CRIMEWATCH: The Departed

“When you decide to be something, you can be it. That’s what they don’t tell you in the church. When I was your age they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” – Frank Costello

Director Martin Scorsese made his mark in cinema telling furious tales about criminals. He began his career with a story about small time hoods from New York’s Little Italy, based on people he grew up with, that film was Mean Streets. His 1980 biopic Raging Bull about Jake LaMotta also featured mafiosi who were the very people that supported the boxer behind the scenes in his Bronx neighborhood. In 1990, GoodFellas based on writer Nicholas Pileggi’s book WiseGuy about mob associate Henry Hill‘s life inside New York’s Lucchese crime family became Scorsese’s first mafia movie masterpiece. With Casino Scorsese explored yet another aspect of the mob underworld based on the true adventures of real Las Vegas casino boss “Lefty” Rosenthal and his Chicago gangster associate/friend Tony “The Ant” Spilotro (who were portrayed by Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci). The film became a perfect bookend to GoodFellas, both stories giving viewers an inside look at the way the mafia operates and the causes and effects of that lifestyle. They were cinematically extravagant and highly entertaining movies that have stood the test of time.

Frank Costello in the shadows

For The Departed, Scorsese remade the 2002 Hong Kong crime film Infernal Affairs directed by Andrew Lau & Alan Mak. William Monahan’s adapted screenplay was a different take on the genre, dealing with themes of identity and corruption within the Boston police force in modern times. This gave Scorsese a new way to explore territory he had covered before. Scorsese stated that he looked at The Departed as his crime “B-movie”, a tribute to all the crackerjack film noirs he grew up on as a youth.

The story follows two men, who become mirrors of one another. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a wily associate of South Boston crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Sullivan has made it into the police department where he will use his job as a front to provide inside information to keep Costello out of trouble. The second man is Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is still in the police academy and wants to become a Mass State Trooper. The main problem is his own family ties to the South Boston underworld. During his interview, Costigan’s superior officers Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) let him know right away that he has basically no chance of getting into the department because he’s not cut out for it, but one distinct detail could make him the right person for a job they’re working on. Costigan’s years growing up in both the upper middle class environment of the North Shore and living on the weekends in Southie taught him the ability to act naturally with different kinds of people. Queenan and Dignam recognize this as something they can use to their advantage and decide to recruit Billy to go undercover into Costello’s organization. Costigan accepts this dangerous assignment and thus begins his journey trying to infiltrate Costello’s crime syndicate and help put him behind bars for good.

Billy confronts Colin

DiCaprio gives a memorable performance playing Costigan as a tough loner but who at the same time is highly paranoid about being killed at any moment. We are reminded of the ending of GoodFellas after Henry Hill rats on his associates/friends Paulie and Jimmy and how he fears he will be killed because of that. The difference is Costigan is living in that headspace throughout the entire film which just heightens the film’s potboiler aspect.

Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello was inspired by real life South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger (who was recently arrested after 16 years on the lam). Nicholson plays Costello with inherent charm and humor but also an underlying psychotic evil that is never shown completely. It is kept mostly a mystery which really benefits the resonance of his character.

Unlike Scorsese’s previous crime entries, modern technology plays an integral part in these criminals’ lives, most notably the use of cellphones. The police and gangsters use these as tools to communicate with their respective leaders. Whether it’s Sullivan providing Costello info while on the job, or Costigan setting up a secret meeting with Queenan, these wireless devices serve to both help or hinder the characters in a very unique and interesting way.

The film also pays tribute to its Infernal Affairs roots in two specific sequences: one in which Costigan shadows Sullivan (whose true identity is unknown to him), through the streets of Chinatown (note the neon filled visual aesthetic used here to remind us of Asian cinema). The second when Costello sells a Chinese gang some stolen microprocessors (which are actually fakes).


Scarface X

Scorsese is a longtime fan of classic gangster pictures and he pays tribute to one of them in The Departed: Howard Hawks‘ 1932 film Scarface starring Paul Muni. In that film, an X is shown in different areas to signify the death of a character. Scorsese pays homage by placing X’s in various locations which foreshadow someone being killed. Also, Frank Costello’s cellphone ringtone is the same song Tony Camonte whistles in Scarface.

The Departed went on to earn Scorsese Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (William Monahan) and Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker). For those of us who are huge Scorsese fans, it was a special thrill to see it happen and seemed long overdue.



Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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1 Response

  1. February 12, 2012

    […] films of its kind. Fans of other Boston based crime films such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Departed and The Town will find alot of similar themes going on in this […]

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