A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Dessario Tessari (Arrow, Blu-ray) A Fistful of Dynamite (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray)
Duccio Tessari is not one of the directors known for spaghetti westerns. In fact, he only directed two in his long and successful career, both with Giuliano Gemma (billed as Montgomery Wood) playing against the mercenary expectations of the defining spaghetti western anti-hero. Both make their American home video debut as Blu-ray double feature.
In A Pistol for Ringo (Italy, 1965), Gemma is a wily gunfighter known to all as Angel Face who is released from jail to infiltrate a gang of Mexican bank robbers holding a rancher’s family hostage in their manor home, which they’ve guarded like fortress. Sancho (Fernando Sancho) plays the jolly bandit king who acts like he’d prefer to let everyone live and then has his men drop anyone who gets out of line, but he isn’t shy about executing his hostages as the stand-off drags on, and he targets the lowly Mexican laborers, hardly the actions of the Robin Hood he pretends to be.
Tessario was an uncredited writer on A Fistful of Dollars and the high body count, ruthless killers, double crosses and calculated ambushes seem to be informed, if not outright inspired, by Leone’s film. But while Ringo appears to be a classic heartless mercenary bidding up his services, he turns out to be more of a lovable rogue with a soft spot for women and kids and a loyalty to the good guys.
The first few minutes of The Pawnbroker, the 1964 screen version of Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel about a concentration camp survivor in New York City, takes us from an idealized memory of a family picnic in pre-World War II Europe (a soft-focus dream about to tip into nightmare) to an anonymous Long Island suburb to the slums of Harlem, where Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) runs a cluttered pawnshop. It’s a series of whiplash culture shocks that doesn’t exactly tell us what we need to know about Sol’s journey but sets the stage for his dislocation. Once he lived his life. Now he simply endures it.
His young, energetic assistant Jesus (Jaime Sánchez of The Wild Bunch) talks a mile a minute and many of the shop’s walk-ins, a stream of addicts, hookers, thieves, and a few lonely souls more desperate for contact than cash, try to engage Sol in the most rudimentary of conversations. But Sol is an impenetrable wall of business. He’s not rude or dismissive, even when slurs are spit his way, simply terse and direct and unyielding. “I have escaped my emotions,” is how he explains it to Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), the widow of his once-closest friend. To an insistent social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who keeps gently pressing him to talk, he’s more forthright about his dispassion and disinterest in his customers or anyone else. “Black, white, or yellow, they are all equally scum. Rejects.” After losing his wife, his children, and his parents to the Nazis and the concentration camps, Sol has lost faith in God and humanity alike.
A disparate collection of crooks, small-time hustlers, and disreputable characters knocking around Monte Carlo are brought together to rob a casino in an elaborate heist in Seven Thieves (1960), an unshowy caper film from Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway. Edward G. Robinson plays the mastermind of the job, Theo Wilkins, a once-respected scientist whose career foundered after serving time for theft, and Rod Steiger plays his loyal friend, partner, and right hand Paul Mason, a sophisticated career criminal brought over by Theo to run the untrustworthy crew.
The film was promoted by Fox as “Little Caesar meets Al Capone,” referring to the pairing of old school gangster star Robinson with method actor (and Al Capone star) Steiger. In fact, Theo is much closer to another Robinson role from his gangster past: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), where Robinson’s titular doctor joins a criminal gang to research his book and ends up plotting their robberies. Theo could be Clitterhouse twenty years later, an old pro more interested in the mechanics and execution of the perfect plan than the money.
Joan Collins plays the key to their scheme, a stripper in a second-rate nightclub where the nervous assistant director of Monte Carlo’s biggest casino arrives nightly to watch her dance, and Eli Wallach is her mentor and mother hen Poncho, who blows the saxophone (and at one point becomes a partner in her routine) in the club’s jazz combo. The team is filled out by Michael Dante as the grinning safecracker, Berry Kroeger as the driver and team muscle, and Alexander Scourby as the reluctant partner inside the club, the casino assistant director pressured by Collins to be their inside man.
The 1959 gangster biopic Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger as the man they called Scarface (but not to his face), plays on TCM this month as part of its “All-Stars of Prohibition” festival.
Al Capone (1959), starring celebrated Method actor Rod Steiger as the most notorious mobster in gangland history, was the most ambitious entry in the genre. Produced by Allied Artists, a small but ambitious studio specializing in lurid, punchy low-budget genre pictures, and efficiently directed by Richard Wilson, a former assistant to Orson Welles, this B&W film is not lavish by the standards of the glossy Hollywood spectacles but it delivers period recreations and bustling scenes on a small budget. The visual approach owes as much to television and the semi-documentary style of the popular TV series The Untouchables (which also had a significant hand in the gangster revival) as to the old studio gangster pictures. The spectacle is not in the scope of the sets or locations, but in the brutal blasts of violence and the larger-than-life incarnation that Steiger brings to Capone on his rise from loyal, ambitious, opera-loving thug to the top dog in the Chicago syndicate, ruling the South Side with fear, intimidation and machine gun diplomacy.
The stocky, serious Steiger had a fortuitous resemblance to Capone but it’s his volatile performance that defines the character. The real life Capone was a celebrity gangster, living and working openly, proclaiming himself “just a businessman,” and was always in the media lens. Steiger plays him as a thug dictator, putting on a show of power and money and social ambition as if trying to prove himself to the world while resentment seethes beneath the tailored suits and mannered public front. “He was, to me, a showman, an actor,” Steiger explained in an interview with New Yorker writer Helen Ross. Robert De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables (1987) has echoes of Steiger’s performance.