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.
In a Di Leo film, it’s the collision of the unpredictable nature of character with the impersonal code of mafia business that complicates things. Domenico doesn’t have much dimension as a character—he’s really quite callow, just a guy who thrives on the adrenaline of dangerous assignments and lives beyond his salary on the payoffs from the mob as if he’s earned it—but he takes the condemnation of his father like a slap. When Dad becomes collateral damage in a mob mop-up, the guilt and fury that fuels his rampage is explosive. The American guest mobster here is Richard Conte, who plays the business-like boss and negotiates the crisis with ruthless aplomb.
American cop heroes of the seventies, especially those played by Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, were mavericks, outcasts, idealists and obsessives, but they were always focused on justice, however they defined it. Domenico has no such moral line. This compromised cop stops justifying his corruption only when he’s crossed by his paymasters. It’s not justice, it’s revenge, but since he’s avenging an innocent and taking out the bad guys, he’ll do as the hero in this equation.
Merenda also takes the lead in Kidnap Syndicate but this time he’s neither cop nor crook. Mario Colella is just a simple mechanic and working class single father who gets caught in the middle of mob business and corporate gamesmanship when his schoolboy son is grabbed up in the kidnapping of a rich man’s boy. This is a much angrier film and the outrage is focused on both the kidnappers and the dispassionate industrialist (James Mason, playing the part with silky corruption and unfeeling arrogance) whose son was the original target. Don’t expect a variation of High and Low here or any empathy from the tycoon. Mario’s boy is collateral damage in an elaborate game where tycoons and criminals treat human life as a business deal, something to be negotiated for maximum leverage. The innocent kid is just another bargaining chip and that sends the level-headed Mario out to exact his own justice.
One of Di Leo’s greatest strengths is his fascination with and focus on process and detail, and one of the pleasures of his mob movies is the detail with which he observes the execution of everything from a payoff to an assassination. The kidnapping here is shown not just as an elaborately-planned job but a veritable cottage industry masterminded by the mob and farmed out to hired thugs, who follow strict orders as they carry out the dirty work. There’s a corporate hierarchy to the whole dirty business, a parallel that shows big business and mob business as just two sides of the same enterprise. It’s also the key to Mario’s vengeance. He’s a former motorcycle racer who retired to look after his son, so where Shoot First, Die Later was highlighted by elaborate and visceral car chases, the final act of Kidnap Syndicate is built on Mario’s biker skills to track the chain of command and complete his vengeance. His revenge isn’t a matter of balancing the scales, it’s simply payback from a man who hasn’t anything left to live for, and thus nothing to lose.
We’re back on the mean streets of the underworld for Rulers of the City (1976) but the battle here isn’t between rival gangs. Jack Palance takes top billing as Scarface, a feared rival boss who is scammed by reckless young debt collector Tony (Harry Baer, a former Fassbinder regular) and his new buddy Ric (Al Cliver), a blond thug who was recently kicked to the curb by Scarface. At first glance it looks to be a stupid stunt by a sophomoric soldier, the kind of ill-advised act sure to get a fatal response, but there’s more going on here and it all springs from the prologue, an ambiguous scene that ripples out through the entire film. This is no confidence game nor a planned gang war, simply a matter of unstoppable forces unleashed in an elaborate (if not at all well-planned) revenge plot. Reckless courage and immature bravado take care of the rest. It’s also, for all the gunplay and gangster violence, the lightest of the bunch, a mix of caper, revenge and gang war movies rolled into a neat package, stirred with an offbeat sense of humor and capped with the closest Di Leo comes to a happy ending. Assuming there is such a thing as a happy ending built on the corpses of the losers.