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