DEEP FOCUS: Gangs of New York
The Eye of Bill “The Butcher”
As Bill The Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis) stands in the cold snow, the camera cuts in to an extreme close up of his evil glass eye which features the image of an American eagle.
Gangs of New York: Being a longtime fan of Scorsese, the film at first viewing felt like a bit of a misstep and didn’t seem like it all quite worked. After rewatching it many times over nearly a decade I now feel differently and consider it to be a truly enjoyable work of cinema. There are still certain minor problems I have with it but I can certainly overlook those details and appreciate the film for its best qualities and overall impact as a historical genre film. What I’ve always liked most about ‘Gangs’ in particular is the fact Scorsese wanted to expand his cinematic vision even broader and make something more epic bringing to mind films by directors like David Lean and Sergio Leone. This massive production was filmed in large part at Cinecitta studios in Rome, Italy where the sets reproduce the squalor and labyrinth like atmosphere of the Five Points section of New York where the story takes place.
Gangs of New York is based on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 non fiction book which is set during the Civil War era Draft Riots of the 1860s. At the opening of the film we meet Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) the religious spearhead of the Dead Rabbits, a fierce Irish gang in the Five Points section of New York. Along with his young son Amsterdam in tow, Priest and his fellow gangs who have colorful names like The Chichesters, Roach Guards, Plug Uglies and The 40 Thieves band together to take part in a bloody battle with Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis), the furious leader of The Natives, a large group of white American born thugs who despise the foreigners coming into the city and just minorities in general. During the brutal fight, Priest is killed by Bill who afterwards declares The Dead Rabbits outlawed and runs the Five Points section of the city with an iron hand from that day on. Amsterdam runs away from the scene and is left on his own.
Several years later, an older and wiser Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) leaves his boarding school and wades back into life on the mean streets of the Five Points. There he meets an old childhood friend Johnny (Henry Thomas) who reintroduces him to Bill The Butcher the man who killed his father. Amsterdam plans to seek revenge and kill Bill but over time finds a strange bond forming between him and his intended target. He also falls in love with a young female pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz) but this relationship causes more problems for him since she has been Bill’s “property” since a young age when he found her on the street.
Amsterdam’s coming of age style journey takes the film viewer through the exciting and dangerous urban jungle that is the Five Points in the mid 1800s and examines of the mindset of the time, which shows the heavy racist attitudes juxtaposed with the burgeoning liberation of foreigners who can’t be kept down as the city undergoes a transformation into what will become a place where dreams come true for its citizens in the 20th century.
Bill Cutting is a very interesting, fierce figure, he represents the old world with Amsterdam representing the new. Bill at once despises the Irish and other minorities but if they submit to his power, he treats them decent but always with a bit of underlying contempt. Bill The Butcher is, like almost all of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performances, one that is incredibly daring and thrilling to watch.
FURIOUS FILM TRIVIA: On the set, Daniel Day Lewis would blast music by Eminem to get in the right mood for his performance and wouldn’t break character throughout production.