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The prolific screenwriter and director Fernando Di Leo rode two separate waves of popular Italian filmmaking, the Spaghetti westerns of the '60s and the Euro-crime "poliziotteschi" thrillers of the 1970s. His screenplay credits include a number of well-known western titles (Johnny Yuma; Navajo Joe), and he claims uncredited story contributions to Sergio Leone's first two Clint Eastwood 'Dollars' films. After directing a number of controversial pictures about wild youth, Di Leo hit his stride with a string of violent crime pictures, several of which were big hits on the continent. The new RaroVideo label's Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection contains DVDs of the director's popular "Milieu Trilogy" and a fourth thriller about carefree crooks ripping off the Mafia.
Italian gangster films in the postwar period were often realistic examinations of the development of organized crime. The stories of degradation and misery fit in well with the Italian Neorealist movement, until socially committed directors like Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano) reached even deeper for political significance. When Italian pictures found international success in the 'sixties they increasingly looked to American models, and with the loosening of censorship restrictions crime stories were able to include more adult content. Along with much of the popular European cinema of the time, Fernando Di Leo's successes of the early 1970s excited audiences with excesses of violence and nudity.
Di Leo was a believer in strong storylines, a major asset to the first Trilogy title Milano calibro 9 (1972), also known as Caliber 9. Di Leo reworked ideas from pulp crime writer Giorgio Scerbanenco to suit his carefully chosen international cast.
Grim-faced Ugo Piazza (former light comedian Gastone Moschin, playing against type) is pressured by the Mob, which is convinced he is hiding a fortune in drug loot. The big boss (Lionel Stander) assigns the persistent enforcer Rocco (Mario Adorf) to the job of harassing Ugo. Pal Chino (Phillippe Leroy) helps Ugo resist while singer Nelly (Barbara Bouchet) offers comfort in his time of need. Ugo and Chino finally strike back in a bloody shootout that leaves almost the entire cast dead or dying.
Caliber 9 successfully exploits its own limitations. Artlessly photographed and directed with an eye to chaotic action, the film nevertheless fulfills its promise of violent confrontations and crooked double-crosses. Di Leo's strength is his capable cast. The monosyllabic Moschin takes a number of beatings when nobody believes his claim that he didn't steal the missing money. The extrovert Mario Adorf provides an entertaining contrast to tough and laconic Moschin, while the sober Philippe Leroy simply stays faithful to his best pal. The story delivers an exciting car chase and treats viewers to the spectacle of the beautiful Barbara Bouchet go-go dancing in a skimpy beaded dress.
In RaroVideo's taped interviews Fernando Di Leo considers his work equal to the output of Jean-Pierre Melville and Don Siegel, which is certainly wishful thinking. Di Leo also considers himself to be politically committed, a concern reflected in superfluous mentions of Vietnam and student protests scenes in dialogue between a pair of police officials (Luigi Pistilli, Frank Wolff). We would have liked to learn more about the interesting Gastone Moschin, who would soon be tapped to play Don Fanucci in Coppola's Godfather: Part II.
With its bigger budget, Di Leo's La mala ordina (1972) is an even more convoluted gangland tale. The thriller had a second life on video as The Italian Connection and a half-dozen other titles. Using the same basic ingredients -- absurdly ritualistic hit men, ruthless Mafia intrigues, over-sexed gun molls -- the director maintains a constant flow of narrative surprises.
The entertaining Mario Adorf is back, this time as Luca Canali, a pimp caught in a power play between the mid-level Mafiosi Don Vito (Adolfo Celi) and the lofty syndicate executive Corso (Cyril Cusack). Aware that Don Vito has been stealing drug profits, Corso sends American hit men Dave and Frank (Henry Silva & Woody Strode) after the lowly Luca, hoping to flush Don Vito's treachery into the open. Hotel concierge Eva (Luciana Paluzzi) takes the Yankee killers on a tour of strip clubs and bordellos and watches as Dave is mobbed by prostitutes on the street. Poor Luca struggles desperately to avoid being shot, but stops running when Don Vito's men murder his wife (Sylva Koscina) and daughter. While Luca retaliates, the Americans wait for the opportunity to catch Don Vito unawares. The gory finale takes place in an auto junkyard.
A reported favorite of grindhouse guru Quentin Tarantino, The Italian Connection has everything a Euro-crime fan could want: wild chases, shoot-outs and sex. The picture is ripe with nude go-go dancers and see-through blouses. Henry Silva and Woody Strode walk tall and hit hard. Director Di Leo joked that Henry Silva can muster only three static facial expressions, and critic David Cairns observed that a Silva character "once killed a man using only his cheekbones." Ex- Bond villainess Luciana Paluzzi seems amused by the Americans, and asks the mostly silent Strode why he's in Italy: "Were you too old to be butchered in Vietnam?" Also rather out of place is Irishman Cyril Cusack as a Mafia Don, dubbed into Italian.
Silva and Strode are absent for much of the film, leaving the capable Mario Adorf to carry the bulk of the story. Adorf's Luca claims to be non-violent but takes an active role in the action. Luca's key fighting tool is the head butt, which he demonstrates by smashing through the windshield of a moving truck in the film's bravura car chase sequence. Pop singer Renato Zero has a small non-singing part as a pimp, and Ulli Lommel can be spotted on a disco dance floor.
The third title in the Milieu Trilogy is 1973's Il boss, a.k.a. The Boss and Wipeout! Henry Silva is back along with film noir icon Richard Conte, fresh from his comeback role in The Godfather. Yet another tale of a syndicate power struggle, The Boss opts for a more exploitative and unsavory storyline. Di Leo angled for more controversy by using the names of real syndicate members, and ridiculing a Catholic official's claim that "there is no Mafia in Italy."
Ice-cold killer Nick Lanzetta (Silva) blows away a score of high-ranking Mafia bosses by firing rifle grenades into their screening of a pornographic film. Don D'Aniello (Claudio Nicastro) thinks that this coup will consolidate his power, but surviving opponent Cocchi (Pier Paolo Capponi) retaliates by kidnapping D'Aniello's college-age daughter Rina (Antonia Santilli). Nick reports to top ranking syndicate executive Don Carrasco (Richard Conte) and uses an informer to kill more of Cocchi's men. When D'Aniello disobeys Carrasco's orders and tries to ransom Rina, Nick kills him too. Finally freeing the girl, Nick discovers that she enjoyed being raped and has become a nymphomaniac. He keeps her in his apartment as his willing lover. More murders ensue as Nick and an associate conspire to kill all the syndicate bosses, and take over the city.
The Boss lacks the colorful characters of the earlier pictures, and adds an unpleasant sex angle to demonstrate the inhumanity of the Mob. The central attraction is the kidnap and rape of Rina D'Aniello. We're accustomed to seeing kidnap victims threatened, but these mobsters strip Rina and then casually tell her what they're going to do with her. Feminists won't be pleased when the young woman enjoys being ravished; she says that it's her way of protesting her father's chosen lifestyle. By the time Nick comes to the rescue Rina has no desire beyond sex. Offered up as just another genre thrill, this material comes off as pure exploitation.
An unrewarding subplot involving a corrupt police commissioner (Gianni Garko) is covered with several boring expository scenes in police headquarters. The film spends altogether too much time watching the police try to figure out who killed who, while Nick Lanzetta rearranges the bodies of his victims and disposes of others in an incinerator. Unlike the other pictures in the Trilogy, The Boss lacks a charismatic central character. Henry Silva brings little depth to the grim assassin killing his way to the top of the mob. Curiously, the show ends with an unexplained "to be continued" title.
I padroni della cittá (1976) adopts a much lighter tone, resembling modern American buddy pictures on the order of Bad Boys. The screenplay by Di Leo and Peter Berling introduces a comedy element, the sex angle is restricted to a couple of scenes in a strip club and the body count stays low until the final confrontation. The title for this release is Rulers of the City but most references to the American version use Mister Scarface. A likeable collection of fights, car chases and shootouts, Rulers of the City is said to have remained a popular item on Italian TV.
Young Tony (Harry Baer) is a low-level debt collector for bookie Luigi (Edmund Purdom of The Egyptian). He tools around in his beach buggy and must fight his fellow collectors to keep his self-respect. One night the feared crime boss Scarface (Jack Palance) loses three million Lire at Luigi's club, and Tony offers to collect the debt to prove his worth. Knowing that Scarface will never willingly part with the money, Tony instead teams with Ric (Al Cliver) to scam Scarface's lawyer out of ten million by posing as tax investigators. Scarface takes swift revenge on Luigi and puts out a kill order for Tony and his accomplice. Joined by the comical Vincenzo Napoli (Vittorio Caprioli), Tony and Ric wipe out a team of Scarface's killers and then organize an elaborate ambush at an abandoned complex of slaughterhouses.
Director and co-screenwriter Di Leo keeps much of Rulers of the City's action on a modest scale. One of the best scenes is a foot-chase through a downtown area, with one of the bad guys collared by an irate traffic cop. The amiable Tony only wants to get rich fast, and we like his carefree attitude. By ripping off Scarface he puts everybody in jeopardy, even his own boss Luigi. Jack Palance is quite good as the menacing Scarface, and figures in a flashback that explains Ric's desire for revenge, as in a Sergio Leone movie. Di Leo's essentially escapist film never concerns itself with moral conflicts.
Di Leo salts a few topless harlots into the stew and tilts his camera to shoot gyrating club dancers. The nudity fulfills commercial requirements in much the same way that pulp fiction authors worked extra sex scenes into their books to please their publishers. As expected, the final action confrontation features stunts involving firearms, cars and a motorcycle. Amid the shotgun blasts and crashing vehicles, the clownishly incompetent Vittorio Caprioli has fun attempting to hit something with his revolver.
Raro Video's DVD set of the Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection gives each feature its own slim case in an attractively designed black & red packaging scheme. The transfers for the three "Milieu Trilogy" titles are enhanced; Rulers of the City is unaccountably flat letterboxed. All of the films appear to be uncut and full soundtracks are provided in both dubbed English and Italian, with English subtitles. Di Leo's English-speaking actors appear to have performed in English, and dub their own voices -- it's amusing to hear Cyril Cusack's natural Irish accent, when he's supposed to be a Sicilian Mafiosi. The lively music tracks are by the noted Luis Enriquez Bacalov and Armando Trovajoli.
Each disc has a still gallery and at least one new interview featurette with Di Leo's collaborators and actors, and archived interview material with the director, who passed away in 2003. The interviews on tape (and in the 20-page insert booklet) include plenty of interesting anecdotal material. Di Leo's rough-edged pictures can best be appreciated as examples of exploitation action cinema designed to appeal to the international market as well as the Italian audience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.