Cinema Retro: A Primer for Italian Crime Films and more

RETRO25Coverfinal200When Anto was in New York City a couple of months ago she picked me up the latest issue of Cinema Retro, which is similar to my favorite film magazine Filmfax. The main differences being it’s a British publication and it focuses specifically on 1960s and 70s films. The writing is interesting enough, though the focus on James Bond in this issue is a bit tiresome for me—especially given the recent Daniel Craig-led series has mistaken itself for a Bourne film. I despised Skyfall, not only was it predictable and trite–but it continues the tradition of recent Bond films of making fun of its own history in a way that insults longtime fans. I’m done with any Bond films after Pierce Brosnan (although Roger Moore remains the beesknees bond for me), the Daniel Craig films have been nothing short of an abortion of the franchises’ credibility.

220px-Veronica_Lake_stillThat said, the current issue of Cinema Retro had more than a few things that intrigued me. In a sidebar titled “That Was the Week That Was,” the magazine re-prints stories from Boxoffice magazine from a specific date in its publication history. One of the reprints was a short blurb about Veronica Lake’s final film from October 5th, 1970:

John F. Rickert, CineWorld Corp. president, reports from his Miami base of operations that the first 150 play dates on the Veronica Lake starrer Flesh Feast have proven that the new Viking International Pictures production is an exceptionally strong grossing horror film. It may also, says Rickert, re-establish Veronica Lake as a box office name, as he has received several inquiries from U.S. producers regarding ehr availability for film work. Miss Lake, prior to leaving Hollywood in 1951, starred in more than 25 feature films, which made her one of the “hot properties” of the 1940s.

Flesh_Feast_posterThe idea that this film was going to be a box office success was a joke, it was panned at the time and is still panned today. It was a the last ditch effort for Lake that she personally financed with the proceeds of a memoir of her turbulent life. Lake died impecunious three years later at the age of 50. A sad story of a fallen star, which is actually kind of a submerged theme for this issue given there’s another compelling article about the train wreck of a career that belonged to British actor Oliver Reed—he was awesome in his comeback role in Gladiator, too bad his return was cut short, for unlike Lake he still had real presence. Anyway, after reading this bit I couldn’t help but seek out more about Flesh Feast, so I got the plot as told by Wikipedia, which is brilliant:

Lake plays Dr. Elaine Frederick, a mad scientist working on developing maggots that prefer human flesh, while her services are used to make a clone of Adolf Hitler. She cooperates with the plan to resurrect Hitler as a way of exacting revenge for the death of her parents, political prisoners executed in a concentration camp. While convincing everyone the flesh-eating maggots are for regeneration research, she simply wants to throw them in the resurrected Hitler’s face, which she does.

Flesh-eating maggots? Zombie nazies? The only problem with this film is it was made 40 years too early 😉 As for actually spending the time to watch the film, I actually might after this seven minute clip of her interacting with the zombie Hitler (go to minute 2).

But the real draw of this issue, and why I will be subscribing to the magazine was Dean Brierly’s Crime Wave International article that focuses on the Italian poliziotteschi (or police films) from the 1960s and 70s. He provides a great list of ten films from this genre which includes filmmakers like Fernando Di LeoEnzo Castellari, Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato (better know for his Cannibal Holocaust films than his one poliziotteschi) to name just a few. I haven;t seen any of the films and I am working on getting them all right now, going through his list.  For anyone interested here they are:

Violent City (1970) (a.k.a Città violenta and The Family)
Directed by Sergio Sollima, this film stars Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas (need I say more?) and was inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Sold. Below is the 4 minute trailer.

Milan Caliber 9 (1972)
Directed by Fernando Di Leo, this is the first film in his Milieu Trilogy, and again is said to have been inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s noirs and has gone on to inspire Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino claims Di Leo as the undisputed master of the poliziotteschi. What’s more, Brierly has the money quote for the whole issue in his description of Milan Caliber 9: “Di Leo’s films are also noteworthy in their rejection of the sentimentality that mars the overrated Godfather trilogy…” Wow. That is bold!

High Crime (1973) Italian: La polizia incrimina la legge assolve
Directed by the Enzo G. Castellari and starring the great Fernando Rey, this one takes place in Genoa and according to Brierly its box office success paved the way for numerous films that were to follow in this genre. And as with all the poliziotteschi, the focus on drug lords, the mob, terrorists, and general violence spilling out in the streets spoke to that extremely bloody moment in Italian history known as “The Years of Lead.” In fact, I imagine all of these films are inspired by the intense, political violence occurring in numerous cities around Italy.

The Violent Professionals (1973) Italian: Milano trema: la polizia vuole giustizia
Directed by Sergio Martino, the film stars Luc Merenda (Giorgio Caneparo) who goes undercover as a getaway driver for the mob so he can wage a one-man war on crime to avenge the death of father-figure cop Gianni (Silvano Tranquilli).

Here is the trailer:

And here is the entire film on YouTube (score!)

Gang War in Milan (1973) Italian Milano rovente (a.k.a Burning City)
Directed by Umberto Lenzi, according to Brierly this is one of Lenzi’s more stylized and harsher films of the genre (he made several) though like his other films is “incredibly sleazy and misogynistic.” The plot is might spell some of that out given the war breaks out when a French mobster tries to use the prostitutes of the pimp protagonist to distribute heroine. The horrific deaths, mostly of the prostitutes, punctuate the rest of the film. Hmmm.

Emergency Squad (1974) Italian: Squadra Volante
Directed by Stelvio Massi, this post at the Violent Italy blog does a good job summarizing the film:

Tomas Milian…stars as Ispettore Tomas Ravelli, a[n] interpol cop. Ravelli’s wife was killed years ago during a robbery and he’s never quite got over it and time has only made him hungrier for revenge against the men who killed her. When a similar robbery takes place in the city, Ravelli is convinced the men responsible are the same ones that killed his wife, due the similar circumstances of both cases. From there the hunt is on and Ravelli will risk his job to get his revenge.

Rome Armed to the Teeth (1976) Italian: Roma a mano armata
Here’s another directed by Umberto Lenzi, I love the plot sumamry by Il Commissario in this post on the euro cult movie forum Love Lock and Load , the Euro cult movie

Inspector Tanzi…is driven over the edge by the rampant violence and bloodshed from the criminal elements in Rome. Crooks he catches are released for various reasons- lack of evidence, his soft hearted psychologist girl friend (Maria Rosaria Ommagio). Tanzi, meanwhile, has his hands full with The Hunchback (Tomas Milian) and a rapist kidnapper (Ivan Rassimov) whom Tanzi has much trouble nailing them for their crimes. It all comes to an incredibly violent finale when the Hunchback commandeers an Ambulance just moments after Tanzi has killed off crooks robbing a bank. An impressive chase sequences follows where the Hunchback goes about mindlessly shooting people in the streets to escape Tanzi’s grasp.  One of the least subtle action films you’ll ever see, Lenzi is in total over the top, take no prisoners mode with the violence so overdone it becomes comical. The film never slows down for a minute and is an adrenaline rush of bloody shootouts, car chases and grimy criminals having their way with society.

The Big Racket (1976)
Another film in the genre directed by Castellari, this one was described by Italian film critic Morando Morandini as follows: “It’s a fascist film. It’s a vile film. It’s an idiot film.” Here’s a good plot summary by Jason Buchanan at Rotten Tomatoes:

A by-the-books cop struggling to bust a brutal protection racket in Rome is forced to throw the rules out the window when the vicious gang attempts to cement their status by moving into the drug trade in director Enzo G. Castellari’s tough-talking poliziotteschi. As the citizens of Rome continue to suffocate in the cold grip of fear, it’s up to determined inspector Nico Palmieri (Fabio Testi) to take back the streets from the murderers and rapists who terrorize the population and give the cruel thugs a hard lesson in street justice. When the only language that the criminal element understands is violence, Inspector Palmieri is more than willing to communicate in terms that will get the message across.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976) Italian: Uomini si nasce poliziotti si muore
This is director Ruggero Deodato’s only foray into the genre, but according to Brierly it left its mark: “Even within the politiziotteschi canon, some films are so transgressive and over-the-top as to beggar description. So a film is this mind-bending slice of cinematic incandescence from director Ruggero Deodato.”  Nice! The film was written b Fernando Di Leo, and it is described by Brierly as the “most violent and politically incorrect Italian cop film ever.” I like Trevor Willsmer’s description over at Amazon:

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man plays like a bright and breezy and bloody cross between Dirty Harry and Starsky and Hutch as Ray Lovelock and Marc Porel’s inseparable cops cheerfully go about their business of killing street scum a la Roma, whether they’re seriously injured or haven’t actually got round to starting the armoured car robbery they’re planning, all to the accompaniment of Lovelock’s easygoing ballads on the soundtrack. They may be a two man death squad, but the film retains a surprisingly bright and breezy tone as they go about their business with little in the way of opposition from their boss Adolfo Celi, the violence at once extreme but over the top – this is the kind of film where it’s not enough to shoot assassin off a motorbike, he has to crash into a car and fly off. And then get crushed by another oncoming car. Like the Dirty Harry films, most of the action scenes have little to do with the plot that sees them trying to track down Renato Salvatori’s elusive mobster but are just vignettes thrown in to keep things lively, but it manages it so well that it’s more a strength than a weakness.

The Last Round (1976)
Directed by Stelvio Massi, a plot summary can be found on Amazon:

…is a gritty, violent updating of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. Former middleweight boxing champion Carlos Monzón stars as a drifter who arrives in town with nothing but a music box and pictures of two dead women. Offering himself as a hired hand to the murderous Manzetti clan….Marco makes a side deal with the Manzetti’s rivals, the Belmondo family….setting the two gangs against one another in a bloody power struggle that will leave more dead than alive. Revenge is the motive… and hell to pay for both guilty and innocent.

After a quick search I found five of the above ten films are available as DVDs on Netflix: Milan Caliber 9, The Big Racket, Milano Rovente, Emergency Squad, and The Last Round . Violent City and Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man are listed in Netflix but both DVDs are not currently available. None of these films are streaming—though I did discover Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (Cane Arrabiati) is streaming in the U.S. under its DVD title Kidnapped.

Now that’s pretty cool, a top ten list of films I have never seen before, and thanks to Dean Brierly I have my next few weeks of 70s film mapped out, I am now officially a fan and Cinema Retro!

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