Michael Franzese chose to walk away from the mob. Unusually, he wasn’t vanished into the FBI’s witness protection programme after turning snitch. Nor was the ex-mafioso clipped one morning going to his car. Born into the world of crime, his father an underboss for the Colombo crime family, Franzese was sworn in as a “made man” – to quote gangster lingo – in the mid-’70s.
Involved in all kinds of money-making capers, including defrauding the government of millions in tax via a gasoline scam, his life became an endless succession of legal entanglements followed by stretches in the big house. Then… he quit, renouncing his former life and becoming a motivational speaker and author.
All of which makes Franzese the perfect guy to talk gangster flicks. Which movies did their homework – and which offer a load of overblown baloney? Here’s his verdict on some iconic scenes.
‘The Many Streets of Newark’ – street shootout
David Chase’s 2021 Sopranos prequel focuses on the life and demise of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Christopher Moltisanti’s father, a man often namechecked in the legendary TV series. In this scene from the film, an intense shootout unfolds on a street at night, with several bodies dropping in the process.
How realistic is the scene? “It’s highly exaggerated, the shootout in the street. You know, normally, you scoped somebody out. You’re watching them, and it’ll be a one-shot [thing]. They’re not even prepared for that, you know. They just walked into a trap. I’ve never experienced a shootout in the street. And I didn’t have to carry a gun on me every day to make sure that I protected myself, it didn’t get to that extent.”
‘The Godfather Part 2’ – Fredo’s betrayal
Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) is a guy with middle child syndrome. He’s desperate to prove himself to the family, but he’s overlooked and in his eyes, treated with disrespect. Nobody takes him seriously and it’s gnawed at his soul. Fredo admits to Michael that he’s sick of being the family joke and has betrayed him.
How realistic is the scene? “Unfortunately, betrayal happens all too often in our life. When the government started to use the racketeering laws, the sentences were so severe that a lot of guys turned informants, because they didn’t want to go to prison for that length of time. So betrayal became all too common among many of the guys.
“As far as sibling rivalry, I didn’t experience much of that. I don’t think it’s any different in the mob than it might be on the street or in corporate America. I had a brother, and unfortunately he had a severe drug problem for most of his life. So I think, at times, he probably was jealous of my position versus his position. But you know, that’s just a normal sibling rivalry that you would have anywhere else.”
‘Gotti’ – charismatic leaders
Mob films are jam-packed with larger-than-life bosses and capos. In this 1996 HBO production starring Armand Assante, who won an Emmy for his riveting performance, the notorious Gambino family boss is portrayed as a man with the gift of the gab, full of charisma and well-liked by his crew.
How realistic is the scene? “John Gotti was a larger-than-life character on the street, no doubt, the way he carried himself. And this is not a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s eventually what’s going to bring you down. It’s going to bring a lot of heat on the life. My dad to an extent was larger-than-life, because of the amount of media attention and law enforcement attention that he got.
“Carlo Gambino, who was at one time the most powerful guy in all of the New York families, was very low-key. He didn’t want to be noticed, he did it the right way. He was an old-timer. You know, Frank Costello, who was the boss at one time of the Genovese family and very well connected politically, he was larger-than-life. But with these larger-than-life guys, it’s just that’s the attention that they draw. I think John Gotti might have wanted it, but the others didn’t. It just happened to them.”
‘Casino’ – when bosses end up in court
In Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), when the Vegas bosses have their backs to the wall and court cases mount up, it’s time to clean house and execute any real – or potential – threats. Cue one of the director’s renowned music and voiceover montage sequences, where the hitmen get busy.
How realistic is the scene? “When you feel that somebody is weak, and somebody can put you in trouble, the boss can order that person to be taken out. I’ve seen that happen in my life. So that’s not highly exaggerated. It’s an unfortunate reality of that life. You know, it’s the same in Goodfellas, when Jimmy Burke (who became “Jimmy Conway” in the movie) was concerned that guys were going to let the government see what was going on with the Lufthansa robbery. A lot of guys got killed, and that was very realistic.
“Murder in that life is taken very seriously. It’s something that’s discussed, but it’s only the boss that can order it. You know, it’s not random cowboy stuff where people can just say, ‘Hey, I don’t like this guy, I want to kill him.’ It’s taken very seriously. There’s a discussion about it, then the boss makes a decision.”
‘The Departed’ – Costello smells a rat
A remake of the South Korean hit Infernal Affairs, 2006’s The Departed features the last great role by Jack Nicholson. In this entertaining moment, Nicholson’s paranoid mob boss Frank Costello confronts Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) about him being a rat. It is later revealed that Costello is himself an informant.
How realistic is the scene? “I was never accused of [being a rat] during my time in that life. But you’re always told to, you know, watch how you talk. My father used to tell me: ‘The phone is a cop, it’s the same as a cop.’ So for some guys, they’re always conscious of that. I was one of those guys. I was very careful who I spoke to. Even within my own life, I didn’t want to admit to things because, if you’re given an order and you do something, you’re not supposed to discuss it with everybody, you just do it. And that’s the end of it. It’s done.
“Now, there was somebody in our family who was talking, who was an informant, for over 20 years. We didn’t know it, but he was providing information and I was very close to him. I thought I was going to be in trouble for it. I wasn’t, but in situations like that, you have to be conscious of it because it’s something that you constantly need to worry about.”
‘Donnie Brasco’ – FBI infiltration
In 1997’s Donnie Brasco, FBI agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) infiltrates the Bonanno crime family using the alias Donnie Brasco. He does so by posing as a jeweller who knows a thing or two about a thing or two, and befriending Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a Bonanno foot soldier.
How realistic is the scene? “In that situation, they were very careless. I mean, they didn’t check him out strongly enough. He was an earner bringing in money. And unfortunately, they brought him in with open arms. But it was a mistake, obviously.
“I met Joe Pistone on the street, because I knew Sonny Black and I knew Lefty. Joe and I have [since] become very good friends. Donnie Brasco was undercover for six years. And he really risked his life because, at any point in time, if there was a slip-up, and somebody found out who he was, he could have walked in a room and that would have been the end of his life. It’s fascinating that he was able to last for six years. That was unbelievable.”
‘American Gangster’ – sadistic violence
Ridley Scott’s American Gangster focuses on the heroin trade through the eyes of crime lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). In this scene, Lucas has a victim doused in gasoline and set on fire, before finishing the poor guy with a round of bullets. It’s a shockingly sadistic bit of business.
How realistic is the scene? “Let me tell you, unfortunately, there were people in our life like that. Roy DeMeo, who was in a different crew, had a very serious, bad reputation for killing people, chopping up bodies, putting them in drums and things like that. So it’s an individual thing. You’re never taught that this is how you have to take care of something. But there are people that went to that extreme.
“Roy DeMeo had a headquarters called the Gemini Lounge. And a lot of people were killed in the Gemini Lounge, then chopped up and disposed of in different ways. But again, that’s a personal thing. If a guy is doing that on his own, he’s doing it on his own. You’re not taught to do that. You’re not told to do that. I mean, he was basically a serial killer. And unfortunately, he was part of our life. But that’s the extreme. It’s the exception, not the rule.”