The Italian Crime Collection, Volume 2
by Troy Howarth
Despite a successful run of films covering a variety of genres in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, writer/director Fernando Di Leo sunk into comparative obscurity for a number of years. Happily, the advent of home video has introduced him to a new generation of fans – and with much of his work finally emerging as it was originally intended to be seen, he is now firmly entrenched in the ranks of the major Italian “cult” filmmakers. Di Leo, who first rose to prominence writing the screenplays for a number of seminal pictures (including Sergio Leone’s A Fisftful of Dollars, 1964), was fond of working in his own leftist politics and ideology into rough and ready genre fare, making him akin to the likes of George A. Romero. Ultimately, like Romero, his work is all the more pleasurable for having a bit of substance beneath the conventional mayhem – and the messages are all the more potent because they’re not hammered home in a pretentious or overly earnest manner.
Naked Violence (1969)
Starring Pier Paolo Capponi, Susan Scott, Michel Bardinet
A group of youths come under suspicion for the brutal rape and murder of a young, female teacher; an intrepid police inspector (Pier Paolo Capponi) must come to grips with the truth…
Naked Violence (aka I ragazzi del massarcro) followed on the heels of Di Leo’s earliest directorial outings, including the war melodrama Code Name, Red Roses (1968) and the erotic melodrama Burn, Boy, Burn (1969), and it was the first film to point to the direction his career would ultimately take. Based on a novel by the Italian-Russian author Giorgio Scerbanenco, it offers up a heady stew of social commentary and tough edged whodunit. The end result, like the director’s subsequent Scerbanenco adaptations (including Calibre 9 and The Italian Connection), is therefore more akin to the tradition of film noir than to the burgeoning trend in Italian popular cinema known as poliziotteschi. The latter movement, typified by the slam bang actioneers of Umberto Lenzi (Violent Naples) and Enzo G. Castellari (The Big Racket), are altogether more jovial affairs, rife with shoot ups, half naked bimbos, and impossibly macho renegade cops packing plenty of heat. The Di Leo films are a different breed altogether, being rather more contained, slightly more realistic, and a good deal more melancholy in tone. Naked Violence is therefore a watershed event in its director’s filmography, even if it ultimately doesn’t pack quite the same punch as his later, more focused work. The screenplay is more concerned with subterfuge than usual, and this may account for the slightly more heavy handed approach. Red herrings abound, and Di Leo has an unfortunate habit of punctuating key “moments” with dramatic musical stings; the end result veers towards self parody after a while. On the plus side, the film offers the underrated Pier Paolo Capponi one of his few leading roles – and despite a somewhat out of control combover hairdo, he acquits himself very well. Capponi specialized in playing policemen at this stage in the game, but he would later flourish playing sleazy villains in the likes of Di Leo’s The Boss, for example. Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro) is on hand to play a concerned social worker arguing on behalf of the delinquents, but she doesn’t have much of a chance to register. The film is a bit wordier and flabbier than Di Leo’s best work, but it still offers some entertainment value – and fans will be interested to see where he began to evolve into the filmmaker he would eventually become.
Shoot First, Die Later (1975)
Starring Luc Merenda, Richard Conte, Salvo Randone, Raymond Pellegrin, Vittorio Caprioli
A hotshot cop (Luc Merenda) is secretly on the take, but when the local mob boss decides to expand his horizons from contraband to narcotics, he is forced to make a decision that may affect his life and the lives of those he loves…
Having already carved out a niche for himself as a prime purveyor of gritty police thrillers, Di Leo took a breather and helmed an elegant, Lolita-inspired melodrama titled The Seduction (1973). Censorship difficulties compelled the director to return to his “home turf” with Shoot First, Die Later (aka Il poliziotto e Marcio). Sadly, the theme of a crooked cop would also prove a bit too controversial, and the film has since disappeared from popular view. Now that it is more readily available again, it is possible to appreciate this as something of a precursor to the likes of the Hong Kong Infernal Affairs trilogy, which also inspired Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed (2006). Luc Merenda gives one of his strongest performances as the morally compromised “hero.” Di Leo is less interested in painting the character in broad strokes than in focusing on the moral conundrums and contradictions inherent in the character, and Merenda responds with a finely detailed performance. The action moves at a tremendous pace, while Remy Julienne is on hand to provide one of his patented, thrilling car chase sequences. Di Leo and cowriter Sergio Donati (another Sergio Leone alum) pile on the twists and turns, ensuring that the story remains surprising and engaging throughout. A solid supporting cast includes faded American leading man Richard Conte, two years away from a plum supporting part in The Godfather but already back at work on low budget Italian genre fare.
The Kidnap Syndicate (1975)
Starring Luc Merenda, James Mason, Irina Meleeva, Valentina Cortese, Vittorio Caprioli, Renato Romano
A plan to kidnap the child of a wealthy businessman (James Mason) backfires when the kidnappers are forced to abduct the child’s friend. The father of the latter (Luc Merenda) refuses to sit idly by and negotiate with the criminals…
Kidnap Syndicate (aka La citta sconvolta, Caccia spietata di rapitori) is one of Di Leo’s more serious films of the period. Loaded Guns, Nick the Sting and Rulers of the City all saw the director exploring the potential of (occasionally hamfisted) comedy elements being incorporated into his favored crime material, and the results were decidedly mixed. No such intrusions are evident in this picture, which contains some of the best acting to be found in any of his films. Merenda equals his fine work in Shoot First with his portrayal of the hardworking blue collar patriarch who is forced to contend with a gang of desperate criminals, while the great James Mason brings his customary class and style to his smaller role as the wealthy father who refuses to part so easily with his money. Di Leo regular Vittorio Caprioli is also in good form as the exasperated police commissioner, while familiar character actors like Renato Romano (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Tom Felleghy (The Cat O’Nine Tails) put in welcome appearances. One time leading lady Valentina Cortese (an Oscar nominee for Truffaut’s Day for Night) is wasted in a nothing role as Mason’s wife. Di Leo goes to pains to highlight the differences between the haves and the have nots, and it’s clear where his sympathies lie – Mason’s millionaire comes off as haughty and superficial, while Merenda’s “everyman” is dynamic and sympathetic throughout. Though burdened by a few too many indifferently staged exposition scenes involving the police and their investigation, Kidnap Syndicate packs a punch where it counts.
Raro’s release of The Italian Crime Collection, Volume 2 is most welcome. Though Kidnap Syndicate and Naked Violence had already been issued by Raro’s European branch on DVD, this set marks the home video debut of Shoot First. All three films are presented in their original 1.85 aspect ratio and have been enhanced for widescreen TVs. The 1080p transfers look as good as the source materials will allow – colors are vivid, detail is strong, and the prints are in generally fine condition, with only some minor imperfections which serve to remind one that these are older titles. Grain is evident throughout and the films have not been over scrubbed with DNR. The films are spread over three discs, and are Region A coded.
Audio options for all three include both the English and Italian dubs. One’s individual tastes will determine which tracks to listen to – familiar “English” voice talent like Mason and Conte do their own looping on the English tracks, while they are inevitably dubbed by Italian vocal artists on the Italian tracks. The various tracks are in good shape – the funky music scores (two of the three are scored by Luis Bacalov) and copious displays of gun fire sound loud and clear, while dialogue is limited by the hollow nature of the dubbing process. Easy to read, removable English subtitles are included for the Italian tracks.
Extras include a collectible booklet with writing on all three films, as well as documentaries on all three films. Di Leo, who passed away in 2003, is a feisty presence in the various documentaries, and he comes off as pragmatic and down to earth with regards to his attitude towards his own work. Fans will definitely want to check out the various documentaries, which also include comments from the likes of Capponi, Merenda, and various key technicians and associates of Di Leo.
Naked Violence: *** out of *****; Shoot First, Die Later: ****1/2 out of *****; The Kidnap Syndicate: *** out of *****
Naked Violence: ***1/2 out of *****; Shoot First, Die Later: ***1/2 out of *****; The Kidnap Syndicate: ***1/2 out of *****
Naked Violence: *** out of *****; Shoot First, Die Later: *** out of *****; The Kidnap Syndicate: *** out of *****
Extras (All three): ***** out of *****