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1:25:14 The son he never had

Redesigning the Social Order in 19th Century New York

By Alex Smith

[1] Gangs of New York is a frenetically paced and shot movie with a large cast and intricately detailed set and costume design. Throughout most of the film this keeps the viewer in a state of tense observation, worried that looking away for a moment will mean that something important will be missed. This decision gave the film its ability to transport the audience to nineteenth-century New York City with a sense of authenticity rarely experienced. This scene was one of the few moments in the film in which this technique is abandoned, which is what makes it so powerful. By allowing the city’s busyness to momentarily escape the frame, Bill and Amsterdam are able to show us a degree of character complexity largely absent from the rest of the film. This scene gives us a richer understanding of the complicated social world in which these characters, and the men who inspired them, lived.

[2] In the decades and centuries leading up to the 1860s, American and European masculinity had been established and measured by the work that a man did and the family for which he was responsible. Regardless of financial status, a man who could support his family through practicing some skill or craft was able to derive a sense of manly pride from his work and life. The nineteenth century saw a paradigm shift in this dynamic as a result of urbanization and industrialization. Employment opportunities in cities like New York at this time were scant because of the large population, and the majority of those that existed were unsavory. These were positions of unskilled labor, requiring long hours and offering little pay. Skilled craft work was disappearing more and more as society became more industrialized. For the majority of men, asserting their manhood through their occupation was no longer an option. What they turned to was competition and violence, a competition unto itself. This is seen throughout the film at nearly every turn, whether it is drinking, boasting, gambling, poker, boxing, firefighting, or all-out gang warfare. Nearly every action or line delivered by the men of Five Points is marked by this sense of violence and competition. The viewer does not, however, get a sense of complexity from these overt expressions of masculinity. Taken on their own, these characters would all appear to be sadists and sociopaths, violent and dangerous men. This scene gives the viewer a sense of the pressure and tension that these men were under.

[3] This sense was accomplished first and foremost by how the scene was shot. As mentioned above, this scene does not contain the chaos that rules much of the film. The scenery and costumes are spartan compared to the rest of the film; the background noise of a teeming city are absent as well. The room is dimly lit with the light focused on the faces of the two actors. For the majority of the scene the camera alternates between tight shots of Amsterdam and Bill, exaggerating the lighting choice. The actors deliver their lines in a quiet measured fashion, underscoring the sense of importance and solemnity. From the moment we see Bill sitting next to the bed in silence we are aware that he is about to say something significant. Scorsese and his team designed this scene masterfully; DiCaprio and Day-Lewis brought it to life. To this point in the film we have only seen Bill as a villain and known him to be rageful, murderous, and unpredictable. When we first see him wrapped in the American flag, these are the characteristics that we expect from him. This instantly infuses the scene with a palpable tension that persists up until Bill leaves the room. Despite speaking positively and compassionately to Amsterdam throughout the scene, we are still prepared for him to pull out one of his knives at any moment. This is the point at which the scene is most powerful, not within the dialogue but between it.

[4] DiCaprio only delivers a few lines during the exchange, but he communicates a great deal more to the audience than just those words. Using his eyes and facial muscles, DiCaprio shows the audience a tortured soul. Each of Bill’s remarks begins to elicit a grimace or a wince from Amsterdam, but he has to quickly suppress these betrayals and maintain his cover. The discomfort that Amsterdam feels in this situation is also communicated without words, through DiCaprio’s body movement. Throughout the dialogue DiCaprio is seen readjusting his sitting position, shifting his gaze around the room, shrugging his shoulders, and turning his head from side to side. It is clear that he is uncomfortable with this conversation and wary of the danger such proximity to the Butcher entails. It is also clear that he is powerless to remedy the situation; he has to sit there and act his part until Bill is through. His activity, in this light, is a release of nervous energy by a man on his guard. DiCaprio captures these conflicted emotions perfectly through his non-verbal communication. Amsterdam, like the audience, is seeing this side of Bill for the first time and is understandably cautious and suspicious. As Bill proves to be genuine, however, he provides Amsterdam and the audience with invaluable insight into the state of the social order and the precarious position it is in.

[5] Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the greatest actors of his generation, delivering impressive if not amazing performances at every turn. Bill the Butcher is a performance of the latter variety, with this scene one of his finest moments. Like DiCaprio, Day-Lewis uses his mouth and eyes to communicate what the script couldn’t. Pursing his lips, arching eyebrows, and casting his eyes about the room, Day-Lewis gives us a wistful, bemused, almost disappointed Bill. Day-Lewis delivers his lines expertly, using his adopted accent to create a hypnotic rhythm, punctuated by emphatically delivered words and extended, thoughtful silences. This is a different Bill than the monstrous gang leader we have come to know -- this was a human Bill. Achieving this task of humanization is one of the keys to this scene and what makes it so powerful. It is at this point that we learn the true significance behind Bill’s relationship to Priest Vallon. Vallon was more than an enemy to Bill; he was a legitimate rival. Bill has a deep respect for him, referring to him as “the last honorable man” and describing a beating he received at Vallon’s hands as the finest he’d ever taken (1:28:02). This was the high point of Bill’s life, facing off against a worthy adversary, following ancient traditional rules of battle, and doing so in the interest of honor and pride. This was the way to assert your masculinity and prove your value to society.

[6] It’s interesting that this ancient form of ritualized violence found its way into a modern urban society. It is as if all of people’s moral niceties and social refinements are stripped away upon entering into city life. Thrust into a new social environment, a new mode of social interaction has to be built from the ground up. That starting point is the social Darwinism we see in Gangs of New York. This stage of social development, however, is already beginning to slip away, evidenced most poignantly in this scene. Bill, while appearing human, also appears outdated. A relic of a bygone era, Bill laments the lack of honor and quality among his peers and aches to return to a time when these things meant more to men. “I never had a son,” Bill continues (1:30:32), forming the sentence almost as a question as he looks to Amsterdam. At no other point in the film is their quasi-father-son dynamic more directly pointed to. Coming on the heels of a graphic description of Priest Vallon’s demise, it could not have carried more weight. Bill’s own father was a veteran of the War of 1812, during which he died in battle. Bill’s relationship with his father heavily colored his world view and came to define it, seen in his vituperative nativist rhetoric.

[7] In all of this, Bill sees the impending changes ahead; to be dishonorable is no longer man’s highest crime. “I never had a son,” Bill says nostalgically; seeing in Amsterdam all those qualities he would have tried to imbue in his own boy, he sees the son he never had. It is no wonder that Bill feels this way. Priest Vallon possessed all of those qualities that Bill holds dear, which explains the bond that Bill feels between himself and this kindred spirit. Vallon’s progeny would naturally follow suit, like father, like son. This scene recalls the opening sequence in the film in which Priest Vallon prepares for battle. He and his son share a small, unadorned space in which Vallon speaks gravely to the boy: “No son, never. The blood stays on the blade. One day you’ll understand” (0:00:52). Priest Vallon and Bill occupy a similar role in these two scenes and clearly deliver a similarly ominous message.

[8] Before getting up to leave the room, Bill’s final words echo in the silent room: “Civilization is crumbling” (01:30:43). This is a statement about the large societal forces at work that are transforming Bill’s Darwinian macho world into a more polite and practical one, to be sure. This theme runs throughout the film, coming to a head in the climactic riot scene when Bill and Amsterdam’s glorious day of battle is swept aside by cannon fire and infantry troops. There is no honor to be had in the suppression of the mob; it is clinical and cold and utterly efficient. This is the future, and to Bill and his ilk this is civilization as they knew it crumbling. More than that, Bill’s line also speaks to Amsterdam and the son Bill never had. Bill knew that values, especially these values, could only be passed down from father to son. Without that patrilineal transmission, values become diluted and muddied. Bill knows the importance of all this, and yet he never had a son. Sitting in his chair looking at Amsterdam, he realizes that he has failed to continue his legacy and that his beliefs will die with him. Civilization is crumbling, but he knows he is partly to blame.

[9] This scene says few words yet communicates so much. Through the superb non-verbal acting by DiCaprio and Day-Lewis, the audience receives a view inside these richly complex character’s psyches. This allows the audience to see the film as a whole through a different lens, providing new perspective on the motives and actions the characters employ. Through this new perspective we can see the world of nineteenth-century New York a little differently, a little more sympathetically. By humanizing Bill, Scorsese humanizes the Five Points. He shows us this is a neighborhood in which people live, love, dream, and die. The tension and inner turmoil that Bill shows in this scene represents the most honest expression of emotion to be found in the film. With society rapidly advancing and no son left behind to carry on his legacy, Bill realizes that his way of life is not just threatened; it is guaranteed to follow him to the grave. As the skyline of New York time-lapses into the 21st century in the final moments of the film, we stand at Bill’s gravesite and see that his anxieties were well founded.