Saturday, April 01, 2006

Chocolate Salty Balls Six Ways

Isaac "Chef" Hayes' Scientology-fuelled departure from the animated show, "South Park", and the recent Rock Hall induction of New York rock band Blondie have reminded me of one of the most underrated and instructional mob movies to have been made, ever.

"Six Ways to Sunday" is a late-1990s effort starring Adrien Brody, Norman Reedus, and the aforementioned Harry and Hayes. It's a disturbing and violent film, as all good mobster films are. (Those that aren't do society a horrible disservice: organized crime is basically the credible threat of violence, credible because they are sufficiently brutal just frequently enough to make the threat serious.)

Several things make "Six Ways" unusual and valuable. For one thing, the mob is ethnic all right, but they aren't Italians, shanty Irish, or black gangbangers. They are Jews, mostly unobservant but culturally very Jewish Jews.

When the movie came out, then-former Blondie guitarist Chris Stein commented that the author-a black actor and writer named Charles Perry-of the novel on which the screenplay is based ("Portrait of a Young Man Drowning") was obviously engaged in an act of transference in making the protagonists Jews instead of blacks. Stein, despite the obvious, is aparently ignorant (and in his case, I think honestly so: but only because I suspect he's unusually ignorant of Judaism and Jewish history, despite being a Brooklyn Jew himself, he apparently had an unusual, artsy-beatnik childhood) of things Jewish.

Athletics and organized crime are not, today, part of what most people think of when they think of Jews. But at one time, Jews excelled at both. Most people are dimly aware of Sandy Koufax, still arguably the greatest baseball pitcher alive, and that he is Jewish: they may even know that he once refused to pitch in a World Series game on Yom Kippur. Baseball had several great Jewish players, and the sport of basketball was once entirely dominated by Jews, as hard to believe today as it may seem.

Organized crime was even more Jewish than athletics at one time. That the Jews were the most successful, the most ruthless, and the most vicious group in organized crime at that time is not something well publicized today, but based soley on Jewish sources themseves, as well as in any comprehensive scholarly study of American organized crime, it's inescapable.

Names like Bugsy Siegel, Moe Dalitz, Meyer Lansky, Longy Zwillman stand out as the most successful and smartest people in the history of organized crime. Joey the Hitman, the mob enforcer and executioner who co-wrote several particularly riveting paperbacks in the early 1970s chronicling his grisly endeavors (well before the current total disregard of "omerta" in the popular press, with Bill Bonnano writing novels and various former mobsters cranking out everything from movie scripts to Christian evangelical press dives for Jesus and respectability) and, as revealed in the posthumous editions' preface, a Jew himself) made it clear that the Jews were the most violent and cunning of mobsters, when they existed in numbers. Sidney Zion, a New York author, professional Jew, and Sinatra pally, expounded on the theme at length: he wrote of a Jewish gangster whose philanthropy included sending a promising but poor kid to medical school. Owning that doctor as he did, he ordered the man to surgically sever the spinal cord of an informer so as to leave him a bed-ridden quadriplegic. New initiates would then be brought to the bedside of the paralyzed rat as a living, terror-throwing example of what would befall traitors to the organization. It was an expensive form of terror education as the rat had to have full-time medical care for several decades, to keep him fed and tend to the output of his bowel and bladder, and to keep him from managing suicide. But one, Zion wrote with some satisfaction, that paid off in sufficiently terrorizing new initiates to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Jewish organized crime, per se, is history for the most part: "Six Ways" is set in roughly the present, and in the early 1990s, a Jewish mob presence in Youngstown, Ohio would have merely made sense as an oddity peculiar to Youngstown's status as a devastated industrial town whose good-paying union jobs have vanished and whose factories deteriorated in the Ohio winters. But that not only establishes the place setting, but serves as a visceral reminder of what was to today's spoiled young filmgoers who are incapable of understanding any concept unless it is set firmly in the present.

But if the film were specifically and peculiarly about Jewish gangsters, it would not be terrifically interesting except to students of Judaica, crime, professional Jews, and professional anti-Jews, the people like David Duke, William Pierce and Revilo Oliver with whom they are co-dependent for each other's income and support. It's terrifically interesting and gruesome because of the universal themes of mob conflict and support within the organization, the methods used to vet new initiates (Hayes is actually very good in his role as a corrupt detective), and above all the mother-son relationship between Reedus and Harry. (In an ironic and helpful coincidence, as in the novel written decades earlier, Reedus' character is named Harry, and Harry's, Kate.)

An added attraction is Harry's classic monologue on the sex act itself, which creeps out Reedus' character completely, and stands as a defining moment not only in the film, but in Harry's film career. Unbeknownst to all but hardened indie film fans, she is on her way to becoming the Thelma Ritter of her generation.

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