(THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE “THE DEPARTED” AS WELL AS SOME VIOLENT IMAGES)
The Departed, one of my favorite movies, has a strong basis in the life and career of James “Whitey” Bulger, Irish gangster whose status as an FBI informant gave him de facto immunity as well as intelligence on any possible surveillance from state police. In the film, he is transplanted almost entirely intact under the label Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).
Two books that are achievements on their own, but that I mention here as contextual footnotes for a few scenes in the film: an account of Bulger’s life and FBI involvement, Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill; a memoir of growing up in Boston during the busing crisis and after, All Souls: A Family Story From Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald. Excerpts are also made from the film’s screenplay by William Monahan. It is a lazy habit to attribute all a film’s virtures to a director, in this case, the essential Martin Scorsese. Reading Monahan’s screenplay provides one clear reason why this is a mistake.
After reading Black Mass, I don’t know what I could read that would add any depth to the subject covered; I overuse the word “excellent” to describe books, so I’ll say instead that MacDonald’s memoir is like a fire, both searing and illuminating.
An important detail: John Connolly was the FBI agent who was Bulger’s handler at the bureau, as well as his protector, halting all investigations, covering up crimes and providing Bulger tips on any wiretaps. In the movie, Connolly’s deeds are committed instead by a state policeman, Colin Sullivan, though ironically, Sullivan himself is threatened by the fact that Costello is an FBI informant, and may turn Sullivan over in order to maintain his FBI protection.
The prologue of Black Mass, which shares some details in setting with the prologue of The Departed.
One summer day in 1948, a shy kid in short pants named John Connolly wandered into a corner drugstore with a couple of his pals. The boys were looking to check out the candy at the store on the outskirts of the Old Harbor housing project in South Boston, where they all lived.
“There’s Whitey Bulger,” one of the boys whispered.
The legendary Whitey Bulger: skinny, taut, and tough-looking, with the full head of lighning-blond hair that inspired cops to nickname him Whitey, even if he hated the name and preferred his real name, Jimmy. He was the phantom tough-guy teen who ran with the Shamrocks gang.
Bulger caught the boys staring and impulsively offered to set up the bar with ice creams all around. Two boys eagerly named their favors. But little John Connolly hesitated, heeding his mother’s instructions not to take anything from strangers. When Bulger asked him about his abstinence, the other boys giggled about his mother’s rule. Bulger then took charge. “Hey, kid, I’m no stranger,” he told Connolly. “Your mother and father are from Ireland. My mother and father are from Ireland. I’m no stranger.”
Whitey asked again: What kind of cone you want?
In a soft voice Connolly said vanilla. Bulger gladly hoisted the boy onto the counter to receive his treat.
It was the first time John ever met Whitey. Many years later he would say the thrill of meeting Bulger by chance that day was “like meeting Ted Williams.”
Bulger’s lieutenant was Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi. In the movie, he is “Mr. French” (Ray Winstone). One short detail in the movie is very much based on real life events.
Again, Black Mass:
The gang operated out of a garage in the Winter Hill section of the small city just across the Charles River to the west. In the past year Whitey had paired off with another member of the gang, Stevie “The Rifleman” Flemmi. They got along, found they had certain things in common, and had begun to hang out.
Since the 1960s Flemmi had lived on and off with Marion Hussey in a house, just over the Boston city line in Milton that once belonged to his parents.
Then, in the mid-1970s, Flemmi became smitten with a teenager working behind the counter at a Brookline jewelery store. Debra Davis was stunning. She had shiny blond hair, a big white smile, and long legs. Flemmi showered her with clothes, jewelery, even a car, and the two began to play house, first in a luxury apartment Flemmi kept in Brookline and later in a small apartment in Randolph, a suburb on the South Shore. By the late 1970s Flemmi had added another captivating blond teenager to his stable: he was fooling around with Debbie Hussey, Marion’s daughter.
There’d been a number of housekeeping murders of minor figures in Southie’s underworld since he’d teamed up with the FBI in 1975, but the growing body count brought not a single knock on Bulger’s door. No sign of trouble even when the bloodletting extended to one of Stevie’s girlfriends. Debra Davis, the voluptuous 26-year-old who’d been with Flemmi for seven years, was making plans to leave him. Vacationing in Acapulco, she’d fallen in love with a young Mexican entrepreneur in the olive oil and poultry business. Davis wanted marriage and, eventually, a family – impossible dreams in the Flemmi arrangement. But a breakup was not an option to the possessive Stevie, and Davis disappeared without a trace on September 17, 1981. Davis had started the day shopping with her mother, and then, after a goodbye kiss, said she had to see Flemmi.
Stevie Flemmi and Deborah Hussey were having a bad time of it. The couple was fighting a lot, and Hussey was threatening to tell her mother about her affair with Flemmi. Of course, this would have made things difficult for Stevie. Suddenly Deborah Hussey disappeared. Like Debra Davis before her, she was twenty-six. Flemmi went home to Marion Hussey in Milton. He wasn’t about to tell Marion he’d just buried Deborah in a basement in South Boston…Instead he just shrugged his shoulders and did his best to console the girl’s mother.
Well, you’re one in a million.
What about your wife?
I thought she was.
She got reliable.
A 1984 shipping of weapons to the IRA which might be the basis for the microprocessor deal in the movie.
The fishing trawler Valhalla had left Gloucester, Massachusetts on September 14 for a few weeks of swordfishing. At least that was the cover story. In fact the trawler was carrying seven tons of weapons valued at a cool million – 163 firearms and 70 rounds of ammunition – destined for the IRA in Northern Ireland. Two hundred miles off the coast of Ireland, the Valhalla met up with a fishing boat from Ireland, the Marita Ann. The cache of weapons was transferred, and the operation seemed a success. But the Irish Navy had been tipped off and intercepted the Marita Ann at sea. The seizure of an IRA-bound arsenal made front-page news on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bulger was considered to be a chest-beating IRA sympathizer. But eventually some investigators came to believe that Bulger, just as he’d betrayed his neighbourhood with his phony anti-drug posturing, had also betrayed the IRA. He might have played a key role in rounding up the weapons to sell to the IRA, but after taking payment he dropped a dime. “Whitey waved good-bye to the Valhalla, then made a phone call,” said one official later.
Where are the real microprocessors, Frank?
Microprocessors…oh yeah, I heard that story. You arrested some Chinese government guy at the border carrying some light sockets or somethin’.
There is an incongruous moment in the film when undercover agent Billy Costigan talks about cops during a psychiatry session; he is full of venom, and his anger is never elaborated on. The viewer is unsure whether this anger is real, or more role-playing. I believe the anger is real, that it’s one more quality that makes him such a good fit for Bulger’s organization, and that it has roots in the community he partly grew up in.
MacDonald describes his own attitude toward police, and how it formed during busing.
A few moments from All Souls when the busing starts:
I looked up the road and saw a squadron of police motorcycles speeding down Dorchester Street, right along the curb, as if they
would run over anyone who wasn’t on the sidewalk. The buses were coming. Police sirens wailed as hundreds of cops on motorcycles aimed at the crowds of mothers and kids, to clear the way for the law of the land. ‘‘Bacon . . . I smell bacon!’’ a few people yelled, sniffng at the cops. I knew that meant the cops were pigs. As the motorcycles came closer I fought to get back onto the sidewalk, but it was too crowded. I ran further into the road to avoid one motorcycle, when two more came at me from the middle of the street. I had to run across to the other side of the road, where the crowd quickly cleared a space for me on the sidewalk. All the adults welcomed me, patting me on the shoulder. ‘‘Are you all right?’’ ‘‘Those pricks would even kill a kid.’’ ‘‘Pigs!’’ someone else shouted.
Every day I felt the pride of rebellion. The helicopters above my bedroom window woke me each morning for school, and my friends and I would plan to pass by the [Tactical Police Force] on the corners so we could walk around them and give them hateful looks. Ma and the nuns at St. Augustine’s told me it was wrong to hate the blacks for any of this. But I had to hate someone, and the police were always fracturing some poor neighbor’s skull or taking teenagers over to the beach at night to beat them senseless, so I hated them with all my might.
It felt good, the hate I had for the authorities. My whole family hated them, especially [MacDonald’s brothers and sister] Frankie, Kathy, and Kevin, who got the most involved in the riots. I would’ve loved to throw Molotov cocktails myself, along with some of the adults, but I was only a kid and the cops would probably catch me and beat me at the beach. So I just fantasized about killing them all. They were the enemy, the giant oppressor, like Goliath.
There was a cop leaving when I came in.
How do you know he was a cop?
Bad haircut, no dress sense and a slight air of scumbag entitlement. You see cops?
That’s part of what I do. Although, I don’t normally see cadets who were kicked out of the Academy.
You should get a better job…
Do they all come in and cry…your cops?
Sometimes they cry if they had trouble at home or if they’ve had to…use their weapons.
Let me tell you something. They signed up to use their fuckin’ weapons. Most of them. But they watch enough TV so they know they have to “weep” after they use their weapons. No one’s more full of shit than a cop. Except a cop on TV.
Another point, from All Souls, on the distrust of the police in South Boston – they’re perceived as corrupt, some in the pay of Bulger.
People in Southie didn’t trust the police, except for the ones they were related to, since the beatings and the cover-ups of those beatings we’d witnessed during busing. For many kids my age, hate for the cops was a good enough reason to be an outlaw. But Ma’s opinion of cops only solidified after her kids were dead and she decided to snitch about the drugs in town. “If you’re going to drop a dime,” her friend Snooka warned her, “you better do it from a phone booth, and whatever you do, don’t give a name!” Snooka knew what she was talking about. Her own son was a drug dealer in D Street Project, and one time when she tried to snitch on him, calling the drug unit of the police department, she got a knock on her door the next day from Whitey’s underlings, who gave her a warning. “Don’t you know who’s taking those calls at the drug unit?” she asked Ma, as if she was the only one who didn’t. “Patsy Magee, that’s who!”
“Don’t you know who’s taking those calls at the drug unit?” Ma was asking me the same question as if now I was the idiot who should know more about what goes on in Southie’s underworld. “And who the fuck is Patsy Magee?” I asked her. I didn’t know much about Southie crime, and didn’t want to know either. I was just wishing I could sweep my whole family up and take them out of this death trap. Ma told me that Patsy Magee was a sister to Kevin Magee, one of Whitey’s top lieutenants.
Mrs. Kennefick, Myles and I were in school together. Myles was behind me in school but I knew him. I will get those responsible. Don’t you want to see us catch whoever used him to do a robbery and then killed him?
Did you think you were the only one he had on the inside?
Back to Black Mass, which details an episode when surveillance was foiled through tips passed via Connolly. An attempt is made to bug the Lancaster garage, Whitey Bulger’s headquarters:
On July 23, 1980, Superior Court Judge Robert A. Barton approved [assistant district attorney of Suffolk County] Tim Burke’s application for a warrant to bug the Lancaster Street garage. Pumped up, [Seargent Bob Long], [state trooper Rick Fraelick], and [state trooper Jack O’Malley] went to work.
Early one evening the troopers parked a U-Haul truck snugly next to the garage…two troopers dropped down by the side of the truck and kicked out a bottom panel of the garage door. The troopers crawled in and, with the help of a technician they had hired for the job, installed three microphones – one in a couch, one inside a radio, and one in the ceiling of the office.
The microphone installed inside the radio didn’t function at all. The one in the couch worked but wasn’t of much use, producing little more than a rush of sound, like a hurricane, when one of the mobsters, especially the oversized ones like Nicky Femia, collapsed into it. But they were getting transmission from the microphone in the office, and that was the prime location; after straightening out the hospital interference, it was soon up and running.
Then the sky fell in.
Abruptly [Bulger and Flemmi] altered their routine. Instead of talking in the office or in the open bays, Bulger and Flemmi held meetings inside the black Chevy. The office was now off limits. The troopers were stunned.
[Bob Long] and his troopers had watched for months from the flophouse across the street as Bulger harassed anxious gamblers who owed money and bantered with visitng Mafia dignitaries. Then, exactly one day after a bug was up and running inside the garage, Bulger had been praising highway patrols and, more important, changing his routine. Business conversations had moved from inside the office to the backseat of Bulger’s black Chevy parked inside the bay area.
To Long, the gangsters’ new routine wasn’t just one of those things that happened. It was treachery.
(walking, voice low)
I didn’t know about your tail until
I saw it myself. I couldn’t call, I
had the other guy with me. Blue
sedan and a white delivery van,
fucked up with graffiti on the
side. The van is audio
surveillance. OK, have a nice day.
The movie opens with “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. MacDonald’s anecdote here, again, from a moment during the busing riots, makes an important contrasting point of what music was actually being listened to in parts of South Boston at the time:
Someone propped up his stereo speakers in a project window, blasting a favorite at the time: “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers. We always did that in Old Colony, blare our speakers out of our windows for the whole neighborhood to hear. It was obvious this guy was doing it for good background music to the crashes and thumps of battle.
Everyone sang along to ‘‘Fight the Power.’’ The teenagers in Southie still listened only to black music. The sad Irish songs were for the older people, and I never heard anyone listening to rock and roll in Old Colony. One time an outsider walked through Old Colony wearing a dungaree vest with a big red tongue and the Rolling Stones printed on the back. He was from the suburbs and was visiting his cousins in Old Colony. He got a bottle thrown at his head and was called a pussy. Rock and roll was for rich suburban people with long hair and dirty clothes.
What mattered was that the Isley Brothers were singing about everything we were watching in our streets right now, the battle between us and the law: “And when I rolled with the punches I got knocked on the ground / By all this bullshit goin’ down.”
From the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”:
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
From Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power”:
Time is truly wastin’
There’s no guarantee
Smile’s in the makin’
You gotta fight the powers that be
I think a key difference between the lyrics is that in “Shelter”, the singer is awaiting a coming storm, while in “Power”, the singer is in the midst of it.
Finally, a partial account of how MacDonald, and much of the community, at one time saw Bulger. MacDonald writes the book from the perspective of a man from a vital community viewed by its own city as a contemptible undertow, whose marginal state would be exploited by politicos, as well as Bulger, a man responsible for much death and damage in the very community he claimed to be loyal to, including much in MacDonald’s own family.
No one made us feel better about where we lived than Whitey Bulger.
He had definite rules that we all learned to live by, not because we had to, but because we wanted to. And we had to have someone looking out for us, with the likes of Judge [Arthur] Garrity [who ruled that busing was necessary to integrate South Boston schools] trying to take away what little we’d gotten for ourselves.
Years ago, we had the Church. That was only a way of saying we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were head-breakers. They took over their piece of the city.
He was the king of Southie, but not like the bad English kings who oppressed and killed the poor people of Ireland.
Whatever we had, we were going to keep. Whitey stepped up as our protector. They said he protected us from being overrun with the drugs and gangs we’d heard about in the black neighborhoods, as well as stopping the outsiders who wanted to turn the projects into expensive condominiums. I knew there were drugs and even gangs in my neighborhood, but like everyone else I kept my mouth shut about that one. Whitey and his boys didn’t like “rats”.
Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a job, we had the presidency. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chaps it’s this. No one gives it to you. You have to take it.
I was always looking for Whitey Bulger. I never saw him, but I’d never admit that to my friends. Everyone bragged about how his uncle was tight with him, or his brother had been bailed out of jail by him, or how he’d bought them a new pair of sneakers, or his mother a modern kitchen set. All the neighbors said they went to Whitey when they were in trouble, whether they’d been sent eviction notices from the Boston Housing Authority or the cops were harassing their kid. Whitey was more accessible than the welfare office, the BHA, the courts, or the cops. If your life had been threatened, your mother could always visit Whitey and get him to squash a beef. That is, of course, if your family was playing by the rules of the neighborhood. If you’d received death threats for avoiding the boycotts and sending your kids to school or else for saying the wrong thing to the press, you were on your own.
I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product…of me.
Visible or not, we all had a hero, a powerful champion, in the midst of all the troubles that enemy forces were heaving on us since the busing. Whitey was even more powerful than our elected politicians. They worked for him, that’s what Ma always said. I wanted to see the face of Whitey Bulger, so that I too could feel that power that everyone else bragged they were so connected to.
I wanted to see the face of Whitey Bulger
Images and screenplay copyright Warner Brothers