A Tale of Two Towns

Renowned for its roguish history, Charlestown is finally getting Hollywood's attention
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 29, 2009


Charlestown was baptized in bloodshed. Since the Battle of Bunker Hill (on Breed's Hill) in 1775, the fiercely independent tract has been popularly characterized by violent undertones and bold tribal pride. Notorious for harboring lawless, red-faced rogues, Charlestown, equal parts volcanic geography and hoodlum mystique, has fueled countless poignant tributes, both factual and fictional. It doesn't matter that the majority of Townies (as Charlestown residents are best known), then and now, have never highjacked armored trucks or dealt dope. Charlestown's population has long been a source of ribald, degenerate mythology.

Charlestown in the Movies
Though Charlestown is only now realizing its moment in the cinematic sun, the neighborhood has lured Hollywood location scouts for at least 40 years. The proof is in this list of films that were partially filmed in and/or based on Charlestown.

Charly (1968)
The Brink’s Job (1978)
The Bostonians (1984)
Common Ground (1990; made for TV)
Once Around (1991)
Blown Away (1994)
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Monument Ave (1998)
What’s the Worst That Could Happen? (2001)
Mystic River (2003)
Irish Eyes (2004)
The Departed (2006)
Townies (2007; short film)

And yet this unique, fertile turf has been generally overlooked by Hollywood, which has preferred instead its old rival South Boston, the primary backdrop for Oscar winners Good Will Hunting and The Departed. Now, however, there are signs that the movie industry is falling for Boston's most notorious square mile. This month alone, two feature-length movies are being filmed in Charlestown: Ben Affleck's The Town (slated to be released next year), which is based on Boston writer Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, and Oxy-Morons, an independent project written, produced by, and starring Bunker Hill housing projects native Johnny Hickey.

"Southie has gentrified over the years," says Sam Baltrusis, editor of the Jamaica Plain–based loadedgunboston.com, who keeps close tabs on the budding Boston film industry, "so filmmakers were scrambling to locations like East Boston, Lowell, and Charlestown to capture the grittier side of things. Charlestown still has that blue-collar aesthetic, coupled with camera-friendly scenery that still has an industrial edge to it — filmmakers eat it up." (Baltrusis credits Dorchester native Donnie Wahlberg's in-the-works TNT drama Bunker Hill with catalyzing the Charlestown rush.)

Though both new films are inspired by the locale's troubled past and storied code of silence — and both are set in contemporary Charlestown — Oxy-Morons and The Town are reflective of two significantly different moments, as the headlines and memories from which they're culled occurred about five years apart. Prince of Thieves is a swan song for the foul old days of heroic mid-'90s bank takes, when Irish mobsters publicly assassinated adversaries without fear of retribution. The book's main characters are the last of a now mostly incarcerated underbelly of dust-smoking safe crackers; even the FBI protagonist (portrayed in the Affleck film by Mad Men star John Hamm) fancies himself a relic of the cops-and-robbers age. Oxy-Morons, on the other hand, which is based on Hickey's felonious endeavors with OxyContin at the turn of the millennium, better resembles the lower-class Charlestown of today: frozen with opiate addiction, its toxic citizens even more isolated from across the river than were their proudly territorial ancestors.

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