Friday, December 13, 2019

Lonely men, behind doors – in The Irishman and The Searchers

[My latest “moments” column for The Hindu]

In the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s epic The Irishman (onscreen title I Heard You Paint Houses), Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sits old and alone in a nursing home; it’s Christmas, but he has nothing to celebrate and no one to celebrate it with. Frank has asked that his room door be left ajar, and the film’s last shot has the camera outside, watching him through the half-open door.

The shot worked for me on multiple levels. For one, it’s as intimate and poignant as (though more static than) the closing shot of Scorsese’s previous feature Silence where we glimpse something of
a man’s inner life after he has died – a Jesuit priest who renounced his religion but has a tiny cross in his hand as he is being cremated. Like Rodrigues in that film, Frank gave up something too, and we can’t say for certain how much he regrets it. And he is bearing a (different sort of) cross.

The Irishman scene also calls back to a mysterious moment earlier in the film where, shortly after Frank begins working for the powerful union leader Jimmy Hoffa, he spends a night in Hoffa’s suite – and sees that his boss has left the door to his own room partly open. This could be a personality tic, or a sign of trust, or a pointer to their future friendship. But for Frank, it also represents an entry point to another world. He goes from living a truck-driver’s itinerant life – spending time on the road, away from family for long stretches – to finding a sense of belonging and identity in a new community.

It’s a set-up in some ways, though, and will eventually lead to (moral and physical) desolation. At what should be the hour of Frank’s big triumph – a banquet in his honour, well-attended by people whom he looks up to – he also gets ominous signs that he may soon have to pick sides against a friend. And this leads to his ultimate fate as a lonely old man trying to maintain some connection with a world that has passed him by: entombed, cut off from everyone – most notably from his daughter Peggy who might have served as his conscience.

That closing scene also reminds me of other movie characters who have isolated themselves – from civilisation, from their families, or even from themselves. And other doors in which such people are framed so that only we can see them. The most prominent such scene is from a work that Scorsese (part of a generation of American directors who were first movie nerds) was deeply influenced by as a youngster – a film made, as it happens, by an Irishman: John Ford’s The Searchers.

The protagonist of that film, Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne), is one of cinema’s loneliest men, someone who is a wanderer to begin with but who, at the beginning of the story, at least has a family of sorts. When this family is massacred in an Indian attack, Ethan embarks on revenge but starts to lose his moral compass along the way – even coming close to killing his niece who had been abducted as a child.

Eventually order is restored and there is an ostensibly “happy” ending – but not for Ethan, who is too far steeped in blood and madness, and knows it. If the film began with a door opening and Ethan riding towards his brother’s house from a distance – being welcomed into a home – it ends with him framed by another door, which then closes on him as he walks away. And in between these two scenes, there is another crucial shot of Ethan silhouetted in an entryway, bent in grief, neither inside nor outside.

Scenes like these have a very particular effect for a movie-viewer. When two or more characters are on screen together, talking, occupied with each other, it’s easy to maintain the illusion that we are passively watching a story. But when we are alone with a lonely character, we feel more like participants – confidantes, sympathisers. Late in The Irishman, Frank speaks to a priest but is unable to say what he needs to say. The priest is not in a position to understand, but we viewers – omniscient, hopefully empathetic – have seen everything unfold over the preceding three hours. As we do with other lost people – like Ethan Edwards, like the dead Rodrigues, like Citizen Kane murmuring “Rosebud” on his deathbed, or Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, still possessed by his dead mother – we get to play the priest, listening, in a confessional.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

P.S. from my occasional Mix and Match series: Betrayal, uncertainty, remorse, Robert De Niro, and telephones. The sound of a persistently ringing phone (or the ring of a guilty conscience?) in an opium den in Once Upon a Time in America (1984) segues into a shot of the De Niro character Noodles making a crucial call.
Thirty-five years later, there are two notable telephone scenes involving De Niro’s Frank — another Judas figure— in The Irishman: one is a call he makes, the other is a call he contemplates making but doesn’t. The “What might have been?” theme is central to all three scenes.


  1. //But when we are alone with a lonely character, we feel more like participants – confidantes, sympathisers.
    //As we do with other lost people – like Ethan Edwards, like the dead Rodrigues, like Citizen Kane murmuring “Rosebud” on his deathbed, or Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, still possessed by his dead mother – we get to play the priest, listening, in a confessional.

    Another character who's left alone, ironically amidst a crowd, by the end of the movie is Norma Desmond. The confidante role played by the audience, us "wonderful people out there in the dark", really shines in the final sequence.
    Knowing your fondness for Psycho, Jai, I hope you may like this piece I had written on the similarities it shares with Sunset Boulevard:

    1. Great posts, thanks! I love this sort of link-making. Had done one about Psycho and Wilder's The Apartment a long time back, but hadn't thought of Sunset Boulevard in those terms...

    2. What about the doors in no country for old men? What is it about lonely men and doors

  2. This was great, Jai. Loved this piece, especially your slipping in that little trivia about Ford's nationality :-)

    In the Wall Street Journal the conservative political commentator (& a Pulitzer winner last year) Peggy Noonan covered Irishman for a change & compared it also with Ford, but with his Cheyenne Autumn, as a sort of goodbye. She was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, so she knew some of those people.

    Here is the whole column -

    It also received this irate letter to the editor:

    Peggy Noonan’s comparison of Martin Scorsese films with those of John Ford is almost like comparing Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to Daniel Boone and Kit Carson (“In a Land of Heroes, Gangsters and John Ford,” Declarations, Nov. 30). John Ford’s films epitomize the noble cause of all of the common hardworking folks who contributed to building this nation, their difficulties, trials and the somewhat circuitous route required to bring justice to the frontier, the building of towns and a sense of community to a truly vast wilderness.

    On the other hand, Martin Scorsese overly romanticizes the parasites of our society, the previous-generation equivalents of our current drug-cartel criminals: murderers, egomaniacs and people whose lifework hurt our society in many ways with their selfish behavior. Zero similarity exists between the two directors’ oeuvres—they are 180 degrees apart. One glorifies those who built this great country, and the other showcases those who tear it down.

    James Phelan
    Cedar Knolls, N.J.

  3. Thanks Jai! Your words shall be cherished.

    //Had done one about Psycho and Wilder's The Apartment...
    I haven't seen The Apartment, but I wonder what a Wilder-Hitchcock collaboration would have been like. Wilder, I have read, was a cynic at heart and Hitchcock, based on his numerous quips and the Truffaut conversations, seemed to hold similar sensibilities. Imagine Hitchcock's imagery and Wilder's rapid-fire dialogues in the same film.