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Scorsese Warns You About His Characters’ Deaths in This Gangster Movie

The Big Picture

  • Scorsese uses X marks to subtly hint at deaths in
    The Departed
    throughout the film’s chaotic scenes.
  • The X imagery is borrowed from 1932’s
    , symbolizing the impending doom awaiting characters in the crime genre.
  • The X marks in the film symbolize a sense of treachery and the inevitable downfall of characters immersed in the world of crime.

With how much people like to complain about spoilers, you’d think filmmakers would constantly be trying to hide how things will turn out for their characters. To be fair, most filmmakers go out of their way to be secretive and keep as many things under wraps as possible until just the right moment. As has been proven time and time again, Martin Scorsese isn’t like most filmmakers, and he has the storytelling confidence to essentially snitch on his own intentions without the audience noticing. While this isn’t necessarily something he does often, he flaunted this ability in one of the high points of his career: his Best Picture-winning The Departed which also earned him his one and only Oscar for Best Director. The Departed is a film that moves so fast and is edited so chaotically that you’re prone to miss a lot on first viewing, and Scorsese uses that to his advantage to subconsciously hint towards a big fat spoiler multiple times.


The Departed

An undercover cop and a mole in the police attempt to identify each other while infiltrating an Irish gang in South Boston.

Release Date
October 5, 2006

Martin Scorsese

150 mins

Main Genre

What Do the X Marks Mean in ‘The Departed’?

The Departed is a movie all about double-crossing. It’s a story of two men having to go deep undercover to sniff the other out as a mole. Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a cop who must go undercover as a criminal to take down Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), while Colin (Matt Damon) is Frank’s underling who goes undercover as a cop to sabotage the operation and find out who the mole inside the police is. What better way to hint at that thematic conflict than to use the letter X, which is literally two lines crossing over each other? Essentially, anytime Scorsese wants to hint at the possibility of death or depict a character’s death on-screen, there will be an X somewhere in the nearby environment or background. Some of the most notable examples are Queenan (Martin Sheen) falling past windows with Xs on them when he’s thrown off a roof, an X made of black tape behind Billy’s head in an elevator right before he gets shot in the head, and Colin walking on red X’s in the hallway leading to his apartment before Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) shoots him because he knows he’s the mole. The X marks aren’t just limited to death scenes either. Throughout the film, you’ll find Xs everywhere; in graffiti, architecture, handwriting, and shadows.

Why Does Scorsese Warn You About the Deaths in ‘The Departed’?

By implementing this iconography throughout the film without drawing overt attention to it, Scorsese creates a feeling that death is inherent to this world. One of the strongest consistent themes of Scorsese’s crime films is how fruitless it will wind up being for everyone. No matter how high the characters may fly or think they’ve become unstoppable, they will inevitably go down, be it legally or six feet under. Scorsese harped on it so much that by the time he got to The Irishman, which served as his alleged final word on organized crime, he cut to the chase and immediately told us how each supporting character would eventually die as soon as we meet them. The world of The Departed is so drenched in pervasive anxiety and a sense of treachery, compared to the surface-level grandeur of The Wolf of Wall Street and Casino, that it leaves the characters with tunnel vision, only able to focus on their objective and not take real stock of their situation and surroundings. To paraphrase Tupac, these characters constantly see death around the corner, and they’re so used to the threat of death that they can’t process it anymore. There’s no time to truly ruminate on the prospect of death when your eyes are only on the prize, and you’re swimming in your own sweat. But with all that said, why Xs?


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Martin Scorsese Borrowed the X Idea From 1932’s ‘Scarface’

X mark Scarface 1932
Image Via United Artists

Well, as with many crime films, we must take it all the way back to Scarface. Not the iconic Brian De Palma-directed extravaganza, but the tight and nasty Howard Hawks-directed original from 1932, starring the great chameleon Paul Muni. A fictionalized biopic loosely inspired by the reign of Al Capone, it is about Tony Camonte (Muni), a brutish ogre of a man, who terrorizes his way up the mob food chain in Chicago, only to let his insecurities and psychotic thirst for violence lead to his undoing. Like The Departed, Scarface uses X imagery to create the feeling of impending death. As early as the literal title cards, we see X plastered on all sorts of scenery throughout the film. Most obviously, the scar on Tony’s face that gives him his nickname is in the shape of an X, though it’s positioned more like a cross. There’s the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, where the murder of six rival gangsters is symbolized by six Xs hanging off the roof above the corpses. There’s also an X on the door of Tony’s best friend’s home when Tony goes to kill him.

‘Scarface’ and ‘The Departed’ Both Preach the Emptiness of Crime

So, if this is true, then why would Scorsese do this? Scarface is a morality tale about the destruction that gangster life creates, going so far as to subtitle the film “The Shame of a Nation.” Scorsese has devoted an entire subsection of his filmography to that very topic, and he doesn’t shove Xs into all of them so that alone doesn’t explain it. Well, Scorsese did somewhat explain his rationale in a phone interview with a magazine called Digital Content Producer, and he said that he wanted the film to emulate both noir films of the 1940s and gangster films of the 1930s, given the nature of the material. Regarding Scarface, he highlighted the motif as one he carried over into The Departed as a deliberate evocation of how everybody in the film has already been crossed out of their lives from the very beginning. It underlines how, no matter these characters’ various positions in life or their aspirations, they all “have the same fate, and they’re all X’d out before the picture even starts.” In a sense, the characters are conniving and scheming around each other, only to wind up “crossing their graves,” in the end.

The Departed is available to rent on Prime Video

Rent on Amazon Prime

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