on April 23, 2011
After watching way too many poor transfers of Euro films from the seventies, it's a real treat when I get a chance to see them released by a studio that actually cares what the final product looks like. In my opinion, Raro Video did an outstanding job with these four films, from the production value of the transfers to the package as a whole. I'm not going to imply that each one of these films is a five-star effort - even though fans of this director and this genre will most likely rate them very high, while others may nitpick at them - rather that it is the collection itself that I'm rating as top of the line, one that any enthusiast of Eurocrime or seventies cinema will find it well worth their time to track down.
Were I to rate them separately, I would give each film four stars - they all have their plusses and minuses, which seem inextricably linked in each. The first three films - Caliber 9, The Italian Connection, and The Boss - are part of Di Leo's 'Milieu Trilogy', a loosely linked series that doesn't follow a continuous storyline, but rather examines the criminal landscape of Italy in the early 1970's. Taking inspiration from the stories of Russian-born émigré Giorgio Scerbanenco, 'Caliber 9' (Milano Calibro 9) may very well be the overall best of the three, with Gastone Moschin taking up the part of the just-released convict Ugo Piazza, whom the berserk Mario Adorf suspects of having stolen money from his organization prior to the start of his three year-prison sentence. Labeled as noir by some, with a plot twisting and turning as well as anything by Chandler or Hammett, this film has one remarkable ending.
Mario Adorf returns in 'The Italian Connection' (La Mala Ordina) as a small-time pimp and hustler Luca Canali who gets served up as a fall-guy for two American hit men (Woody Strode and Henry Silva), who are sent to Milan to make an example of the man who stole a shipment of heroin. On the run, with nothing to lose, its either fight back against the overwhelming odds or die. This one is also based on a Scerbanenca story, and though I don't think it's quite on the same level as 'Caliber 9', it is still an extremely entertaining film. Henry Silva is back again in the trilogy's final installment, 'The Boss' (Il Boss), as bit-player Nick Lanzetta, and the film tracks his violent climb to the top of the organization. Somewhat talky, which slows down the film in spots, Silva still shines as an ice-cold killer.
The last film, supposedly exclusive to this box set, is 'Rulers of the City' (I Padroni della Città) with Jack Palance, Al Cliver and Harry Baer. This film seems somewhat mislabeled as a comedy - it is a bit more light-hearted than the others, but that's about it. Baer (looking like nothing so much as the younger brother of Robert Downey Jr.) and Cliver, a couple of nobodies trying to get ahead in the world, scam Palance's organization out of 10 million Lira. Getting the money was easy - getting away with it is the hard part.
All four films are highly entertaining, though time and distance mutes some of the social commentary that di Leo peppered his films with. All but 'The Italian Connection' include a soundtrack by Luis Bacalov, which reminds me (especially in 'Caliber 9') of the outstandingly funky pinball theme from Sesame Street. I watched all the films in Italian, but they all come with both English and Italian options. From my understanding, all Italian films from this time were re-dubbed after filming, even for Italian audiences, and 'Caliber 9' has probably the worst dubbing of the four films, though I consider this somewhat to be expected with these films and don't subtract much because of it. The 'Milieu Trilogy' films are all in 16x9 anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1; 'Rulers of the City' is non-anamorphic wide-screen (black bars on top, bottom and sides). Above all, these films look terrific. Restored and remastered, they pop off the screen. Extras include five documentaries spread out over the four discs, consisting of interviews with Di Leo, his actors and crew, and historians to address different subjects relating to each film. Also included in the box set is a small booklet containing excerpts of the Di Leo interview.
While its understandable that anyone can get a lemon, I thought the packaging in this collection was fine - each film comes in its own case, and which are exactly the same as regular DVD packaging except that they are half as thick. The DVD itself is affixed to a spindle to keep it in place (as it is in traditional cases), and unlike some cheap sets, the tension on the spindle is sufficient to keep the DVD from slipping off and banging around loose inside the case. All my DVD's arrived in good shape and played well, and I highly recommend the entire set.
on December 11, 2013
My first experience with Fernando di Leo's films was on Video Asia's Thug City Chronicles: Volume 1 collection, which contained decent transfers of "Milan Caliber 9," "The Italian Connection," and "The Boss." The drawback about the Video Asia set was the presentation, which had panned-and-scanned letterbox versions of each film to fit a 4:3 frame. When I looked up the movies from the Thug City set on Amazon and found this Blu-Ray box set, I was thrilled, and even more so when I found that it was on sale for almost 50% off. I snatched up a copy and have recently completed watching the set on Blu-Ray, and thought it deserved a review.
I started with the first and arguably the best film, "Milan Caliber 9," which is simply labeled "Caliber 9" by Raro Video. This movie was Fernando di Leo's first entry into the euro-crime genre and the first part of the loosely-connected Milieu trilogy. Gastone Moschin plays Ugo Piazza, a hood who just spent three years in prison after getting nailed for robbery. Unfortunately, Ugo's old mafia buddies (which includes Italian mainstay Mario Adorf as the vicious Rocco and Lionel Stander, the voice of Kup from Transformers: The Movie, as Rocco's boss) believe that he has $300,000 of Stander's money hidden somewhere. The cops, who are really no better than the crooks, want Ugo to snitch on Stander and send him and his associates up the river. Even the beautiful Barbara Bouchet, who plays Ugo's girlfriend, believes he has the money. When push comes to shove, Ugo starts manipulating Stander, Adorf, Bouchet, and the cops like a chess master, making all of them run around like a Chinese fire drill. But boy, he didn't see that double-cross coming, and neither will you.
The second film in the Milieu trilogy is "The Italian Connection," which has been available for years in the public domain as "Manhunt." Henry Silva and Woody Strode headline this tale of two American hitmen sent to Milan to eliminate a small-time pimp named Luca Canoli (played to the hilt by Mario Adorf). They're told that he ripped off a New York cocaine shipment, but that couldn't be further from the truth, and the more Luca tries to figure out why he's been fingered in this mess, the more people his boss, the detestable Don Vito, sends to kill Luca. Even Luca's ex-wife and daughter aren't safe from Don Vito's wrath, and while Silva and Strode live it up nightly in the clubs, trying to find Luca, Luca is slumming it out with a hippie girl he knows, trying to find some place to hide and some place to figure out why his life is going to hell. When the truth comes out and the final confrontation between Silva, Strode, and Adorf is set to take place, you will be in for a real treat.
The third and final film in the Milieu trilogy is "The Boss," which is my absolute favorite. Henry Silva returns as the lead star in this film, but loses the useless appendage that Woody Storde was in "The Italian Connection." Silva plays a bad-ass mob hitman named Frank Lanzetta, who opens the film by blowing up a group of men watching a skin flick in a screening room. He does this via a 1970's-style grenade launcher, and as he escapes uses his last grenade on one of the filmgoer's henchmen, tearing him to shreds. The screening room hit was ordered by Don Corasco (played with expert reserve by Richard Conte), a man who heads up the Sicilian mob. Unfortunately, Lanzetta got all but one of the skin freak's men--Coukky, a crazed and wild mobster who refuses to make peace with Don Corasco and kidnaps Lanzetta's boss's daughter in broad daylight. Lanzetta is sent in to rescue her, but having been given orders from Corasco, he makes sure his boss and his assistant won't cause Corasco any more trouble, and soon makes his way up the mob food chain, double-crossing everyone in his path and laying waste to Coukky and his men.
The fourth film included in this set is "Rulers of the City," which has been widely available in the public domain as "Mister Scarface." Jack Palance plays Mister Scarface, a mob boss who smokes cigarettes in an old-fashioned holder and has a reputation of shooting first and asking questions later. Tony, a debt collector for a small-time mob dude named Luigi, dreams of making it big someday and going to live with his brother in Brazil (which is made pretty clear by Tony wearing a shirt that says "Brazil" for the first half of the movie). When Rick, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed pretty boy who works for Scarface loses some of Scarface's money while playing poker at Luigi's place, Scarface comes in to make the deal right, and roughs Rick up to teach him a lesson. Tony takes pity on Rick and takes the puny thug to his place, where they concoct a plot to rip off Scarface for ten million dollars. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and when Luigi gets word that Scarface is looking for Tony because of the rip-off, people get double-crossed, peopled get killed, and people get avenged.
Each film is presented in 16x9 widescreen with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio (despite what the box says about "Rulers of the City" being in 4:3). They filled the entire screen on my 32" widescreen TV, something I very much appreciated. I watched all four films dubbed in English, which I think adds to the kitsch factor of it all, and found that the English dub's volume would only increase to a certain point and then wouldn't get any louder, regardless of how far you turned it up. Whether this was simply due to my television or something on Raro Video's part, I have no clue, but I would have liked it if the English audio were a little louder so I could pick up what Gastone Mochin's actor was mumbling in some of those scenes of "Milan Caliber 9."
As for the image quality, these movies look great. Compared to that Video Asia release I had, this is like a blessing from Heaven, if Heaven showed Fernando di Leo movies, or any movies at all (I guess we'll know when we get there, huh?). As for the video glitches experienced by some viewers in "Rulers of the City," I had no such issues on my Samsung ST-66 Blu-Ray player. There are certain moments in all four films, however, where it looks like the film went off the reel during the transfer. This is clearly evident in "The Italian Connection," where the image runs almost totally off-screen for a good three to four seconds. It's jarring to say the least, and it looks like the transfer team kept adjusting the image back and forth to clear it up in the ensuing seconds, making for an even more dizzying experience. However, considering the age of the prints and the time these movies were made, I can easily forgive mistakes like this, but other (anal) viewers may not be so forgiving.
So, after watching all four films, how would I rate them?
"Milan Caliber 9" is the best one, as it has everything a good euro-crime thriller should have--mystery, action, drama, romance, and an ending you will never see coming.
"The Italian Connection" fell flat for me because of the strange performances Henry Silva and Woody Strode deliver in it and their lack of effort in searching for Luca while Luca is shooting up half the town trying to get to Don Vito.
"The Boss," as I said, is my favorite, because it's packed with action, double-crosses, shifty gangsters, and Henry Silva being a complete and total bad-ass, as he was meant to be. Richard Conte also turns in a noteworthy performance in "The Boss," and there's some great humor between the chief of police and the commissioner, who is an informant for Don Corasco. The only drawback to "The Boss" is the ending, which leaves you with the Italian phrase for "To Be Continued" on it, and regrettably, it never was.
"Rulers of the City" is very slow to start and kind-of wanders around for a good half-hour, trying to find its way, until Jack Palance comes in and tears up the joint. As one friend put it, "I think the plot just walked into the room." The movie was made in 1976, well after the Milieu trilogy, and Fernando di Leo had moved on to make a series of gangster thrillers that had lighter plots and some comedic elements to them (see his 1975 vehicle "Loaded Guns," with Ursula Andress and Woody Strode, for more evidence of this). "Rulers of the City" suffers from this formula, as it could have been a great bullet-riddled, double-crossing revenge flick. It does, however, deliver in the final twenty minutes, which is nothing but a huge gun battle between Tony, Rick, their friend Napoli, and Scarface's men in an abandoned slaughterhouse. It's wickedly awesome and clearly shows elements that John Woo would later adapt into his Hong Kong gangster thrillers (watch what Tony's shotgun does to cars and you'll see what I mean).
So is this set worth the twenty-some dollars I spent on it? As Sarah Palin once said, "You betcha." If you're a fan of euro-crime thrillers or just want to have a crackling good time flashing back to the 70's, then pick up this box set (which is cheaper than buying the individual discs) and enjoy a time when crime was rampant, crooks were smart AND tough, and old movie stars could relive their glory days as A-listers in a country called Italy.