Saturday, March 26, 2011

Danny Greene documentary premieres at film fest

Hero, lover, rebel -- those three character types animate the Cleveland International Film Festival this year, splayed across its posters, celebrated in the trailer. The late Danny Greene embodied all three archetypes last night at the screening of a documentary about his life, and a couple more: informant, killer.

Kinetic energy propels Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman, which debuted at the festival. Clever cut-outs of Greene and his enemies in the Mayfield Road Mob – actual photos played with, head shots mounted atop bodies -- pop into place against backdrops of Collinwood and Little Italy. TV news footage from the ‘70s, exciting in its grainy colors and resplendent with ugly cars, alternates with contemporary interviews.

Lawyers, a cop and a Teamster all appear in then-and-now contrast, their big glasses, big-lapeled suits and prime-of-life cockiness contrasting with the soft sweaters and tranquil chairs of retirement. Vivid memories and flashes of old passion bridge the two. Ed Kovacic, the policeman who considered Greene both friend and nemesis, tells many of the stories he told me for my March-issue oral history, “The Irishman Chronicles.” James Willis, defense attorney for Mob boss Jack Licavoli, cracked up the audience by calling his former clients and acquaintances “gentle souls” in a vintage clip and “good guys” in a still-fiery new interview.

Director Tommy Reid, who also worked on the fictionalized Greene biopic Kill the Irishman, created the documentary for moviegoers who wanted to know the real story as well as the legend. (You can read Cleveland Magazine’s interview with Reid here.) Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman covers all the phases of Greene’s career that I covered in my oral history (with less time on his early years as a union leader at the Cleveland port) and goes into more detail about how Greene’s murder was solved and how state and federal trials over his murder crippled the Cleveland Mob.

I only caught one significant error: the film claims Mike Frato, who tried to shoot Greene in 1971 and whom Greene instead shot to death in self-defense, was motivated by the hit Shondor Birns put out on Greene. Actually, Frato was trying to retaliate: Greene had blown up Frato’s car a few weeks earlier in a dispute about a trash-hauling guild.

The film, and the forum afterward, went into greater depth than I’ve seen before about Greene’s 13 years as an FBI informant. Greene, though a suspect in several murders, was never charged with murder and was only convicted once, on a charge of falsifying a union record. Many who tell Greene’s story suggest that the FBI protected Greene in some way, but facts are scarce, still shrouded in secrecy. In the film, Kovacic says former Cuyahoga County prosecutor John T. Corrigan dropped a potential extortion case against Greene at the request of a high-level FBI official. (I think the extortion case stemmed from Greene’s work as a labor consultant on downtown construction projects, though this isn’t clear.)

Forum moderator Dan Moulthrop asked John Sopko, who prosecuted the federal racketeering case against Cleveland Mob leaders, whether Greene’s informant status kept him from being successfully prosecuted.

“That was probably one of the reasons,” Sopko said. He didn’t know that for sure, he added, but he’d heard the “lore” from before he joined the Justice Department. “It could very well have happened.”

As the forum ended, I realized I was sitting in the same row as Danny Greene’s ex-wife, Nancy Greene, and his daughter, Sharon. I tried to interview Nancy Greene for my March oral history. She turned me down then, but last night, she spoke with me. Click here to read my interview with Nancy and Sharon.

The film fest is showing Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman again tonight at 9:45 and tomorrow night at 7:05. Both showings are on standby, so get to Tower City early if you want a shot at getting in.

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