Fernando Di Leo, the godfather of the poliziotteschi (Italy’s brutal take on the crime thriller genre of the seventies), dismantled the anti-hero glorification of the mafia in the Milieu Trilogy—Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1972), and The Boss (1973)—with an unflinching portrait of its corrupt values. There was no criminal code for these mercenary mafia soldiers and self-serving bosses, merely greed and survival (as discussed in yesterday’s Keyframe story on Di Leo). For his next bout with organized crime, Di Leo cast his lens beyond the insular mob world to the culture at large and found that corruption seeped into every level of law and order. While it’s not quite accurate to call Shoot First, Die Later (1974), Kidnap Syndicate (1975), and Rulers of the City (1976) a trilogy in their own right, together they offer a companion series to his mob trilogy where victims of the mafia’s indifference to civilian lives take on the syndicate. Not of idealism, mind you, simply out of vengeance and rage.
Shoot First, Die Later stars Luc Merenda as a hotshot cop on the Milan strike force. Young, good looking and always at the center of big, splashy cases, Domenico Malacarne is the department poster boy for police heroism and he kicks off the film with a ferocious car chase that rivals The French Connection. (It’s the first of two riveting sequences coordinated by French stunt driver Remy Julienne, both among most impressive car chases I’ve seen in seventies cinema.) Little does the media or his own father, a modest and idealistic career cop in a sleepy station in a Milan suburb, know that he’s on the take. Not until a request from the mob puts him in a compromising position and his father in the cross-hairs of the mob.
Fernando Di Leo was, in the estimation of genre-hound Quentin Tarantino, “the master” of the Italian crime movie, or the “poliziotteschi.” A violent action genre that picked up the escalating violence of American films like Dirty Harry and The French Connection, films where blood spattered and cops got their hands dirty, it was never as popular an export as the spaghetti western (which is displaced on Italian screens) or the giallo (which took the violence to surreal, sadistic extremes) but it sure put that distinctly Italian stamp on the genre. At its best, it brought the mercenary cynicism and greed of the spaghetti western into the contemporary urban milieu and, in the shadow of The Godfather, undercut the romantic notions of family and honor with a ruthless portrait of cutthroat underworld capitalism and unforgiving vengeance.
The films of Fernando Di Leo are the poliziotteschi at its best and four of his films in particular dismantle the pulp glorification of the mafia: Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1972), and The Boss (1973), which make-up his Milieu Trilogy, and his postscript Rulers of the City (1976). Like most directors in the industry, di Leo worked in the popular genres of the day, writing spaghetti westerns and directing a handful of giallo and sexploitation pictures before making Caliber 9, his first mob movie. Itopens on a scene like something out of a spy thriller—packages passed from hand to hand, a covert trade-off in the subway, and back through the daisy chain of handoffs until the new package is brought back home—and Di Leo admires the precision of the operation. And then it all descends into startling brutality after the mob payout is stolen. It’s an inside job and everyone who touched the package is systematically tortured and murdered with a flamboyance that would be perversely comic (death by dynamite) were it not so sadistic. They’re not guilty, merely expendable.
Italian crime thriller director Fernando Di Leo is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino — the director has gone on record crediting Di Leo’s 1972 The Italian Connection as an inspiration for Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction — but apart from a few dubbed and often recut VHS releases, his films were not readily available on home video for Americans to see. Raro Video has made it their mission to correct that oversight. In 2011 they released the box set Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection, featuring four stand-out gangster movies on DVD (the Blu-ray edition came out in 2012), and after a few stand-alone releases in the interim, they follow it up in 2013 with Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection Vol. 2 (Raro) on both DVD and Blu-ray.
This three-disc set boxes up Shoot First, Die Later (1974), a ruthless crime drama starring Luc Merenda as a corrupt cop on a mission of righteous vengeance (previously released as a stand-alone disc), with two disc debuts: Naked Violence (1969), a juvenile delinquent cop drama by way of social commentary, and Kidnap Syndicate (1975), a revenge thriller with Merenda, this time playing an innocent bystander roused to take justice into his own hands.
Shoot First, Die Later, one of Di Leo’s best, stars Merenda as Domenico Malacarne, a hotshot cop on the Milan strike force. Young, good looking, and at the center of big, dangerous cases, he is the department poster boy for police heroism and Di Leo kicks off the film with a volatile undercover assignment and a ferocious car chase that rivals The French Connection. Just the thing to introduce Domenico as an ambitious hero with a penchant for muscular assignments and brazen action, right before revealing that he’s on take. The collision of the unpredictable nature of character with the impersonal code of mafia business is at the center of Di Leo’s best gangster films and revenge is big, bloody, and violent. So when Domenico’s father, a modest and idealistic career cop who sacrifices all for his son (including, at one point, his moral code), is murdered by a local mafia lieutenant, Domenico goes after the mob and its business-like boss (Richard Conte), who negotiates the crisis with ruthless aplomb after his underlings botch the job.
Young, Violent, Dangerous opens with on a warning. Lea (Eleonora Giorgi, of Dario Argento’s Inferno), worried for her rather weak boyfriend, wants the police commissioner (Italian crime movie stalwart Tomas Milian, in cool seventies badass mode) to stop these otherwise “good boys” from embarking in an impulsive gas station robbery. Cut to three smiling, fun-loving young men romping with if anything overly boyish energy through the city center piazza of Milan like little kids, playing tag to a jaunty score like harmless pranksters on the way to a practical joke. The commissioner is dubious but posts men at the gas station to wait for these misguided guys with fake guns. Except the guns are not fake and these harmless boys explode in a fury of gunfire that leaves four dead and sparks a spree of robbery and murder. It turns out that while Lea thought she was simply reporting a potential petty crime, the real warning was about the dangerous instability of Italy’s youth on the verge of exploding. Or so one would surmise from the film.
Young, Violent, Dangerous is scripted by Fernando Di Leo, who directed some of the most interesting Italian gangster films of the seventies, but it’s no gangster movie. The trio of young men are neither thugs nor political activist. They are educated and affluent, from respectable families with money and status, but something snaps with the first gunshot that sends them on a thrill kill crime spree, targeting everyone from cops and bankers to student revolutionaries and mobsters. It’s like a distinctly seventies vision of post-sixties protest gone sour. Their actions are neither political statement nor social protest, and the money means nothing to them; they literally toss it out the window in their getaway, a sign of their disdain for such crude matters as money. It’s like fantasy game of cops and robbers with live rounds, motivated by nothing but the rush of power and violence and undirected rebellion.
Mario (Stefano Patrizi), who goes by Blondie, looks like an easy-going fellow but reveals himself as the manipulative alpha member of the trio, cheerleading one partner on to match his mayhem and shaming the other into sticking with them despite his better judgment. The fact that entire Milan police force is on their trail only adds to the thrill of the chase, and Blondie’s bloodlust doesn’t differentiate between cop, ally or bystander. To the film’s credit, he doesn’t spout any Nietzschean line of philosophical justification. If anything, he’s a closet sociopath suddenly set free, and as things heat up, he reveals underlying misogyny (in the presence of naked and willing young women, he gets his kicks tying up and lashing one of the girls) and homophobia (as evidenced by sneering comments).
Caliber 9 (1972), the earliest film in the Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection quartet of Italian gangster pictures, opens on a scene like something out of a spy thriller—packages passed from hand to hand until the trade-off in the subway, and then the swaps back until the new package is brought back home—but quickly descends into a sequence of startling brutality, all the more brutal because the characters who are systematically tortured and murdered (blown up by dynamite in a cave in the hills, like something out of a perverse melodrama) are not guilty of the crimes they are suspected of. They are simply expendable.
The debut mob movie from writer/director Fernando Di Leo, a veteran screenwriter of spaghetti westerns who came to Caliber 9 (1972) after directing a handful of giallo and sexploitation pictures, establishes the sensibility of his gangster films to come: a hard, unfeeling brutality, a pitiless expediency and an understanding of who is expendable, who is untouchable, and what happens when those rules are broken, as they invariably, inevitably are. This set limns the boundaries of the Italian mafia movie in four rough, tough, pitiless films of greed, ambition, revenge, corruption and the lie of the criminal code.
These are hard, stripped down, lean narratives, where the complicated webs of alliances and betrayals are laid out with clean storytelling lines of force and set in motion with a pitiless momentum. Not that they move at a machine-gun pace, but the plots and schemes tumble out of the control of everyone involved and the reverberations of every attack—success or failure—has consequences that ripple through the underworld.