‘Kill the Irishman’: Mob Wars and the FBI in Cleveland and Boston

Cleveland, Ohio: Civil War Memorial, Public Square 5/23/10

Update:  2011/0724 16:30  Kevin Cullen’s Boston Globe column today is a must read.  ‘A Lingering Question for the FBI’s Director’ asks Robert Mueller, who’s up for another two-year extension, what he knew about Whitey Bulger’s arrangement with the FBI during his stints as an Assistant US Attorney and then Acting US Attorney in Boston.  Cullen’s questions have a surprising context, and the column is worth your attention.

And now on to ‘Kill the Irishman’.


          ‘Kill the Irishman’ (2011) is a much better than average urban shoot ‘em up with nary a good guy in sight.  Just lots of ‘good fellas’ from the 1960s to mid-70s.

           It spins the tale of Cleveland’s Danny ‘the Irishman’ Greene, a peer and contemporary of Boston’s James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.  Their stories have much in common, connect in interesting ways and afford identical lessons.


           In a movie, it’s hard to capture the complexity of the Cleveland mob war of the 1970s-80s.  Danny Greene and the bombs he launched and the ones launched at him epitomise the war’s early years.  ‘Kill the Irishman’ wisely and justly samples his complex story, barely hinting at what would fill chapters in a book but which the movie doesn’t need.

           In his 47 years [1] Greene rose from a schoolyard brawler to a corrupt Longshoremen’s union official to FBI informant to a loan shark’s leg breaker to organizing waste haulers.  In his last decade, he deployed a platoon of enforcers – gunmen and especially bombers.

           Greene’s allegiances shifted from the Jewish mob to a Mafia faction.  But he picked the wrong would-be godfather.  After many failed attempts on his life, the bomber was atomized on orders from the new Cleveland godfather ‘Jack White’ Licavoli’s New York ally, ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno in October 1977.

           The movie is very well acted, memorably so.

           Christopher Walken is brilliant as Shondor Birns, portrayed in the film as an almost gentlemanly innovator in the field of loan sharking.  In reality, Birns was a giant amongst thugs and vice lords.  He survived to age 69.  Greene, his former enforcer, blew him up to keep from being killed over a debt to New York’s Genovese family.

          Tony Lo Bianco – among my top 10 under-recognised actors – gives a superb performance as Licavoli.  Here is the lord of the Cleveland underworld, craven and banal, lacking any Brando-esque nobility.  One can understand why Greene allied himself with Licavoli’s rival, John Nardi.

           Paul Sorvino – also on that list – is an excellent ‘Fat Tony’.  Although he is considerably slimmer and more charming than the original, he is convincing as a leader of New York’s Genovese family.  Salerno’s presence in the film signals – but does not explain – that the Cleveland mob wars had national significance.


           For that significance, you should read – and I mean you must read – James Neff’s Mobbed Up: Jackie Presser’s High-Wire Life in the Teamsters, the Mafia and the FBI (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989).  One of the greatest pieces of crime reporting I’ve read, sadly it is long out of print.  Events have dated parts of Neff’s reporting but not a lot.

           Cleveland was worth battling over because of its key role in the Teamsters Union.  The Teamsters well-funded pensions – and especially its Central States Pension – were among the organized crime’s major piggy banks from the 1940s to 1980s. [2]  ‘The Mafia’s bank’ helped fund the mob’s entry into ‘legitimate’ businesses – especially the nascent gambling and resort business in Las Vegas. [Neff, 197]

           A key figure in the Cleveland story, only alluded to in ‘Kill’, was Jackie Presser  His relations with both the Mafia and the FBI were at least as intimate as Greene’s.

           Minus the murders, Presser’s career track followed Greene’s from schoolyard bully through loan sharking and labor.  A second generation member of the Jewish mob, Presser became an FBI informant in the early 70s as he floated to the top of the Teamsters.  And, he had picked the right Mafia faction.  Says Neff [p. 249]:

           As the battle between Greene and the Mafia escalated, each near miss added to his legend of invincibility.  Part of his protection was the same kind of shield Jackie was using; like Presser, Danny Greene worked as an FBI informer.  His handler was Pat Foran who would take over as Jackie’s exclusive handler [in 1978].

‘Kill’ suggests the FBI’s relationship with Greene was a two-way information highway – hardly a surprise to anyone following the Bulger story.


           As I’ve written, Whitey Bulger put his FBI handlers’ tips to uses both offensive and defensive.  And as with Bulger, Presser’s FBI handlers were willing – at the cost of their careers – to conceal his crimes after the fact.

           In Boston as in Cleveland, the rats came in all ranks.  The revelation of the FBI connections of Bulger’s lead enforcer, Steve ‘the Rifleman’ Flemmi in the late ’90s turned a local corruption scandal into a national sensation, and put Bulger’s own connections to the FBI on front pages everywhere.

           A lower-ranking rat than Bulger, Greene stood much lower still than Presser.  But Greene and Bulger had much in common.

           Greene, too, harped on his Irish heritage.  He was, after all, ‘the Irishman’ – a nickname the movie does not explain, focusing on his self-descriptions as ‘an Irish warrior’.  (It would be very interesting to learn whether he had IRA connections as Bulger did.)

           Like Bulger, Greene was reputed to protect his neighborhood.  He played Robin Hood when it suited him.  And unlike his Sicilian and Jewish opponents, he had style, visible intelligence and charm.

           After Presser’s death in 1988, his successor as Teamsters’ president was William J. ‘Billy’ McCarthy from greater Boston.  A decade earlier, the FBI had believed McCarthy used the Winter Hill gang – Whitey’s gang – as enforcers in union elections and organizing. [3]


           Like Whitey Bulger, Danny Greene was ‘without redeeming social importance’, a phrase that the Supreme Court used for a generation to define pornography.  He was just a figure in the socially corrosive war against organized crime.

           That war has had very few heroes, far fewer than those on both sides who seem to carry out vendettas based on ethnicity or grievances whose origins were long forgotten.  But to read its history in these terms is to miss an essential point.

           ‘Kill the Irishman’ reminds us – though not as well as it might have – of organized crime’s origins and strengths: booze, babes, bets and unions.

           Organized crime – Italian, Irish, Jewish and, never forget, their witting and unwitting English, German and Scots-Irish allies  – provided what proper people in the first five decades of the 20th century would not sanction:  humanity’s necessary vices and the industrial working class’s necessary protections.

           A good movie, one well worth watching, ‘Kill the Irishman’ fails because it focuses on, even sympathises with, a sociopath who ‘deserved killing’. [4]  Only to the very well-informed will it shed a bit of light on why he and his peers flourished.

           This unnatural separation of the story from its origins ensures its lesson will not be heard, much less learnt.  As the movies stands, the only wisdom to draw from it is:



           1.  The Plain Dealer’s contemporary story on Greene’s death has him 47 years old in October 1977 when he was blown up.  Wikipedia puts him a month shy of 44 on his death.  I’ve linked both articles above.  Neff [p. 247] has him born in 1929 as was Bulger.

           2.  The mob’s business model as to unions would have been a great one but for their inability to focus on ripping off just unsympathetic employers, as Greene does as a Longshoremen’s union official at ‘Kill’s beginning.  No small part of the Mafia’s downfall – and of the impetus for the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 – came from the systematic denial of pension benefits to workers through arcane and unjust continuity of employment requirements coupled with very long vesting periods.  Denial didn’t mean the worker got contributions returned.  To the contrary, denial meant there was more money to divert.

          3.  But the same 1977 report had him ‘a close associate of Boston LCN figure Gennaro Angiulo.’ [Neff, 430]  Angiulo was one of the Mafiosi Bulger’s tips to the FBI helped bring down.

           4.  In a subplot, an old Irish woman, a next-door neighbor, who’d had no use for Greene changes her mind when he rescues her living room suite from repossession.  She gives ‘the Irish warrior’ a chain with a Celtic cross.  His passing it on to a 12-year-old on a bike seconds before he was vapourised is just a bit much.