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Black Mass

A mugshot of Bulger taken after his arrest in 2011

I recently saw the movie Black Mass, based on the criminal career of Whitey Bulger and his protectors in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It was a fine movie, and as cineastes by now know, it features a subtle performance by Johnny Depp in the leading role. Surprisingly subtle, in that Depp's career has been built on characters he paints in very broad strokes -- Captain Jack Sparrow comes first to mind,

The one scene that sticks to my mind is a dinner at which Bulger and his two FBI buddies (Connolly and Morris, IIRC) are sharing barbecue, while the wife of one of the G-men is upstairs in her bedroom, feigning sickness.

Yes, there is an intense after-dinner confrontation between Bulger and Mrs. Connolly in this context, but that is not the bit I'm thinking of right now. The bit that sticks to my mind is at the dinner table, where Bulger tells Morris, who has been working at the grill, that the b-b-cue sauce he's using is delicious. Morris boasts it is a family secret. But after a little prodding, Morris admits that the key is "a little soy."

Aha! so he acknowledged having a secret and then gave it up! Bulger grills him about how easily he gave up the news about the soy, and seems to be on the verge of putting a price on poor Morris' head. Then he backs off, says it was all a joke, and everybody calms down ... a little.

I doubt it came verbatim from the book on which this movie is based. My best guess is that the scene was an homage to a similar tirade, and then a similar "I was only joking" resolution, assigned to Joe Pesci's character in the movie Goodfellows. In both cases, the mobster in question shows some insight (or, arguably, shows a startling lack of insight) by jokingly pretending to be what in fact he is, an out-of-control gangster. And in both cases, the 'joke' scene was followed by another scene, with a waiter in the older movie and with Mrs Connolly in the newer movie, that underlines the truthful character of that 'joking' self-portrayal.

Loved it both times, guys. But Depp gives it just a bit more oomph than Pesci.

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