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An American's Story (Napoleon's World)

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An American's Story
An Americans Story
Theatrical Poster
Directed by George Deacon
Written by Alan Flynn
George Deacon
Based on An Immigrant's Tale (1973) and The Rat King (1978) by Carlio Brunzi
Narrated by Robert De Niro
Starring Robert De Niro
Sal Caparza
Dom Pineda
Jack Nicholson
Gabrielle Howard
Jane Seymour
Donald Sutherland
Jack Germaine
Lee Oswald
Studio Pacific Print
Release date(s) 1985
Running time 185 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Preceded by Coming to America(1982)
Followed by The American Dream(1989)

An American's Story was a 1985 epic crime film directed by George Deacon and written by Alan Flynn, loosely based on the later chapters of Carlio Brunzi's 1973 novel An Immigrant's Tale. The film was a sequel to the 1982 masterpiece Coming to America and starred Robert de Niro, Dom Pineda, Sal Caparza, Jack Nicholson, Michael McMahon, Gabrielle Howard, Edward Mason, Peter Dempsey, Sylvia Lockhart, Maureen McDonald, Donald Sutherland, Jack Germaine, and Liam Neeson.


The film was universally acclaimed and won a slew of awards, including a sweep at the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards and won six Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (De Niro), Best Supporting Actor (Sal Caparza) and Best Set Design.

Plot

The film is told out of chronological order, involving three separate and unique parts, but the following plot summary organizes the events of the story in chronological order.

The prologue involves the growing influence of Carmine Scariane (James Woods) in the 1930's to the point where he is one of the Campaccini family's top enforcers, runs a profitable pan-New York gambling industry and the effective master of much of Long Island and Queens, and his subsequent betrayal by his erstwhile Irish ally, Henry St. John (Liam Neeson) in 1938 during the Booming Thirties, due to St. John's alliance with corrupt Democratic political bosses who fear Carmine's presence in Brooklyn and Queens will undermine their ability to garner votes for the upcoming 1940 Presidential election. A 12-year old Alphonse Scariane witnesses his parents be gunned down by Stu Tyler (Henry Friend) while leaving a party in Manhattan. At this point, the first of Alfie's (Robert De Niro) narration is heard: "There's an old saying - you live by the gun, you die by the gun," and much of Carmine's life in the 1930's is briefly shown, narrated by his son reverently.

The film from here on out jumps back and forth intermittently between two time periods and storylines - the mid to late 1940's, where a young Alfie (Dom Pineda) seeks vengeance against the men responsible for his parents' deaths, and the late 1950's and early 1960's, when an older Alfie must deal with the lingering repurcussions of his decisions fifteen years prior and attempt to fulfill the role of a true father he never had while running his crew. The storylines are told most congrously, with the 1947-48 storyline told in two segments and the 1962-63 storyline told in three segments.

In 1947, a 21-year old Alfie is working for Gino Girardi (Michael McMahon), a Brooklyn boss who was an associate of his father's and, previously, worked for Carlo Borghese in the 1920's and now is a caporegime for the Scusso crime family. Gino is the closest thing Alfie has to a father and has a young, hotheaded son named Nicky (Sal Caparza). Gino also looks after Carla (Maureen McDonald), Alfie's teenage little sister, as his adoptive daugther. Alfie and Nicky have a brotherly relationship, but while Alfie is an introverted, troubled young man, Nicky is a borderline sociopathic sadist who relishes in causing fear in other people. Alfie and Nicky are Gino's primary enforcers in Brooklyn, performing a variety of tasks for him including running a successful protection racket, scalping tickets and collecting a cut of profits at Brooklyn Dodgers games, and selling stolen goods on the streets. While collecting money from a Puerto Rican family in Girardi's territory, Nicky gets into an altercation with the shopkeeper and slits his wife's throat before shooting the shopkeeper in the head. Alfie is horrified, but realizes that he may finally have the tool he needs to exact revenge upon St. John and his right-hand man, Tyler.

Alfie and Nicky enlist the help of Alfie's mute godfather Falco (Peter Dempsey) to begin to wage a three-man war against Bronx's powerful Irish mob, who at this point effectively control the city and have begun dabbling in a variety of other illegalities, including human trafficking, hard drugs such as heroin and strike-busting. To retaliate after the killing of several of his men, St. John orders a hit on Falco, who is hung from the Brooklyn Bridge with the word "WOP" written on his white shirt.

Girardi finally kills St. John after the two young men launch an all-out assault on his headquarters in the Bronx, but Tyler escapes. Alfie begins to realize the cost of his vengeance when he realizes that most of the criminals are just poor young men such as himself, and is dismayed that it was Nicky who killed St. John and not him. With the turf war temporarily subsided, Alfie begins to court Nicky's 17-year old cousin cousin, Gabby (Nina Nellis), while Gino extends his control thanks to the ebbing in Irish power following St. John's death.

Tyler recruits the help of a powerful Manhattan Irish boss, Roger Busch (Donald Sutherland) to intervene on his behalf. Busch distrusts Tyler and is secretly glad that St. John is gone, but agrees to the assassination of Alfie after a meeting with Salvatore Scusso (Ed Mason), the head of the Scusso crime family and Girardi's immediate boss. Scusso is reluctant to kill Alfie, whose father he respected, but agrees to turn a blind eye to Busch's request to assassinate Alfie as long as Gino or his family are left unharmed, as Gino is a made man and one of Scusso's closest allies.

At the wedding of Alfie and Gabby in 1948, Busch's men attack and murder several guests, including Gino. Alfie manages to kill Tyler personally, but Gabby sees it occur and is horrified, as she had been willfully ignorant of her uncle and cousin's line of work in previous years.

Nicky goes out on a murderous rampage, killing dozens of Irishmen in a series of hits that attract the attention of corrupt policeman Eddie Stone (Lee Oswald) and city councilman Furlough (Jack Germaine), who have a close relationship with Busch. After Nicky kills Busch at his pub after gunning down every single person inside and is inflicted with severe wounds, Scusso comes to Alfie's home in Brooklyn with the dying Nicky and informs him that the Irish will likely kill Alfie unless Scusso protects him to avoid a further turf war - the threat of repercussions from the other three powerful New York families is also implied, since the hit on Busch was unsanctioned and the Mafia would prefer to avoid an escalation of hostilities with the Irish.

Scusso orders Alfie to kill Nicky, and Alfie reluctantly complies, vomiting profusely afterwards in the garden behind the house. Gabby reveals to Alfie after Scusso leaves that she's pregnant - meaning that, like his father, his first child was conceived out of wedlock - and he's not sure if he wants to welcome the news or be sickened. As part of his deal with Scusso, Alfie is forced to send Carla away to live with Scusso in order to be put under Scusso's protection, and Alfie comes to work for Scusso's organization and helps expand his empire from Manhattan into Brooklyn.

In 1962, Alfie is an abusive alcoholic estranged from his wife (Gabrille Howard) and still works for the aging, dying Scusso. Carla (Jane Seymour) has not forgiven him for betraying her and using her as a bargaining chip to save his own life. During the 1950's, Brooklyn's demographics have shifted enormously as the Italians have slowly migrated to New Jersey and the other side of the Hudson River as the Irish, Alaskans, Puerto Ricans and blacks have slowly filled up its neighborhoods. Alfie runs a mechanic shop he lives above with his wife and two fraternal twin sons, Vincent and Paul, and collects tribute for Scusso with the help of Billy Bonaccio (Paul Sorvino) and a Jewish former boxer-turned-enforcer, Ned "The Wrath" Ketzel (Tom Berenger). Alfie has a successful protection racket and is still shaving off winnings from gamblers on Long Island at the Bayside Downs horse track and runs a gambling den in the back of his shop. Alfie and Billy violently beat up a black gambler who was trying to cheat at craps and dump his body in the river when he dies in the backseat of Alfie's car.

On his deathbed, Scusso apologizes for selling Alfie out to Busch several years prior, and tells him that he wants Alfie to take over the Scusso family by proxy of his being Scusso's brother-in-law along with Scusso's sons. However, with Scusso dead, Alfie becomes a target for a group of men who only didn't touch him out of fear and respect for Scusso, including Ed Stone, now a high-ranking officer in the NYPD, and Rob Furlough is now the Mayor of New York. Both Stone and Furlough are close with Busch's successor in Manhattan and the Bronx, Tommie Ryan (Jack Nicholson), an ill-tempered morphine addict with an adulterous wife named Jennifer (Sylvia Lockhart) and an ambitious son, Patrick (Rob Lowe), who aims to slowly use his father's connections to stifle the power of the last Italian bosses in the city while earning the allegiance of the "newbies," such as Russians, Poles and Puerto Ricans.

After refusing to pay Stone a cut of his tribute money only days after Scusso's death, Alfie's garage is firebombed and he goes into hiding at a seedy hotel. Ned is brutally beaten at a bar in Queens and left for dead, leaving Alfie to send his family into hiding with Carla to New Jersey. He arranges a meet with Ryan, who suggests that Alfie come work for him. Alfie refuses, stating that the erosion of the Italian families' power and their migration to New Jersey and Philadelphia did not mean that the whole city would belong to Ryan. After being refused, Ryan and his inner circle meet with Furlough to discuss getting rid of the Italians through extralegal means.

Alfie is arrested by Stone, but on the way to the police station is busted out by Billy and members of Scusso's gang. Alfie arranges a meet with several leaders of the different Italian families in upstate New York and cryptically alludes to solving the problem without igniting a major turf war, by suggesting that they "take out the leverage and leave the enemy alone."

Billy brutally assassinates Stone in broad daylight, and Alfie recalls Nicky. Alfie delivers Stone's bloodied badge, along his his severed finger, to Furlough, and threatens to do likewise should Ryan not cease his attempted infringement on the territory of the Italian families and demands a repayment of all the bribe money Furlough has taken from the Irish. The Italian family bosses recognize Alfie as Scusso's successor and thus one of the family heads, promising that nobody from any of the families will touch him, finally ascending the Scariane family to the top pillar in New York's crime community. Alfie reconciles his relationship with Gabby during a dance at a birthday party he throws for her at his father's old estate on Long Island, which he has purchased with his new-found cash.

Billy is mysteriously murdered, and Alfie meets with Ryan later to demand an explanation. A shootout ensues in which Ned and Ryan are both killed, and Alfie now is recognized as New York's main boss. He meets with Mayor Furlough to discuss who Alfie will "sell" in return for a lack of pressure from the NYPD and a number of high-profile arrests ensue, inspired by the real-life 1963 New York crackdown on mob activity that was allegedly helped by a high-placed informant in the New York mafia. Patrick Ryan is among the men arrested, although he is let out of jail shortly thereafter after promising a considerable bribe to an officer.

Alfie reconciles with Carla as well, apologizing for her years of spousal abuse at the hands of Scusso and building her a home next door to his own on Long Island. Furlough becomes a frequent guest at his mansion as Alfie begins to move his organization into a more prominent position in gambling and selling hot goods throughout the city and even establishing a protection racket on Long Island itself. At his own 37th birthday party in 1963, Alfie watches his sons dance with their aunt as he and his wife relax at an evening table. In his closing narrative, he comments on the cyclical nature of life and how in the end, he must enjoy the time he has now, because eventually somebody will try to knock him off the perch he has reached in his wars against St. John, Busch and Ryan, and he recalls a time he and Nicky went joyriding around Long Island in the 1940's. He accepts his eventual fate and contentment as Patrick Ryan is seen sneaking onto the property behind some bushes with a gun in hand. Alfie's voiceover repeats the film's opening narrative: "You live by the gun, you die by the gun," and the screen cuts to black.

Cast

  • Robert De Niro as Alphonse "Alfie" Scariane
  • Dom Pineda as Young Alphonse Scariane
  • Sal Caparza as Nicolas "Nicky" Girardi
  • Jack Nicholson as Tommie Ryan
  • Sylvia Lockhart as Jennifer Ryan
  • Michael McMahon as Gino Girardi
  • Henry Friend as Stu Tyler
  • Gabrielle Howard as Gabriella "Gabby" Scariane
  • Nina Nellis as Young Gabby
  • Tom Berenger as Ned Ketzel
  • Paul Sorvino as Billy Bonaccio
  • Edward Mason as Salvatore Scusso
  • Rob Lowe as Patrick Ryan
  • Jane Seymour as Carla Scusso
  • Maureen McDonald as Young Carla
  • Donald Sutherland as Roger Busch
  • Lee Oswald as Captain Eddie Stone
  • Jack Germaine as Mayor Furlough
  • Liam Neeson as Henry St. John
  • Peter Dempsey as Guiseppe Falco
  • James Woods as Carmine Scariane

Development

Writing

Alan Flynn and George Deacon had always intended to make a sequel to Coming to America using the final third of An Immigrant's Tale that had gone unused when making the first half. They chose to include the bits and pieces of Carmine's murder in the middle of the novel in the beginning and then focus half of the movie around the novel's final act, which focuses on the vengeance of Alfie against the Irish gangsters and Democratic politicians who masterminded his father's murder. Flynn and Deacon chose to omit the revelation that Busch had been the orchestrator of the plot to assassinate Carmine as well as numerous other Italian family heads in 1938, and also cut out the subplots involving the Democratic party machine in New York that benefitted from the assault on the Italians, condensing many of the characters and giving the conspiracy a passing glance. This made the focus of Alfie's revenge more personal. They also made the character of Gino less significant, while completely cutting out Nicky's similarly ill-fated younger brother Dominic.

For the second half of the film, Flynn suggested they use material from Carlio Brunzi's 1978 novel The Rat King, which focused on a fictionalized account of the infamous and still unknown "King of Rats" who sold out 37 high-ranking Mafia bosses, including the head of the Truttino family, as well as 22 members of other criminal organizations including Irish kingpins Mickey O'Donnell and Johnnie McKenna, and the Siegel brothers of New Jersey's Jewish crime organization to the FBI in 1963. Brunzi's character Billy Bonaccio, a racketeer in Brooklyn working for the Scusso family, was the alleged rat in the novel, and became Alfie's confidant in the film. In real life, the informant sold out the mobsters to the FBI - in the film, it is implied that Alfie cut a deal with the Mayor of New York to turn his Irish enemies over to the NYPD.

The decision to use the elements from Brunzi's other novel fused the two storylines together, as Alfie would have been an appropriate age in the early 1960's. While Deacon had been interested in looking at the criminal world during the turbulent 1950's, Flynn felt that using Brunzi's subject matter would be more true to the tone of the first film. Much of the plot in the 1960's part of the film were written by Flynn with input from Brunzi, who received screenwriting credit and who tragically died shortly after the film was released.

Historical Connection

Several historical people were used in the film, as in Brunzi's novel. Stu Tyler was a real Irish gangster arrested and released on multiple occasions allegedly due to his connections to the NYPD, although the real-life Tyler died in prison in 1953, not due to a gunshot wound to the head as portrayed in the film. Similarly, Rob Furlough (David Furlough in the film) was the actual Mayor of New York from 1957 until 1965, and he was indicted but never convicted on corruption charges in 1968, dying in a car accident before he could testify. Furlough was often assumed to have been close with Jim Doyle's Midtown Manhattan-based organization and to have done them favors while Mayor and even more so as a city councilman.

The character of Tommie Ryan was heavily based on the real-life Jim Doyle, who was a notorious morphine addict, a nearly-illiterate thug and whose son, Ben Doyle, was a much-more sophisticated and level-headed criminal. Henry McKenna, the head of Lower Manhattan's McKenna outfit during the 1940's, is similarly the inspiration for Roger Busch. In fact, Donald Sutherland researched McKenna during his preparation for the role, including talking to former members of McKenna's crew about his mannerisms, posture, speaking style and dress. Former Irish-American gangster Bobby Hill, who had been in McKenna's crew as a teenager, commented in his 1986 biography that Sutherland's portrayal of his former boss was "about as spot-on as I've seen. It was frightening, like Hank was actually back from the dead."

Ed Mason did similar research into the real-life character of Salvatore Scusso, the so-called "last Mob boss of New York" and longtime patriarch of the Scusso crime family. Walt Immerman, a retired FBI agent who investigated Scusso in the 1950's and was an advisor on the film, commented that while Mason was unable to recreate Scusso's thick Italian accent, he had the same kind of gravitas as the real-life mobster. Immerman was among seven advisors, which included former FBI and NYPD investigators as well as released gangsters, who were hired to assist with the historical accuracy of the production.

Casting

Deacon had always been interested in working with Robert De Niro, and offered him the role the day after the project was greenlit in summer 1983, with the script still unfinished. Having been impressed by the first film and reciprocating the desire to work with Deacon, De Niro accepted. Deacon agreed to postpone filming by two months so that James Woods and Liam Neeson, who were performing in plays at the time, could reprise their roles from the first film. Woods allegedly accepted the role on the sole condition that he could film the scene in which Carmine is killed himself, instead of letting a body double perform the gruesome death, and filmed all of his scenes during the opening montage over the course of two days for only twenty dollars an hour as a personal favor to Deacon.

Deacon came precariously close to going over budget when he convinced big-name actors such as Jane Seymour, Lee Oswald, Donald Sutherland and Jack Germaine to come onboard, and thus agreed to halve his pay to make room for Jack Nicholson, whom he wanted to play Tommie Ryan, and then cast unknowns for the rest of the parts. While the studio had initially wanted popular television star Alec Baldwin to play Nicky or the young Alfie, the attachment of Nicholson to the project sated the executives who then allowed Deacon to cast a then-unknown Dom Pineda as Alfie and teen movie regulars Sal Caparza, Rob Lowe and Nina Nellis in other roles. For Gino Girardi, Deacon and casting director Doug Hope found English Shakespearean actor Michael McMahon and approached him personally in his dressing room after he finished a performance of Julius Caesar. Gabrielle Howard, who had played supporting roles in TV sitcoms, was cast as Gabby after Hope saw her headshot at his casting agency, and her appearance in the film launched her acting career. Ed Mason, a longtime character actor whom Deacon had worked with before and who had appeared in gangster films such as Bogart, Beantown and Hell's Kitchen, was cast as a second choice to Marlon Brando, who turned the role of Scusso down due to his bad experiences with The Godfather. Mason, who was unsure whether or not he could convincingly look and sound Italian due to his previous roles as Irish gangsters, was more interested in playing Busch, but eventually accepted the role of Scusso. It was his final role, as he retired in 1986 and died in 1990.

Filming

Score

Reception

Release

In the United States and England, the 185 minute "Theatrical Cut" was released theatrically, while in France, Mexico, Alaska, Japan and Turkey a 158 minute cut was released instead. In the "International Cut," many of the scenes involving Nicky and Alfie's activities in the 1940's were removed, as was the conversation between Alfie and the dying Scusso in 1960, as many felt that the conversation gave away later plot points integral to the 1940's scenes. Unbenownst to many, Deacon had in fact left out a whole 24 minutes of footage from his final cut and had his own personal edit he had put together himself, which in 2003 was released along with the extended editions of the Story of America's other two parts as the 209 minute "Director's Extended Cut."

An American's Story was a commercial success, staying at the #1 box office position for three straight weeks and becoming the highest-grossing film of 1985.

Critical Reception

The film was universally acclaimed by critics worldwide. Internationally renowned French critic Bernand Gaston referred to it as, "the best film of the decade - a violent masterpiece of American cinema that defines the nature of the American urban environment this past century." English critic Roger Fox - "With An American's Story, George Deacon does the impossible and bests his previous American crime epic with a darker, more personal and more fast-paced urban story. It is a triumph and perhaps the crowning achievement of Deacon's career."

American critics were equally adulant. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it the best film of 1985 and later said that it was the best film of the decade, commenting in his review, "This is a generation-defining film, for all the children of the post-Pacific War world who wound up on the streets in the 1940's trying to make a buck after the shimmering Thirties were over and how they all turned into cold, cynical bastards in their later years. In the vein of Bogart and An Average Citizen, Deacon has made a gritty, dark and dysfunctional story of crime, revenge, friendship, loyalty and betrayal written with the kind of perfection only Alan Flynn can manage. This is a film without a single flaw."

Frank Richards of the New York Times concurred, "This is less the story of America and more the story of New York, the city that serves a microcosm of the world and the country's lighter and darker side. It lacks the splendor of the first film and its initial joy and finality of victory - this is a dark, somber piece, an epic of one man's greed for vengeance, his friend's fatally short temper that borders on sociopathic, and above all, a story of consequences when murder does not become enough and the fallout lingers for a generation."

Awards and Nominations

An American's Story dominated the 56th Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (De Niro), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Caparza) and Best Set Design. It was also nominated for Best Score (which its predecessor had won at the 53rd Academy Awards, and which it lost to Out of Africa), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson, who lost it to castmate Caparza), Best Editing (Out of Africa) and Best Cinematography (The Home Front). However, An American's Story swept every award it was nominated for at both the SAG Awards and Golden Globe Awards, and won nine of ten nominations at the English Film Critics' Awards and ten of eleven nominations at the French Imperial Film Industry Awards.

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