Robert De Niro as Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, tough Mafia enforcer
New York City, Spring 1972
Film: The Irishman
Release Date: November 1, 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Design: Sandy Powell & Christopher Peterson
Fifty years ago tonight, Mafia violence shook the streets of New York City when dangerous mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo was shot and killed while celebrating his 43rd birthday with his family at Umbertos Clam House on Mulberry Street.
The most widely accepted facts attribute the slaying to four associates of the Colombo crime family, in retaliation for their suspicions that Gallo had ordered the attempted assassination of boss Joseph Colombo during an Italian-American Civil Rights League rally the previous June. Gallo’s widow recalled multiple men of short stature and likely Italian descent storming the Mulberry Street restaurant, where more than 20 shots were fired at her husband, who staggered onto the sidewalk and died shortly before 5:30 a.m. on April 7, 1972.
However, Charles Brandt’s nonfiction best-seller I Heard You Paint Houses includes an explosive claim by labor official and mob hitman Frank Sheeran that he alone was responsible for the hit. Known as “The Irishman”, Sheeran stood 6’4″ and even explained to Brandt that, with his “very fair skin … I don’t look like a Mafia shooter,” which would have made him even less conspicuous to a rightly paranoid gangster like Gallo. Sheeran addresses the fact that other theories had placed more gunmen on the scene, explaining that “maybe the bodyguard added two shooters to make himself look better. Maybe there were a lot of stray shots being fired from the two guns that made it seem like there was more than one shooter. I’m not putting anybody else in the thing but me.”
The book’s 24th chapter, “He Needed a Favor and That Was That” serves as something of a primer from Sheeran on how to conduct a public mob hit, from how to dress and choose your armament to when you should empty your bladder before approaching the target. Martin Scorsese left this generally intact—albeit somewhat truncated—when depicting the scene in his latest mob epic, The Irishman, set to the dissonantly dulcet surf sound of Santo & Johnny’s aptly titled 1959 hit “Sleep Walk”.
What’d He Wear?
The Irishman depicts Frank Sheeran out on the town with northeastern Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives, entertained by Don Rickles at New York’s famed Copacabana nightclub when they encounter the hotheaded Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) celebrating his birthday. A little too loose with his remarks to Russell, one look from the “Old Man” is all Frank needs to know it’s time to return home and begin considering what to pull from his arsenal to rid the mob of Crazy Joe.
Initially, Sheeran had been dressed appropriately for a night out in a burgundy blazer, the wide notch lapels finished with “swelled” edges and rolling to two brass buttons that echo the three similarly gilted buttons on each cuff.
Sheeran swaps out his blazer for a tough leather jacket when he returns home, but he continues wearing the same shirt, patterned with alternating maroon and pink broken box stripes against an ivory ground. Likely one of the many made for the movie by Geneva Custom Shirts, the shirt has a front placket, button cuffs, and a fashionably long point collar for the early ’70s.
The dark brown leather jacket that Sheeran changes into for the hit differs from the shorter brown leather zip-up jacket that he had worn earlier during his trucking days, the darker shade adding a more villainous “tough guy” edge that would make him appropriately intimidating when gunning down his victims. Indeed, he wears the jacket again a few years later when he’s tapped to kill Sally Bugs.
Styled like a thigh-length car coat, the leather jacket has four dark woven leather buttons up the front with a fifth that would close at the neck, should Sheeran choose to turn up the lower half of his left lapel. The jacket has a horizontal chest yoke, set-in sleeves with plain cuffs, and flapped set-in hip pockets just deep enough to conceal a snub-nosed .38.
Sheeran continues wearing the same golden-hued khaki polyester flat front trousers, which have a self-belted waistband that closes through a silver-toned buckle, full-top front pockets, and fashionably flared plain-hemmed bottoms. He wears dark brown leather apron-toe loafers with a metal strap across the vamp rather than the traditional horsebit as innovated by Gucci in the 1950s.
After he was elected to leadership of Teamsters Local 326, Sheeran no longer wears his gold Bulova President tank watch and has adopted this mixed-metal watch with a stainless case and a fixed gold bezel that encircles a round white dial which appears to be printed with a Teamsters emblem. Sheeran wears the watch on his left wrist, affixed to a steel-and-gold “Jubilee”-style bracelet. He also still wears his chunky gold ring on the third finger of his right hand.
As described to The Hollywood Reporter, costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson cited the invaluable help of assistant costume designer Brittany Griffin who also happened to be Frank Sheeran’s granddaughter and was able to share archival photographs and even items that belonged to her grandfather.
In I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran gives little physical description of his apparel from the hit, aside from the fact that he “looked like just a broken down truck driver with a cap on coming in to use the bathroom.” Though no cap is worn by De Niro in the scene, the cinematic Sheeran may have coded his appearance to resemble a trucker by donning a leather jacket not unlike what he’d worn during his earlier days of honest work.
Now, for something like this, you’re gonna need two guns: one you’re gonna use, and a backup. You want something with more stopping power than a .22. You definitely don’t want a silencer; you wanna make a lot of noise to make the witnesses run away so they ain’t gonna be lookin’ at you. But not the noise a .45 makes, ’cause that makes too much noise, and a patrol car can hear it a few blocks away, at least.
The next we see of Frank Sheeran, he’s looking at an array of 14 guns laid out on his bed, including two shotguns (an Ithaca Model 37 pump-action “riot gun” and a sawed-off double-barreled “lupara”), a .45-caliber Colt Mk IV Series 70 1911 pistol, two silenced pistols (a Browning Hi-Power and a Walther PPK), two small-framed pistols that he pulls away when dismissing the .22, and seven Smith & Wesson revolvers, including one snub-nosed .22-caliber Model 34 “kit gun”.
Sheeran explains his reasoning to us as he sorts through the arsenal, with De Niro’s voiceover echoing the book nearly verbatim, though Sheeran’s written account includes addition wisdom about the “two little brothers” he brings along for the job, explaining that “I’d have one in my waistband and a backup piece in my ankle holster. You’d use something like a .32 and a .38 revolver because you wanted more stopping power than you could get with a .22.”
The cops call a .32 a “woman’s gun” ’cause it’s easier to handle and don’t do the damage a .38 does, but—you know—it does enough.
The process of elimination complete, Sheeran picks out two snub-nosed Smith & Wesson revolvers. At least one is a blued Smith & Wesson Model 36, the five-shot .38 Special built on the medium-sized J-frame. Presumably, the other is a .32-caliber, built on the smaller I-frame and thus likely a six-shot Smith & Wesson Model 30, chambered to fire the more anemic .32 S&W Long cartridge.
The Model 36 was introduced at a 1950 convention for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where its original “Chiefs Special” name was decided by vote. The Model 30 evolved in the late 1940s from the turn-of-the-century .32 Hand Ejector design and would continue to be offered in varying barrel lengths from 2″ to 6″ until production ended in 1976.
The forensic evidence from the Gallo murder supports Sheeran’s contention that .32-caliber and .38-caliber handguns were used during the hit, even if most accounts support that there were four shooters rather than just one.
How to Get the Look
Frank Sheeran exemplifies intentionally dressing for the task ahead, changing out of his nightclub-friendly burgundy blazer and into a tough—and tough-looking—leather jacket that gives him a more lethal look as he charges into Umbertos Clam House. While I don’t think any of my readers need to worry about dressing for mob hits (I hope!), I like the simplicity of Frank’s sartorial transformation merely by swapping out a blazer for a leather jacket, made even more effective by the general neutrality of his base shirt and slacks.
- Dark brown leather thigh-length car coat with flat collar, four black woven leather buttons, horizontal chest yoke, plain cuffs, and flapped hip pockets
- Beige box-striped shirt with long point collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Golden khaki polyester flat front self-belted trousers with full-top front pockets and flared plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark brown leather apron-toe metal-strap loafers
- Black socks
- Gold wedding ring
- Gold tank watch with rose gold dial on black textured leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, currently streaming on Netflix and available via Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. I also recommend reading I Heard You Paint Houses, the 2004 true-crime best-seller by Charles Brandt that inspired The Irishman.
You wanna take out the bodyguard first… not kill him—don’t kill him—just disable him; you got no argument with him so, not in the face or the chest. Sometimes, with something like this, you might wanna go to the bathroom first. It gives you a chance to make sure nobody followed you in; it also gives you a chance to make sure nobody’s in the bathroom that you have to worry about; it also gives you a chance to go to the bathroom… you don’t wanna be uncomfortable.
It might sound like a joke in De Niro’s narration, but the script closely echoes Sheeran’s admission to Charles Brandt, though Sheeran had elaborated on the implied discomfort that “you don’t want to have to take a leak if you’re trying to outrun a couple of cop cars.” In less than 20 seconds, Sheeran is in the door—firing nine shots that leave Gallo dead on the sidewalk (not 14 shots, as reported on the following day’s news)—he’s and back out in the passenger seat of the ’65 Chevy Impala sedan chosen for the evening’s getaway car.