Thursday, July 19, 2007

Hollywood Had It Wrong

Movies are sometimes based on history, and those in the know get a chance to demonstrate their knowledge of trivia. The whole Godfather movie series had a touch of reality about it, in that Mafia-watchers could point to certain incidents and tie them to something that actually happened to organized crime families in New York.

And the movies did very well at the box office and went on to sell profitably as DVDs. Then along came the movie Casino to ride on the coat tails of this peculiar fascination with Italian criminals, and again, the cognoscenti described the origins of the story. It was based in part on real gangsters out in Las Vegas, they said, members of the Chicago Outfit. Based, yes, but how much was fact and how much was fiction?

The reality of the story is being told in a Chicago court room by those who took part in the original version of Casino. Nicholas Calabrese, a made member of Chicago's crime syndicate, got himself into a bind when he mistakenly left a glove, with his blood on it, at a murder scene. He knew he was in trouble because a Chicago police detective, who was part of Mr. Calabrese's clique, told him about the evidence. With that in mind, Mr. Calabrese decided to sing to the authorities. The result is a detailed presentation of a hit that was immortalized on film, albeit incorrectly.

Portrayed by Joe Pesci in the movie, Anthony Spilotro was the Chicago mob's man in Las Vegas. The highly lucrative skim of casino profits was bringing in tremendous amounts of cash, but it appears that Mr. Spilotro got greedy and garnered more money for himself by turning his crew loose to commit robberies and other petty crimes. That brought attention to the criminal enterprise, and in turn that put the heat on the skim operations. Bad for business, to have law enforcement probing the secret doings of the casino counting rooms, so Mr. Spilotro had to go.

He was not, in fact, beaten to death in the Indiana cornfield where he was found. Rather, he was lured to a basement in a suburban home, thinking that he was going to be made a capo in Las Vegas and his brother was going to be made a member of the Outfit. Twelve men, including Nicholas Calabrese, were waiting with baseball bats for the Spilotro brothers. According to Mr. Calabrese, Anthony "The Ant" asked for time to say a prayer, but he was not granted his last request.

As part of his testimony yesterday, Mr. Calabrese described the entire murder quite calmly. He mentioned who was there, who did what. Mr. Calabrese tackled Michael Spilotro while Louis the Mooch put a rope around the victim's neck. He wiped up some blood from where Anthony Spilotro had been beaten. Moved the Spilotro car to another location. Went for a cup of coffee.

John Fecarotta was there when the Spilotro brothers were murdered, and he was charged with making the bodies disappear. Not long after the killings, an Indiana farmer made a gruesome discovery in his field. Not long after that, John Fecarotta was found dead.

The mobsters on film have a humanity about them, a set of conflicting emotions that make them appealing to the viewer. Why else would so many people anticipate the final episode of The Sopranos, and then spend hours debating the ending? Why are the Godfather films so intriguing, no matter how old the original might be?

We can watch the criminals from a distance, safely sanitized for viewing. Indeed, as the protagonist of a story, the mobster has to be painted with some redeeming quality to appeal to the reader or the viewer. In reality, they are very different from the screen portrayal, devoid of redeeming qualities and marked by their utter inhumanity.

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