By Josh Casey
Forget about the clichés and the movies, the wiseguys and their broads, the snappy suits and sharp one-liners. Most of all forget about the men of honour concept laid bare for the risible oxymoron it always was in what has been billed as the biggest mob murder trial in U.S. history.
Instead, what has been playing out in the 25th Floor courtroom in front of Judge James B Zagel is a story of men barely above the morality of hyenas, who kill each other by the most barbaric methods for the flimsiest and most debased of motives.
And even those motives, such as they are, rarely seem to be more than the crude suppositions of simple minds reacting to rumour and guesswork no more profound than fishwives gossiping on a street corner. The difference is that gossips might sometimes smear a reputation a little, but with the characters exposed in the ‘Family Secrets’ trial, it can result in medieval murder, nearly always over money, or the notion that the victim might have betrayed them or might do so sometime in the future. And if they got it wrong - so what? The guy shouldn’t have been in the wrong place at the wrong time…
And that is what separates them from civilised citizens. It was once written by a political philosopher that the rule of law succeeded not generally because of a citizen’s fear of the consequences of not abiding by it, but because the majority of citizens recognised and accepted the necessity of restraints required for civil co-existence.
That essentially is the measure of decent people as opposed to those who reject restraints and disregard the rules others accept and comply with, however resentfully from time to time. We would all rather drive at whatever speed we felt like now and then, not wear crash helmets or seat belts, even party naked in the park from time to time, and might feel like wringing the neck of that noisy neighbour on the odd occasion. But that is a figure of speech; we don’t actually plan to force men to the ground and strangle and cut their throats open for any reasons, let alone unsubstantiated reasons all rooted in greed.
The difference with the people depicted in this trial is that they just will do that and so much worse, and without regard for either the rules of society, humanity, or for life itself.
In the movies, bad guys don’t get killed, they get ‘whacked’. It is usually depicted as exciting, even sexy: the set-up, the tension, the shooting, over and done, he had it coming anyway…ratatatat! A body in the street…the screeching of tyres…Warren Beatty, Harvey Keitel, Lee Marvin, Pesci, and DiNiro have kept us appallingly entertained with their apparently cinema verite depictions of gangsters who terrify and excite in the same measure, along with other actors and film makers who have used their skills to insinuate the image of these semi-romantic outlaw figures in our minds.
The reality of the Family Secrets crew is of two men wrenching on either end of a rope looped around a man’s neck, each with a foot braced against the victim’s skull, throttling him to death and then slicing his throat open for good measure. Butch Petrocelli, himself an Outfit enforcer, forced to the ground, strangled, his throat slashed, then doused in lighter fuel and burned. Or the Spilotro brothers, again held down and strangled and beaten with fists, boots and knees, or the unspeakable murder long ago of a man hung from a meat hook pierced through his rectum, then tortured to death over three days.
This is not the territory of the Godfather or The Soprano’s, the former risibly portrayed hoodlums as noble peasants elevating themselves by the only means available through some imagined re-creation of an alternative Roman Empire (a notion re-attributed to defendant, Frank Calabrese, in the testimony of his son recently), and the latter escaping all true evaluation by rarely departing from a slick caricature in black comedy.
Better cinematic representation can be found in The Funeral, a largely overlooked almost Shakespearean tale directed by Abel Ferrara, featuring the extraordinary talents of Christopher Walken and the late Christopher Penn in whose character is distilled the despair and depravity of the gangster’s life and fate. The two actors portray siblings in a criminal family of the 1930s, but the awful moment of truth of this film is stolen in just a few seconds of masterful portrayal by Annabella Sciorra. Playing Walken’s screen wife at a time of violent crisis, she talks to a younger woman while tearfully despairing of and rejecting the inevitability and brutality of their occupations, speaking words to the effect of: “…all because they have failed to rise above their illiterate and savage origins…”
That was the message underpinning the entire film - and it serves the so-called ‘Family Secrets’ trial in Chicago also - both portray gangsters as they should be seen, as squalid, uncivilised savages, not as handsome, slick suited outlaws. Such men (whether those in the courtroom or not, the jury have yet to decide) are just sadistic thugs who commit murder not for noble cause but for squalid greed and that should never be forgotten.