Monday, November 6, 2017

The Counsellor (1973) review


Martin Balsam (Don Antonio Macaluso), Tomas Milian (Thomas Accardo), Francisco Rabal (Vincent Garofalo), Dagmar Lassander (Laura Murchison), Eduardo Fajardo (Calagero Vezza), Carlo Tamberlani (Don Michele Villabate), Joe Pollini (Spezzano), John Anderson (Don Vito Albanese), George Rigaud (Priest), Sacheen Littlefeather (Maggie, the hooker)

Directed by Alberto de Martino

"Nobody walks away, Thomas... nobody important. A lawyer is an important man. You're a lawyer..."

The Short Version: Alberto De Martino's quasi-masterpiece is a fantastic Italian variant of THE GODFATHER (1972) filmed in New Mexico, San Francisco, and Sicily. Traversing familiar ground, it's a tour de force for Balsam and Milian who spend the better part of an hour building the father-son relationship before stacking piles of bodies amid rounds of machine gun fire and blood squibs. Riz Ortani's memorable main theme will get stuck in your head for days.

Thomas Accardo is released from a New Mexico penitentiary after being convicted of bribing a juror. The counsellor to mobster Don Antonio, Accardo's two year stint in prison has given him time to think about his place in the world; so he decides to separate himself from the mafia in the hopes of living a normal life. Don Antonio tries to persuade him not to leave the Family but Accardo has made up his mind. However, one of Don Antonio's soldiers, Garofalo, betrays him by siding up with the Spezzano Family to take over the Don's businesses and take out Accardo. After a failed assassination, the counsellor decides to join the fold once more and help take down the enemies of his Godfather.

THE COUNSELLOR is one of the strongest entries in Italy's genre of crime pictures that exploded after the success of American crimers like DIRTY HARRY (1971) and THE GODFATHER (1972). Italy was producing these pictures prior to the above-mentioned productions, but the vitality of the genre came after them. What the Italian variants had the US hits didn't is that Italy was steeped in mob ethos and rampant criminality. The violence in Italy at that time was alarmingly prominent, and it provided numerous subjects to base movies on.

De Martino's film sticks close to the plot of Coppola's THE GODFATHER (1972) as its narrative thrust--placing Balsam in the Brando role and Milian subbing for Duvall. Taking place in New Mexico, San Francisco and Sicily, it's the conclusion where De Martino's movie has roots in bloody mob history. Reportedly, the Sicilian village locale of the last 20 minutes was the setting of the First Mafia War that began 10 years earlier in Ciaculli, an outlying district of Palermo.

The secret to THE COUNSELLOR's success is in the handling of the relationship between Balsam and Milian. A lot of screen time is spent on them. Had this crucial arc been botched, the film would be a failure; and with four writers claiming screen credit (including the director), the chances of exposition fumbling is high. 

Unfortunately, some of the secondary characters suffer--like the relationship between Milian and his girlfriend played by Dagmar Lassander. De Martino's movie may copy Coppola's, but there's an 80 minute difference in running times between them. This is the film's sole weakness. Certain character motivations are given little more than peripheral attention; one of these is in the main villain, Garofalo, played by prolific Spanish actor Francisco Rabal (THE LONG DAYS OF VENGEANCE [1967]; NIGHTMARE CITY [1981]).

As strong as the arc between the two protagonists is, the link with the antagonist is the weaker section of the chain and the film suffers for it. It is said a hero is only as good as his villain. Well, we have two heroes so the addition makes up for the slack in the antagonist arena. Unless something was lost to the editing, Garofalo's usurpation isn't expounded upon as much as it could have been. We don't learn why he wants Don Antonio snuffed out till 70 minutes have passed. His ambition, desire for revenge out of jealousy, feels almost secondary to the plot; and yet it is what drives the movie--slowly, but we get there. After a number of deaths, the two sides have a meeting and Garofalo lets it be known that not only was he was insulted that Don Antonio would allow Thomas to leave the syndicate (per the Family rules), but didn't trust him enough to run his own business.

Martin Balsam is fantastic as the sympathetic, fatherly mob boss Don Antonio Macaluso (Magadino in the English dubbing). While prone to ordering or participating in violence, Balsam's Don Antonio isn't presented as viciously as Brando's Don Vito. Reportedly, Michael Gazzo (THE GODFATHER 2 [1974]) was considered for the lead.

Balsam (who died a memorable death in Hitchcock's PSYCHO [1960]) won an Oscar for his supporting role in A THOUSAND CLOWNS in 1965. He was also nominated for another Oscar for SUMMER WISHES, WINTER DREAMS; a picture released the same year as THE COUNSELLOR (1973). Balsam carved a niche for himself in Italian cinema during the 1970s. He'd worked with Franco Nero in the excellent CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971) and previously worked with Francisco Rabal in the historical drama THE INFAMOUS COLUMN (1972). DEATH RAGE (1976) for Margheriti and BLOOD AND DIAMONDS (1977) for Di Leo closed out his Euro crime work. He continued to be a welcome presence for action fans in the 1980s in movies like DEATH WISH 3 (1985) and THE DELTA FORCE (1986).

This was the first film De Martino and Milian worked on together. It must of been a pleasant experience for the actor as he reportedly wanted to work with the director again. The same year the two got together on HERE WE GO AGAIN, EH, PROVIDENCE?; the equally silly sequel to Guilio Petroni's comic western LIFE IS TOUGH, EH, PROVIDENCE? (1972).

Milian was a fantastic actor who used his insecurities to his advantage. Throughout his career he played an array of colorful characters and was often disguised in some way. With so many eccentrics on his resume, it's refreshing, and even jarring, to see him playing a far more subdued, yet impulsive, character. THE COUNSELLOR is one such role.

Leaving Cuba for America in 1955, Milian wanted to become an actor. After obtaining his US citizenship, bit roles came his way, but it wasn't till he went to Europe that he came to prominence in Italian westerns. Essaying the main villain in Eugenio Martin's THE BOUNTY KILLER (1966), the westerns that defined him included Sergio Sollima's THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966), FACE OFF (1967) and TEPEPA (1968). He later found a home in the genre that supplanted the westerns, the crime movies. Some of his best from this period include Lenzi's seminal ALMOST HUMAN (1974) and SYNDICATE SADISTS (1975). THE COP IN BLUE JEANS (1976), Nico Giraldi, is among his most popular characters in a long-running series of movies. Late in his career, Milian would return to America for supporting roles in movies like FOOLS RUSH IN (1997) and TRAFFIC (2000). Sadly, he died March 22nd, 2017 in Miami, Florida aged 84.

Character actor of television and movies John Anderson has a role as Thomas's mob friend in prison, Don Vito Albanese. Some of his credits include episodes of GUNSMOKE (1955--1975) and THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959--1964); and movies like PSYCHO (1960), FIVE CARD STUD (1968), and playing the notorious Colonel Iverson in SOLDIER BLUE (1970).

Aside from its similarities in plot, THE COUNSELLOR shares kinship with THE GODFATHER in another way. Sacheen Littlefeather has a bit part as a hooker near the beginning of the movie. At the time, she was the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. In March of '73, Brando would win Best Actor for THE GODFATHER; but he wouldn't accept the award out of protest against what he viewed as negative treatment of Indians in Hollywood at that time. She refused to accept the award on his behalf, instead reading off a lengthy statement Brando had prepared. She did very few movies, but the best of them is the Indian revenge movie, JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975).

De Martino directed a few other crime pictures before and after this one; one of his best--and one of the craziest--of the genre was BLAZING MAGNUM (1976) starring Stuart Whitman, John Saxon and Martin Landau. One of the most insane, and longest, car chases in cinema history is found there. De Martino passed away in Italy June 2nd, 2015 aged 85.

Riz Ortolani delivers one of his patently somber scores. Done in the style of some of his popular works, it's akin to his Academy Award nominated 'More' for MONDO CANE (1962); and the main theme for Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980).

As much as it's a copy of Coppola's classic, THE COUNSELLOR could've used a cloning of that film's running time, too. There's a good story here, populated with fine actors, only not enough time to do all the characters proper justice. Still, both Balsam and Milian are sufficiently characterized; the film rests comfortably on their shoulders--bolstered by a marvelous, and melancholic, score from One of Italy's best composers. Italian crime fans don't need counseling to decide if they should add this one to their collection. Kapish?

This review is representative of the Dorado Films DVD included in the double feature bluray release of WEAPONS OF DEATH and SPECIAL COP IN ACTION; Specs and Extras: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English dub; Italian dub with no English subtitles (the back of the box makes no mention of the Italian track); running time: 01:41:43
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