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‘Fear City’ takes us back to when the gangsters of New York ruled

Often funny, often fascinating Netflix documentary series interviews the insiders and plays the tapes from the mob’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

Former Colombo crime family underboss Michael Franzese details the business of loan sharking in “Fear City.”
Netflix

The mobster on the tape recording isn’t mincing words. In a voice right out of “Casino” or “Goodfellas,” he says:

“Chuck, I’m gonna tell you something. You have that f---ing 200 in my hands tomorrow. If you ain’t got the 200 in my hands tomorrow, I’ll break every f---ing bone in your body, I swear to my kids, you understand?”

I don’t know if it’d be more frightening if the guy was talking about $200,000 — of if he was threatening to bust up “Chuck” over a mere two hundy. Yeesh.

Wiretapped recordings of mobbed-up guys talking mobbed-up business are a big part of “Fear City,” a Netflix three-part documentary series about the five crime families ruling nearly every corner of New York City business in the 1970s and 1980s — and the local and federal government officials who implemented some bold and creative tactics to bring down these old-school criminals in the biggest investigation of the Mafia in history. Director Sam Hobkinson does a masterful job of weaving previously unheard recordings, new interviews with mob insiders and former investigators, and well-filmed dramatic re-creations to tell a story that never glamorizes these infamous thugs while painting a shocking picture of a crime-infested, corrupt and grimy New York that at times seemed to be teetering on the brink of complete chaos.

Early in Part One, we see footage of the legendary newscaster John Chancellor framed inside a TV set, with a graphic of a skeleton wearing a hooded robe, as he intones, “People once called New York ‘Fun City,’ now the police and firemen’s unions in New York are calling it ‘Fear City.’ ” Cut to newsreel footage of a dead body in the street, audio of a newscaster saying, “Seven people have been murdered, their throats cut with a footlong knife,” footage of another newscaster saying, “It seems organized crime may have turned an abandoned railroad tunnel into a graveyard for as many as 60 people,” and a graphic saying: “1970s New York: A Lawless City Plagued by Drugs, Violence and Murder.”

That’s not hyperbole.

“Fear City” names the Five Families — Lucchese, Genovese, Bonanno, Colombo and Gambino — that had infested New York business dating back to the 1930s, scooping up millions upon millions from the construction, garment, restaurant, catering, trucking, gasoline, waste management and retail industries. At one point there were eight major concrete companies in New York — and all were under mob influence. Every construction project in Manhattan with a value of more than $2 million would pay out a percentage of winning bids to the Mob.

“It’s fixed, it’s fixed, everything was fixed, everybody knows who was allocating what jobs,” says one former investigator.

Johnny Alite recalls his past as a mob enforcer on “Fear City.”
Netflix

The series is filled with colorful interview subjects, e.g., Johnny Alite, a former mob enforcer turned informant against John Gotti, who has arms like tree trunks and casually recalls, “If you don’t have that money, I’m gonna come see you in a different way … if [you don’t] have the money, then I baseball bat him,” and Michael Franzese, a loan shark and major underboss in the Colombo crime family, who says lending money (with enormous interest attached) was a very lucrative enterprise, noting he once acquired a Chevy dealership, apparently from someone who couldn’t keep up with loan payments.

Equal time is given to the law enforcement officials who worked tirelessly to bring down the mob, such as Lin Devecchio, former Special Agent for the FBI, who says: “It was a cat and mouse game, a very serious game to be sure. I can’t tell you how many times a wiseguy would say to me, ‘You do what you gotta do, I do what I gotta do.’ ”

Cut to Franzese: “I used to tell them, ‘Hey, you do your jobs, we’ll do ours. You catch us the right way, no complaints.’ ” Sounds like the Pacino/De Niro exchange in “Heat.”

In one of the most fascinating sequences, we meet Professor G. Robert Blakey of Cornell, who drafted the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, in 1970, but says for years the FBI didn’t know how to use the law — so he conducted a training course and explained to agents how they could tie together various criminal enterprises and connect the Five Families so they could go after not just the “soldiers” but the big bosses and prosecute them not as individuals, but as a group of people committing crimes as a business.

“Fear City” also has it moments of dark humor, as when we meet one “Tony Ducks,” so named because he had an uncanny ability to duck subpoenas, and an episode where the feds posed as cable repairmen in order to install a listening device in the Staten Island home of a major mob boss. And in one of the coolest sequences, we see how the feds placed a bug in the black Jaguar driven by a top crime soldier. They actually acquired an identical Jag and rehearsed placing the wire behind the car heater over and over and over, to the point where they could do it in less than a minute. It was that kind of ingenuity and determination and dedication that resulted in the Mafia Commission Trial of 1985-86 that crippled the mob in New York City.