Fernando Di Leo, glorious bastard

Pub date March 29, 2011

ITALIAN CRIME CINEMA Italian cinema has a long history of innovators, but — like every other country, albeit more so — it survived commercially for decades via genre imitators. Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci, and so on couldn’t have existed without the fiscal cushion provided by genre-feeds to the international market: first via mythological muscle man fantasies that reduced Hollywood’s Cecil B. DeMille-styled antiquity epics to more cost-effective displays of simple brawn, spear-throwing, and horse-riding over Hollywood-level stars and production values. Then via spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood the star he hadn’t become on home turf, reworking a quintessentially American genre toward border-blurring maxi-minimalism.

That was the 1950s and ’60s. Fernando Di Leo began as a scenarist, contributing to myriad spaghetti westerns including Sergio Leone’s Dollars films, though he never liked the genre. (“Happily, I have a great capacity for writing incredible crap.”) He stirred controversy with early directorial efforts about female sexual frigidity and juvenile delinquency, really hitting his stride with a series of the violent crime dramas that dominated 1970s Italian commercial cinema — alongside horror films and the neverending sex comedy genre.

Often tapping the “elephant’s graveyard” of past-prime Hollywood actors who preferred to take starring or lucrative “guest star” roles in European films rather than support whippersnappers back home, these movies were made with the international market in mind. Some are even baldly imitative of The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), and other influential U.S. hits of the era, to the point of unconvincingly fudging cultural and geographic compasses.

But while Di Leo’s films duly mixed veteran American actors into “Europudding” casts, his poliziotteschi exercises (he later voiced a preference for the term “noir”) were specifically Italian, with strong undercurrents of social criticism toward corrupt cops, politicians, and church officials — particularly those who’d disingenuously claim the Mafia “no longer existed.”

It certainly existed in these movies, four of which are showcased in “Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection,” a box set representing DVD specialty label RaroVideo’s launch into the U.S. market. (It’s simultaneously releasing Fellini’s 1971 circus homage The Clowns as well.) It’s quickly apparent why this director was a professed huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, though they differ in politics (does QT have any?) and taste for verbal pyrotechnics (of which QT has arguably too much). The flamboyant tough guys played by beloved character actors, intricately internecine plots, explosions of outré violence, and vintage leisure-suited cool, however, passed from one to the other like DNA.

Caliber 9 (1972), first of the “Milieu Trilogy,” starts out as an unremarkable series of you-hit-me, I-hit-you shootings and explosions in the wake of the disappearance of $300,000 after a robbery. Primary suspicion falls on stony Ugo (Gastone Moschin, hitherto a comic actor), a bagman just out of prison who steadfastly denies that he absconded with the loot belonging to crime boss “the Americano.” But by the end every last viewer certainty has been overturned.

Mario Adorf, cast as the loudest, most obnoxious of Ugo’s mob tormentors, becomes the lead in that same year’s The Italian Connection, playing a small-time Milan pimp framed for a heroin shipment’s theft — and as a result hunted by two imported U.S. hit men. They’re sleazy career villain Howard Silva and John Ford’s towering, poker-faced fave Woody Strode, who both worked for Di Leo again. (He enjoyed repeatedly working with certain actors.) They provided the model for John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s scrapping double team in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

A private-screening-room massacre at the start of 1973’s The Boss doubtless provided blueprint for the fiery climax of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. Not that the two are otherwise related — this tale of Sicilian mob wars has a don’s university-student daughter kidnapped by rivals as revenge for that earlier act, then “rescued” by Silva’s stone-cold contract killer.

But the misogyny that surfaces fairly briefly in Caliber and Connection takes alarming precedence here: adapting to her gang-raping captors like fish to water, Rina (Antonia Santilli) proves a nymphomaniac pothead alcoholic, insatiable every which way. She’s a degrading “rich bitch” cartoon that must have horrified its few female viewers at the height of women’s lib. (No wonder Santilli abandoned her short screen career almost immediately afterward.) At least The Boss outruns that sour shit with a last lap of spectacular twistiness. A professed womanizer, Di Leo now seems like an auteur who should have left female characters the hell alone.

The RaroVideo box ends with 1976’s exceptionally stylish and perverse Rulers of the City, a.k.a. Mr. Scarface, in which a child survivor of a mob slaughter (Fassbinder regular Harry Baer) grows up to avenge himself on don Jack Palance (“Just looking at him and my asshole twitches,” an underling opines), who exercised reptilian zest decades before his exhibitionist-pushup Oscar comeback. But he’s not the only one: a Shirley Temple-bewigged chanteuse vamp (Gisela Hahn) in see-through lingerie sings about abortion just before being glimpsed in a postcoital five-way with participants including too-pretty ice-blond Al Cliver (a.k.a. Pierluigi Conti). Culminating in a foot race as clever as the automotive climaxes of Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection, this is a baroque, self-mocking melodrama you’d be hard-pressed not to love.

Di Leo ended the decade with two highlights among many lurid debtors to 1972’s Last House on the Left: Notorious To Be Twenty (1978), whose free-spirited young heroines meet a brutal fate all the more shocking for its coming out of the blue after 80-odd minutes of comic frivolity; and Madness (1980), wherein Joe Dallesandro terrorizes a bourgeoisie household. But the films Di Leo liked to make were now unfashionable in a shrunken market, Italian financiers favoring crass new local tastes for gore-horror and softcore sleaze. After two dispirited mid-1980s action films he retired, still in his early 50s. Before his 2003 death he enjoyed revived attention thanks to cult enthusiasts led by guess who. These movies all look sharp in their DVD restorations, offered English both dubbed and subtitled. (There were precious few “original language” Italian features then — everything was post-synched, into whatever required languages.) The box set’s accompanying booklet features a 2001 interview with the director in which he’s both frankly self-critical and astonishingly hubristic.