Today Mulholland Books celebrate the publication of George Pelecanos’ new novel WHAT IT WAS with a guest post by George on films from the 1970s, the era in which his newest is set.
I had a few days off between Christmas and New Year’s and decided to check out some of the notorious Italian crime movies from the 70’s that I’ve been reading about for so long. These are exploitation films in the sense that they contain explicit violence and gratuitous skin shots, but like their American blaxploitation counterparts they’re not without merit. Some folks watch these kinds of pictures to laugh at them and the era in which they were produced but I’ve never bought into that brand of ironic detachment. In fact, I’ve always felt simpatico with filmmakers who work with relatively low budgets, do their jobs with sincerity, and are trying. So take the suggestions below with the following caveat: these are not great films or important films, but they do have their moments. At the very least they provided me with more signposts on my continuing film education journey. All were available for streaming on Netflix.
Gaston Moschin plays Ugo, an ex-con who gets entangled with missing money and the Mob in the initial entry of Di Leo’s infamous Mafia trilogy. Mario Adorf is the heavy, and beautiful Barbara Bouchet is the nominal love interest. The first five minutes of Caliber 9 are a master class in Italian crime filmmaking, set to the score of Luis Bacalov (Django). Moschin is a cool presence, a cross between Jason Stathem and, when he’s behind the wheel of his car, Steve McQueen. Shades of American noir, with a nice take on criminal loyalties and an ending as fatalistic as it gets.
Luca Canali, a Milano pimp (Mario Adorf) is set up to take the fall on a lost heroin shipment and marked for death by two New York hitmen (skull-faced Henry Silva and rock-hard Woody Strode). Violence and nudity ensue in this nasty, efficient piece of work. Adorf is a primitive force as he goes from passive pussy-pusher to revenge machine. The foot-and-car chase that anchors the film is worth the price of the ticket and predates Harry Callahan’s ride on the hood of the car in Magnum Force. No one is safe in this film: mothers, children, not even kitty cats. With Adolfo Celi (Thunderball) and Cyril Cusack. Music by Armondo Trovajoli. Alternate titles: Manhunt and, to entice American blaxploitation audiences into theaters, Black Kingpin.
The last entry in the Di Leo trilogy is a straightforward Mafia story, with button man Henry Silva involved with two warring families. Reportedly this is a fairly accurate portrait of the Sicilian mob in the 70s. The players here are not romanticized, and are portrayed as animalistic and amoral. Di Leo pays tribute to The Godfather with a slaughter montage that rivals the body count of Coppola’s masterpiece. The Boss opens with a grenade launcher assault in a movie theatre, a scene which Tarentino “referenced” in Inglorious Bastards. Of the trilogy, this is my least favorite, but it has its champions, and its pleasures. Music by Bacalov. Alternate title: Wipeout!
Legendary Italian crime film cribbed from the then-popular Death Wish. Despite its similarities to the Charles Bronson/Michael Winner smash, Street Law delivers its own brand of goods. Franco Nero plays Carlo, the beaten and abducted bystander of a bank robbery who goes after the perpetrators when the police ignore his pleas. After the nifty, propulsive opening, the film slow-burns to the finale, an inventive shootout in an airplane hanger. Castellari (director of the bizarre Spaghetti Western, Keoma) was a Peckinpah freak, so there is plenty of slo-mo action and exploding squibs; he lacked Bloody Sam’s talent in the editing room, but the set pieces are nevertheless effective. With future Bond girl Barbara Bach in the thankless role of Carlo’s girlfriend/punching bag. This one is a little more political than the Di Leo films, and also more polished, with top notch production values and cinematography. Features a surprisingly effective rock score by brothers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis.
George Pelecanos is the author of several bestselling novels set in and around Washington D.C. He is also an independent-film producer, an essayist, the recipient of numerous international writing awards, and a producer of the HBO hit series The Wire. He currently writes for the Emmy-nominated writer of the HBO series Treme.