The bloody history behind the blarney of ‘The Irishman’

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The bloody history behind the blarney of ‘The Irishman’

Scorsese’s epic mafia drama is based on disputed facts

Chris Harvey

Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman arrives in cinemas and on Netflix this month trailing five-star reviews. Reuniting the director with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, and marking Scorsese’s first collaboration with Al Pacino, the film has been heralded as a late-career masterpiece. Over the course of three and a half hours, it creates a rich, troubling, transfixing tableau of the US at a time when the mafia’s influence reached high and low. Off screen, though, The Irishman has ignited the literary equivalent of a mob war.

Bang! In September, a targeted hit was carried out by the New York Review of Books on the source material for the film, a 2004 book by lawyer Charles Brandt, which documents in compelling detail the late-life confession of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (played in the film by De Niro), a Delaware-based union organiser and violent convicted criminal with connections to the Italian crime syndicate La Cosa Nostra.

The book’s title, I Heard You Paint Houses, refers to gangland slang for an assassination, and Brandt unmasks Sheeran as a long-serving hitman for a prominent mafia boss, putting him centre stage in one of America’s most enduring mysteries: who was responsible for the disappearance – and likely murder – of union leader James Riddle Hoffa (played by a volcanic Pacino) from a Detroit restaurant parking lot in July 1975. The New York Review of Books article, by Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, claimed the idea that Sheeran had killed Hoffa was “preposterous”...

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