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The Eye of Lenzi: "Gang War in Milan" and "Spasmo"

Two wide and handsome Italian thrillers of the 1970s.

Gang War in Milan

Director: Umberto Lenzi
Cast: Antonio Sabàto, Philippe Leroy
Distributor: RaroVideo
Year: 1973
US release date: 2014-05-20


Director: Umberto Lenzi
Cast: Suzy Kendall, Robert Hoffmann
Distributor: Scorpion Releasing
Year: 1974
US release date: 2015-07-07

Now on Blu-ray are gorgeous HD transfers of two 1970s Italian genre films from director Umberto Lenzi. He made Gang War in Milan and Spasmo one after the other, but in a logical world he'd have made them in reverse order, for Spasmo is the last of his string of early '70s giallos while Gang War is the first of ten gangster/cop thrillers he'd make before the end of the decade.

Gang War in Milan focuses on Salvatore Cangemi (Antonio Sabàto), a handsome, high-living pimp from Sicily who, while supposedly running a wholesale produce business, markets a different kind of flesh entirely. He's suddenly muscled in on by a dapper Frenchman (Philippe Leroy) who wants to partner with the whores to distribute heroin. The gang war is on, with the prostitutes' bodies as the battlefield. The police are a virtual non-factor as the story's parable of unrestrained capitalism winds toward cynical if credible "tragedy" about the replaceability of bosses and the transactional nature of love and sex.

Antonio Casagrande, Carla Romanelli and the ultra-glamorous Marissa Mell are also in the picture, but the real star is art director Sergio Palmieri, whose brilliantly colorful sets look as sleek and fabulous as money in the widescreen, zoom-happy photography of Lamberto Caimi. Carlo Rustichelli's muscular yet mournful tough-guy music is also catchy. The disc offers the preferable Italian version with subtitles or the dubbed English version. There's a minor introduction and an informative booklet.

Spasmo is one of the more unusual and disorienting examples of the giallo--and that's saying something, for this type of Italian thriller is known for baffling plotlines amid graphic violence. For much of its running time, this movie gives the impression of being that unlikely beast, a giallo without a corpse, for it keeps faking us out. That would be going too far, of course, so it does remedy the issue.

One of the first fake corpses is Barbara (Suzy Kendall of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage ), discovered sprawled face-down on a beach by the rich and studly Christian (Robert Hoffmann) and his instantly forgotten girlfriend (Maria Pia Conte). The teasing Barbara leads him down a metaphorical rabbit-hole of bizarre, uncanny and menacing events that will have you doubting the sanity of the scriptwriters much as Christian begins to doubt his own.

Some scenes take place on a yacht owned by Barbara's possessive friend (Mario Erpichini), some in a motel plagued by a bug-eyed intruder (Adolfo Lastretti), and some in a beautiful oceanside house where two mysterious people (Monica Monet, Guido Alberti) materialize amid squawking "birds of prey" as yet another odd voyeur (Franco Silva) spies on them. Christian's brother (Ivan Rassimov) is also seen, somehow projecting miraculously shot and edited home movies in the same style as the overall film.

Not for nothing does the title evoke Psycho, and one of the movie's narrative ingenuities (spoiler!) is that witnessed deaths are fake while unseen deaths are true. This is a dark tale indeed, and unlike many examples of the genre, the story finally almost makes sense, more or less. Ennio Morricone's music and the probing widescreen photography by Antonio Millán add to Lenzi's effective directing style. Lenzi's interviewed taking credit for the originality and explaining the sickness of the wealthy.

The Blu-ray offers the movie with an English soundtrack (the only way to hear Kendall's voice) or an Italian track whose subtitles are transcriptions of the English track instead of direct translations of the Italian. You can also choose to watch the movie "unfixed" or without as much "digital noise reduction", which some people feel alters the image by reducing too much grain. Our random sampling detected no striking difference.


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