'Cinema' --That's Italian for Cinema

by Michael Barrett

4 April 2011

From Federico Fellini'sThe Clowns (1970) 

Crime and the City

Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection is a box of four films directed by this fellow Di Leo. These pictures are usually categorized in an Italian genre called poliziotteschi, but that word refers most stringently to cop movies inspired by Dirty Harry and Serpico, while Di Leo’s are mob movies of the early-‘70s.

In other words, these are the sort of violent gangster pictures that played American drive-ins in English-dubbed versions, and here they are gathered in a deluxe box with a booklet and cover copy that says “Di Leo’s films demonstrate the degradation of the working classes and how the mafia corrupted them.” You’ve got to love it, or at least I do. It goes on: “Though he slipped out of public consciousness after his death in 2003, his works have been revived and shown at the Tate Modern in London and The Venice Film Festival where Quentin Tarantino admitted that Di Leo truly inspired him to make gangster films.”

These films are offered in both their Italian soundtracks and the dubbed English tracks. Either choice is valid because Italian movies were shot silent and dubbed later. In the case of the Italian actors, they spoke their lines in Italian on camera and then dubbed themselves. Imported American stars spoke their lines in English and often dubbed themselves in the English versions but were dubbed by others in the Italian versions. So it’s often the case that the most complete or authentic performance of the main star can be found in the English version. Italians were very professional dubbers and it’s usually not a distraction.

cover art

Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection

Director: Fernando Di Leo
Cast: Various

US DVD: 1 Mar 2011

When some DVD companies offer both tracks, their optional English subtitles are merely transcriptions of the English track, but RaroVideo doesn’t cheat. RaroVideo actually translates the Italian dialogue, which is generally equivalent to the English dialogue, without being the same. I find it informative to watch with the English soundtrack while having the subtitles on in order to notice the intriguing differences. It’s like experiencing two alternative universes at once.

Let’s take a closer look at this bullet-riddled quartet. Caliber 9 opens with a sleekly picturesque, nearly wordless sequence about a cache of money being delivered from one courier to another. When it turns out to be worthless paper, there’s a festival of over-the-top violence as the couriers are rounded up. The money is never recovered, and when our anti-hero (Gaston Moschin) is released from prison a few years later, he finds himself dogged by his criminal bosses as the only man who could have stolen the cash.

The whole movie is the tension of this guy negotiating his way through the criminals and the cops, aided only by his hitman friend (Philippe Leroy) and a girlfriend (Barbara Bouchet), who lives in a fabulous black and white art-deco pad. Mario Adorf is the primary goon, and their boss is played by Lionel Stander. Interestingly, his character is called L’Americano in the Italian version and The Mikado in the English version, so the English doesn’t make a point of identifying him as American. A couple of cops have sociological arguments about the politics of Italy’s North/South divide and the fact that the main criminal is supported by the wealthy who use him to transfer money out of the country. A retired mafia don remarks ruefully that there’s no mafia in the north, just gangs of opportunistic criminals.

The whole is curious mix of sociology and brooding not-muchness until the last act, which returns to over-the-top bloodshed in a manner that’s rather surprising and spectacular, within the general grainy grittiness of this low-budget item. Italian genres often ripped off American hits, but it’s important to realize that this 1972 movie resembles The Godfather not at all and may disappoint those looking for anything besides a trudge through a low-rent milieu. Loosely inspired by an Italian writer named Giorgio Scerbanenco, this film feels closer to something like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, only with more firepower.

Another 1972 film is La Mala Ordina, which means “the evil order” or colloquially “the mafia order”. The American title, The Italian Connection, is a meaningless riff on The French Connection. It stars the vivid Adorf, the previous film’s antagonist. In both films he’s lumpen, sweaty, and crude, with swashes of fierce animation. He seems as blunt as an axe handle, yet it’s wielded with subtlety as he transforms from a careless pimp, not quite with a heart of gold but with certain vulnerabilities, to a desperate, angry man who doesn’t know why the universe has suddenly made him the most wanted slob in town. He’s at his scariest during one of the most exciting chase scenes I’ve ever watched; it beats French Connection all to hell.

The movie opens with a long scene of exposition in a ritzy setting. Cyril Cusack explains the assignment to two hitmen (Henry Silva and Woody Strode), whom Tarantino admits as models for the more characterful John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. The backstory is complicated and turns out to be irrevelant, since they don’t really know what’s going on anyway. These American hitmen, dispatched to Italy to lord it over everyone, dominate the first and last acts, with Adorf carrying most of the film. It’s interesting how these movies claim the American mafia dominates the old country, while American mafia movies often imply the reverse. In either incarnation, it’s always some big guy arriving from over the ocean.

This is a brutal film in which almost all innocence is massacred. Di Leo’s politics come through in a gaggle of free-loving hippies, including Francesca Romana Coluzzi as a politically committed chick in outrageous blue afro (great intro via tracking shot in a nightclub) who serves as the movie’s truth-teller and secret heart. The hippies’ anarchy is more radical and healthy than the gangster’s organized chaos, and their pad is papered with posters for Godardian visual moments. In a telling moment, this gang offers Adorf his only reliable shelter from a hostile world. In another telling line, one of them thinks he looks like a cop. The guys in this thing look like pit bulls who got dragged by a bus, but the women are displays of gorgeosity, including Luciana Paluzzi, Sylvia Koscina, and Femi Benussi.

As in a game of round robin, one star from the last movie shows up in the next, and now it’s the “marble-faced” Silva who shows up in The Boss (1973), the final chapter in what’s been called Di Leo’s “milieu trilogy”. He’s the impassive hitman who uses a bazooka on a roomful of bosses watching porn in a screening room. Richard Conte plays the local boss in Palermo who relies on Silva until it becomes politic to get rid of him.

This film has the highest and goriest body count, yet it’s also the slowest and talkiest, and the point of all the conversation is that nobody means anything they say. People spend their time schmoozing and swearing loyalty, then turn around and do the same with the next person for the opposite goal. Cops and bureaucrats discuss their own webs of corruption, and there’s even a cameo by the Catholic church. According to the making-of, the movie ruffled some local feathers by using a few real names and references.

The whole theme of the film is the fatal politics of an organization that allows only the pretense of loyalty or truth, which in this case is more interesting to think about than sit through. (The English dubbing on this one is a bit problematic and one may do better to watch the Italian dub.) Di Leo has an ear for rationalization and hypocrisy as he constructs dialectical scenes that imply a whole social fabric, and this vision partly obstructs the typical goals of an action film. The final scene ends with “Continua” (“to be continued”) rather than “Fine” (“end”), not because there’s a sequel but to convey that the cycle never stops as the overarching powers remain in control.

Di Leo includes a glimpse of free-loving youth again in the person of a kidnapped daughter who feels no love for her mob-boss daddy and has no problem enjoying the attentions of her kidnappers after she’s over the initial fear and humiliation. As they trigger a mob war, they lecture her with blitheringly unconscious irony about how student protesters go too far and create chaos. Drugs are also discussed as some criminals admit they have no problem in trafficking but object to having anything available locally.

The fourth film, Rulers of the City (aka Mister Scarface) is the most straightforward action movie in the box, and perhaps the most purely satisfying as entertainment due to being less heartless and more on the side of rough justice. However, you can tell it’s made by the same sensibility as the other films, with their view of betrayal as the most essential element of any organization. And once again, there are nightclubs where women dance half-naked in front of tilting cameras before falling into bed with multiple partners.

Di Leo graces this film with the most self-consciously stylish opening, as the pre-credits sequence uses slow-motion and almost experimental music by Luis Bacalov to set up the revenge motif. The credits are relatively sleek and glossy. The ending, set appropriately in a slaughterhouse, is as exciting as can be and also greatly underlined by Bacalov’s percussive, metronomic score. In between, the story is a lean, tight series of surprises and setpieces with at least one beautifully played piece of misdirection.

Jack Palance is the star name here, while most of the film focuses on the point of view of a young handsome debt collector (Harry Baer) who wants to succeed in business and doesn’t understand it’s a business where success is doomed. He befriends a big blond hunk (Al Cliver) to help him out of a tight situation.

Early scenes in a seedy, makeshift gambling den epitomize both the criminal milieu and the philosophy. One aging clown remarks that if he had any money, he wouldn’t be losing it here, and the fact that Baer’s character doesn’t understand why he lost a hand of poker while he’s not looking tells us much about his fitness for this system. He dreams of Brazil, which is plastered on his walls, and where his brother is supposedly rich. It sounds like a pipe dream, but perhaps he’s not as entrenched in this malavita as the previous protagonists, and that might save him if anything will.

These films’ interest in crime as an essentially social phenomenon marks the influence of Francesco Rosi’s ‘60s classics Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City (both released on DVD by Criterion), and Di Leo acknowledges this in an interview in the booklet. He also acknowledges the influence of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime films and admits (correctly) they’re better than his, but he also has a sense of his own value. He admires John Huston, and we can assume The Asphalt Jungle is especially relevant.

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