Boardwalk Empire Mob Movie Memory Lane: Public Enemies

Whether or not Boardwalk Empire adds up to something greater than its stuffy (and expensive), period-perfect pilot remains to be seen. What doesn't, however, is the fact that the new HBO series from Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter is forged in the pinky rings of other mafia movies. Ahead, take a stroll down memory lane with Movieline to see which of your favorites got their cut during the pilot.

The Departed

Let's start at the beginning: As directed by Martin Scorsese, the pilot for Boardwalk Empire felt like a television version of the director's greatest hits. It goes to reason then that the episode opened and closed with a pinhole zoom on the action, a technique Scorsese started using to great effect in The Departed. In that film it was used to show the world closing in on Matt Damon's rat; here it seemed like it was used to be cool. That's already a problem for Boardwalk Empire: Too much of the action was done for the sake of being done, not for the sake of creating a compelling character drama. It's only the pilot, but this obviously bears watching going forward.


If you scratched your head when you found out that Steve Buscemi was playing the lead on Boardwalk Empire, you're not alone. Buscemi is great in the Peter Lorre-like role, but he's not the first person you'd think of when casting imposing mobster figureheads. Still, quibbles aside, the way Boardwalk Empire presents Buscemi's Nucky Thompson is similar to how Casino presented Ace Rothstein. He's an outsider trying to stay above the insiders to diminishing returns. The series simply doesn't work when Buscemi acts "tough," but the more Boardwalk Empire has Nucky say things like "I could have you killed," in that pathetic Steve Buscemi whine, the better chance he has at being a believable crime boss. Note: Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame) plays Arnold Rothstein to similar effect.


It's fitting that Boardwalk Empire premiered on the twentieth anniversary of the release of Goodfellas, if for no other reason than: Duh. There were the lengthy tracking shots, of course, but those felt more reminiscent of Scorsese's work in The Aviator than anything else -- specifically a jaunt into Babette's nightclub on the eve of Prohibition. Still, in Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Boardwalk Empire has found its Henry Hill. Straddling both sides of the law and striving to be a gangster, Pitt's Darmody has all the ambition of Hill, but with more brains. He's immediately the most compelling character on the show, if only because he doesn't feel like an actor "playing" mobster (see: Vincent Piazza's arch and ridiculous portrayal of Lucky Luciano).

The Godfather

First rule of mob movies: If you're an abusive husband who beats his pregnant wife, you're going to get brutally murdered. Call it the Carlo Corollary. As such, say hello (and goodbye) to Margaret Schroeder's (Kelly MacDonald) abusive husband, Max. He beats Margaret so badly that she has a miscarriage -- the true stomach-churning moment of the pilot for obvious reasons -- and in return gets beaten to death and dumped into the ocean. Come to think of it, that also recalls another seminal mafia pop culture moment...

The Sopranos

...Big Pussy! Though, actually, he wasn't beaten to death, just shot execution-style. Details, details. Elsewhere, Boardwalk Empire found most of its Sopranos references in the casting: Tom Aldredge (Carmela's father) as an FBI field head and Greg Antonacci (Phil Leotardo's underboss, Butch) appeared in the pilot.

Public Enemies

Speaking of casting: Stephen Graham is great and all, but after playing Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies, having him here as Al Capone feels gratuitous. As does his trying-very-hard Noo Yawk accent. He's perfectly short-fused, but it has been done before. By him. Just last year.

Overall: The pilot of Boardwalk Empire was a veritable feast of mob movie references. Will the series feature as many? Hopefully! Check back here next week to see if episode two slept with the fishes.


  • Humble Observer says:

    Granted the very in depth and professional opions of people who's job it is to really disect these series, i found it to be somewhat did my wife.
    I like to pride myself on liking shows with some gumption, aparent to my reflex of looking for True Blood (creature of habit). Being a fan of Gladiator, Dark Knight, Pineapple Express and the like I enjoyed the pilot. It will take me some time to allign all the young mobsters and potentially keep up historically with the plot but all in all it was...entertainment.

  • Jake says:

    I was not disappointed with last nights episode. It's not easy to do an impacting mob piece these days. The Sopranos was so riveting it left some big shoes to fill. I'm still waiting for the Movie. I think Buscemi did his best, still early to see if it's good enough.

  • ttt 2010 says:

    Scarcely a month after Bill Gates unveiled plans
    for selec tive extermination of the old and infirmed
    ---and even as estimates for 'peacetime' genocide
    decades AFTER WW2 swell beyond 80 MILLION
    in Hollywood's 'fave' mass market and cheap labor
    source ACROSS the Pacific
    ---and further as BOTH the 20th anniversary of the
    Tiennamen Massacre AND the urgently important
    60th anniversary of the KOREAN WAR are, AGAIN,
    'mysteriously overlooked'
    -------STILL MORE pointless, done-to-death, anachronistic
    mafia 'product' from the once compelling, decades stale,
    TOO LONG RICH ---Martin Scorsese
    ---WAKE UP KIDS!! ---WAKE UP!!!!
    The Boomers have betrayed us on EVERY level!

  • Enriquez the Water Bottle says:

    OK, now do "Gossip Girl!"

  • Ronin2296 says:

    Check out some non-mob related Scorsese work- his "...pinhole zoom on the action..." (more properly referred to as an "iris in" and used since the silent movie era) was used by him as early as the "Life Lessons" episode of the ensemble film "New York Stories".

  • John says:

    I don't think you're getting the point of Buscemi's performance... the ideas is that his character is NOT seen as tough... hell that low life wife beater even talked down to him in his own casino, just after Rothstein essentially pissed on his floor. Had they cast someone imposing as say Christopher Walken you would never believe anyone could look down to him or treat him with disrespect. At the end of the episode Darmody essentially tells him he went behind his back to go ahead with orders that he SHOULD have given, and that Nucky can't be "half a gangster" anymore.