Al Pacino starred in more movies featured on our list than any other actor.
He gives a truly remarkable performance in creating and developing the character of Michael Corleone through the Godfather saga. He is over-the-top as only he can be as Tony Montana in Scarface. He is poignantly cynical and empathetic—despite an off-putting accent—as the tragic title character in Carlito’s Way.
But his turn as Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco might be his best—and is certainly his most realistic—portrayal of a mobster. The glamour is gone. So is any hint of nobility.
There are times in those other films where it’s impossible not to notice Pacino playing the character. In Donnie Brasco, he is the character. The only comparable Pacino performance is in Serpico, where the actor also disappeared into the persona.
Ruggiero is a street-level wiseguy who is always on the make. He never has enough money. He’s got family problems (his son is a junkie) and FAMILY problems (he’s aligned with the wrong faction during a turbulent period in the Bonanno crime family history).
Lefty is a soldier working in the crew of Sonny Black (Michael Madsen). His outfit is constantly overshadowed by a crew headed by Sonny Red (Robert Miano). Sonny Red’s guys dress better and earn more money, giving them both style points and status in the New York underworld—where form is often more important than substance, but where nothing is more important than cold, hard cash.
An “earner” is someone of value.
A shooter—which is what Lefty has always been—is replaceable. Lefty may have 26 hits to his credit (a point he makes repeatedly), but too often he doesn’t have 25 cents in his pocket.
Based on the true story of FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone’s infiltration of the mob, Donnie Brasco provides an unvarnished account of what it’s really like to be part of that world. It is a compelling story that Pistone first told in his book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia (written with Richard Woodley) and then repeated in detailed testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1988, nine years before the movie was released.
“There is no honor among these thieves,” Pistone told the subcommittee. “They deal in drugs, death, and deception. Though they continually claim to have rules of conduct that they live by, in reality their lives revolve around breaking these rules in a . . . never-ending life of trying to beat the system, both society’s and the Mafia’s.”
Donnie Brasco captures that and more on the screen.
One of the reasons the movie works so well is the interplay between Pacino and Johnny Depp, who established himself as more than just a pretty-boy actor with his performance here as Joe Pistone. Using the undercover name Donnie Brasco (a name Pistone “borrowed” from a cousin), the street-smart, New Jersey-raised FBI agent manages to infiltrate a major New York crime family by posing as a jewel thief and hustler who knows how to make money. Ruggiero takes him under his wing, “vouches” for him with the crime family and begins to school him in the ways of the wiseguy.
Both men are, in their own way, outsiders.
Ruggiero is never quite part of the A-list within his own crew and within the broader organization. He is the butt of jokes and at one point is reduced to hacking off the tops of parking meters in an attempt to get some cash.
Pistone, who set out on what was supposed to be a six-month undercover operation, ends up living the life for six years, battling the bureaucracy that is the FBI and the handlers who never understand nor fully appreciate what he has accomplished.
Pistone also has to juggle his personal life around the 24/7 demands of life in the mob. His wife (excellently portrayed by Anne Heche) and young daughters often don’t understand.
“Lefty Ruggiero, a Bonanno soldier who became my business partner when I was on the streets, took it upon himself to educate me in the ways of being a wiseguy,” Pistone said in his Senate testimony. “He spent hours telling me about the proper conduct for mob members and associates while criticizing others for not complying with it. Nevertheless, he would then turn around and break the rules when it served his purpose, or if he could make an extra buck doing so. He best summed up this world of deception by once telling me that what was so great about being a wiseguy was that, ‘You can lie, steal, cheat, kill, and it’s all legitimate.’ ”
Screenwriter Paul Attanasio, who got an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay, does a great job bringing that reality to the film. And director Mike Newell, with an all-star cast, is smart enough to let the story tell itself.
While the movie is a sprawling saga of the Mafia that stretches from New York to Miami, it is its small moments that say the most.
One of our favorites: Pistone stops by Ruggiero’s home on Christmas Day and is forced by Lefty to stay for dinner. Lefty is cooking coq au vin, his specialty. Dressed in a fancy sweatsuit and with his wife and son hovering in the background, Lefty wants—in fact, needs—Pistone to stay. He is, in many ways, Lefty’s only friend. So Pistone has to give up a holiday with his wife and daughters in order to share it with a mobster. He and Lefty exchange Christmas gifts, each handing the other an envelope stuffed with cash.
At the end of the night as Pistone is leaving, they embrace in the hallway outside Lefty’s apartment. And then the gangster asks Pistone, “Could you spot me a couple a bills?”
With that, Pistone reaches into the envelope Lefty has given him and hands the wiseguy back the money that was his Christmas present.
Another classic moment comes when Pistone tries to explain to an FBI techie what “fuhgedaboudit” means.
“Forget about it is like if you agree with someone, you know, like, ‘Raquel Welch is one great piece of ass. Forget about it!’ But then if you disagree, like, ‘A Lincoln is better than a Cadillac? Forget about it!’ You know? But then, it’s also like if something’s the greatest thing in the world, like, ‘Managia, those peppers, forget about it!’ But it’s also like saying, ‘Go to hell’ too. Like, you know, ‘Hey, Paulie you got a one-inch pecker.’ And Paulie says, ‘Forget about it!’ Sometimes it just means forget about it.”
Donnie Brasco scores on so many different levels, in large part because of what Pacino and Depp bring to the screen. But it also works so well because the story doesn’t try to be more than it is.
“One thing I will never forget . . . is the daily grind of trying to make a ‘score’ that they face from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they go to sleep at night,” Pistone told the subcommittee. “This is not the romantic life of The Godfather or television drama but, rather, is a life of treachery, violence, and, ironically, boredom.”
HIT: Along with GoodFellas, this may be the only movie that offers a realistic take on life in the underworld. GoodFellas is a more stylistic take, perhaps a reflection of the mob crew it depicts. Donnie Brasco is blue collar. The Godfather’s sense of honor and nobility is lost in the reality of everyday life. It’s a struggle to survive. Good work is not always rewarded. There’s lots of frustration and very little satisfaction.
MISS: The scene with the lion is almost cartoonish. While based on a real incident—Lefty was given a lion cub as a joke—the movie version has Donnie and Lefty feeding hamburgers through a partially opened window to a full-grown lion in the back seat of their car. New York is a tough town. But not even a wiseguy is going to be driving around with a snarling king of the jungle wedged into the back seat of his car.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Contrary to movie myth, the Mafia is not made up of dignified men in tuxedos mumbling about honor. For the most part, it’s guys in rumpled sport jackets knocking over parking meters, beating up truck drivers, hanging out in smoky men’s clubs playing cards and wondering when they’re going to get killed. It’s made up of a lot of guys like Lefty, an aging Mafia soldier played by Al Pacino. Lefty isn’t enough like Ratso Rizzo to be poignant: He’s just a little threadbare, a little bit the loser—a true believer who has reached an age where he no longer believes in the institution he’s given his life to. To watch Pacino here is to wonder how he knows what he knows. It seems more a matter of intuition than calculation that he understands, for example, the precise degrees of wisdom and smallness to give Lefty. And he knows how to show us.”—Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
REALITY CHECK: The scene where Lefty and the crew dismember three rivals after ambushing them in the basement of a home is taken from the story of Roy DeMeo, a Gambino crime family soldier with a penchant for butchering the bodies of those he had killed. DeMeo was considered a psychotic and somewhat (somewhat?) out of control. His story is told in Murder Machine, a fascinating book by reporters Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain. But DeMeo had no connection to the Bonanno family and the wiseguys Donnie Brasco dealt with.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Any time someone begins to wax poetically about the dignity and loyalty of the so-called men of honor, sit them down in front of a television set and pop this movie into the DVD player. Separate and apart from the high entertainment value and standout performances by Depp and Pacino, this is a lesson in underworld life, real and unvarnished.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: While the movie’s ending implies that Lefty is going to be whacked, in fact he was arrested by the FBI, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was paroled in 1992 because of his failing health. He died of cancer in 1994. Sonny Black, on the other hand, was whacked in retribution for bringing an FBI undercover agent into the family. When his body was found, both his hands had been cut off.
GOOF: When the mobsters discuss the fact that John Wayne has died, there is snow on the ground in New York. Wayne died in June.
CASTING CALL: Joe Pesci was considered for the role of Nicky that went to Bruno Kirby. Earlier in his career, Pesci lost the role of the young Clemenza in The Godfather: Part II to Kirby.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The FBI techie who asks Brasco/Pistone to explain what “fuhgedaboudit” means is Paul Giamatti. Giamatti is now renowned for his quirky roles in movies like Duets (2000), Duplicity (2009) and Cold Souls (2009) and his masterful performance as John Adams in the 2008 HBO series of the same name. He is the son of former Major League Baseball Commissioner and Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti.
BEST LINE: Brasco’s explanation of the meaning of the phrase “fuhgedaboudit” is probably the most quoted from the movie, but we like two others that capture the essence of wiseguy life.
“A wiseguy’s always right,” Lefty tells Donnie early in their relationship. “Even when he’s wrong, he’s right.”
And when Donnie compares the Mafia chain-of-command to the Army, Lefty bristles, “Bullshit. The army is some guy you don’t know telling you to go whack some other guy you don’t know.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Relatively low, given the subject matter and the principal players.
BODY COUNT: Five.
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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.”