Friday, June 12, 2009
THREE FACES OF CRIME: CORRUPTION, CLIQUES & CALABRESI CHAPTER 2
***WARNING! This article contains some pics depicting scenes of bloody violence & nudity***
One of the chief accomplices in the burgeoning crime pictures that were soon to unspool at a rapid rate was the criminally underrated (at least in this country) director, Damiano Damiani. He specialized in message movies that spoke about the controversial subjects of the time. His movies, like many of the political crime thrillers, aren't the typical poliziesco a lot of fans are accustomed to. His movies are predominantly character driven focusing more on the situation than the action. He scored a classic in the spaghetti western genre with A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1966), one of the best examples of the political spaghetti western. Damiani comfortably transposed his directing style to the topical modern day thrillers of the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's. His CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971) is a fascinating look at an aging policeman's efforts to fight vicious crime and bring down mobsters by any means necessary. Franco Nero is on hand as the District Attorney who does things by the book and clashes with the sly police captain played by Martin Balsam.
This old guard experienced in the darker side of criminality and what it truly takes to combat evil collides perfectly with the young, yet green lawman who constantly questions the underhanded means by which Commissioner Giacomo Bonavia (Balsam) makes his arrests. Seeking to procure the mobster Ferdinando Dubrosio (played by frequent bad guy, Luciano Catenacci), Bonavia attempts some dubious methods to get his man after arresting Dubrosio on three prior occasions. But because of lack of evidence, the mobster was set free. With Dubrosio running the largest construction company in the Italian metropolis, Bonavia explains to District Attorney Traini (Nero) that the city is built on corpses as Dubrosio's group has buried some 57 victims inside of cement blocks.
Both Bonavia and Traini have little trust for each other and both even has the others phones tapped. As the film progresses, you learn why Bonavia has a serious vendetta against Dubrosio. Involving the death of a Union organizer, Giampolo Rizzo, Bonavia greatly respected the man who attempted to unite the frightened construction workers oppressed by Dubrosio.
There's an excellent conversation between both Bonavia and Traini as the Commissioner unspools the fate of Rizzo and his three failed attempts to arrest the gangster and the deaths that resulted from them. Bonavia's character loses faith in the law once the valiant Union organizer, Rizzo has met a despicable end becoming a martyr in the process, yet truly dying for nothing. Upon finding his corpse buried under 200 feet of rock, Bonavia tells Traini, "It wasn't the face of a dead man. It was the face of a man who had...never known justice....never would." Just prior to Rizzo's death, Bonavia had a conversation with him and something Rizzo said pricked his conscience in relation to the law and what it represents, "No, you two are on the same side...you the police, him the gangster...and it's money that gives the orders!" Obviously Rizzo is stating that money talks and anyone can be bought with it. Those who are poor and helpless are the only truly honorable people in the world and it is they who must suffer so that those with reputation may remain in power.
What follows is another interesting conversation wherein Bonavia attempts to bring Traini to his way of thinking--
Bonavia: "Haven't you ever had any doubts about enforcing unjust laws?"
Traini: "It's not for us to judge the law but to--"
Bonavia: "--but to enforce it, yes, I knew you would say that. But let's say tomorrow the law stated that we had to use torture."
Traini: "Don't be absurd."
Bonavia: "Why? It used to be the law, it can be the law again. It's only a matter of principle. Then you would use torture if the law said so?"
Traini: "You're using an extreme example!"
Bonavia: Alright then, what's your limit?! How much injustice would you stand for to satisfy the people we work for?!"
Learning too late, Traini sees he has been fooled and used the entire time, with seemingly the entire police force being informers for Dubrosio's inner circle of immoral associates. With the threat of one of the largest criminally financed cesspools being flushed down the drain, extreme measures are taken to silence those who could bring harm to the money pockets of the cruel racketeers. By the time the end credits roll, Traini comes to the disheartening realization he has inadvertently caused the deaths of the only persons who could have brought the enormous wall of concrete corpses crumbling down around those that built them. An incredibly powerful and gloomy movie, it's one of the coldest, most cynical political thrillers to come out of the 1970's.
Damiani also handled directing chores on the intriguing and marvelous suspense thriller, HOW TO KILL A JUDGE (1974). Franco Nero returns in this film as filmmaker, Giacomo Solaris shooting a picture dealing with a corrupt judge with ties to the Mafia. Not long after, the judge in real life patterned after the one in his movie is murdered. Solaris (Nero) soon finds himself embroiled in a world populated by crooked politicians and gangsters where he places himself in danger in an effort to find out who could kill a judge. Throughout the course of the picture, Solaris himself becomes an object of suspicion to the police since his film was a cinematic premonition of the judge's murder. The authorities want to bring down a number of crooked politicians with ties to the Mob, yet Solaris simply wants to bring the judge's murderer to trial regardless of who it really is. Damiani's movie ends on a powerfully unexpected note that makes one question whether Solaris made the right decision or not. Either way, guilty parties are brought to justice, but at the same time, other parties, maybe even more culpable, are allowed to remain free.
This fascinating take on the political thriller may put off viewers expecting action as this film has very little of it. Instead, it substitutes violent shootouts for a slow burn as clues are uncovered leading to an incredible finish that isn't expected. Solaris' decision and final outcome brings about contempt from the authorities who sought to bring an end to greedy politicians with serious mob ties--"It was the only way." There's only one major scene of violence and it's a vicious shooting death by professional contract killers. The circumstances by which it happens adds a layer of bitter irony to the scene.
Another searingly volatile effort is Stefano Vanzina's LA POLIZIA RINGRAZIA (FROM THE POLICE, WITH THANKS 1972) aka EXECUTION SQUAD. This picture is one of the most influential movies of the Italian crime boom during the 1970's. It is widely considered the progenitor of the Italian Crime genre and it was no doubt instrumental in the slew of similar movies that followed in its wake dealing with special squads implemented by the police to act outside the law and veiled in secrecy from the media. The film concerns a brutal vigilante group of former cops who kidnap and cold-bloodedly execute various crooks who have evaded the law, or have managed to get off on technicalities.
The plot device of a private vigilante squad working outside the law to do the job the cops are somewhat helpless to carry out was reused in numerous other Italo crime pictures such as the popular VIOLENT ROME (1975). That film also utilized the 'Violent Cop' style modeled on the doomed real life policeman, Luigi Calabresi. COLT .38 SPECIAL SQUAD (1974), Ruggero Deodato's grim LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1975) and STUNT SQUAD (1977) are some of the films to feature cops, or dubious civic figures working outside the law.
In 1982, Bill Lustig directed a movie entitled VIGILANTE that was very reminiscent of the Italian crime pictures and featured a similar group that, although not affiliated with the law, prowled the streets to execute those callous individuals that escaped their legal final judgement.
LA POLIZIA RINGRAZIA (1972) is a brutally uncompromising motion picture that paints a grim and doom-laden view of court legalities, criminal activities and the darker side of law and order. The line between right and wrong is disturbingly blurred resulting in a film whose good guys are just as vehemently sadistic as the cruel bastards that escape punishment from the judicial system. The ending packs one helluva wallop and when the film is over, what you have seen will linger in your mind for some time afterwards. A highly recommended entry in the genre, it's notable for being a frightening look into the chaotic and chilling world the people of Italy found themselves in during the 1970's.
The second group are the films dealing strictly, or mostly, with the Mafia. No doubt comparisons can be made to Coppola's excellent THE GODFATHER (1972), many of these movies have a distinct flavor all their own. These movies sometimes do not feature any authority figures whatsoever, while some do (and often on the wrong side of the law). The intriguing crime thriller, IL CONSIGLIORI (THE COUNSELLOR 1973) starring Tomas Milian and Martin Balsam is one of the more blatant, but well made clones of Coppola's movie. The melancholic score by Riz Ortolani aids in the somber atmosphere of Alberto De Martino's film. Here, Milian plays a lawyer to a powerful San Franciscan Mafia boss. Having just gotten out of prison, he now wishes to leave the ways of the Mob behind him and live a life of tranquility free of the dangers and constraints of Organized Crime. However, one of the "rules" is once you're in, you can't leave. Starting a violent rivalry between Families, a series of tragic events lures Accardo (Milian) back into the criminal coterie.
There was another Mafia film released in America that was popular, the Italian-American production of THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972). Produced by movie mogul, Dino De Laurentiis, the film starred Charles Bronson about an imprisoned man who divulges the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra. His status as a stoolie isn't without its repercussions. Apparently the production was threatened by the criminal underworld, so the film was moved from the US to Cinecitta Studios in Italy.
Released a few months after THE GODFATHER (1972), it made money, but has nonetheless become a mostly forgotten exercise in violence, betrayal and honor among gangsters when in the company of Coppola's more widely known film. At the time, Bronson was a more viable commodity in European territories than he was in America. Initially, he turned down the role of Joe Valachi, but finally accepted when Dino De Laurentiis offered him a million dollars and a three picture deal (the other films were THE STONE KILLER, CHINO & DEATH WISH; Bronson also did THE WHITE BUFFALO for De Laurentiis in 1977) in addition to some other contractual perks.
The 'Cosa Nostra' (or as La Cosa Nostra) was the name attributed to the Sicilian criminal culture also referred to more popularly as 'Mafia'. The various syndicates operate as a 'Family' taking care of their respective territories overseeing the myriad amount of racketeering and other assorted felonious activities. New members are subjected to stringent rituals usually involving murder in some capacity and must follow a code of conduct. The Mafia even has their own Ten Commandments that must be followed. However, just like in the movies, the Mafia of today is not "your father's Mafia" as a number of these commandments are prone to being broken. Joseph Valachi revealed the inner workings of the Mafia at Senate hearings in 1963 and formed the basis of the above mentioned Bronson picture, THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972). The novel of the same name by Peter Maas was released to the public in 1969.
Other Mob pictures cross the line into exploitation territory delivering very little in the way of plot, or character development settling instead for a 'Cauldron of Death' and depravity showcasing scenes of excruciating acts of violence and abundant nudity, or seedy scenes of sexual encounters. This type of violence would become a mainstay of the genre, especially popular with the cult of fans outside of Italy. Two of the more shameless entries are the awful RICCO (1973) and QUELLI CHE CONTANO (CRY OF A PROSTITUTE 1974; reviewed on this site) starring Chris Mitchum and Henry Silva respectively.
RICCO (1973) was about a young man (the title character) who avenges the death of his Mob boss father at the hands of one of his rivals. The movie, while featuring a few stand out moments, has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Everything is terrible from the acting right down to the production values. What the film does offer is an extraordinary amount of sleaze and nastiness. Whether that's a recommendation depends on how you feel about witnessing graphic castrations and plentiful sex and a show stopping strip tease atop the hood of a car.
CRY OF A PROSTITUTE (1974) is far more successful in its depiction of Mafia violence. Essentially a reworking of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) and other western conventions, it concerns a lone gangster (Henry Silva) hired to inflict chaos upon two rival crime families when their cruel methods of criminal activities stirs unrest amongst the senior syndicate members. Nearly every character is a sadistic bastard and those who aren't suffer indignities or are half crazed merely existing between the violent conflagration of gunfire being perpetrated by two callous Mafia families. The extreme violence and sexual sleaze is poured on thick in the uncut version. Both above mentioned films share one thing in common aside from being downright tasteless and that's the bodacious talents of Barbara Bouchet.
THE LONG ARM OF THE GODFATHER (1972) stars Peter Lee Lawrence as a gangster (Vincenzo) who double crosses his own boss, Don Carmelo, by stealing shipments of guns to sell for profit to a gang of Arabs. Making off with his promiscuous girlfriend, Vincenzo finds himself hunted by his former boss and his men. The story is very simple and nowhere as convoluted as some other entries. The film is extremely misogynistic in its depiction of violence towards women.
If women aren't being beaten into submission or tortured, the camera lingers on them carousing or taking a shower. The gorgeous Erika Blanc plays Vincenzo's girlfriend and she doesn't mind shedding her clothes for the camera. It's an interesting movie and quite sleazy in places, but like a lot of the mafia movies, it doesn't come close to the entries from Di Leo such as MILAN CALIBER 9 (1972).
CRIME BOSS (1972) stars Telly Savalas as the head Don who takes in Antonio Mancuso, an ambitious hoodlum played by Antonio Sabato. Mancuso harbors a vendetta against Don Vincenzo for the death of his father. He gets close to the mafioso and eventually plots his demise while romancing his niece who has her own plans for The Family. Alberto De Martino directs this rather lazy and slapdash mafia picture. It is, like IL CONSIGLIORI (1973), derivative of THE GODFATHER (1972). But unlike that film, CRIME BOSS comes off more as a cash-in than anything else. Possibly the version making the rounds is cut (the opening credits are), or better yet, damaged, as the film seems to just end leaving the impression there was some additional footage before the closing card.
Savalas dubs himself and the other dubbers speak with an accent in an effort to sound more authentic. There is a lot of violence, but unlike De Martino's above mentioned gangster epic, it hasn't the punch nor the performances to keep it afloat. A lot of people get downed by machine gun fire, but nobody bleeds. One poor soul does get turned into soap. Savalas as Don Vincenzo seems disinterested and Sabato convinces only when he's smiling. The two seem to form a father/son relationship very quickly leaving me to wonder if the film is missing a good chunk of exposition.
Sabato carved a niche for himself, like a lot of Italian actors, in the European western pictures before fitting comfortably into the crime genre. He also appeared in the award winning James Garner racing movie, GRAND PRIX (1966). Aside from his famous son, Sabato "enjoyed" a career in exploitation movies leading into the 1980's. Alberto De Martino directs CRIME BOSS aka I FAMILIARI DELLE VITTIME NON SARANNO AVVERTITI (RELATIVES OF VICTIMS WILL NOT BE ALERTED 1972) and he must have truly been mesmerized by Coppola's GODFATHER films. Despite having directed a number of strictly entertainment pictures, De Martino shows an often assured hand in his Mob movies whether the ideas were wholly original or not.
CONTINUED IN PART 3...