The history of cinema is deeply entrenched in the history of crime. Gangster films, heist films, film noir, and other sub genres have always offered movie-goers an abundance of style, and occasionally profundity of theme. This week sees the release of a collection of crime films from Fernando di Leo on DVD for the first time in the US. They are not the deepest of movies, they offer little moral or thematic context, but they have proved to be hugely influential. And together, they form one hell of a ride.
Four films are in this monstrous box set, three of which form the director’s Milieu Trilogy. Those three can be watched out of order, as the trilogy is not one cohesive narrative, just a similarity of theme. If in watching these films there is something strikingly familiar about the fluidity of the camera or the particular colors, you aren’t completely off base. Quentin Tarantino cites one of this director’s films as the reason he became a filmmaker. And in another, you can see the beginnings of several characters in Pulp Fiction.
Before I discuss each film individually, there is something interesting that occurs in all of them. These crime films are not even close to the art-house. If anything they resemble the films of Roger Corman, although they were made in the early to mid-seventies. They are effectively B-movies. But you should not take from this description that they are “bad.” B-movies have influenced filmmakers for a long time because of one reason. What they lack in funds, acting, even sometimes writing, is made up in ingenuity. The directors of B-movies are allowed to do whatever they want to make the film, as there is little money invested in it, and they have to find ways to stretch that money. So they have homemade special effects, interesting camera shots, bombastic music and tight editing. They may not have a cohesive story because their sole purpose is an evocation of style. These four films do have a story, which gives them a leg up, but in addition di Leo never fails to find an interesting way to tell those stories.
The first film in di Leo’s Milieu Trilogy is Caliber 9. It tells the story of a bald thug accused of stealing money from the local mob boss. Throughout the film he insists he hasn’t taken this money and wants to go straight, but no one believes him. So he seeks protection from a couple of friends, who hide him until the film culminates in a brutal shootout at the mob boss’s villa. Out of the four, this ranks 3rd for me.
The Italian Connection (Manhunt)
This is the second film in the Milieu Trilogy, and it features one of the villains from the first film as a good guy. He has been accused of stealing a drug shipment and two New York hoods (played by Henry Silva and Woody Strode, definite precursors to Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction) have been hired to track him down and kill him. They get to his family first, which causes him to stop running. He isn’t interested in turning himself in–no, now he wants revenge. He slowly hunts down his hunter until the film culminates in a huge slug fest in a junkyard, one of the best endings of the set. In spite of that,I rank this number 4.
The third in the trilogy, this film opens with a mass assassination of a crime family in a movie theater with a grenade launcher. The hitman has been hired to kill everyone in this rival family, but finds out that one of the family members was at church, and wants revenge. That guy hires some hoods to kidnap the other boss’s daughter, and when the hitman goes to retrieve her, he finds out that she’s quite the nymphomaniac. They sleep together for a few days, but ultimately, he joins forces with a hitman from the other family and they try to take down both families, so they can rise to power together. After that there are a few more twists, leading up to one of them backstabbing the other, and the Mafia world is in shambles. This was my favorite film of the bunch.
The Rulers of the City (Mister Scarface)
This film, made three years after the others, is much more poignant and focused, and as a result the punches it doles out are much more powerful. It follows a punk kid who collects loans for a small time mob boss, and wants desperately to go to Brazil to live with his brother. He joins forces with some other lower rung guys to con both their own boss, and the legendary Mister Scarface (played viciously by Jack Palance), out of several thousand dollars. The climax here occurs on a ranch of some sort, and it’s a great set piece, labyrinthine and confusing, there are plenty of places to hide, shoot, and make your car jump fences from makeshift ramps. Very, very cool. This is also the film that, according to him, made Tarantino want to become a filmmaker.
All of these films show us gritty underbelly characters. These are guys who live a life society looks down on, that even most movie goers look down on, and yet we find their stories so appealing. Why is that? Perhaps it has something to do with the freedom that these criminals have. Their lives are carried out over two hours, and if they are alive at the end of the movie, they have succeeded, whereas for us, there tend to be consequences. Perhaps we admire them for their nerve and genius in pulling off complicated heists against Vegas casinos. While these may factor in, I think it is nested in something deeper.
Regardless of what moral lines are crossed, something in these films is unabashedly truthful. These films don’t seek to condemn or condone, primarily because their realm isn’t the moral. They seek instead to lift up the rock of society and see what crawls underneath. Moreover, when we watch them, we do not see mere shadow puppets acting out some mindless carnage on screen, we see something familiar. Because somewhere between the crooked cop and the noble thief is where we truly live, amidst our own private crimes; the screen reveals to us something of ourselves.