I heard you paint houses: The book behind Scorsese’s groundbreaking film The Irishman

Koyna Mitra and Gourishankar R. 8th September, 2020


Closing of one of the most mysterious and chilling cases of organised crime (Source: eBooks.com)


The memoir, I Heard You Paint Houses, has the potential to be a true-crime thriller. This book by the former investigator and homicide prosecutor, Charles Brandt, tells the story of Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran. Martin Scorsese directed the film adaptation of the same, having titled it The Irishman. In the book and film, the mobster gives a deathbed confession to the author, revealing to have worked as a hitman and hustler for the Bufalino crime family of America and being involved in the disappearance of the legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Jimmy Hoffa, the former leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was at one time considered to be as important as the President of the United States. He disappeared mysteriously on the 30th of July, 1975. With the recorded confessions of Frank Sheeran, Charles Brandt closes the case of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

Even though it eventually leads to the mysterious disappearance of Hoffa, the book is Frank Sheeran’s story. He takes the readers through his childhood—one of growing up in an Irish family in Philadelphia and of his 411 days of combat in the Second World War which turned him into the cold-blooded hitman for the Bufalino crime family.

Frank Sheeran’s confessions of having been involved in the disappearance of Hoffa have long been disputed by experts for not being authentic. A lot of polarisation involves the phrase, “I heard you paint houses”, which Sheeran claims were the first words Hoffa said to him when they first met over the phone.

To ‘paint a house’ is to kill a man, where the paint is the blood that splatters on the floors and walls. Some have challenged the authenticity of this quote, arguing that they couldn’t find it anywhere outside of Brandt’s book. In the film The Irishman, we are first introduced to Hoffa (Al Pacino), in this scene when he calls Sheeran (DeNiro) for the first time.

Although the film doesn’t show in detail Sheeran’s days as a combat soldier during the Second World War, there is a part where he tells Russell Bufalino how he forced German soldiers to dig their own grave and later shot them. This is meant to prove his ability to kill in cold blood. Sheeran claims that his career as a hitman is rooted in his four years of combat duty, having participated in various massacres, executions, and war crimes.

The book and the film both prove the fact that Hoffa wasn’t a fan of the Kennedy family. According to the media, when John F. Kennedy was elected and made Robert Kennedy the Attorney General of the State is when most of Hoffa’s problems started.

The ‘Get Hoffa Squad’ sprang into action. Hoffa would ultimately be convicted for attempted bribery, but not before JFK was assassinated in 1963. In the film, Hoffa hears about the shooting in a diner but returns to his ice cream sundae shortly after. In real life, Hoffa was supposedly in a restaurant when the news broke, prompting him to stand in a chair and cheer.


Both the book and the movie are wrapped around a single event—the wedding of Bill Buffalino’s daughter. Buffalino was the lawyer of Hoffa and was Russell’s cousin. This event took place in Detroit, the same place where Hoffa was last seen, and therefore put several members of the mob in the suspect list for the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

The authenticity of the book has been disputed by experts, and yet Brandt’s powerful investigative prowess paired with Sheeran’s beautiful skill of storytelling makes it a very interesting and enrapturing read. With regard to the movie, it kept true to the book as much as was possible.


(Sources: The New York Times, Penguin Random House, The Irishman by Martin Scorsese, I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt)

Edited by Varun Vyas Hebbalalu

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