By Michael Gray
A few weeks before the 1994 cease-fire, the IRA took care of some unfinished business on a quiet suburban street in Dublin. It was to be the paramiltary organization’s final hit before declaring an end to its campaign of violence. The target was neither British nor loyalist, nor did he have any known political affiliations.
Rather, he was a rotund diabetic man from Dublin, a father of nine children, and a keen pigeon fancier. He was also the most notorious gangster in a Dublin underworld that had grown from petty criminal origins into heavily armed factions, well able to match the firepower of the paramilitaries. His name was Martin Cahill, but the people of Ireland knew him better as The General.
Such is the fascination of both the Dublin media and the Irish public with The General, that his life story is currently the subject of three films. Cahill was different from the flashy thugs and drug dealers who typified the Dublin crime scene, and therein lies the fascination.
He neither drank nor smoked, and he took a dim view of drug use after several of his brothers became addicts. He lived quietly in a middle-class neighborhood near the site of the demolished slums in which he had grown up. The car he drove was a modest two-door sedan, and his only material indulgence was a fondness for motorbikes.
A lack of enthusiasm for school left this abstemious criminal barely literate. But if he couldn’t spell, he knew how to count — wads of cash in large amounts. From an early career as a petty burglar he moved up to daring raids, jewelry heists and bank robberies that racked up £40 million worth of loot over a 20-year period.
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He left clues at the scene of the crime as a calling card for gardaí, to let them know that he had done it. He often gave himself an airtight alibi by hanging out at the police station to register complaints against particular officers while his gang carried out robberies that he had meticulously planned. Despite round-the-clock surveillance by dozens of gardaí, detectives couldn’t make the charges stick for any of his crimes, and Cahill continued to elude his pursuers and rob the homes of the wealthy around Dublin.
Even those omniscient hounds, the dogs in the street, knew The General’s real name and where he lived, but nobody knew what he looked like.
Whether decked out in a balaclava, anorak hood, or smearing his face with fingerprint ink when the Guards took him in for questioning, he kept his features hidden from the law, the press and the public.
The son of an alcoholic lighthouse keeper, Cahill was himself a devoted father and an unlikely stud — he had five children with his wife and four with her sister, in an arrangement that seemed to suit all parties involved. If Cahill had never existed, fiction couldn’t have devised a believable facsimile of this bizarre godfather.
The first film of his life to reach the U.S., The General" comes to New York having won the Best Director award at Cannes for its creator, long-time resident of Ireland John Boorman. Boorman also wrote the screenplay, based on the best-selling Cahill biography of the same name by Dublin tabloid journalist Paul Williams (Williams covered the same crime beat as Veronica Guerin, herself the subject of several film treatments after she was murdered by rivals of Cahill).
Boorman’s film of the colorful gang leader is made, oddly enough, in monochrome. The film has a shimmering, iridescent quality, an effect achieved by shooting with color film and processing it in black and white. The director follows the pattern of the source book closely, opening with The General’s demise at the hands of the IRA. A tacky rewind follows, in which the bullet that killed Cahill returns to the gun, and the triggerman runs backward into the bushes in which he had been hiding.
Boorman then takes us back to Cahill’s childhood ("Butcher Boy" Eamonn Owens plays the young Martin), showing the hardship and deprivation that discouraged the Cahill boys from trying to make an honest living. The slum scenes of their early life are filmed on the same set that director Jim Sheridan used for "The Boxer" several months before, and Sheridan himself makes a cameo appearance later in the film, as a protester from Concerned Parents Against Drugs.
Having sown the seeds of sympathy for the young Cahill and his cheerful attempts to subvert authority, Boorman returns to the adult criminal, played with extraordinary conviction by Brendan Gleeson. Seen recently on New York screens in Paddy Breathnach’s "I Went Down," Gleeson revels in the role of the charming rogue, as he devises outrageous schemes that have as much to do with embarrassing the police force as making himself rich.
The film centers on two of Cahill’s most notorious strokes: the robbery of a jeweler on the southside of Dublin, and the theft of paintings by Vermeer, Goya, Rubens and Gainsborough from the collection of Sir Alfred Beit at Russborough House in County Wicklow.
Boorman sees Cahill as an iconoclast who despised all the pillars of authority in Irish society: the Catholic church, the police and the government. For The General, the IRA was just one more intrusive organization to be defied and ignored. When the IRA wanted a cut of his haul from the O’Connor jewelry heist, he refused to hand it over. And when Cahill got involved with the Ulster Volunteer Force in an attempt to offload the paintings he stole from Beit, he saw the arrangement as being strictly business. But the republicans didn’t see it that way, and when the Garda surveillance of The General was lifted, Cahill soon found himself in the crosshairs of an assassin’s Magnum .357.
Boorman has been accused of glamorizing the gang leader, but there’s nothing glamorous about the portly patriarch in the baggy jeans and comb-over driving his Renault 5 around Rathmines. And Boorman doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of Cahill — in the film a gang member is suspected of taking more than his fair share of the take from a robbery, and Cahill nails him to a pool table to get him to admit it. The intimidation of witnesses, and the crippling of a forensics expert with a car bomb balance out the audience’s amusement at the same genial practical joker who digs up the greens at the Garda golf club in Stackstown to make it easier for them to get a hole in one.
Boorman strives to show the many sides of this enigmatic character, and for the most part stays close to the facts. Only at the end of Cahill’s life does he play loose with the truth, when he shows the assassination of Cahill occurring the same day that the Gardaí stopped the 24-hour watch on his house, implying an unlikely collusion between the police and the IRA. In reality, the Garda surveillance made Cahill a difficult target and, ironically, kept him alive longer than the IRA would have liked. The shooting of The General actually occurred several weeks after the police returned to their normal duties.
The women in Cahill’s life, his wife, Frances, and sister-in-law, Tina, are played with stoic understatement by Maria Doyle Kennedy and Angeline Ball from "The Commitments."
The General’s gang, ruled with a an iron fist by a leader who demanded absolute loyalty, comprises an assortment of up-and-coming and established television actors from the Irish scene, among them Adrian Dunbar and Sean McGinley. Dunbar, too patrician by far to play a professional frightener from the same tenements as Cahill, seems a little bewildered with how little he’s been given to do in the film. McGinley fares better as the accomplice who cracks from the 24/seven monitoring of the gang by the Gardaí.
The cast is given some international star power by Oscar winner and three-time Oscar nominee Jon Voight, reunited with Boorman on their first project together since "Deliverance." The veteran actor plays Cahill’s nemesis, Inspector Ned Kenny, a compound character based on several officers who dedicated their careers to bringing down the elusive crook.
Voight chews down on the Kerry accent of his character like it was a wad of tobacco, and spits out his lines at the devious General with a peculiar restraint that implies more sympathy for his enemy than a senior officer in an embarrassed police force would manifest. But he brings a tweedy dignity to a film heavily populated with gougers, thugs and thieves, and his presence in the film virtually guarantees the festival exposure and international distribution that allows us to see the film at all.
"The General" is a return to form for Boorman after the tepid "Beyond Rangoon" and is his best work since "Hope and Glory." Accustomed as we are to seeing the mob depicted as Armani-clad high-rollers, Boorman’s little mobster drama may be too small-scale and downbeat to fascinate mafia aficionados over here, but Gleeson gives the performance of his career as the scheming gang leader. He bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the real-life Cahill, and it’s difficult to imagine that Kevin Spacey can top this portrayal in the rival screen version of Cahill’s life, "Ordinary Decent Criminals," currently in production in Ireland, with Thaddeus O’Sullivan directing. Boorman resisted pressure from investors to use a bigger name in the lead role, because he felt strongly that Gleeson was perfect for the part, and his faith in the actor has been admirably rewarded. Gleeson ran it close at Cannes for the Best Actor award, and if the film succeeds as well as it deserves to over here, he may find himself in line again for some trophies to take home to Dublin.
The General opens in New York, on limited release, on Friday, Dec. 18.