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Orders from Another World: The Poliziotteschi of Fernando Di Leo, Part Three

In my series on Italian director Fernando Di Leo, I began part one by examining his early career and two of his most beloved films, Milano calibro 9 (1972) and La mala ordina (1972), of his Milieu Trilogy; in part two I explored the third and last part, one of my personal favorites, with Il boss (1973), as well as the explosive Il poliziotto è marcio (1974), and up through his career in the mid ‘70s. This third and final exploration of Di Leo’s crime films will look at some of his outliers, neglected titles like I ragazzi del massacro (Naked Violence, 1969) and the underrated Vacanze per un massacro (Madness, 1980), as well films from the remaining years of his career.

I ragazzi del massacro—also known as The Boys Who Slaughter and, horrifyingly, Sex in the Classroom—is a grim little tale about a teacher who is raped and killed in her own classroom, presumably by a pack of her students. Based on a novel by Giorgio Scerbanenco (whose work was also the source for Milano calibro 9 and La mala ordina), this film follows Commissioner Lamberti (Pier Paolo Capponi) who interviews the boys in turn and pieces together an increasingly baffling story. Initially believing the boys with established criminal records to be guilty of the attack, Lamberti learns that the murder—which was fueled by incredibly high-proof alcohol—is more complicated than it first seemed and might involve a vendetta of vengeance from an individual student. A social worker (giallo regular Nieves Navarro), attempts to help Lamberti discover the truth.

Naked Violence is somewhat reminiscent of later giallo films that explore seedy goings on at high schools, like Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974), or Alberto Negrin’s Rings of Fear (1978). It’s easy to assume that Naked Violence—Di Leo’s first official crime film—was an influence on some of these later giallo titles, but it lacks the intricate detection plot and is unfortunately a bit static and dialogue heavy. But the downbeat tone is an obvious precursor to his poliziotteschi classics from 1972 and examines not only the flawed nature of the police department, but class issues; everyone just automatically assumes that the poorest and most downtrodden teens are responsible for the brutal murder. Di Leo works to humanize them throughout the film—this is the primary plot function of Navarro’s character—not that Di Leo portrays them as angelic; like the adult characters in nearly all of his later crime films, many of them are despicable, repulsive, or at least unlikable. But it’s definitely his use of these young actors and their role within the film that makes Naked Violence well worth watching and an important part of Di Leo’s early career, though unfortunately the bulk of the running time isn’t quite able to compete with the jarring, unforgettable opening sequence.

La città sconvolta: caccia spietata ai rapitori (Kidnap Syndicate, 1975) similarly deals with children, though it is essentially a reinterpretation of Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963). A mechanic, Mario Colella (Luc Merenda), is distraught to discover that his son—in an attempt to protect his friend—has been kidnapped along with the son of wealthy industrialist, Filippini (James Mason, of all people). Seemingly heartbroken, the industrialist intervenes in hostage negotiations, basically because he doesn’t want to part with any more of his money than he has to. During the delay, Colella’s son is killed and he sets out on a path for bloody and absolute vengeance.

Kidnap Syndicate is another entertaining but flawed title, partly because the expert use of suspense and tension in the first half (up to the point where Colella’s son is killed) dissipates in the conclusion during Colella’s fairly straightforward, predictable journey of vengeance. Casting James Mason in the film was also a bit of a challenge, as it’s just impossible for Merenda to compete with him. Mason plays Filippini as a typical politician type—full of anguished emotion in words, but not in deeds—and Mason seemingly effortlessly makes the character slimy and despicable, while still possessing his unique James Mason brand of charm where you realize the character is a complete bastard but still find him charismatic anyway.

Merenda, despite the violence and melodramatic histrionics, just comes across as flat (a general criticism that seems to get lobbed at his career overall). It’s a shame that someone like Tomas Milian wasn’t chosen for the role instead, and as much as Merenda could be enjoyable in crime and action films, he’s not quite up to the emotional range required for Colella. In many ways, the character is also simply too upstanding to seem like a traditional Di Leo protagonist; Colella is excessively sympathetic and, unlike characters played by Henry Silva or Mario Adorf, he’s just not enough of an asshole to command as much audience attention. Like Naked Violence, much of Kidnap Syndicate revolves around class issues; Filippino is able to control and even stall both the kidnapping investigation and dealings with the kidnappers themselves, though he could easily afford to buy back both boys. Thus, Colella’s frustration, rage, and grief are all impotent, but the film’s conclusion lacks the kind of typical blood-soaked catharsis often found in poliziotteschi—which Di Leo mastered in La mala ordina, another film focused on the death of a child—to balance out these elements.

Di Leo followed this with Gli amici di Nick Hezard (Nick the Sting, 1976), again featuring Merenda and pitting the poor man against an acting heavyweight: this time, Lee J. Cobb. The film also follows a revenge plot—as do many of these later titles—where the titular Nick Hezard plans vengeance against a businessman (Cobb) for the death of his friend. Roberto Curti writes, “Shot after Kidnap Syndicate, Nick the Sting was—to put it bluntly—another work for hire for Fernando di Leo.” But Di Leo had problems funding the complete script and finding a bigger actor than Merenda to play the lead. Curti writes, “He made a virtue of necessity and started cutting and changing the film scene by scene as shooting went along, eliminating the best scenes (that is, the more costly and complex to shoot) and reducing Merenda’s role by giving more room to the rest of the cast.”

This was followed by the more enjoyable I padroni della città (Rulers of the City, 1976) aka Mister Scarface. This one has grown on me and I like it much more than I initially remember, but it follows the same conceit of some of these later films in the sense that the amazing Jack Palance was cast in the role of the lead antagonist (who actually does have a scar on his face), but the patterns also follows that it’s difficult for the other actors to compete with him. At one point he walks into an underground gambling club and actually asks, “Who runs this urinal?” His brilliant moments on screen make his absence that much more agonizing. Essentially yet another revenge plot, this follows three haphazard gangsters: the brash and fearless Tony (Fassbinder regular Harry Baer), Rick (Al Cliver), the brains behind the operation, and Vincenzo (Vittorio Caprioli), the wizened old joker who has outlived several generations of gangsters with his wits.

It is Tony, a lower-level money collector, who gets accidentally swept up in a plot against Scarface, simply because he’s out to prove his mettle. (Some of Tony’s amazing dialogue, which occurs mid-fight with a much larger man swinging around a chain, includes: “you might be Marquis de Sade, but I don’t swing like that.”) But it’s revealed that Rick is out to get revenge against the gangster because of a crime committed when Rick was just a child. It becomes a strangely light-hearted, even comedic tale about three scrappy underdogs who take on a mob boss so terrifying that everyone else automatically concedes to him. One man remarks, “Scarface is a bad guy, I can tell you. Just looking at him, my asshole twitches.” The film is packed with the sort of wanton violence and double crossing of the earlier entries, but the trio is delightful and entertaining, even though it doesn’t seem plausible that—in a Di Leo film—they will be allowed to interact for very long without betraying each other. But Di Leo affords the film an odd happy ending and it might be an ideal introduction to the director’s work for a newcomer to poliziotteschi not quite ready for the brutality of his more classic titles. Plus, it has one of the most terrifying opening sequences in the entire subgenre, where Di Leo makes expert use of Palance’s chiseled visage.

Di Leo wound down the next decade of his career with a handful of average crime thrillers like Diamanti sporchi di sangue (Blood and Diamonds, 1977), Razza violenta (The Violent Breed, 1984), and Killer contro killers (Killer vs Killers, 1985), as well as the ill-received comedy Avere vent’anni (To Be Twenty, 1978) and uncredited work on a drama, Pover’ammore (1982). But my favorite of his last films, and certainly one of the most unusual in his career, is 1980’s Vacanze per un massacro (Madness). And it is, indeed, madness. Joe Dallesandro stars as the aptly named Joe (likely so that the “Little Joe” tattoo on his arm made narrative sense), recently escaped from prison. He returns to a villa in the countryside to recover a bag of money he stashed there before his arrest, but he stumbles across a couple, Sergio (Gianni Macchia) and Liliana (Patrizia Behn), and Liliana’s sister Paola (Lorraine De Selle). He takes them prisoner, revealing Sergio and Paola’s infidelity to a heartbroken Liliana, and helps the uptight Liliana come out of her shell in some decidedly unexpected ways.

There is something piercingly romantic about Dallesandro and he has the kind of charisma that works best with this type of strange, melancholic script. Madness certainly belongs in this category and it was made at the end of the wonderful period of Dallesandro’s career where he starred or costarred in a number of extraordinary films in Europe: Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974), Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975), Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime moi non plus (1976), Borowczyk’s La marge (1976), Catherine Breillat’s Nocturnal Uproar (1979), and Jacques Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round (1981). I can’t imagine Madness without him and thanks to his presence, as well as an incredible if perverse performance from Lorraine De Selle (House on the Edge of the Park, Cannibal Ferox), this becomes far more than a standard home invasion film, a subgenre that I’m not particularly wild about. It’s completely plausible that the wanton, almost nihilistic Paola willingly has sex with Joe—mere hours after forcing her sister’s husband to go down on her right outside of the bedroom of her sleeping sister—and the hostage element seems to fuel her fantasy.

But the film takes an even stranger turn when Joe is moved by Liliana’s heartbreak—and obvious innocence—about the truth of her husband’s philandering and his affair with her sister. In turn, she allows Joe to seduce her, but he kills the greedy, selfish Paola and Sergio when they try to steal his money when he’s distracted by sex with Liliana. He begs her to go away with him, in a genuinely moving and tender if somewhat surreal scene, but—as with so many of Dallesandro’s films from this period—there is a surprise tragic ending that I won’t ruin here. Madness deserves a restored home video release, as it is certainly one of Di Leo’s unsung masterpieces and I hope it finds a wider audience soon. It may not be Di Leo’s last film (that would be the disappointing Killer vs Killers), but it’s definitely the swan song to a brilliant, vibrant career.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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