The 2006 film “The Departed” boasted an enviable cast of A-list actors many filmmakers would shamelessly campaign to work with. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Martin Sheen are just samples of the big names attached to the film. Led by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, the movie won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
The film follows the alternating paths of two state policemen. Collin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a mole planted by a local crime boss. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as undercover cop Billy Costigan, who is infiltrating the same crime ring. Both men are forced to seek out each other’s identities to protect themselves and the organizations they work for. The movie was highly praised for the subtle twists and turns that continually bring Costigan and Sullivan within a breath of one another, but still far from learning the truth.
What some viewers might not have known is that “The Departed” was an adaptation of the first movie in the popular thriller series “Infernal Affairs.” This 2002 film was made in Hong Kong and starred Tony Leung and Andy Lau in the lead roles. “The Departed” makes several stylistic, character, and plot changes that distinguish it from the source material, which cost a whopping $1.75 million for the adaptation rights. The clever anecdotes and understated acting in “Infernal Affairs” are transformed into relentless profanity and luridly animated performances in “The Departed.” Each film works well for its respective audience, and many entertainers involved in the original film expressed varying degrees of approval toward Scorsese’s remake.
The setting is a major change that gives “The Departed” its own identity. The movie takes place in a Boston Irish community, where mob leader Frank Costello has a hand in local drug distribution. Identity is a central theme in the movie that affects each character’s ability or inability to resolve conflicts. Costigan’s true identity, for instance, is known only to the two officers he reports to, a weakness that Sullivan exploits to his own advantage. Ironically, the film itself features a false identity. While movie magic convinces viewers that the scenes are set in Boston, the majority of the production actually took place in New York City. Shooting the film in the Big Apple, a favorite location for filmmakers, reportedly gave the production company a higher tax credit than making the entire film in Massachusetts.
Yet, fans of “The Departed” can rest assured that the criminal and police interactions featured in the film have an air of realism. To bring accuracy to the finished product, a technical advisor was enlisted to consult on various aspects of the story and setting. The chosen advisor was Thomas Duffy, a real-life state police major and retiree, who briefly appeared in the film. In his thirty-year career, Duffy was heavily involved in organized crime investigations, including the pursuit of the Massachusetts mobster who loosely inspired Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Frank Costello.
Scorsese’s gritty rendition of “Infernal Affairs” is partly the reason for “The Departed’s” loyal fan base. Early on, viewers anticipated that Mark Wahlberg would receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Sergeant Dignam, and they were right. Wahlberg was preceded by Ray Liotta and Denis Leary as possible casting choices, but he ultimately scored the chance to produce this memorable performance. Dignam is one of the two officials aware of Costigan’s undercover status. Although he loses his position, Dignam survives the chain reaction of killing that concludes the movie and triumphs over the double-dealing Sullivan. He behaves with a shocking lack of professionalism, flinging racial slurs and swearing without restraint. In fact, Dignam and his co-characters reportedly use versions of the F-word more than 230 times during the course of the film. Needless to say, the movie’s 151-minute running time balanced out the excessive expletives.
For anyone wondering how to get that fantastic city view shown from Sullivan’s apartment, tracking down the perfect piece of real estate may be tricky. In one scene, Matt Damon stands on a balcony, hiding his conversation with Costello from his girlfriend. In that scene, the camera mainly focuses on the actor and only offers slight glimpses of his surroundings. Unfortunately, the entire set is contrived in the movie’s balcony shots and expertly edited to conceal the real location. The cityscape was captured from the top of Suffolk University and gives viewers a sense of Sullivan’s growing prosperity as his deception progresses.
Like most award-winning films, the final version of “The Departed” is the result of unexpected recasting, random scenes of improvisation, and, of course, smart direction. Nicholson’s delightfully perverse portrayal of Costello would never have come to pass if Robert De Niro had accepted the role, as was originally intended. Without spot-on technical advice from a local crime buster, the film might have lacked the authenticity that makes watchers accept Scorsese’s comically abrasive characters without question.