Monthly Archives: January 2016

Scarface (1983)


*. My goodness, what’s with that technopop disco music? Is it Giorgio Moroder? Why, as a matter of fact, Yes it is.
*. I want to start with Moroder because he sort of embodies the paradox of this film. Today, mention of his name usually gives rise to looks of embarrassment, not because he was without talent but because the music he was most identified with, that synth-disco sound I mentioned, along with early-days-of-MTV pop tunes, is so out of favour. Personally, I don’t mind Moroder’s score, but songs like “Rush, Rush” and “Push It to the Limit” make me laugh. And the even bigger hit movie Moroder scored in 1983, Flashdance, well . . . who watches that today with a straight face?
*. In another thirty years perhaps this music will be fashionable again. I don’t know. The thing is, despite this musical time stamp, Scarface, for all of its ’80s excess, its gold chains and unbuttoned shirts swept aside to reveal chest hair (remember that?) has not dated, even among young people. I have a friend in her mid-20s who has “Say hello to my lee-yul fren'” as the ring tone on her cellphone. I was shocked she’d even heard of this movie. And it’s among a music subculture, hip-hop, that the movie has been most widely adopted.


*. This is the paradox: How has a movie so deeply rooted in, so about the now much derided fashion and style of its time not dated more than this? Why is it not seen as the gangster equivalent of Showgirls or Valley of the Dolls or . . . Flashdance? Why, instead, is it today seen as more relevant, more contemporary, than ever?
*. In answering that, I’ll start by taking a step back and ask what Scarface is about. What it’s about is excess. “Nothing exceeds like excess,” Elvira says, in one of her only attempts at wit. Everything about Tony’s proto-gangsta lifestyle is larger than life, from his ridiculous Caddy (which appals Elvira), to his big fucking gun, to that mountain of cocaine on his desk at the end (the film’s signature, iconic image).
*. It was a movie made without any sense of restraint, deliberately. Oliver Stone, for example, was upset because in his script he had a death squad of four or five guys sent by the cartel to kill Tony. This was turned into an invading army, and a climactic battle scene where Tony is torn apart by bullets but keeps standing asking for more (“I take your fucking bullets!”) before finally receiving his Wagnerian stab in the back.
*. And yet Stone had to admit that it all worked in the end. The gratuitous, over-the-top, “operatic” climax (Tony’s home even looks like an opera set) was the perfect culmination for all that had gone before.


*. This is important because if excess is what Scarface is all about, then we know it hasn’t gone out of style. Is it any coincidence that a year later the TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by Robin Leach, debuted? And that by today’s standards those luxurious homes seem like mere cottages? As wealth has continued to pile up and concentrate within a tighter circles of elites, the 0.01 percent, what began as near parody has become our reality. Critics today speak of our new “gilded age,” and doesn’t Scarface provide a pattern for its opulence, corruption, lack of taste, and decadence?


*. Decadence? It’s hard to mistake that note in Gina’s appearance at the end as avenger-in-underwear. Shades of Caligula! This was a note that could only be subtly struck in the 1932 version, but it’s something Hawks and Hecht both wanted to include. What they envisioned was an American crime family as a modern-day version of the Borgias. Though I don’t recall ever hearing anything about Al Capone having any such feelings for his sister. So where exactly did all this come from? Somebody’s tortured psyche.


*. But is Tony really interested in Gina in that way? Pauline Kael: “the whole feeling of the movie is limp. This may be the only action picture that turns into an allegory of impotence.”
*. Not quite, Pauline. As is made explicit in a deleted scene where Tony mockingly comes on to Manny in the refugee camp while backed up by a group of transvestites, Tony (at least initially) may be less impotent than repressed. Just keeping to the homoerotic, it’s worth noting too that in the opening interrogation scene Tony is questioned about being gay. A form question, perhaps, but Pacino does have an unmistakeable feminine vibe in this film. Is it his walk? Note his exaggerated hand gestures, and how he rolls when walking beside Manny (whose name indicates his gender role in the relationship).


*. Does he feel sexual desire for Elvira? I don’t sense any. He wants a trophy wife who will fill a glass case with trophy babies. Later she will simply disappear from his life, and the film.
*. So then we’re left to ponder whether Tony really does want to fuck his sister. In his decline it seems as though the drugs may have had their accustomed effect on his libido and performance, but as I mentioned in my notes on White Heat, it’s Cody Jarrett in that film who is more obviously an impotent gangster. I don’t think Tony wants to fuck Gina so much as he wants to be her (and fuck Manny). Is that reading too much into things? It seems clear to me, though I’ll admit it’s not explicit, at least in the final cut.
*. The Platinum Edition DVD has a feature you can turn on that keeps a running Scarface Scorecard of how many rounds of ammuntion are blown off and how many f-bombs (the word “fuck”) are dropped. In case you haven’t seen it, the final tally is 226 f-bombs and 2 049 rounds of ammo.


*. On Wikipedia, however, the number of f-bombs is listed as 207. Which doesn’t even place it in the top 50 in a list of films using that word the most. Although in 1983 it would have been number one. More recent movies dominate the list. As of this writing, the first four films are specialty items. The Wolf of Wall Street comes in at number five.
*. At the time Pacino was the big name. Looking back on it, could you have imagined a more dynamic duo than De Palma and Stone, in David Thomson’s words, “two self-indulgent would-be hoodlums”? There was no way putting those two together was going to result in a dull movie, at least not in 1983.


*. It’s dedicated to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht. Would they be proud? I think they would be. Though I imagine they would be as disappointed as everyone else, at the time and ever since, with the one element that seems to have been cut and paste from the original and dropped in here: Tony’s visits to his Mama. Even the exterior of Mama Montana’s bungalow looks like an old set from the studio back lot. De Palma could have shot those scenes in black and white and they would not have been more out of place.
*. Mama is played by Miriam Colon, who was four years older than Pacino, and looks it. But then Tony appears to have been born a man of a certain age.
*. In my notes on the original I mentioned the obvious nod to Gatsby in the scene between Tony and Poppy and all of his beautiful shirts. I think there’s another Gatsby reference here in Tony’s taking Elvira’s hat and asking her if she’d kiss him if he wore it (the allusion is to The Great Gatsby‘s epigraph). Indeed Tony’s motto — that first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the woman — is just Gatsbyism distilled to its essence (and Gatsby was a bootlegger, we should remember). This is no doubt another reason for the movie’s longevity, as Gatsby is the essential romantic American novel.


*. What happens to Elvira? It bothers some people that she just disappears, and when Ken Tucker (in an interview for his book Scarface Nation) asked Oliver Stone about her he admitted he’d forgotten if he’d ever written any explanation for her disappearance. This is, however, also in keeping with the original, where Tony just makes a phone call to a seemingly disengaged Poppy at the end but dies with his sister.
*. Tucker: “The goddamn thing is indestructible — it remains as exhilaratingly funny, vulgar, gaudy, violent, surprising, and angrily unruly as it was the first time it unspooled in 1983.” So is it a great movie? Well, it’s great trash, even classic trash, and its vision of excess has lasted for over thirty years now with no diminishment of its impact or energy, which is an amazing feat. Everything about it is too much — the camerawork, the score, the performances, the sets — and yet it somehow never falls over the line into being camp. We recognize and accept its absurdity. Why? Surely not because we believe in Tony Montana but because we want to believe in him. Yes, we’re on his side. We all want what’s coming to us, which is the world and everything in it. And if Tony is left abandoned and alone, what of it? He don’t need nobody. Every man dies alone.


The Long Good Friday (1980)


*. The title was just an expedient they fell on when the original working title, The Paddy Factor, was felt to be giving too much of the plot away. I don’t love The Long Good Friday. It has an echo of Chandler, but it builds the expectation that it’s all going to take place over the course of a single day, which doesn’t happen. The actual time scheme seems a bit plastic, and it’s not clear how long after Good Friday the later events are occurring.
*. In the nineteenth century there was a genre of social-problem fiction that came to be known as the “Condition-of-England” novel. I can’t help thinking of this as a Condition-of-England” film. Yes, it’s a gangster movie, but it’s really about where England was at in 1979, and where it was going, what its hopes for the future were.


*. That future was less of the “special relationship” with the U.S., who were revealed as corrupt, hypocritical, and opportunistic carpetbaggers, and more toward dreams of making it rich off of a rising Europe. Through all these diplomatic and economic manouverings, England would retain its status as a proud beacon of independence and culture. All the Corporation has to do is keep the peace and let capital do its transformative work.
*. This dreams crumples in the face of a blast from the past as the Irish troubles once again rear their head. Poor Harold Shand, just a bit ahead of his time in all his plans. If he’d only waited.
*. Is it a complex plot? I don’t think so. In fact it seems quite straightforward to me. What makes it seem complex is the mysterious opening, and the way these events are never entirely explained. But there’s a difference between something being complicated and something simple that’s just left unclear.


*. Bob Hoskins is great as Harold, mainly because he’s not your typical (by which I guess I mean U.S.-style) gangster. He’s someone who is honestly trying hard to make it as a legitimate businessman, someone a little bit embarrassed by his past. He’s perhaps not as clever as he should be, but you really feel he’s a decent fellow, the type who doesn’t doesn’t deal in drugs and doesn’t like the wet work of violence one bit. He also has charm, which is something that’s not always recognized as being necessary for a gang leader. And he is an Englishman. He remains an Englishman.


*. Helen Mirren, on the other hand, is a strong actress who gets more credit than she’s due here, as this is a very minor role. She wanted Victoria to be something more than the usual gangster moll, and she is, but that’s not setting the bar very high. In only a couple of scenes is she given anything much to do.
*. It’s a striking score by Francis Monkman, of the kind that people either love or hate. I loved how it had a horror-movie texture at the beginning, almost like something by Goblin. I thought this fit the mood of mystery, suspense, and seemingly random violence. It also fits the theme of a place in flux, searching for an identity.
*. Indeed, I liked a lot about the start of the movie. The way it begins with a montage of silent sequences, the decoding of which will be much delayed. The way the audience immediately identifies with Harold, who has just come back from being away and so is, like them, out of the loop, in need of being brought up to speed. The creepy music.
*. It’s the end I don’t care for. Really, Harold’s Easter Massacre of the Irish gang is ridiculous. Blowing them all away in a glass box at a crowded sporting event? What sense did that make? And I wasn’t really buying that he’d be so easily captured either.
*. The long take of Harold’s face in the back seat does make up for a lot. It’s one of those great movie moments, with an actor’s face being left alone to do all the work of expressing a mind dramatically shifting through stages of calculation and self-awareness. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
*. It was also the first part of the film to be shot and it’s always a good thing when you have your end in front of you as something to work toward. I only wish they’d managed to do it all as one unbroken shot instead of making cuts back to the kidnappers in the front (including a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan holding the gun). But I think there might have been problems with film running out in the magazines for the particular camera they were using.
*. A strange little gangster movie, not entirely successful but I still prefer it to other eccentric British examples of the genre like Sexy Beast, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Parts of it are indelible, thanks mainly to Hoskins and that unique quality of artsy ’70s cinematography, which is beautiful without being slick. Then the money finally came and you couldn’t make movies that looked like this any more. The new gangsters were bankers and foreign oligarchs, and the movies were headed to Toontown.


Rulers of the City (1976)


*. In the 1970s it was common for second-tier (I’m being charitable) American actors to star in low-budget movies made in Italy. What was there not to like? The work was hardly onerous, and you got top billing. Also: Italy!
*. So I don’t blame Jack Palance for doing nothing more here than showing up and getting a paycheque. Palance had the hard-ass villain part down pat (did he ever play anything else?) and simply stands around for most of this movie with a cigarette holder. He even makes an early exit, getting killed, in a perfunctory manner, at the very beginning of the final shootout.
*. That said, Palance may be the best thing about this very run-of-the-mill poliziottesco (a bastard Italian word for crime film). The director Fernando Di Leo had done better work in the genre (see my notes on his Milieu Trilogy: Caliber 9, The Italian Connection, and The Boss). Here he has a simple and quite worthless story to tell about a young aspiring hood who rips off Palance’s “Scarface,” forcing a showdown.


*. The opening is pure Leone, and effectively so. But after this it all becomes very silly and I had a strong sense that Di Leo didn’t care very much. As with Palance, I think he was mailing it in. On the DVD there’s a “making of” featurette where other members of the cast and crew reminisce about how he shut things down every day at four o’clock because he didn’t want to work at night.
*. Mister Scarface is actually a better title. Palance is hardly the “boss of the city,” given that he can’t locate Tony, who is cruising around town in a red dune buggy, or catch the old man who is calling him from a payphone right outside his office.
*. There are a couple of curious touches. One of these is the way Tony is imagined as a kung-fu warrior, complete with killer, chop-socky sound effects. Another, even more bizarre, is the unmistakeable gay vibe to the relationship between Tony and his silent blonde friend Rick, who are overseen by what appears to be a queen-ish figure named Napoli. There’s something going on here that Di Leo must have been aware of, though whether he had a point or was just introducing another light comic element to a movie that already had enough, I don’t know.
*. Otherwise this is an unexceptional, lightweight effort with nothing much to recommend it.


Mean Streets (1973)


*. There’s a parlour game among critical types that asks what evidence an artist’s early work provides for what was to come. Mean Streets was well received, most notably by Pauline Kael, who called it “a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking.” David Thomson writes that “Its impact was extraordinary, and a group of filmmakers rose on its panache and its biting immediacy.”
*. Which I guess is true, but doesn’t that just reflect its place as one of the representative early works of the New Hollywood? Or comment on the talent involved? What is there in this movie itself that held forth promise of greatness?
*. Does the question Thomson goes on to ask matter: “Who would have guessed, in 1973 . . . that this great director might be incapable of doing any other kind of movie?”
*. Or here’s another way of looking at it. I think comparisons to Rocky (1976) are unavoidable: from the dirty, low-budget look of the ghetto to the aspiring hood with the “special” girlfriend and her difficult sibling (some of Johnny Boy’s lines directly recall Paulie’s, like his crying “What are you doin’ for me?”). And isn’t Rocky a better picture? Be honest.
*. Certainly most of the Scorsese style is announced: the voiceovers; the heavy use of diegetic music “needle-dropped” into scenes and giving the sense of a lurid contemporary opera; the constantly moving camera, not like a fly on a wall but one buzzing around, following the action voyeuristically; the script punctuated with “fucks”; the abrupt editing; the nods to other movies (there are several movie clips distributed throughout, and Charlie even has a Point Blank poster up in his room); the climactic use of montage; the sudden eruptions of geysers of bloody and cathartic violence.
*. Another Scorsese hallmark is the treatment of Teresa, who is the usual virgin/whore. Again and again Scorsese’s women would be objects of desire, mothers of the hero’s children, then punching bags. And not for the first or the last time in a gangster film would we see the bond between the male hoodlums destroy a more conventional heterosocial relationship.
*. Influential reviewers like Kael and Roger Ebert really ate up the Catholic angle. I think it’s trite and overdone. I’d like to say Scorsese presents such a vision of the mean streets as the streets hardly understand, but I don’t see where he does.
*. On his DVD commentary Scorsese says he regards Mean Streets now as less a film than an act of self-expression or self-representation. I think it’s interesting that he saw it as being so intensely autobiographical, since Scorsese was never a gangster. He further remarks that it may not represent the way he was living but the way he would have liked to have lived, which I think is significant.
*. The camerawork isn’t all about its own slick movement. It’s used in an expressive way. The famous long shot in Goodfellas where Henry Hill goes into the nightlclub, meant to show how smoothly access is granted to a wise guy in the gangster world, is foreshadowed here in the greasy, slow-motion entry of Charlie and others into the bar. At other times the camera stalks the characters so intently it seems part of the action. Look at how it chases after the fighters all around the pool hall. You can’t not be conscious of the cameraman’s presence in such a scene.
*. The ending is a bit oblique. Apparently we are meant to believe that Charlie has exiled himself from the mob. But I don’t think that’s clear. Michael seems more out of line, taking business into his own hands.
*. This isn’t a favourite movie of mine and I don’t come back to it very often. There is little real plot, the moral is muddy, and I don’t think any of the business with Teresa works that well. I think, building on what Scorsese himself has said about it, that it was meant as a calling card movie, showcasing some hot new talent. That it did so much to define (and limit?) that talent in such a specific way is something to wonder at.


The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)


*. The novel, by George V. Higgins, was a game changer for the crime genre. It was almost all dialogue, and the dialogue was both realistic and smart.
*. Peter Yates wanted Higgins to get a credit for the screenplay but couldn’t swing it. Most of what is good about the screenplay is taken directly from the book. I think there is one improvement, in making Dillon into the rat. In the book it’s Scalise’s girlfriend Wanda who drops the dime, but in the process of abridgement that is necessary in any adaptation from page to screen I think it was wise to cut this part out and double down on Dillon’s treachery.
*. As a side note, from the production stills it’s clear that they did film this part of the novel (there are shots of Scalise beating Wanda and her then speaking to the police), so the decision to cut her part out of the story was obviously a late one.
*. On the other side of the ledger, I think introducing the character of Eddie’s wife is a mistake. I can understand the desire to make him into a more rounded, sympathetic figure, but these scenes play false, particularly in the dialogue, which seems unnatural and forced. I also thought it too bad they couldn’t include the final line from Higgins’s book, about how the players come and go but the game always stays the same. As it stands, we end with an ambiguous note. Did Foley consciously bring about Dillon’s hit on Doyle?


*. Pauline Kael thought it should have been better, and suspected that it needed an American director who better understood the milieu. I wonder who she might have had in mind. Not the obvious name, Scorsese, because Mean Streets only came out later the same year and it would be another thirty years before Scorsese went to Boston to do The Departed.
*. I’m not sure I agree with Kael’s point anyway. I think Yates has a good feel for the material, and indeed he remarks on the DVD commentary how at home he felt in Boston. Furthermore, we know the Brits could do this kind of thing. What with the period, the score, the downbeat ending, and the use of real urban working-class locations, there’s a real Get Carter vibe to this film. And later Mike Newell would do fine at the helm of Donnie Brasco.
*. Yates’s predilection for realism (he remarks on the commentary that “my style is to make things look absolutely realistic” through a blend of “reality and simplicity”) is well suited for this kind of story. There’s always been a pull in the crime genre toward docudrama and the newsreel. The Naked City (1948) may be the archetype. That’s not to say such movies are without style — far from it — but that they have an air of understatement, process, and workmanship. They only want to seem without artifice. Yates didn’t even want to use a handheld camera in any scenes because he thought of it as a distracting, gimmicky trick.


*. It’s a movie about cops and robbers, but more than that it’s a movie about professionals. Nobody in the movie, with the possible exception of Jackie Brown, ever gets excited or worked up about anything, ever shouts or gets angry. The heist scenes in particular are conducted in near total silence. Does this make them dull? A bit. Roger Ebert found it ironic that the scenes that just have two people talking are more exciting than the kidnappings and robberies.
*. That understatement is also characteristic of Robert Mitchum. Mitchum is an actor I’ve always had trouble warming to, but I really like him here. In particular, I like something that Yates draws attention to in his commentary: the way he uses his normally sleepy eyes. These are eyes that aren’t just watching and following the man he’s talking to, but are actively working, constantly being used to add emphasis or make a point. Given that so many of his scenes are done sitting down behind a table he has to use what he has to make the lines work, and he certainly does.
*. With such a big, undemonstrative man you notice these small things. In the scene with Foley at the diner note his eyes and also the way he’s always shaking and nodding his head and leaning his body toward Foley in a plaintive manner. I think it’s because I’m so unused to seeing Mitchum’s eyes, or seeing him using his large body in a dramatic way, that all of this really impressed me.
*. I think it was Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death who first made the point that Americans could never elect a bald president again. How often do we even see bald actors any more (I’m not including those who make a virtue out of necessity and shave their heads). Nothing says failure quite like Peter Boyle’s straggly fringe. It’s just too bad Yates could never match it up with a shot of the gold dome of the Boston State House. What a rhyme that would have been.


*. Looking at this movie today though, perhaps the most amazing thing is how good Richard Jordan (Dave Foley) and Steven Keats (Jackie Brown) are. They even take scenes away from the vets. And yet neither actor went on to do much else, and then died young (Jordan of cancer, Keats by suicide).
*. It was Keats’s film debut, and he was cast because they thought he looked like Mick Jagger. And, as Yates comments, “Mick Jagger was absolutely right for the part.” Oh no he wasn’t. Hadn’t Yates seen Performance?


*. As I noted above, the Foley character is darkly ambiguous. Does he set Eddie up? Is he just making up the bit about how tough the D.A. in New Hampshire is in order to screw more out of him? And most of all, why does he lead Eddie on in their final scene together before slapping him down with the headline in the newspaper that kills any chance Eddie has at cutting a deal? That seems like pointless, even counterproductive, cruelty.


*. Is this film where Tarantino picked up the name Jackie Brown? Probably not, though the essay by Kent Jones included in the Criterion DVD release makes the suggestion. The film Jackie Brown was based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, where the heroine is Jackie Burke. When Tarantino changed her ethnicity he changed her name (clever, huh?). Also, I think the only time the name of Keats’s character is given is in the credits. Which means that if you hadn’t read Higgins’s novel the name might never have registered.
*. It would be hard to make a movie with such a depressing, fatalistic ending today. Even at the time Yates was consciously trying to avoid making a “Hollywood movie.” For one thing, we expect our heroes to be masters of their fate. But Eddie is a pawn in the larger game between Uncle and The Man, being manipulated by forces beyond his control or understanding. It’s fitting that he’s murdered in his sleep.


*. I don’t know if it gets noticed as much in a movie like this, but the wardrobe is terrific. I like Jackie Brown’s worn jeans, faded around the outline of his wallet. And I really love that thin, dirty sports jacket Eddie is wearing. It fits right in with that greasy diner he goes to meet Foley in.
*. Yates: “In those days you never used to go to an ice hockey game and there wasn’t a fight. They all loved it.” And Yates was a fan. Overall, this is one of the better handlings I’ve seen of actors watching a sporting event. Sticking them up in the nosebleed section, so far away from the action, probably helped a lot with the filming.
*. Though well received critically, this has never been a hugely popular film, and still isn’t today even with its Criterion release. There are some obvious reasons why. Yates acknowledges it was made “maybe in slight opposition to The Godfather . . . because it’s completely the other side of being a gangster. It’s the side of reality, the side of un-glamour.” This isn’t the gangster life that people want to see, and it’s especially not how they want their movies to end. In avoiding making another “Hollywood movie” Yates made something unique, but doomed the film commercially. One can’t help thinking of what a Scorsese or a Tarantino would have done with the same material, and then one realizes how narrow a vision of reality or personal expression our movies today, even our best movies, actually have.


The Boss (1973)


*. This is the third part of Fernando Di Leo’s Milieu Trilogy but has nothing to do with the first two films (Caliber 9 and The Italian Connection). It’s not even set in Milan but Palermo, which is quite a cultural leap.
*. Seeing as this is the final part of a trilogy you may be surprised that it ends with a title saying Continua (“to be continued”). Apparently this didn’t mean anything, as there was no sequel.
*. They could have called it The Godfather, which is all The Boss means in this context. This might tell you something about how marginal a genre the mafia film was at the time of Coppola’s movie.
*. I think it’s the worst of the three films, mainly because it doesn’t hold together as well. Lanzetta (Henry Silva) spends a lot of time sitting in his tacky apartment (a poorly decorated, oversize set), answering the phone and balling the nymphomaniac drug addict girl he inherits from his previous boss.
*. Speaking of which, Rina (played by Antonia Santilli) is a ridiculous part, seemingly included just for exploitation value. Di Leo apparently conceived of her as being a modern woman, a free spirit. She may be, but she’s out of place here and the movie spends too much time with her given that she has no essential role to play.


*. “I’m going soft for a nymphomaniac drug addict! While out there is the wrath of God!” Hm. That does sounds like a problem. Can’t help you with that one.
*. The action scenes are all quite bad. The grenade launcher used by Lanzetta to take out the porn theatre at the beginning is laughable, as is the white car that splits in half and then turns into a fireball when he drives through it.
*. Damn, even the morgues are stylish in Italy. Does it make sense that they’d be so gleaming and white? Probably not, but they do look good.
*. There’s a nice rock score, but I don’t think it goes with the action that well. Essentially this is a movie about a chess game, full of political maneuvering.
*. The one thing I found interesting in it is the theme of the revenge of the flunkies, the nobodies, the paesani. All these second bananas deciding that now is the time to move up the ladder. It’s a revolution!
*. Cocchi self-identifies as a revolutionary, what with his rhetoric of being the hungry wolf about to feast on the spoiled graduate of Romance linguistics. I love how his henchman doesn’t have a clue what this “bullshit” means, but that doesn’t undercut Cocchi’s point, at least entirely.
*. In some ways it’s one of the most nihilistic gangster movies ever made. Even in the home of the mafia, “family” (be it biological or professional) means nothing. Loyalty means nothing. Ethical codes mean nothing. God isn’t interested in what’s happening — and the priests are as corrupt as the police anyway.
*. No, instead of all that there’s just a struggle red in tooth and claw to become the new boss — who will be the same as the old boss, we can be sure.


The Italian Connection (1972)


*. This film is the second part of Fernando Di Leo’s Milieu Trilogy, three films that don’t have a lot in common aside from the fact that they’re all gangster movies. Mario Adorf, who is quite good, is carried over from Caliber 9, though he’s playing a different part.
*. I was actually surprised they didn’t try and work in more Milan locations. Aside from the canals there’s little here to distinguish the setting. And Milan is a city that lends itself to such treatment.
*. Of course the interiors just scream style. Italian films, even when they’re hopelessly dated, always look good in an attention-seeking kind of way. It’s more than just clothes. There are a lot of those crazy postmodern sculptures in Di Leo and Argento and other Italian filmmakers from this period.


*. As with Caliber 9, this is a pretty straightforward crime film with a couple of noteworthy elements. The first is the pairing of Henry Silva and Woody Strode as Dave and Frank, the American hitmen sent to clean up the mess in Milan. Apparently they may have been the inspiration for Travolta and Jackson in Pulp Fiction (Tarantino is a Di Leo fan). They make an interesting odd couple, though not all that threatening. Silva in particular comes off as a bit lightweight.
*. The other part of the movie worth mentioning is the outstanding chase scene that has Adorf pursuing the guy who has run down his wife and daughter. This really is impressive, with the two cars racing alongside a canal and then culminating in a brilliant stunt where Adorf’s character, a pimp named Luca Canali, hangs on to the grill of a van and head butts his way through the windshield. Amazing! And it’s actually set up well when we see Luca head-butting a couple of guys, and even a wall  phone, earlier. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone head butt a phone before.


*. I have to quote from an interview with Di Leo where he was asked how he came up with the idea for the stunt where Luca smashes his head through the windshield. Here’s his modest answer: “Let me try and explain it logically. It’s like asking Michelangelo why he painted [sic] the Virgin Mary as a woman of the same age as Jesus Christ in the Pietà. Mother and son of the same age . . . a stroke of genius.”
*. For what it’s worth, Michelangelo’s own explanation for making Mary look the same age as her son is because he thought that women who remain pure don’t age as much.
*. Back to the movie. I think it was also a really interesting idea to make the hero such a sleazy type. Luca is basically just a pimp, and everyone else seems to despise him. In particular they call out his sexuality. His girlfriend/whore says he has no balls. The two thugs sent to hold him at the lumber yard call him a queer. The mechanic considers himself to be superior, since being a mechanic is “a real man’s job.” And yet despite all these sneers Luca always handles himself pretty well.


*. Then again, aside from Dave and Frank he doesn’t seem to be up against a lot of A-list talent. Don Vito, who is himself a low-level godfather whose reach exceeds his grasp, considers all his flunkies to be worthless idiots, and in the event he is proven right. There’s one (unintentionally?) hilarious bit of dialogue when one of his captains tells him that he shouldn’t be too upset at the way Luca killed a pair of gang members because one of them was only given the job “because his mom begged me to give him work.” Now what are they going to tell her?
*. Unlike Caliber 9, the finale is disappointing. Di Leo tries hard to sell that showdown in the auto junkyard but it doesn’t work and seems really silly. Nevertheless, it ends the movie on a loud note and I’ll bet audiences at the time weren’t complaining. These weren’t big movies, but they did punch above their weight.


Caliber 9 (1972)


*. Sometimes, all it takes is a little thing.
*. Up until its final moments, Caliber 9 is not a movie to take much note of. A spaghetti noir with some modish interiors and interesting locations (it was shot in Milan, so you get to see the cathedral and train station a couple of times, which is nice). A killer score by Luis Bacalov that ascends wonderfully. Barbara Bouchet as a go-go dancer in a beaded bikini . . .
*. Good stuff, but nothing that special. Then we get to the end and Rocco (Mario Adorf) sees Ugo (Gastone Moschi) enter the police station with a small handbag. And he drops his eyes to the handbag and then looks up at Ugo. And he knows. And we can see he knows. And we know that Ugo knows he knows. And they say nothing to each other, at least immediately, and their faces give nothing away.
*. I would happily sit through any movie for a moment like this. The noisy stuff, culminating in an absurd gunfight where one man with a revolver takes out an entire villa of baddies, is generic Eurocrime. I couldn’t care less. But how those actors sell that ending! You have to take your hat off to them.


*. There are other points of interest to flag. From the get-go we know we’re in a place that’s sticky with religion. The façade of the cathedral looms over the opening money hand-off. Ugo is invited to sit on the right side of Rocco — just like, Rocco tells him, Christ the son. The fascist and communist cops argue over world views that see everyone or no one as inherently guilty. The Americano has a huge cross mounted on his desk. Appeals are made for forgiveness.
*. A lot of this is ironic, of course — Fernando di Leo was not a religious man himself — but it can only be invoked because we’re embedded in a culture where all these references, symbols, and arguments still mean something and are part of a common consciousness. A consciousness quite alien to Milan’s more contemporary sense of style.



*. Is Bouchet’s apartment too modern? The fact that it’s all black and white, and that her dress matches the decor, I can take. But that bedside light! Words fail me.


*. In 1972 Beirut was indeed a luxurious, cosmopolitan tourist destination you could imagine a gangster wanting to escape to. Now it’s a tragedy.
*. I wonder if Dario Argento borrowed the business of Luca’s head being slammed into the furniture for re-use in Deep Red. It’s certainly a striking act of violence.
*. Giallo noir? The POV shots are suggestive, as are all the red herrings we’re fed concerning the identity of the mysterious killer. And I for one will confess my surprise at the ending. Didn’t see it coming.
*. The dubbing, as always, is awful. Was it because of this that so much Italian cinema of the time emphasized close-ups? Faces had to do the acting. And the faces here are terrific. Adorf is perfectly untrustworthy with his pencil moustache and greasy locks. And Moschi? A stone-faced billiard ball to be knocked about the table until all the other balls are pocketed. But is he playing a deeper game?


*. Some people are surprised and confused by the ending. Rocco switches allegiances with rapid intensity. But I find his adaptability a psychologically astute observation on Di Leo’s part. Rocco is a flunky. That’s all he is. He can’t think or act for himself. And he’s already said to Ugo that if Ugo has a plan to fuck over the Americano then “he’s a god.” So when he sees that plan come to fruition and the boss is dead, well . . . long live the boss!
*. This also explains his fury at Luca. Who is this pretty-boy punk in the grand order of things? He’s upsetting the organization’s hierarchy, and Rocco is nothing if not an organization man, someone who has paid his dues.
*. Overall I think this is a very good little gangster movie that teases us with excellence; a pure genre work that nevertheless has moments that are unique and unforgettable.