Variety is reporting that Leonardo DiCaprio will produce and star in Paramount's adaptation of Stephan Talty’s The Black Hand, a true story detailing the efforts of Lt. Joseph Petrosino - nicknamed “the Italian Sherlock Holmes” - to stop a secret society of Italian criminals that flourished in turn-of-the-century America.
Though the phrase “Italian Sherlock Holmes” is unintentionally and deeply hilarious, the saga of the Black Hand is a fascinating, underexplored section of American history. More of a loose affiliation of extortion racketeers than the tight mob-run ships that would replace them, “The Black Hand” was a kind of boogeyman to the Italian community, with roots going back to Naples in the 1700s. In the 1900s it was enthusiastically resurrected within the Italian-American communities of cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and the like, as well as more rural areas where Italian immigrants were setting up coal mining communities. Their victims - mostly wealthy Italians who were more apt to be spooked by the reputation of the Black Hand - would be threatened and kidnapped, and ordered to pay a sum of money. Ransom and extortion letters were often “signed” with an etching of, that’s right, a black hand, and murder was a casual and frequent occurrence.
The group's actitivities were heavily covered by the press and led to a swell of anti-Italian hysteria in America. Petrosino put together a team of all-Italian policemen - their identities kept secret from the public - to rid their community and its new home of this scourge from the old country. (To share any more would, I suspect, spoil the hell out of the planned film.) The reign of the Black Hand lasted about 15 years, when La Mano Nera - characterized by Petrosino as "primitive country robbers transplanted into cities" - gave way to La Cosa Nostra.
It’s fertile cinematic territory right out of the gate; a story about Americans swept up in a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria is also, if you haven’t noticed, pretty damn timely. Is it too much to hope that DiCaprio sees this story as a reunion project for him and director Martin Scorsese? Let’s hope so anyway.