Review of Irish Film at Cork Film Festival: Deoch An Dorais

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Loretta Goff reviews Paddy Hayes’ Deoch An Dorais, which brings to life the legend of Mike Malloy, the man who wouldn’t die.

Irish language documentary Deoch An Dorais tells the very unique story of one Irishman in New York City, while at the same time reflecting upon the larger emigrant experience. Mike Malloy, alternatively referred to as the “Rasputin of the Bronx”, “Durable Mike Malloy”, and “the man who couldn’t be killed”, fell victim to speakeasy owner Tony Marino and his friends as part of their plan to make some quick money during the Prohibition and Great Depression era in the Bronx. These men, learning Malloy (who was an alcoholic regular in the speakeasy) had no friends, family, or home in the city, decided to take out a life insurance plan on him and subsequently cause his “natural” death (a plan that had already worked on Marino’s girlfriend). What they didn’t expect was the resilience of Malloy. Between December 1932 and February 1933, they attempted the murder 20 times before finally succeeding, and in the process turned the story of Mike Malloy into a legend of sorts.

After hearing the story in a two-minute segment of comedy quiz show QI, director Paddy Hayes was inspired to explore it further. In his documentary we follow Anthony Molloy, former Donegal GAA Captain, and another Molloy from Mike’s home County (the ‘o’ was changed to an ‘a’ in America) as he travels to New York to speak with a variety of people about the “indomitable” Mike. From academics and journalists to a lawyer, pathologist, genealogist, homeless veteran, and Italian undertaker, these interviews develop Malloy’s story as they take us through the various attempts on his life and speculate on his circumstances. Accompanying these, and weaving in characters as they are mentioned, are reconstructions of scenes from inside Marino’s speakeasy. Though these were filmed in a pub in Galway and use actors from Mayo, they succeed in their 1930s NYC aesthetic and create a more immersive experience for the viewer.

Though there are many comedic moments throughout this tale (and its reconstructions) which are entertaining, they are smoothly woven in with more serious subject matter. Interspersed with scenes of contemporary New York is archival footage of men sleeping on the streets and drinking, reflecting the difficult times experienced in the city and providing context for why people resorted to criminality. Discussion surrounding Malloy’s experience also turns to various struggles he and many other emigrants may have faced, including loneliness, homelessness, and a turn towards alcoholism.

Molloy reflects on his own emigrant experience to New York in the 1980s where he felt a sense of Irish community. He goes on to express his horror and heartbreak at the fact that Malloy’s only “friends” were trying to kill him and questions why he would continue to stick around them rather than seek help. An historian interviewed explained that to many homesick men, bartenders were seen as their only friends, Priests, counsellors or caretakers. In the Q&A after the screening Hayes expanded upon this sentiment referring to the “element of Stockholm Syndrome with drink. You know it’s killing you, but you love it.”

While Malloy’s tale is very bizarre, and often unbelievable, little trace of him remains. Buried in an unmarked grave, the only tribute to him is a mosaic on a lamppost in the city. If not for the fact that the insurance scammers were caught, resulting in a court case which provided the details of Malloy’s death, he could easily have become one of many “unknown emigrants.” Producer Ciara Nic Chormaic, also in attendance at the screening, commented on the amount of research that went into the film and finding people to speak with about Malloy. Discussing her initial trip to Donegal in an attempt to find out more of Malloy’s story she remarked that there is a “bit of private detective work involved in being a producer.” The work paid off here as, in its uncovering of Malloy’s story, the documentary succeeds in being both entertaining and a powerful piece on emigration.

 

Deoch An Dorais screened 14th November as part of the 60th Cork Film Festival (6 – 15 November 2015)

Deoch An Dorais will air 25th December on TG4

 

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: ‘An Náisiún’ & ‘Deoch an Dorais’

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Seán Crosson takes a look at two TG4-commissioned documentaries that screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh – An Náisiún (The Nation 1923) and Deoch an Dorais (Name Your Poison).

 

Since its launch in 1996, TG4 (or TnaG as it was then) has rightfully developed a considerable reputation for the excellent documentaries it has commissioned and the Galway Film Fleadh has provided an important forum for the premiere of many of these works in recent years. An Náisiún (The Nation 1923) and Deoch an Dorais were two further impressive examples of TG4’s súil eile approach in its examination of the experiences of Irish people at home and abroad.

In An Náisiún the subject is the Irish civil war, and particularly that part of it fought out over Limerick city and its hinterland. Narrated by Macdara Ó Fatharta, the doc features impressive archive footage and photographs that are beautifully rendered to bring the viewer into the lives and tensions of the period considered. The most affecting aspect of the work is the director’s – Andrew Gallimore – decision to offer most of the commentary from the perspective of participants involved in the war itself, on both the Free State and Irregular sides. Arguably no war is more brutal or more poignant than a civil war and the words of those involved, whether from letters, memoirs or interviews, make this all the more apparent.

 

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Set slightly later in the early 1930s, Deoch an Dorais (Name Your Poison) examines the legend of Mike Malloy (nicknamed “Rasputin of the Bronx” or “Durable Mike Malloy”), an Irish emigrant to New York at the time of prohibition. Malloy was the unwitting subject of insurance fraud when a policy was taken out on his life by an Italian-American New York gangster and speakeasy owner, Tony Marino. However, despite repeated attempts to collect the policy by killing Malloy in a manner that would suggest a natural death – from poisoning him with drink and food, to hitting him with a car and dumping his soaking body overnight in freezing weather – Marino and his accomplices were unable to collect.

The documentary is presented by All-Ireland winning Donegal captain Anthony Molloy, who also reflects on his own struggle with alcoholism and the larger story of Irish emigration to the United States of which Malloy was but one of many examples. Incorporating contemporary footage of New York and interviews with a range of scientific and academic commentators (including historian J.J. Lee), Deoch an Dorais also includes reenactments of the events from the 1930s involving Malloy, Marino and his co-conspirators (including undertaker Francis Pasqua); the scenes in Marino’s speakeasy offer a convincing rendering of the period, with the lighting particularly impressive. Under Paddy Hayes assured direction, Deoch an Dorais is an engaging and thought-provoking account of an extraordinary story.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

An Náisiún screened on Thursday, 9th July & Deoch an Dorais screened on Saturday, 11th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

 

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