laundry,” Paulie’s father tells him as he wonders whether he and his wife have spoiled their son.
He then holds up Paulie’s cousin Nicky, who has his own house and buys a new Oldsmobile every year, as an example of success.
Paulie wants no part of it.
“Nicky the Nose is better off?” he asks, his voice rising. “He don’t go for spit. The Nose shines his own shoes, Pop. That’s no big success.”
When his father asks how he would define success, Paulie doesn’t miss a beat.
“Knowing how to spend it,” he says. “I never ordered a brandy in my life wasn’t Cordon Bleu. I took 500 from a shylock, pay to see Sinatra at the Garden. Sat two seats away from Tony Bennett. That’s success, Pop.”
The performances of Rourke and Roberts are nearly perfect in this story of honor, betrayal and family. And with a rich and talented supporting cast (Geraldine Page was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar even though she appeared in just two scenes and had a total of about eight minutes of screen time), it is hard to understand why the film was a box office bust.
Nearly three decades later, the film has status as a cult and video favorite. It’s a classic wiseguy buddy movie with a message that resonates long after the film has ended.
Rourke, who was touted as the next De Niro after stellar performances in Body Heat, Diner and this film, was never able to recapture the screen presence he had here. He was quirky good in movies like Barfly and Angel Heart, but then drifted in films like Wild Orchid and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man while earning the reputation as an actor who was “difficult to work with.” It’s hard to imagine he’s the same actor whose current comeback was launched in The Wrestler.
Roberts, whose sister Julia has churned out one box office hit after the other, never again reached the level of performance he offered here in a mesmerizing turn as a fast-talking street hustler who isn’t quite able to figure the angles.
Charlie and Paulie were quintessential New Yorkers, the kind of guys you find in a bar on Sullivan Street or grabbing a meal at a restaurant on Bleecker. They’re from the streets, part of a rich and storied neighborhood that includes places like the Caffe Reggio (where Kerouac, Burroughs and the other beats used to hang) and Village Vanguard (where dozens of jazz greats made their bones) and Washington Square Park (with its chess games and dog runs and street musicians gathered around a fountain that is more European than American).
The Pope of Greenwich Village plays to the grit and the vibe that is Lower Manhattan. And while Sinatra’s Summer Wind is heard at three different times during the movie, it’s the rhythm of the streets that is the real soundtrack here.
Charlie and Paulie are cousins and both lose their jobs at a local restaurant after Paulie, a waiter, is caught stealing. Charlie, a host who has aspirations of owning his own joint, tells Paulie it’s all his fault. But Paulie, in the logic of the neighborhood, says that’s not true. If he had thought he was going to be caught, then he would be responsible for Charlie losing his job. But since he didn’t. . . .
To make up for it, Paulie brings Charlie into a deal he’s working. He’s borrowed money to invest in a racehorse secretly sired by a champion. It’s all in the genes, he tells Charlie. The horse really has nothing to do with it. This horse, the product of “artificial inspiration,” is a sure thing, a longshot with a big payoff.
Charlie, who’s got alimony payments, a pregnant girlfriend Diane (Daryl Hannah) and a restaurant in the country that he wants to buy, agrees to help Paulie rob a safe in order to get cash to bet on the horse.
Barney (Kenneth McMillan) is the Irish locksmith/safecracker with failing eyesight Paulie has also brought into the deal. He lives in the Bronx with his wife and their mentally challenged 20-year-old son. And he’s looking for “one nice score” before retiring.
They bust into the safe and get the cash—$150,000.
Along the way, there’s a dead cop on the take to the mob and wearing a body wire. And a vicious mob boss, Bed Bug Eddie Grant (Burt Young) who happens to be the owner of the safe and the money that was inside it—two facts that Paulie has neglected to mention to Charlie.
Honor, loyalty and family ties—not the Mafia version, but the street-corner kind—drive the rest of the story.
Diane ends up choosing the money—Charlie’s end was $50,000—over their relationship. She takes off after realizing that Charlie is never going to change. That they literally come from different worlds is driven home when Diane, her WASPish, New England roots showing, tells Charlie that he’s “outgrown” Paulie and doesn’t need him around any more.
Charlie tells her that may be the way things are where she comes from, but it’s not the way things are for him.
“Italians outgrow clothes, not people,” he says. The look on his face says that he knows this relationship is doomed as well.
Bed Bug Eddie wants his money back. More Important, he wants revenge. And with his reputation for carving up people, the threat sends Barney scrambling to safety in Chicago, costs Paulie his thumb and sets up a final confrontation with Charlie at the mobster’s clubhouse in The Village.
Charlie prepares for his meeting with the mobster by picking out his best suit of clothes and most expensive shoes. Then he heads for a barbershop where he gets a shave, his hair cut, his nails manicured and his shoes shined.
As he walks down the street, the camera pans up from the sidewalk, capturing the shoes, the clothes, the strut. Charlie doesn’t know if he’s going to come out of the meeting with Bed Bug Eddie alive.
But whatever happens and whatever he needs to do, he’s going to look good doing it.
Faccia una bella figura.
HIT: The “members only” mob clubhouse with the storefront windows and door painted black is a dead-on replica of the clubhouse on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village out of which Vincent “The Chin” Gigante used to run the Genovese Crime Family, one of the biggest and without question the most powerful of the five New York families.
Gigante dodged the Feds for years by pretending to be crazy. He used to roam the neighborhood during the day in a bathrobe and slippers mumbling to himself. Sometimes, the Feds would tail him heading to a late-night rendezvous in an Upper Eastside apartment with his mistress. Gigante was finally convicted of racketeering in 1997. The jury rejected his insanity defense. He died in prison in 2005. If there ever was a Pope of Greenwich Village it was The Chin. (His brother, by the way, Father Louis Gigante, was a priest.)
MISS: The stick ball game in the schoolyard goes from being funny to being ridiculous when Charlie and his teammates, dressed in suits and sport jackets, begin to sway to the beat as Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” provides background music.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “A generic New York street movie, about a couple of guys from the neighborhood who get into a lot of fucking trouble with the fucking mob and yell their fucking heads off at each other but in the end they love each other because . . . well, shit, they’re a couple of guys from the neighborhood, after all.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Michael Cimino, who had hits like The Deer Hunter and flops like Heaven’s Gate on his resume at the time, played a role in directing The Pope of Greenwich Village, but what that role exactly was has never been made clear. Some reports say that he was originally tapped to direct, but had a falling out with the lead actors and was fired. Others indicate that when director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) fell ill during filming, Cimino, as a favor, stepped in and directed a few scenes.
BEST LINE: Paulie: “Charlie, they took my thumb!”
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: This is one of those movies that surprises and entertains every time you watch it. If you turn on the television and happen to catch it already in progress, you sit and watch a scene or two, waiting for the line that you already know, but can’t wait to hear again.
GOOF: Charlie’s hairstyle changes from damp moptop to swept-back to moptop again in the scene where Diane tells him she’s pregnant.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The name of the horse Paulie has invested in—Sorry Hope.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Jimmy the Cheese Man, who invests with Paulie in the horse and whose mozzarella is the topic of ridicule, is veteran character actor Joe Grifasi. The actor with the ethnic face has over 100 screen and television credits. He was Yogi Berra in The Bronx Is Burning cable series; had dozens of appearances on Law & Order; played a nebbish Jewish accountant opposite George Clooney in One Fine Day and had a small role as a waiter in Moonstruck.
BODY COUNT: One dead cop, but it was an accident. And one severed body part.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”