Who is Frank talking to?

That was the question posed as a group of us exited The Irishman. One was a film programmer, the other four: film professors—the fixating kind.

But the question was valid. Who is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) narrating his story to? Sometimes he narrates in voiceover, other times directly addressing the camera as if it were a character. Director Martin Scorsese has long utilized voiceover and direct address in his films—it’s a technique he’s used so magnificently, it’s been taken for granted. A pity, considering that *who* Frank is talking to might be the key behind why Frank is talking.

The movie opens with a long Steadicam shot wandering the corridors and rooms of a nursing home. The camera finds Frank—months, weeks, days from his demise—and as the camera tracks around him, Frank’s voiceover begins. He explains that he first thought a “house painter” painted houses. Then the recollection shifts, from something emanating from the voiceover to Frank speaking directly to camera.

What follows is a three-hour-and-30-minute recollection of Frank’s life as a “house painter,” i.e., hit man for the mob; his tutelage under Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his friendship with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). All of which is seen by the audience in flashback narrated almost entirely by Frank—Russell has one quick aside to the camera early on.

Sprinkled throughout these flashbacks are moments where Frank seems to acknowledge the camera via a slight shift in his eyeline.

First Example: Whispers (Paul Herman)—not that Whispers who got blown up in the car, the other Whispers—asks Frank to put a rival laundry service out of business. Throughout the scene, Frank holds a cold, steely gaze with Whispers.

Until he breaks and briefly looks at the camera.

This quick shift could be interpreted as Frank thinking it over, but the eyeline shift to camera repeats, almost deliberately.

Second: After Frank finds out Whispers wants to bomb the wrong cleaners, Frank has to kill him. He does, and the following morning he reads about it in the paper.

Then, he looks up.

Again, his eyeline hit the lens (us). But here, a reverse shot shows his daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina), sitting across from him at the table.

Peggy knows exactly the man her father is and silently despises him for it. Could Frank’s recollection be a plea to Peggy? An explanation of why he did what he did? Maybe.

Third Example: Once again, Frank is informed that he has to kill. His eyes are on Russell. But this is no ordinary, hit; it’s personal.

And Frank’s eyes dart away from Russell to the left and directly to the camera. To us, watching.

After the hit, the aftermath, the disposal of the body, the movie cuts from the past to the present—Frank in the nursing home—with Frank addressing the camera: “It was no more complicated than that.”

Peggy never forgave Frank or spoke to him again. She is not listening to Frank’s nursing home confession. But we are. We are listening to him wax poetically about a time and place; we are trying to understand the ins-and-outs of why Frank did what he had to do. He never says he was choiceless in the matter, but it’s there between the lines. We are all products of our environment, despite what The Departed’s Frank Costello would have us believe.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in Detour.

The Irishman is based on the nonfiction novel, I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa by Charles Brandt. The book, a confession of sorts, paints Sheeran as “Forest Gump of organized crime,” and has raised suspicions of credibility. Then again, credibility and cinema were never close bedfellows. Scorsese’s previous effort—the Bob Dylan rock concert/documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue—gleefully traffics in fiction and fabrications. And Hollywood has had a longstanding infatuation with unreliable narrators. The best might belong to Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the down-on-his-luck piano player in Detour (1945). Al has two bodies to his name and a desire to prove to the audience that neither way his fault — they were just products of noirish coincidence: “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

Following the film’s flashback, the camera opens on Al’s eyes looking off screen. The camera then trucks back…
…and the lighting changes from expressionistic to naturalistic. And Al is no longer looking off into the distance, he’s looking right at us.

Detour is another film where the movie’s main character recounts the story in voiceover narration, and the images are presented in flashback. And like The Rolling Thunder Revue, little in Detour is to be believed. How much we believe of The Irishman is also worth questioning. It’s one of cinema greatest magic tricks: We have a habit of believing what we see. Even more so, if we are being told by someone we’re inclined to like. De Niro is a familiar face; Neal is not. Yet, we give them the benefit of the doubt. Even when the filmmakers conspire against us. Detour’s director, Edgar G. Ulmer, wants you to believe Al was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. At least, for most of the movie. As the title suggests, Al was on the straight and narrow; it was the detour that did him in—“Something stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself.” 

Notice Al’s emphasis of an outside, uncontrollable force? Reminiscent of the words, Frank tells Jimmy: “It is what it is.”

Who knows what would have happened to Frank had Russell or Jimmy never crossed his path. But they did. And like Al in Detour, Frank made to most of what came his way and later reworked the narrative to suit his style. As John Ford so aptly put it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The Irishman is currently available via Netflix.
Detour is currently available via The Criterion Channel, Kanopy, Hoopla, among others.
The Rolling Thunder Revue is currently available via Netflix.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is currently avaliable via Amazon/Starz and DIRECTV.