In the 1970’s, the Italian cinema went through something of a late-stage renascence. Masters like Vittorio De Sica were still working, but you had new blood like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci handling the art-house circuit, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci leading with the Gialos, and Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci making their spaghetti westerns. The was a fruitful field of cinema – but like any culture that wasn’t born of America, many of their best films were mostly screened by their country, and that which came over was often horribly dubbed and marketed as schlock.
Though a number of Fernando Di Leo films made their way stateside – partly because of B stars like Henry Silva, Woody Strode and Jack Palance – it took the attentions of people like Quentin Tarantino and interested parties to help get some of his films on DVD stateside with the correct audio and aspect ratios in – what appear to be – uncut versions. Four of his best known works have been put together in a box set by Raro Video: Caliber 9, The Italian Connection, The Boss (aka Wipeout!), and Rulers of the City (aka Mr. Scarface). The collection is a great discovery for film fans that may have never seen these imperfect but also auteur driven pieces. My review of the Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection follows after the jump.
In the supplements for Caliber 9 (the film that seems to have made the least impact in America) Di Leo talks about the influence of Le Samourai’s Jean-Pierre Melville. Of all the films in this collection, the innate fatalism of Melville casts its greatest cloud over this one. Gastone Moschin plays Ugo, a newly paroled petty thief who everyone thinks has stashed $300,000, and all parties are looking for their moment to take it from him. The only person he feels is on his side is his ex-girlfriend and stripper Nelly (Barbara Bouchet).
But where Melville like to talk with his camera, Di Leo doesn’t have that sort of discipline, and though he gets to a suitably existentially bleak conclusion, he lacks Melville’s formal precision, or his love of gesture. This also feels like a formative work, one that showcases the director’s limitations, but also shows a talent emerging (at least to these eyes). The later three films feel more like complete statements, this feels like the garage band version – someone practicing on cover songs.
The Italian Connection comes on much stronger. The title implies something of a homage to The French Connection, but it’s not really there in terms of content or approach other than the motivation. Woody Strode and Henry Silva are set to Italy to take out pimp Luca Canali (Mario Adorf) because he supposedly hijacked some heroin. They are told to do so by their big boss, but Canali is a tough guy who sees that the hunt for him is just a ruse. This also raises interesting questions in the intentions of sending Americans over to Italy, as both Silva and Strode are such bruisers that they will kill higher-ups to get their job done, and the delay it takes bosses like Don Vito Tressoldi (Adolfo Celi) can become fatal.
With this title there is something inherently existential in the crisis of the film’s violence. Adorf’s Canali knows he’s being punished for nothing – and so he resembles bruiser version of K in The Trial – but fights to keep breathing by hook or by crook, while the threat posed by the Americans is (until the end) not so much supernatural by seemingly unavoidable. There are very interesting undercurrents to these works, but Di Leo also functions as a showman and these films are entertaining partly because of the attractive women (all of these films feature nightclubs, most feature nudity), but mostly because of a non-nonsense style that’s not cheap but doesn’t dress itself up. This genre has been loaded with stylists from Raoul Walsh to Melville to Takeshi Kitano (and with Martin Scorsese in between), but Di Leo’s approach is very straightforward until Rulers of the City, which seems to partly exist as a parody of the genre. Fernando Di Leo’s career bloomed as a writer under Sergio Leone – he co-wrote Fistful of Dollars – but he doesn’t seem to have the same poetic visual sense. That doesn’t matter when the stories are this engrossing.
The Boss may be the highlight of the set. It stars Henry Silva, an actor who mostly got smaller parts in Hollywood for his odd looks. Often called on to play ethnic (often Mexican or Asian), he usually was the heavy. Di Leo gave him one of his rare starring roles as Nick Lanzetta in The Boss, where he starts the film aiming a rocket launcher at a family of gangsters about to watch porn. He was asked to do it by his head Don Corrasco (Richard Conte), which starts off a bitter rivalry where the remaining family members kidnap Rina D’Aniello (Antonia Santilli), the daughter of a powerful underling to the Don. Rina doesn’t seem to mind the kidnapping, but her father is willing to pay any price to get her back – a price too high for the Don, and so Lanzetta becomes middle-man, kills most of both parties, and ends up taking Rina into his apartment (another theme of Di Leo’s work: leads with porn all over their walls). You couldn’t say that Lanzetta and Rina fall in love – he calls her good in the sack – but his machinations in the middle get so great that eventually an empire or two will crumble, but Nick doesn’t want to end up holding the bag.
The film suggests a sequel that never happened, but it’s a great role for Silva and one of the most fun crime movies imaginable. Starting with the rocket launchers, the film sets a tone of mischievous violence and derangement in line with the Italian way of the time, but also a sick sense of humor and a real sense of back and forth machinations. Again, Di Leo worked on Fistful of Dollars, and this functions as a remake. The ending is also perfect, sequel or no.
Rulers of the City feels a little more flippant, but that may also have to do with the tone of the piece. The film starts with Jack Palance’s “Scarface” Manzari killing a man, then smiling at a child who picks up a gun. The gun has no bullets, and so Palance beats the kid. This is all in slow motion, and is likely the most visually stunning sequence of the four films in the set.
Cut to fifteen years later, and Scarface is a big player, while Tony (Harry Baer) is a debt collector. But Tony’s a great fighter – and smart to boot. When Rick (Al Cliver), one of Scarface’s underlings, gets taken at a casino, Scarface writes a check for three million to be cashed later. He also kicks Rick out of his gang. Of course no one in Tony’s operation has the balls to cash the check, so Tony takes the check and takes in Rick, and the two sting Manzari for ten million. Which leads to all out war.
With the way the film starts, it’s interesting how long it takes to reveal who was the child in the opening sequence, and it’s equally ballsy who that person is. The plan to take down Scarface seems haphazard at best – but that’s part of the charm of this film, which doesn’t seem to take itself seriously but also ends with about thirty minutes of crazy intense action sequences. The whole point was revenge, but revenge comes across as an afterthought. It’s a red meat film that’s thoroughly entertaining.
All the film in the set by Raro Video are in widescreen, and most are in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), though Rules of the City is non-anamorphic. All are also presented in both Italian and English 2.0 stereo. Each disc comes with supplements, with each disc coming with a director biography and filmography, and DVD credits. Di Leo passed away in 2003, so that the disc feature his comments is a god send. Caliber 9 comes with a documentary (30 min.) featuring the director and Italian critics, cast and crew (including Barbara Bouchet), “Fernando Di Leo: The Genesis of the Genre” (39 min.) with comments from Di Leo and cast and crew members, and then the documentary “Scerbanenco Noir” (26 min.) with comments from writers on Giorgio Scerbanenco, who authored the book on which the film is based. Also included is a photo gallery with commentary from star Gastone Moschin (4 min.)
The Italian Connection offers the documentary “The Roots of the Mafia” (21 min.) with comments from Di Leo and cast and crew and critics, and a photo gallery (2 min.). The Boss features the documentary “Stories About the Mafia” (23 min.), while Rules of the City offers the documentary “Violent City” (16 min.)