Costume designer Sandy Powell faced the challenge of dressing actors who, for the most part, portray an impoverished and largely unwashed underclass who were often too poor to own more than a single suit of clothes. “They wore what they had, and what they had was often filthy,” says Powell. “The clothing was often found, or stolen.”
Equal concern for authenticity was expended on the speech of characters, whose loyalties were often revealed by their accents. In search of lost speech patterns, dialect coach Tim Monich studied old poems, ballads and newspaper articles (which sometimes reproduced spoken dialect as a form of humor). He also consulted The Rogue’s Lexicon, a book of underworld idioms compiled in 1859 by a former New York City police chief who was fascinated by the inner life of the gangs. A key piece of evidence was a rare 1892 wax recording of Walt Whitman reciting four lines from Leaves of Grass. On it, the poet pronounces “world” as “woild,” and the “a” of “an” nasal and flat, like “ayan.” Monich concluded that native 19th-century New Yorkers sounded something like Brooklyn cabbies of the mid-20th. Actors were allowed to employ 19th-century slang (for example, “chump,” meaning dolt, was already in use). They were told, however, to replace “dope fiend” with “hop fiend” and to substitute “lime juicers” for “limeys” when insulting Americans of British heritage. When Liam Neeson, who plays a gang leader, mocked his rivals as “Nancy Boys,” or sissies, a term still used in Ballymena, Neeson’s Northern Ireland hometown, Monich informed him that New York hooligans would have called them “Miss Nancies.”
Most of the film’s action takes place around the seething Five Points slum, then a paramount symbol of anarchy, violence and urban hopelessness. About 1830, the New York Mirror described the area as a “loathsome den of murderers, thieves, abandoned women, ruined children, filth, drunkenness, and broils [brawls].” Around the same time, George Catlin, the artist best known for his portraits of Indians on the Great Plains (see “George Catlin’s Obsession,” p. 70), painted the Five Points district, depicting a riotous scene of brawling drunks, leering prostitutes and intermingled races. To most Americans, the very name itself suggested unspeakable wickedness and sin. Individual tenements acquired monikers like the Gates of Hell or BrickbatMansion. The most notorious hellhole of all, and a key setting for the film, was a cavernous abandoned brewery turned tenement. Here, a population of several hundred, the poorest of Irish immigrants and African-Americans, lived under unspeakable conditions. Prostitutes plied their trade openly in a single vast chamber, known as the Den of Thieves. Beneath the basement’s earthen floor, the dead, too destitute even for a proper burial, were sometimes interred. Everywhere in the neighborhood, lanes ran thick with a soup of rotting garbage and human waste; pigs and other animals foraged in the fetid byways. “Saturate your handkerchief with camphor, so that you can endure the horrid stench,” visitors were advised by one 19th-century temperance worker.
For Charles Dickens, who visited New York in 1842, the Five Points was a real-life hell, where human beings with “coarse and bloated faces” were barely distinguishable from animals. “From every corner as you glance about you in these dark retreats,” he wrote in American Notes, “some figure crawls half-awakened, as if the judgement-hour were near at hand, and every obscure grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would howl to lie, women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.”
Until the early 1800s, New York City had been a comparatively staid and conservative town, whose northern limits barely extended beyond modern Wall Street. (As late as the 1810s, cows grazed where New York’s City Hall now stands.) But by the 1830s, the city had expanded north to Greenwich Village. As wave after wave of mostly Irish immigrants poured into the area, two- and three- story dormered town houses, until then the residences of merchants and middle-class craftsmen, were converted into tenements. There was no public sewage system, little police protection and no restriction on the number of people who could be packed into a single dwelling. In only 25 years, from 1830 to 1855, the population of the Five Points area nearly doubled. By then, first-generation immigrants accounted for 72 percent of the area’s population. One outcome of this new, cruelly congested kind of city was the first American slum. Another was the street gang.