ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim LaMotta is one of Pittsburgh’s premiere wrestling announcers, as well as a great writer. This article originally appeared on Steel City Underground. You can follow Jim on Twitter.
The first article that I penned for this site late last year was about Robert De Niro’s debut as a director, A Bronx Tale, the 1960s street saga based on Chazz Palminteri’s one-man stage show. As mentioned in that original review, I discovered the film when my dad put a copy that he taped from HBO into the VCR. This time, I’d like to discuss another movie that I originally watched from a home recorded copy, The Pope of Greenwich Village. Another street saga, this 1984 release shifts to another famous location in New York, the Greenwich section of Manhattan. With the screen play written by Vincent Patrick, adopted from his novel of the same name, the film blends together tense moments of uncertainty with occasional comic relief, as two wise guys find themselves lost in the shuffle of the hustle of the streets.
Directed by Stu Rosenburg, who has the classic Cool Hand Luke on his resume, the production brought together a tremendously talented cast, including the two main characters, Charlie and Paulie, played by Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts respectively. At the time the film hit theaters, Rourke, a sharp and charismatic actor, was on an upswing with titles like 1982’s Diner and the Coppola-directed Rumble Fish on his resume. Eric Roberts, the brother of famous actress, Julia, played the role of Charlie’s clumsy sidekick perfectly to give the narrative more depth as the film progressed.
The opening scene finds Charlie swaying to the rhythm of Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” as he files through his closet to pick a snazzy suit to wear for his shift as a manager at a high-end restaurant. In a slight example of foreshadowing, his carefree jam session set to Frank’s suave voice is interrupted by his search of several pairs of his Italian-made dress shoes to look for extra cash to make a payment to one of the loan sharks waiting at the restaurant. As he strolls into the eatery, a co-worker gives his supervisor the heads-up that the crusty owner of the establishment plans to check tabs that night to make sure the waiters aren’t excluding items on the bill in exchange for better tips. This is where we’re first introduced to Paulie, Charlie’s third cousin, who naively disregards the same warning from him. Roberts’ character decides to skip the high-priced items on the bill, which the owner obviously notices and fires both cousins since the manager didn’t catch the underhanded tactic first. The confrontation outside of the establishment when Charlie angrily informs Paulie that his mishap resulted in the pair of cousins getting their walking papers sets the tone for their dynamic in the film. Charlie is a hustler trying to stay above water with hopes of owning his own restaurant someday. Paulie immaturely tries to explain his rational for skipping items on the check before the audience sees that he legitimately feels bad that he costs his cousin the job.
The next scene finds a distressed Rourke at his kitchen table shuffling through bills and late notices in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend Diane, played by Daryl Hannah, who went on to work in dozens of roles in TV and film, including the 2003 cult favorite, Kill Bill. Adding to his financial struggles are alimony, child support payments, and credit card debit. Unwavering, Diane assures Charlie everything will work out for the best, prompting Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” to rejoin the film as we find the freshly unemployed cousins playing stick ball in the neighborhood the next day. The good times were short-lived, as his visit to the bank for a loan was denied and when he arrives home, more pressure was heaped upon him with the news that Diane is pregnant. Back to bop around the village, Paulie tells Charlie about his next outlandish venture in an attempt to hit it big. The dim-witted waiter explains that he bought into a race horse that was conceived through “artificial inspiration” without realizing that he misspoke on the terminology while he makes himself a comically large sandwich. Paulie claims the thoroughbred has the “champion gene,” but the out-of-work waiter needs to score some big cash to bet with, revealing his next narrow-minded scheme.
The two meet Barney McMillian, an eccentric and edgy clock dealer, in a bar. The Irishman explains his work repairing clocks gave him the tools to pick locks. Before the trio can discuss details of a heist of the safe of a shipping company, the hard-nosed officer that patrols the streets tows Paulie’s car, despite his pleas to accept a ticket without getting the car impounded. Finally Charlie agrees to the heist, with the mounting financial pressures in his life as the determine factor.
During the next scene the audience is introduced to Jack Kehoe’s Walter “Bunky” Ritter as he shuffles through the crowded sidewalk into the local mafia hang out. Similar to Kehoe’s character in the film, Serpico, “Bunky” Ritter is a crooked cop on the take, paid to drop off mob collections in exchange for a piece of the pie. Detective Ritter meets with “Bed Bug” Eddie Grant, the local kingpin, to discuss details for his next pick up. “Bed Bug” is portrayed by Burt Young, who famously played Paulie as Sylvester Stallone’s pal in Rocky. Despite the boxing corner man as probably his most well-known role, the Eddie Grant character shows that Young has depth to his acting repertoire, replacing the good natured Rocky role with a sense of danger on-screen as a ruthless mob ruler.
The tense introduction of “Bed Bug” Eddie is contrasted in the next scene when the patrolman that had Paulie’s car towed was back on the street writing tickets when he stopped into the bar to use his position of authority to get a free drink after he used the bathroom. While the cop was taking care of business, Paulie slipped in the bar and put a packet of horse laxative in the cop’s whiskey. The gluttonous patrolman emerges from the restroom, downs the free drink, and goes back to the street to gleefully write more citations. Within seconds, the stomach tremors hit him and he attempts to waddle like a penguin back toward the bathroom before his digestive track can’t offer any more resistance. Paulie rushed to a pay phone and called in an officer down, prompting squad cars to swarm the street, only to find the diarrhea-stricken cop holding his stomach. As an Irish folk song crescendos, Paulie proclaims to the public that the cop defecated on himself.
Back to business, Paulie, Charlie, and Barney meet up that night to break into the shipping company’s offices to crack the safe, hoping to score the $150,000 inside. As fate would have it, as those three prepare to begin work on the safe, Bunky Ritter is shown at the apartment he shares with his mom getting ready to go pick up the same money. Geraldine Page, an actress that had a 40-year career through the stage, film, and television, was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Mrs. Ritter. Page does such a stellar job with this character, as she authentically presents a no non-sense character, but still brings a caring side to it. Different from Kehoe’s role in Serpico, Detective Walter agreed to the collections as a way to ensure a retirement fund for himself and his mother, who worked as a housekeeper for several years. Bunky’s actions might not be legal, but his intentions are noble, a recurring theme in the narrative of the film.
It’s revealed that Bunky keeps a wire on him during all meetings about the collections as an insurance policy for his safety, and as he drives to the office for the pick up, he acknowledges the other detectives involved in the bribes. Unaware of Bunky’s impending arrival, Barney is cracking the safe while Paulie sips on a coffee and watches the parking lot. Tense drama builds as the former waiter tells his accomplices that someone is walking up to the building. With the lights out, the trio hide as Detective Ritter enters the office that has equipment strewn around the room since the building was being remodeled. The tools don’t phase him, but the hole drilled into the safe is a red flag. Unsure of how recent hole was made, Bunky uses his detective skills to see how warm Paulie’s coffee was. Immediately, Bunky takes out his gun, knowing the fresh coffee meant someone was still in the room. As he backs up and yells for the person to reveal themselves, he fires a shot before he accidentally falls down an unfinished elevator shaft. The trio attempt to check on him, but realize that Walter is dead, with Charlie retrieving the tape that was used to record the audio from the wire the cop wore to the meetings. Despite Charlie’s objections, Barney finishes the safe job, garnering the $150,000 that Paulie promised would be there.
Charlie found the detective’s arrival too suspicious so he confronts his cousin about what else he knew about the situation. With a little pressure, Paulie admits that the shipping company is run by Eddie Grant, which meant they just stole from the local mafia crew. Charlie is almost hysterical as he questions why his cousin would want to steal from the “Bed Bug.” Again, we see the naive side of Paulie because he thought that including his cousin in the heist would make up for getting him fired, but it actually put his life in danger.
The news of the safe cracking and the aftermath have a ripple effect throughout the film, as word of Detective Ritter’s wire makes his fellow officers concerned about their future if their involvement in bribes is revealed. Two gruff cops visit Mrs. Ritter to attempt to search their apartment for the missing recordings. Again, Geraldine Page does such an incredible job in this scene, mixing her grief by clutching a rosary with a tone of toughness, as she aggressively puffs on an unfiltered cigarette and sips a whiskey. When the cops try to intimidate her with the threat of trying to withhold Walter’s pension, she promptly kicks them out of her house before she tearfully hold the rosary close to her, the wall of grittiness finally tumbles down from the waves of grief at the death of Walter at the office. At the same time, Bed Bug Eddie gets word from the street that Paulie and an unknown partner were the ones that stole the cash. A member of Bed Bug’s crew knows Paulie, but Uncle Pete as the waiter affectionately calls him, insist his nephew isn’t a safe cracker. Eddie Grant wasn’t the only one to take the news hard, as Charlie visits Diane at the studio where she teaches dance classes and tells her that he landed $50,000 from the robbery. Diane is livid that Charlie allowed his cousin to get him in another jam, and an argument ensues before Charlie leaves, the situation with her unsolved.
Eventually, Paulie is at the stables to check on his horse with the “champion gene” that he plans to race soon, wagering the cash he lifted from Bed Bug’s safe. He was faced with a game of chance sooner than expected, as Uncle Pete and a few of Eddie Grant’s goons, including Frank Vincent, who made a career of supporting roles in mafia dramas, including Casino, Raging Bull, The Sopranos, and others, were there to meet him. Uncle Pete takes a walk with his nephew, informing him that someone identified him as one of the thieves. Bed Bug Eddie had a reputation for slicing people up, and Pete tells Paulie that the only way for him to leave the stables alive is to tell him who his partner was in the safe job. Paulie begs for a reprieve, but Pete assures him there are only two options in this scenario. As the tension builds, Paulie leaks the information that Barney cracked the safe, but doesn’t mention Charlie in an attempt to protect his cousin from the wrath of the Bed Bug. As Uncle Pete hugs Paulie, the previously mentioned Frank Vincent approaches and cuts off Paulie’s thumb, the penalty for robbing the head of the mafia crew.
With Barney revealed to be the partner, the crooked cops are sent to retrieve him, but the savvy clock dealer was a step ahead and escaped through a side door. Later, Barney gives Charlie his share of the robbery and asked him to mail it to him after he escaped the city. During this conversation, Barney’s motivation for the heist is explained, as he plans to use the extra cash to provide for his wife and care for his special needs child. Again, not exactly legal, but a noble cause.
Charlie finds himself in a cash flow problem of his own, as he returned home with flowers for Diane to smooth over the earlier argument at the dance studio. A message from her on the answering machine tells Charlie that she took $45,000 of the money for their unborn child and decided to leave him. Enraged being the victim of his own theft case, Charlie begins smashing the furniture, pummeling the refrigerator and breaking chairs. The next morning, with a half empty bottle of wine next to him, Charlie is awoken by a faint knock at the door. When he answers, his cousin is standing there delirious with his hand wrapped up from the Bed Bug form of justice. Only after rambling on about his decision to give up Barney as the partner does the medicated Paulie ask what happened to all the broken appliances. Upon hearing the news that Diane ran off with most of the cash, Paulie rants for a while before the reality of his missing appendage sets in when he looks at his hand. In one of the most memorable lines of the film, Paulie proclaims, “Charlie! They took my thumb!” collapsing to the floor after taking too many pain killers before he arrived.
Despite the lovable dork’s mistakes, Charlie immediately tends to his cousin, as the next scene shows him feeding Paulie soup. To make up for the theft, Paulie will have to serve coffee at the mafia hang out and within days, the Bed Bug interrogates him as to the number of people involved in the robbery. After Barney skipped town, another measure of revenge was being plotted, and after tense questioning, Paulie finally cracks, naming his cousin as the third participant in the robbery. As was usually the case, the new coffee server had a plan to get his cousin out of this predicament. With his race horse, “Starry Hope ” set to run at the track, he bought two tickets for Miami as an escape plan for the cousins after they hit it big on the horse bet. Unaware that the Bed Bug knows about him, Charlie bets Starry Hope across the board with his remaining share of the theft, a safer bet than his cousin makes, who put everything on the horse to win. After an exciting race, Charlie’s place or show bet pays off, as he lands $20,000 from the horse’s second place finish.
To celebrate the victory, the two stop at a bar where Paulie nervously confesses to Charlie that he had to give up his name to the mafia crew. Totally irate, Charlie screams at Paulie and throws trash cans through the street, storming off as Paulie tearfully tries to explain the tickets to Miami are a way to leave. As Charlie listens to Detective Ritter’s wire tape again, he realizes he has evidence and leverage that proofs of Bed Bug’s involvement in crime. There’s a montage that shows Charlie getting ready for an eventual showdown with the kingpin. His finest suit, a manicure, and a hair cut prepare him as he walked into the mob club for the confrontation. He sits across from Eddie Grant and explains that the Bed Bug will give him a pass on the robbery because he has a tape that can link him to the police corruption in the city. Implying that he plans to severe Charlie’s hand, Grant claims, “Nobody but the Pope could walk out of here with this hand.” Without hesitation, Charlie’s response is a nod to the title of the film, “This might be your church, but right now, I’m the Pope, I’m the Pope of Greenwich Village because I have a tape.”
Just as it looks to be seconds away from a physical confrontation, Paulie shows up to serve coffee. A tense stare down takes place between Grant and Charlie, as the mafia leader looks to signal his henchmen. As Bed Beg confidently finishes the expresso in split second, he suddenly grabs his throat and charges through the door and down the street as most of his crew follow him. Paulie exclaims, “Lye! I packed his expresso with lye!” The abrasive chemical rendered the mob leader useless, allowing Charlie the chance to escape. Paulie stood up for him cousin, despite Charlie’s claims that he had things going his way before the expresso ended the conversation. Once again, “The Summer Wind” can be heard as the two walk down the street, presumably on their way to Miami to relax on the beach and enjoy their winnings from the horse race.