When you see someone like Appellate Judge Tom Becker, you'd better tip your hat—or, in Kansas, tip a cow.
Our review of Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection (Blu-ray), published March 19th, 2012, is also available.
Even a rosebud is enough to kill someone if you push it deep enough down his throat.
Not being as cool as Quentin Tarantino, I'd never heard of Fernando Di Leo until I received this set for review. I really enjoy '70s-era Italian crime films, including—or as well as, if you're a genre purist—giallo, but unless the director is a "name," like Argento or Fulci, I usually don't know much about them.
Di Leo (1932-2003) might not be a "name" in the U.S., but he should be. He started out as a writer, working mainly in the classic "spaghetti western" genre, contributing to classics like A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. He directed over 20 films, mostly in the '70s, mostly crime films and thrillers—pulpy, brutal, stylish crime operas, often featuring American actors (Jack Palance, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Silva, Richard Conte, Joe Dallasandro) or international "names" (Ursula Andress, James Mason, Klaus Kinski, Valentina Cortese). In addition to their pulpy stories, extravagant violence, and tricky plots, they contained strong doses of social commentary. Like many European productions at the time, they were shot without synch sound and later dubbed for worldwide release. Di Leo's output dwindled in the '80s, and his last film—Killer vs. Killer—was released in 1985.
Di Leo's films apparently did well in Italy, though how they did in the U.S., I can't say. I imagine the ones that were shown here played at drive-ins and lower-tier theaters, the way Corman's films did. Some of them turned up on VHS, which is how Tarantino happened upon them, years before he made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, both of which were heavily influenced by Di Leo.
This set from Raro Video, Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection, was released in Europe in 2004. It features four of Di Leo's early '70s gangster films. Three of these—Caliber 9, The Italian Connection, and The Boss—make up his "Milieu Trilogy." The fourth film, Rulers of the City, is close enough stylistically and thematically that Di Leo himself considered it an extension of the trilogy.
Facts of the Case
Caliber 9 (1972)
The gangster he's believed to have ripped off—"the Americano" (Lionel Stander, Hart to Hart)—takes Ugo back into the fold to keep an eye on him. Ugo is to work with Rocco (Mario Adorf, The Tin Drum), a violent footsoldier who'd like nothing more than slice Ugo, but has been ordered not to do so.
The gangsters and the police are just waiting for Ugo to retrieve the money they're sure he's got stashed, but the hulking Ugo insists they're wrong, even offering to try to find out who really did steal the cash. Ugo reiterates his innocence even to those he trusts most: his beautiful, go-go dancer girlfriend, Nelly (Barbara Bouchet, Black Belly of the Tarantula), and his loyal friend Chino (Philippe Leroy, La Femme Nikita), an assassin who's known to be an honorable man.
Unfortunately for Ugo, not everyone takes him at his word, and he finds himself in the midst of double and triple crosses before a bloody showdown reveals the truth.
The Italian Connection (1972)
New York hitmen Dave (Henry Silva, Love and Bullets) and Frank (Woody Strode, The Violent Breed) are dispatched to Milan to take out Canali—in a spectacular way, so as to make a point that no one messes with the gangs of New York. The Italian gang is disturbed by this for a number of reasons and decides to take out Canali themselves, against the orders of the New York boss.
But Canali's no criminal mastermind, and of course, he's just a fall guy. He can barely make ends meet with his pimping, and he's mostly concerned with his ex-wife (Sylvia Koscina, Lisa and the Devil) and their sickly child.
Canali is shocked when he discovers that hit men are after him, but he's resourceful. What should have been a simple job for the foreign hitmen—and an even simpler one for the locals—is suddenly threatening to turn the Milan underworld on its head.
The Boss (1973)
While established bosses Don D'Aniello (Claudio Nicastro, How to Kill a Judge), who raised Lanzetta like a son, and Don Corrasco (Richard Conte, The Godfather) are pleased, Attardi associate Cocchi (Pier Paolo Capponi, The Cat o' Nine Tales) is apoplectic. He vows to put together a gang of street thugs whose nihilistic brutality will bring down the comparatively staid "men of honor" who've long controlled organized crime.
Lanzetta and the older dons are shocked at Cocchi's first move: the kidnapping of Don D'Aniello's beloved college-student daughter, Rina (Antonia Santilli). D'Aniello will do anything to get his daughter back from the fiends, even paying an exorbitant ransom, against the advice of Carrasco.
But Cocchi's people aren't interested in ransom; they want blood. And only Lanzetta seems to stand between them and the gentleman gangsters he's worked for his whole life.
But even Lanzetta can't control the full-on war that's brewing…or the shifting allegiances of its players.
Rulers of the City (1976)
One night, big-shot gangster "Scarface" Manzari (Jack Palance, Shane) comes into a gambling den run by Luigi and cashes a check for three-million lira—which he has no intention of making good on. On his way out, his ever-present goons beat up Rick (Al Cliver, The Beyond), an associate of Manzari's who'd just got cheated at a card game.
Tony befriends the injured Rick, and together, they devise a scheme to take Manzari for a few bucks. Aided by aging low-level gangster Napoli (Vittorio Caprioli, General della Rovere), they bilk Scarface for far more than the value of his bad check—and in doing so, incur the wrath of not only Manzari's gang, but Luigi's, as well.
"When you see a man like Ugo Piazza, you tip your hat!"
Caliber 9 opens with a scene of stunning brutality. Three people—including a woman—who, intentionally or otherwise, bungle a mob money drop, are hunted down, beaten and tortured, then killed with dynamite. It's a riveting introduction to this violent, complex, and brilliantly realized crime thriller.
While it's chockfull of shootings, chases, double crosses, and some eye-opening twists, Caliber 9 aims, successfully, to be something more than just a great gangster adventure. Di Leo's story is of honor and betrayal, of survival and changing times; it's both bitter and poignant, and packs far more emotional heft than most of its genre.
Loyalty is the spiritual center of this film, perhaps the only real virtue these murderous thugs treasure—and treasure it they do. It's evidenced in the cunning yet primitive Rocco's refusal to harm Ugo out of respect to the Americano, and his swift turn around when he realizes the machinations of what's gone on around him; and movingly, in the dedication of Ugo's friend Chino to Don Vincenzo (Ivo Garrani, Waterloo), an aged and now powerless gangster who sadly recalls the days of the real Mafia and real "honor." The final quarter of the film—which begins with an audacious and beautifully composed shootout at an afternoon party—turns the concepts of loyalty and honor on their heads, packing a solid, cynical wallop. The ending is intense, horrifying, and surprisingly beautiful.
This film is a masterpiece, exhilarating and haunting, an action movie elevated to the level of great tragedy.
Di Leo's direction is pitch-perfect, offering striking scenes of violence coupled with moments so subtle and nuanced, that the film invites—really, demands—a second viewing. The score, by Luis Bacalov (Il Postino) echoes the type of music Ennio Morricone was writing for crime and giallo films at the time, but Bacalov's work is a hint more atmospheric, well-capturing the downbeat nature of the film. The editing is razor sharp, and the camerawork solid. The acting is very good, with particularly strong turns from Leroy and the hulking Moschin, and an unforgettable one from Adorf; plus, Bouchet looks gorgeous in a beaded bikini.
The disc sports a good-looking widescreen transfer with great colors and solid contrast, as well as Dolby mono tracks in English and Italian. It also contains the best array of supplements in the set. "Fernando Di Leo: The Genesis of the Genre" ("Fernando Di Leo: La Morale del Genere") is a comprehensive piece on the director that features interviews with Di Leo, clips and archival footage, and interviews with people who knew and worked with him. It's a persuasive argument for getting more of the director's work in circulation. Also featured are two other documentaries, one a look back at the film and another on Italian noir writer Giorgio Scerbanenco, who wrote the stories that were the basis for Caliber 9 and The Italian Connection. There's also a photo gallery narrated by Gaston Moschin, as well as a text bio and filmography of the director.
When Godfather signs your contract…there's no place in the world you can hide!
While it's not a masterpiece like Caliber 9, The Italian Connection (a.k.a., Manhunt) is a terrific romp, mixing colorful characters, wicked twists, plenty of sex, and over-the-top violence with enough humanity to keep it from veering into parody. Di Leo creates a gripping crime melodrama and at the same time, slyly satirizes the genre.
Mario Adorf, so good as a crazed hood in Caliber 9, is even better here as Canali, who emerges as the central figure of The Italian Connection. Canali starts out as a buffoonish pimp, but we see that he's really just a likable schlub who finds himself the object of a manhunt that he can't figure out. Adorf is funny, endearing—particularly in his scenes with his beautiful ex-wife and child—and, as the hitmen and the local mob close in on him, compelling as a man driven by vengeance and survival.
Di Leo offers up an amusing fish-out-of-water scenario for the U.S. hitmen—one black, the other white, Tarantino's inspiration for the hitmen in Pulp Fiction—and an intriguing portrait of the mob-ruled subculture of petty criminals, whores, and other tangentially connected "types." Crosses and double crosses abound, the action scenes are fantastic, and the finale is phenomenal.
The culture clash between the old-world Milan gangsters and the "new breed" from the U.S. is more complex than the usual "strangers in a strange land" scenario. The rather clumsy gangsters in Milan look quaint and moronic next to the sleek yet coldly savage Americans, but neither group has an easy time tracking down the earthy Canali. What both the American and Italian gangsters lack is honor—something that we see Canali, his working-class acquaintances, and the prostitutes frequently exhibit. When these people, who trust and respect the local gangsters, realize that not only Canali, but their own faith in the mobsters has been betrayed, it introduces a level of treachery that's shocking to them.
Like Caliber 9, this one features a strong transfer and good audio. For supplements, there's a documentary, "The Roots of the Mafia," as well as a photo gallery and a text bio and filmography for Di Leo.
"Who's higher up than me?"
On its own terms, The Boss (a.k.a. Wipeout!) is a solid gangster flick with the requisite amount of violence, sex, and intrigue. Di Leo combines the sensibilities of the first two parts of his trilogy—loyalty, honor, trust, vengeance, and betrayal—but ends up giving us a film that, while well done by most standards, seems less inspired than its predecessors.
In The Boss, Di Leo shifts the focus away from street-level gangsters to the upper echelons of the mob. The double-crosses fly as fast as the bullets, and the director gives us a sexy '70s party girl as part of the package. Silva makes for a fine, tight-lipped anti-hero, and suspense is kept at a high level.
Unlike Caliber 9 and The Italian Connection, The Boss wasn't based on a Scerbanenco story, and it is set in Sicily rather than Milan. It' also more formulaic than Caliber 9 and The Italian Connection, too close in spirit to the dozens of other gangster films that appeared in the wake of The Godfather. The opening massacre is a good idea that loses some of its impact due to some poor effects (obvious dummies littering the porn viewing room), and while there's plenty of bloodshed and intrigue, the deliriously over-the-top set pieces that marked the other films are in short supply. The Boss is a more serious film than the other two, which makes its B-movie roots more difficult to embrace. On top of all that, it ends with a "To Be Continued" coda, suggesting that The Boss Part 2 was in the works. It wasn't. It's still a very good film, it just suffers a bit in comparison to its predecessors.
The transfer on this film is perhaps the weakest on the set. Parts of the print are unstable, and some scenes lack the English dub track, meaning they were sourced from a different print. Besides the text bio and filmography, this disc contains a featurette, "Stories of the Mafia," which is a look at the film and the Italian crime genre. On the copy I received, this featurette has serious synch problems, with words delayed by several seconds; since all the participants speak Italian (like the supplements on all the discs), it's distracting but not fatal, since the subtitles are in the right place.
A fast-paced, slightly goofy entry in the fast-paced, frequently goofy Italian crime genre, Rulers of the City (a.k.a. Mr. Scarface) features an appropriately creepy performance from Palance, a charming performance by Baer, some ridiculous plotting, and enough mayhem to make it all worthwhile.
The film opens with a terrifically nasty sequence in which Palance's Manzari murders an associate in front of the man's young son. This, of course, sets up the events that happen later in the film.
This little plot device also points up what for some will be the film's major flaw and for others, the earmark of its greatness: from a logical standpoint, Rulers of the City makes no sense. Everyone behaves in a patently ridiculous way, from the guy who delivers a carload of dead assassins to the maniac who hired them—and stands outside said maniac's headquarters, taunting him on a pay phone—to pretty much anyone who agrees to a little one-on-one time with a known psychopath.
But the delirious idiocy of the characters gives license for Di Leo to create some wildly entertaining set pieces, including a foot chase through a busy midday street and an epic endgame shootout.
Interestingly, there's also a weird, '70s-Eurotrash homoerotic vibe going on here. Caprioli plays Napoli like an aging queen, fussy, brash, and campy. He's more den mother to Tony and Rick than mentor. And Tony and Rick's fast-friendship seems to cross the line of "buddyhood" as well.
Tony is viewed as weaker by the other men in Luigi's crew, and one even refers to him as a "faggot," noting that Tony is the only guy not to partake of the favors of a local "easy" girl. While Tony seems casually interested in women, he really perks up when he spies the handsome, blond Rick. When Rick is beaten by Manzari's men, Tony introduces himself and offers him a place to stay. We next see Rick in Tony's bed (fully dressed), where he'd apparently spent the night. Later, the guys bring home a group of women for sex, and Di Leo cuts to them all asleep in that same bed, having clearly romped as a group. Add to that an oddly romantic ending, and you have to wonder if Di Leo, who'd tried unsuccessfully to make a film about homosexuality called "Il Pederasta," and Baer, who'd been best friends with Fassbinder, mightn't have been tweaking the genre just a tad.
Besides the requisite text bio and filmography, the sole extra on this disc is a pretty cool "making of," "Citta Violenta," that includes archival footage of Di Leo.
Each film comes in its own slimline case. The set includes a booklet featuring an interview with Di Leo. It should be noted that while some Di Leo films are available on discount labels, they are often cut versions with poor tech. The films on this set are the full-length Italian versions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Strip away the subtext, ironies, and sociopolitical statements, and you've got wildly inventive and gleefully manic action films, unapologetic lunacy firing on all barrels. Entire underworld organizations are taken down in audacious, one- and two-man swoops. Bit players are felled by a single, casual shot, while the leads survive an entire fusillade—until it's their time to go, of course, and then, any weapon is lethal. Fight scenes feature audio effects that could have been lifted from a kung-fu movie, and the amount of physical punishment the characters take is ludicrous.
Also, it should be noted that these are "guy movies" from a different era and are wildly non-PC. Women are good for sex and occasionally slapping around, and gay guys are flaming stereotypes.
Most of Di Leo's films that are available are Region 2; it would be great if this set inspires a Di Leo renaissance and more Region 1 (U.S. format) releases. It should.
Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection is an outstanding set with four terrific films and a fine collection of supplements. Absolutely recommended.
Magnifico. Non colpevole.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice, Caliber 9
Perp Profile, Caliber 9
Studio: Raro Video
Distinguishing Marks, Caliber 9
Scales of Justice, The Italian Connection
Perp Profile, The Italian Connection
Studio: Raro Video
Distinguishing Marks, The Italian Connection
Scales of Justice, The Boss
Perp Profile, The Boss
Studio: Raro Video
Distinguishing Marks, The Boss
Scales of Justice, Rulers Of The City
Perp Profile, Rulers Of The City
Studio: Raro Video
Distinguishing Marks, Rulers Of The City
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.