Monday, November 23, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Mafioso (1962); Al Capone (1959); Charley Varrick (1973)

Mafioso (1962)

Director: Laberto Lattuada

A slow, frightening burn of a mafia movie. This was one of the more unique and unnerving gangster movies I've yet seen.

Mafioso takes some time to get to the "mafia" elements. For much of the film, we follow Antonio Badalamenti, a native Sicilian who has long since left his home island and become a successful manager in a Milanese industrial factory. He has a beautiful wife and two charming little daughters, whom he is bringing home for a 2-week vacation during which they will meet his family for the first time. Antonio has also been given a peculiar little task by his superior at the factory - to deliver a "very valuable" small package to Don Vincenzo, an extremely prominent man in Antonio's hometown. Antonio's manager says that he and his "friends" in New Jersey, U.S.A., have some business with Vincenzo, though the details are not explained to Antonio. The fastidious and ever-pleasant Antonio agrees without hesitation.

Upon arriving in Sicily, Antonio quickly embraces his old roots. His large and traditional family welcomes him warmly into their home, though Antonio's cosmopolitan wife has difficulty adjusting to the earthy and standoffish demeanor of her husband's mother and aunts. Antonio begins to reconnect and catch up with his old friends, who refer to him by his old nickname "Nino." It soon becomes clear that the entire town is still dominated by Don Vincenzo, the patriarchal mafia leader who commands respect and admiration of nearly everyone in town. There are hints at possible dissenters, though we are led to believe that such malcontents have been dispatched. Despite this air of death, Antonio pays his obligatory respects and delivers his manager's package to the Don.

Then Antonio's world goes completely sideways.

Just as his wife seems to be acclimating and Antonio begins to fully relax, he is pulled into the mafia world which he had left behind long before. Being an "outsider" and a preternaturally good shot, Antonio is pegged to exact an assassination. The otherwise kindly factory manager is all but kidnapped and forced to embark on a strange and dizzying journey to New York City, where he is expected to execute a rival Don.

Mafioso is undoubtedly one of the strangest and most intriguing gangster movies I've ever seen. The senses of place are so well established that we can easily grasp the anxiety, confusion, and terror that Antonio falls into. Our introduction to Antonio is in Milan, where his satisfied clockwork attention to detail speaks of a man right at home in the bustling modern city. Once in Sicily, though, we soon see the culture from which he comes. His town and family follow modes that are fastly fixed in traditions hundreds of years old, from the burka-like robes that the older women wear to the vicious culture of murder and vendetta which the men fully embrace and accept as a fact of life. When Antonio is made an assassin against his will and whisked away to New York City, we get the sense that he has fallen down some horrible rabbit hole where he must act out the very worst things which he had sought to escape in going to Milan.

This movie has stayed with me since watching it a few days before writing this. It is a frightening prospect to consider that one's childhood environment can reach out and warp a person into becoming a monster, and this is what Mafioso presents to us. It can be slow in the telling, as the buildup is very gradual, but this lends it even more power. It is not at all difficult to see why this is considered one of the great gangster movies.

Movie pairing: I couldn't help but think that the modern Sicilian mafia movie Gomorrah makes for a great follow-up viewing for Mafioso. Like the latter, the former explores just how organized crime can impact average people who may have or may want nothing to do with the nefarious crime organization.

Al Capone (1959)

Director: Richard Wilson

A solid film which is even more fascinating when taken in the historical context of gangster movies which came before and after it.

As you can guess, Al Capone offers the tale of the infamous Chicago gangster's violent and ruthless rise to power in the Depression Era. It starts from his arrival in Chicago, following his departure from his native New York City under shady circumstances. Capone (Rod Steiger) becomes a bouncer at a bar run by friend and fellow criminal Johnny Torrio. Through Torrio's connections to Chicago's organized crime syndicates, the ruthless and vicious Capone quickly rises to the head of the local families. He readily employs any method to obtain and maintain power, including murder, extortion, election fixing, and legal manipulation. Law enforcement does catch up to Capone by the mid-1930s, though, after he has spent nearly a decade lording over much of Chicago. His many legal transgression land him in Alcatraz Prison for several years.

The historical points covered in the film are familiar to most Americans with any interest in this iconically notorious criminal. What Al Capone offered was a less glamorous portrait of the title villain than many previous biopics had offered. In fact, star Rod Steiger had refused the first three scripts sent to him since he felt they showed Capone in overly glamorous tones. What the 1959 version gives us is a snarling, pugnacious, and murderous thug who happened to be in the right place at the right time, and who had enough low cunning to satisfy his unrelenting greed. This was a rare depiction of a man who had often been exhibited without his more repellent characteristics.

The fascinating aspect of this movie was how, technique-wise, it so clearly had a foot in both the past and future, with 1959 being the fulcrum. Rod Steiger's performance is the most obvious. While his raging, manic rants evoked images of more overblown acting techniques from the earlier half of the 20th century, the dialogue sometimes had a more disturbing and modern authenticity. The quieter, creepier moments also had a realism which is far eerier than nearly any movie that came before it. The sliminess with which Capone oozes his way into the life of his future wife has a naturalistic look which is unnerving.

This is a great gangster movie to watch in the middle of several of it's predecessors and successors. One can clearly see how it acted as a sort of bridge between earlier films like Key Largo or White Heat, and later films like Bonnie and Clyde or Dillinger.

Charley Varrick (1973)

Director: Don Seigel

Interesting in its grittiness and tension, but a crime movie lacking soul.

Walter Matthau plays the titular thief, a very clever and calculating bank robber who pulls a daring heist with his wife and three other professional larcenists. Things don't go quite as planned, though, in several ways. During the robbery, Varrick's wife and two other members of the five-person crew are killed by police. Once Varrick and the lone other survivor, the hot-headed Harman, execute the rest of their careful getaway, they discover that the amount of cash taken far exceeds their expectations. While the impetuous Harman thinks little of this beyond imagining just how he'll spend his six figures in stolen loot, the wiser Varrick knows that such a large sum will be sorely missed. The two soon learn that Varrick is all-too correct, as the money belonged to the mafia, who has sent a ruthless hitman on their trail.

The crime elements of the story are actually quite good. In ways that foreshadow Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men (as well as the Coen Brothers superb film adaptation), you have a cold-blooded and chillingly intelligent killer chasing down an equally crafty thief. Watching just how they circle and re-circle one another makes for fairly compelling viewing. For me, though, this is where my interest stopped.

The characters simply didn't evoke any kind of empathy, sympathy, or any other emotion which made me care for them one way or the other. Walter Matthau has often played ornery but likable characters. Charley Varrick is not one of them. Varrick doesn't bat an eye as his wife and fellow bank robbers mercilessly gun down police officers. Varrick himself also shows little care for any of the other people whom he sells out or puts in harm's way. The only thing you're left to admire about him is that he is smarter than the other criminals around him and after him.

And then there's the misogyny. What gritty crime movie made between 1967 and 1978 would be complete without a funk jazz music score to accompany a woman getting slapped a few times before jumping into bed with her abuser? Between movies like Point Blank, Dirty Harry, and plenty of others including Charley Varrick, this bizarre sadomasochism was practically a matter of course. For my part, such scenes make me want to take a shower afterwards.

Charley Varrick is a decent enough movie to see one time, if you know how to take your '70s film crime with its requisite amount of sleaze and utter lack of amorality. I'll never need to bother again, though.