‘Fear City’ takes us back to when mob­sters ruled New York and feds fought to bring them down

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

The mob­ster on the tape record­ing isn’t minc­ing words. In a voice right out of “Casino” or “Good­fel­las,” he says:

“Chuck, I’m gonna tell you some­thing. You have that f---ing 200 in my hands to­mor­row. If you ain’t got the 200 in my hands to­mor­row, I’ll break ev­ery f---ing bone in your body, I swear to my kids, you un­der­stand?”

I don’t know if it’d be more fright­en­ing if the guy was talk­ing about $200,000 — of if he was threat­en­ing to bust up “Chuck” over a mere two hundy. Yeesh.

Wire­tapped record­ings of mobbed-up guys talk­ing mobbedup busi­ness are a big part of “Fear City,” a Net­flix three-part doc­u­men­tary se­ries about the five crime fam­i­lies rul­ing nearly ev­ery cor­ner of New York City busi­ness in the 1970s and 1980s — and the lo­cal and fed­eral gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who im­ple­mented some bold and cre­ative tac­tics to bring down these old-school crim­i­nals in the big­gest in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Mafia in his­tory. Di­rec­tor Sam Hobkin­son does a mas­ter­ful job of weav­ing pre­vi­ously un­heard record­ings, new in­ter­views with mob in­sid­ers and for­mer in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and well­filmed dra­matic re-cre­ations to tell a story that never glam­or­izes these in­fa­mous thugs while paint­ing a shock­ing pic­ture of a crime-in­fested, cor­rupt and grimy New York that at times seemed to be tee­ter­ing on the brink of com­plete chaos.

Early in Part One, we see footage of news­caster John Chan­cel­lor framed in­side a TV set, with a graphic of a skele­ton wear­ing a hooded robe, as he in­tones, “Peo­ple once called New York ‘Fun City,’ now the po­lice and fire­men’s unions in New York are call­ing it ‘Fear City.’ ” Cut to footage of a dead body in the street, au­dio of a news­caster say­ing, “Seven peo­ple have been mur­dered, their throats cut with a foot­long knife,” footage of another news­caster say­ing, “It seems or­ga­nized crime may have turned an aban­doned rail­road tun­nel into a grave­yard for as many as 60 peo­ple,” and a graphic say­ing: “1970s New York: A Lawless City Plagued by Drugs, Vi­o­lence and Mur­der.”

That’s not hy­per­bole.

“Fear City” names the Five Fam­i­lies — Luc­ch­ese, Gen­ovese, Bonanno, Colombo and Gam­bino — that had in­fested New York busi­ness dat­ing back to the 1930s, scoop­ing up mil­lions from the con­struc­tion, gar­ment, res­tau­rant, cater­ing, truck­ing, gaso­line, waste man­age­ment and re­tail in­dus­tries. At one point there were eight ma­jor con­crete com­pa­nies in New York — and all were un­der mob in­flu­ence. Ev­ery con­struc­tion project in Man­hat­tan with a value of more than $2 mil­lion would pay out a per­cent­age of win­ning bids to the Mob.

“It’s fixed, it’s fixed, ev­ery­thing was fixed, ev­ery­body knows who was al­lo­cat­ing what jobs,” says one for­mer in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

The se­ries is filled with col­or­ful in­ter­view sub­jects, e.g., Johnny Alite, a for­mer mob en­forcer turned in­for­mant against John Gotti, who has arms like tree trunks and ca­su­ally re­calls, “If you don’t have that money, I’m gonna come see you in a dif­fer­ent way . . . if [you don’t] have the money, then I base­ball bat him,” and Michael Franzese, a loan shark and ma­jor un­der­boss in the Colombo crime fam­ily, who says lend­ing money (with enor­mous in­ter­est at­tached) was a very lu­cra­tive en­ter­prise, not­ing he once ac­quired a Chevy deal­er­ship, ap­par­ently from some­one who couldn’t keep up with loan pay­ments.

Equal time is given to the law en­force­ment of­fi­cials who worked tire­lessly to bring down the mob, such as Lin Devec­chio, for­mer Spe­cial Agent for the FBI, who says: “It was a cat-and-mouse game, a very se­ri­ous game to be sure. I can’t tell you how many times a wiseguy would say to me, ‘You do what you gotta do, I do what I gotta do.’ ”

Cut to Franzese: “I used to tell them, ‘Hey, you do your jobs, we’ll do ours. You catch us the right way, no com­plaints.’ ” Sounds like the Pa­cino/De Niro ex­change in “Heat.”

“Fear City” also has it mo­ments of dark hu­mor, as when we meet one “Tony Ducks,” so named be­cause he had an un­canny abil­ity to duck sub­poe­nas, and an episode where the feds posed as ca­ble re­pair­men in or­der to in­stall a listening de­vice. And in one of the coolest se­quences, we see how the feds placed a bug in the black Jaguar driven by a top crime sol­dier. They ac­tu­ally ac­quired an iden­ti­cal Jag and re­hearsed plac­ing the wire be­hind the car heater over and over and over, to the point where they could do it in less than a minute. It was that kind of in­ge­nu­ity, de­ter­mi­na­tion and ded­i­ca­tion that re­sulted in the Mafia Com­mis­sion Trial of 1985-86 that crip­pled the mob in New York City.

ABOVE: For­mer Colombo crime fam­ily un­der­boss Michael Franzese de­tails the busi­ness of loan shark­ing in “Fear City.”


LEFT: Johnny Alite re­calls his past as a mob en­forcer.

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