Friday, January 28, 2011
Tough Guys Files #2: Henry Silva
Henry Silva has had a long, illustrious career in film since the early 1950s. Born on September 15th, 1928 in Brooklyn, New York and of Spanish and Italian heritage, Silva has a striking face that is perfect for either hero, or villain. He often played the latter in what are likely his most memorable performances. In many of his supporting roles, Silva often outshined the leads. His talents as a leading man weren't fully appreciated till he went to Europe where Italian filmmakers put his wild eyed, intense face to good use after a fiery, scene stealing performance in Carlo Lizzani's exciting THE HILLS RUN RED (1966).
Desiring to be an actor at a young age, it didn't take Silva long to get noticed in Hollywood and a prosperous living out of being in the movies was in the cards for the gifted actor. He appeared in various capacity in close to a hundred feature films many of them being foreign productions that utilized Silva's intimidating looks to good measure. He also has a large number of television credits that added to an already growing resume. Silva was so busy, it wouldn't be unlikely to see him both on the big and small screen at the same time.
His potential for villainy is in clear evidence in Budd Boetticher's THE TALL T (1957) starring Randolph Scott. In that classic western film, Silva played the psychotic and quick triggered Chink, one of a trio of outlaws (including Richard Boone) who have taken over a stagecoach of passengers holding them to ransom. The following year, Silva again essayed a villain as Rennie, one of a few Confederate ruffians led by Richard Widmark in THE LAW & JAKE WADE. Playing Indian, Mexican and Asian characters were also on offer to the enterprising young thespian during this time and into the 1970s.
He played Indians in GREEN MANSIONS (1959) and FIVE SAVAGE MEN (1970); Mexican's in the Italian western THE HILLS RUN RED (1966) where Silva played another psychopath, Garcia Mendez, and again in two episodes of the first season of the original THE OUTER LIMITS TV program among others. He played Mr. Moto in 1965's RETURN OF MR. MOTO and also yet another crazed character, Chunjin, the assassin sent to kill Frank Sinatra in the original and classic THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), featuring the first martial arts fight in an American movie. Silva had previously worked with the Chairman of the Board as one of 11 thieves in the classic OCEAN'S ELEVEN in 1960. Even more western roles followed, but Silva really found his calling in European action thrillers as evidenced in Emilio Miraglia's taut political thriller, ASSASSINATION (1967), which took a page from John Frankenheimer's school of suspense and espionage. It was also one of the earliest examples of the soon to be burgeoning crime pictures that would grip Italy in the coming decade.
In ASSASSINATION, Silva plays a man "executed" in the electric chair only to be reborn with a new identity. Trained as a political assassin, Chandler (Silva) is used to bust open an international crime ring. However, Chandler has his own agenda and the film is filled with numerous twists and turns leading up to a downbeat ending. Silva returned to Europe in 1968 to take the lead in Miraglia's THE FALLING MAN playing a cop who's framed for killing a police informer. Keenan Wynn plays his boss. The two would co-star together in 1970 in the brutally violent, but mediocre western FIVE SAVAGE MEN--in that one, Silva played the mostly silent Chatto aiding the gorgeous Michele Carey in getting her revenge against the title savages who tortured and raped her and left her for dead.
The 1970s was the decade most associated with Henry Silva's career. It was here he played an indomitable amount of screen tough guys on both sides of the law and in some cases, the line between hero and villain being seriously blurred. Up to this point, Silva had played a menagerie of characters, but during the 70s, he played, for the most part, either gangsters, hitmen, or cops and brought his own level of lucid verisimilitude to all his European thrillers throughout the decade. Prior to the 70s, Silva had established himself as a wonderful character actor who cropped up seemingly everywhere on the big screen and boob tube at home. He solidified himself as an actor who could successfully play a variety of personas. His unique face no doubt aided immeasurably in this.
Other Italian filmmakers, having taken notice to his two prior Euro outings, cast the Brooklyn born thespian in their productions. The international 'Jack of All Trades' took lead, or co-starring roles in two of Fernando Di Leo's most accomplished works--MANHUNT (1972) and THE BOSS (1973)--the second and third of his Mafia trilogy that began with the superb genre classic MILAN CALIBER 9 (1972). For MANHUNT, Silva was partnered with Woody Strode as two American assassins out to silence a wrongfully accused pimp after he's blamed for the disappearance of a heroin shipment.
THE BOSS had Silva going solo as yet another ice cold sweeper, this time as a formidable hitman working for Don Corrasco, a mafioso caught in a huge mob war rife with kidnapping and corruption. One of Silva's best performances, his role here defined the signature Silva persona as an infallible, near indestructible presence bearing a cool and calculating demeanor that's often one step ahead of everyone else.
CRY OF A PROSTITUTE (1974) is the epitome of carnage and cruelty in the Italian crime genre and Henry Silva crushes the competition as another hitman sent by "Mama" to find out whose been using the corpses of children to conceal shipments of drugs. Directed with sleazy assurance by Andrea Bianchi (BURIAL GROUND, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER), it's one crime caper you won't soon forget. Brutal beatings, crushing by steamroller, buzz saw bisection, sexual degradation and rape are the orders of the day here.
1974 also was the first pairing of Silva and the underrated Umberto Lenzi. ALMOST HUMAN was a nasty character study about Giulio Sacchi, a sadistic mouse of a man played by Tomas Milian who commits all manner of unpleasantries and Silva is Commissario Grandi, a determined cop out to bring Sacchi to justice. The movie belongs to Milian, but Silva (who was originally to have played the vicious lead) has some memorable moments of his own. At the time, having done two movies for reputable directors Miraglia and Di Leo (four in total for Di Leo), Silva would star in three for Lenzi the other two being MANHUNT IN THE CITY (1975) and FREE HAND FOR A TOUGH COP (1976).
All three of Silva's Lenzi pictures are different from one another. MANHUNT IN THE CITY has Silva playing a more human character, one who is prone to mistakes, unsure of his abilities. He's a father who is grieving over the death of his daughter at the hands of a gang of jewel thieves. His character is a common man driven to vigilante justice when the law proves incapable of arresting his daughters killer. FREE HAND FOR A TOUGH COP is even more different in that Silva plays the foul mouthed villain chased by Claudio Cassinelli and featuring a comedic performance by Tomas Milian reprising his popular Monezza character. Sadly, much like ALMOST HUMAN, Silva, this time playing the bad guy, still doesn't get much screen time which is seemingly reserved yet again for Tomas Milian. It's a fun crime film, but one that doesn't exploit Silva's talents as much as some might like.
The actor would play another vicious villain in the action packed and gory WEAPONS OF DEATH (1977) starring Leonard Mann. Of the 'Violent Cop' style of Italian crime picture, Silva played an arrogant and obnoxious mobster who brazenly participates in large scale violent crimes while still maintaining an alibi whenever the frustrated Commissioner Beady tries to make an arrest. Henry Silva bid farewell to the Italian crime flicks with the empty headed CRIMEBUSTERS from 1979.
The 1980s saw Silva go in a different direction a multitude of times seemingly abandoning his hard edged personality and replacing it with comedic, or bumbling interpretations that would poke fun of his prior, far more serious roles. The 80s were peppered with more sleaze from Silva, but nothing quite like the decade that preceded it. His roles were inarguably more varied, though, if not quite as intense. Some of them are downright embarrassing to say the least.
Henry Silva took a major supporting role in the pilot for BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979), a TV movie that was re-edited and released theatrically. In it, he played Kane, the lead henchman to the horny beyond words, Princess Ardala played to sultry perfection by Pamela Hensely. After the pilot, the character of Kane was played by fan favorite, Michael Ansara. Silva was soon playing a big game hunter named Colonel Brock in Lewis Teague's ALLIGATOR (1980), another psychopath in the Burt Reynold's crime flick SHARKEY'S MACHINE (1981), an unhinged hick in the trash flick TRAPPED (1982) from William Fruet and a far less serious turn as the lead bad guy in MEGAbomb, MEGAFORCE from 1982.
In that misguided misfire, Silva gets very little screen time and plays the bad guy in the most lax fashion possible. He doesn't really do anything that makes him seem at all villainous, which is most likely down to the infantile screenplay, a nonsensical mess that took four writers to churn out a movie that was really about nothing at all. It's one of the worst movies ever made and, versus what was spent on it, surpasses KILL SQUAD (1982) in non-stop hilarity. Silva appears to be in on the joke, too. Silva also honed his comical chops in AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987), an occasionally funny sequel to the far superior Zucker Brothers movie from 1977, THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. In his segment, Silva channels Jack Palance in a skit spoofing the original RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT, OR NOT?
The comedy continued, but intentionally so in Hal (MEGAFORCE) Needham's THE CANNONBALL RUN 2 (1984). Here, Silva's role is minor playing a goofy gangster under the employ of Telly "Who loves ya', baby?" Savalas. CANNONBALL 2 also reunited Silva with ALLIGATOR alum, Michael Gazzo, who played the police chief in the latter and a gangster in the former. Silva reverted back to sleaze as the lover to Stella Steven's in the star studded CHAINED HEAT (1983).
In it, Silva heads up a prostitution racket in which he forces female prisoners to "moonlight" as escorts for rich clientele. Silva again returned to Italy that same year to play the lead villain in Enzo Castellari's ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX, the sequel to the directors 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982). He also essayed the lead in two more movies for the now faultering Fernando Di Leo, KILLERS VS. KILLERS (1984) and THE VIOLENT BREED (1985).
Back to America, more comedy came with such quickies as the drab Tab Hunter, Divine feature, LUST IN THE DUST (1985) and also ALLAN QUATERMAIN & THE LOST CITY OF GOLD (1986), the Cannon sequel to their own INDIANA JONES clone, KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1985). From here on out, Silva's appearances got more spotty mostly popping up in forgettable DTV movies. One of his last major roles was as yet another sadistic bad guy in ABOVE THE LAW from 1988 in which Silva's Kurt Zagon went up against a then up and coming Steven Seagal.
Over the years, Silva's popularity hasn't dwindled among action and cult film fans. Oddly enough, those who remember him fall into two camps--those who have followed his early career in westerns, suspense films and television appearances and those that are more fond of his far more adult European crime films and later sleaze pictures during the 1980s. While he did portray heroes on occasion, it was his roles as antagonists, or anti heroes that defined this fascinating actors long, impressive resume.