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Gangs of New York: On New York's streets

MOST cities rose from turbulence and turmoil. New York too. This is what Martin Scorsese shows us in his latest "Gangs of New York". As the nearly three-hour long film fades from the epic screen, we see a weather-beaten Leonardo Dicaprio and Cameron Diaz standing in a graveyard against a changing New York skyline. This transformation is just breathtaking.

Scorsese's movie is not really about the passage of time, though: it is about the origins of a metropolis, its frightening beginnings in the early 1860s, when New York saw some of the bloodiest battles between Irish immigrants and natives. Set against the American Civil War, this city was the scene of another kind of slavery and subjugation.

The native ruthlessness and intolerance produced bravery and a spirit of freedom among the starving, homeless Irish who were dropping off the boats in the hope of a promising morrow. Scorsese says that since he was a child he had been drawn to stories of old New York. He grew up in Lower Manhattan, and, pursued by a zeal of curiosity, explored the city's streets and alleyways to discover unbelievable stories of the working masses, the evil underworld gangsters and of the corrupt politicians and policemen. These were the men who formed the roots of the New York we know today.

These were the men who made the legends, which seem to have whispered notes of inspiration into Scorsese's ear. The director pins down his focus on three characters, who make up the microcosm of an expansive canvas: Dicaprio as Amsterdam returns to 19th Century New York seeking to avenge the murder of his Irish father. Daniel Day-Lewis is the killer, "Bill the Butcher". Cameron Diaz as Jenny is the hyphen between these two men, a petty pickpocket who ends up picking Amsterdam's heart.

Scorsese, known for his dramatic narrative, pounds a viewer with spectacle and sound to benumb him into intoxication. This is his strength, and he plays it with aplomb. There is crisp conversation and remarkable realism, the latter created in Rome's Cinecitta Studios. Hundreds of real people were used, and hardly any computer imaging. Scorsese's eye for detail is extraordinary right to the yellow teeth of his principal players!

The crew and cast spent eight months and a hundred million dollars there; delays and monetary bickering coloured creativity. "Gangs of New York" caused the kind of noisy arguments and fights that Federico Fellini once had with his financial bosses.

Fellini invariably overshot his budgets, and Scorsese too, at least this time, did the same thing much to the annoyance of his production company, Miramax.

Were the Scorsese-Dicaprio tiffs one reason why the actor failed to be as convincing as one would have liked him to be ? His part, in any case, seems to have been underwritten to the point of appearing somewhat shallow.

The elements of rage and regret in him are not powerful enough to pump life into the character of Amsterdam, who returns after a 16-year-imprisonment-of-sorts in a strict convent with revenge in his head. This aspect does not get adequate attention, and proves to be a weak link in the story.

However, Daniel Day-Lewis is superb as the Butcher. He steals every scene, with his co-stars paling into insignificance. With a scarred face, glass eye (the pupil of his left eye in the shape of a U.S. Eagle), upswept moustache, slicked down hair, a top hat and that wicked smile, Day-Lewis is memorable. He may well be nominated for the Oscars.

Scorsese got Day-Lewis out of premature retirement to wear the Butcher's shoes. Robert De Niro was to have played the part, but personal reasons saw him out of the movie. Which blends Dickensian distress and Homeric tragedy into an engrossing epic.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated November 30 2003)

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