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

I began this three-part Fernando Di Leo series a few weeks ago with a look at two of the first films in his poliziotteschi trilogy, the Milieu Trilogy: Milano calibro 9 (Caliber 9, 1972) and La mala ordina (The Italian connection, 1972). Replete with mafia plotting, car chases that defy gravity, shootouts, some unimaginable violence, and plenty of emotional cruelty, these are two of his most beloved films and are difficult to compete with—though I find it offensive that so many reviewers seem inclined to brush off the films after Milano calibro 9 on the basis that it doesn’t get better than that one; sure, it’s majestic, but Di Leo also has far more to offer. Speaking of, this second essay will examine his two follow up films, one of my personal favorites, Il boss (The Boss, 1973)—the third and last film in the Milieu Trilogy—and the explosive Il poliziotto è marcio (Shoot First, Die Later, 1974), which has some of the best poster art in crime genre history.

The films of the Milieu trilogy are not related in terms of narrative, but share a lot of overlapping themes. With Il boss, Di Leo moves the action from Milan to Sicily. Based on a novel by Peter McCurtin, the film follows a particularly talented and brutal hitman, Nick Lanzetta (the great Henry Silva), who sets in motion a war between two rival mafia families when he kills several members of the Attardi family by firing grenades into a screening room where they’re watching porn films. (Yes, you did read that correctly and, frankly, as much as I love this film, it’s a little difficult for it to live up to this opening sequence.) Lanzetta has killed them at the request of the ruthless Don Carrasco (Richard Conte) and in response, they kidnap the daughter (Antonia Santilli) of one of his associates, Don D’Aniello (Claudio Nicastro), who has served as the orphaned Lanzetta’s adopted father for many years. Lanzetta engages in the mob war and enthusiastically kills off his competition so that he can presumably preempt Don Carrasco’s rise to the top and become boss himself.

While this can’t compete with Milano calibro 9 or La mala ordina in terms of violence and sheer knock down, drag out action sequences, it’s meticulously plotted into onion-like layers of betrayal orchestrated by the always wonderful Richard Conte, who particularly shines here as the sneering conniver who assuredly tells his loyal underlings to believe in his word—inevitably just before having them executed by someone they trust. Corrasco’s pride also sets the violence in motion; he ignores the request “from Rome” (meaning from the mafia higher ups) to stop his gang war and bribes a police commissioner (Gianni Garko) into killing Lanzetta, resulting in an intricate chain of murder, backstabbing, and ultimate betrayal. It’s the kind of film that makes The Godfather (1972) seem like a sedate parlor room drama and it’s genuinely impossible to tell who will be murdered next (and who will surprisingly be spared).

In the film, the Sicilian mafia is said to have existed for a thousand years—and alternately said to not exist at all, by a member of the clergy clearly being bribed—though it is really a 19th century phenomena. Known as the Cosa Nostra (“Our thing”) and referred to as “family,” this shadowy organization originated the term mafia (meaning “swagger” or “bravado”), though it has come to have a blanket meaning for Italian organized crime and sometimes organized crime in general. Essentially, as most readers are likely aware, families lay claim to a certain territory and live by a specific code. Some historians believe that the mafia formed to provide local protection for Sicilian society when Italy emerged from feudalism in the early 19th century and moved towards national unification. It became increasingly nebulous in the subsequent decades, though the chaos that resulted from the occupation in WWII led to the Cosa Nostra’s shift in power from the countryside to the city. Rebuilding Palermo (the real-life mafia seat of power in Sicily) in the postwar years, partly to accommodate Italian refugees spread throughout the country, was left up to them. It is somewhat easy to understand the viewpoint of Garko’s police commissioner, who accepts bribes because he believes that, unlike the police force, the mafia will bring law and order to Palermo, as well as progress, though they were historically referred to as an “industry of violence.”

Di Leo perfectly captures the aimlessness of crime, greed, betrayal, and consolidations of power in many of his films, but particularly Il boss, whose plot relies heavily on mafia family structure and (broken, subverted) codes of honor. Roberto Curti wrote, “Di Leo’s Palermo is different from the way the city is usually portrayed—a nocturnal, indefinite, depopulated town—while the vision of the “men of honor” is corrosive and demystifying… There is no real ending, and no real catharsis: just a series of murders. The ‘Mafia’ is a monotonous affair: killing and being killed.” The early ‘70s, around the time Di Leo made many of these films, marked the beginning of the Second Mafia War, where families in Corleone (yes, from The Godfather) began to war with families in Palermo, culminating in an almost decade-long Machiavellian power grab that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of mafioso, witnesses, police officers, and journalists.

In Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, John Dickie wrote of Luciano Leggio, the man initially behind the Corleone family.

Although Leggio inspired acute dread, the reason he and his followers became so powerful in Cosa Nostra was not because they were made of more fearsome stuff than the rest. Rather it was because they reinvented mafia tactics by creating a new combination of old methods. The Corleonesi developed a system for dominating the Sicilian mafia that suited the new climate emerging in the years of the Antimafia, when the state and public opinion became more alert to the problem, and the drug business put new strains on the traditional structure of the Families. In a sense, the Corleonesi became within the body of the Cosa Nostra what Cosa Nostra was within the body of Sicily: a secret and deadly parasite.”

Don Corrasco seems to signify this type of figure and his lust for power is insidious, but nearly takes down the entire local power base. Every kind or genuinely honorable character in Il boss—and many who are not—is murdered and the double crossing is sometimes difficult to keep straight. In this film, Di Leo excels at instilling a sense of morbid paranoia, where it becomes particularly suspicious when any one character decides to demonstrate kindness or loyalty. The film’s admittedly hilarious dialogue betrays its cold-heartedness, often to the point of absurdity. Grief is mocked; for example, after several men are blown up in the beginning of the film, their hamburger-like remains are dumped on slabs at the morgue. When one man is called in to identify the completely unrecognizable body, he breaks down in hysterics. The police commissioner looks at him with disgust and shouts to a passerby, “Hey you, get that asshole to calm down!” Of course, he pales in comparison to his boss, the police captain, who has some incredible (and somewhat offensive) one-liners, such as, “If you want to work around here, you better change your face. It upsets me.”

The film’s gender politics are going to be particularly troubling for some audience members thanks to Antonia Santilli’s role as Rina. Not long after she’s kidnapped, her father is told by Don Corrasco, “nothing is yours, not even your daughter,” to emphasizes the necessity of loyalty to the mafia family above all else, and while it would be easy to assume the rival gangster are going to rape her—at least if you’ve seen any exploitation films or poliziotteschi—Rina turns her role on its head: she’s a nymphomaniac who genuinely has a good time drinking whiskey, smoking pot, and having group sex with her would-be kidnappers. One of them tells her, “you’re going to be laid till your feet come,” which basically winds up to be true. She continues having sex throughout her captivity, until Lanzetta rescues her. Though at first he’s disgusted with her, she seduces him and they begin a sexual relationship where his icy character is allowed a brief moment to defrost—though he tells her “just screw baby, don’t think.” In a strange way, she’s one of Di Leo’s most liberated female characters; they generally wind up as innocent victims or seductive betrayers, but her enthusiastic devotion to vice allows her a certain degree of freedom from the cycle of fear and violence. At least, until her untimely death.

Il boss’s delightful level of sleaziness is certainly no more or no less than, say, La mala ordina, but Silva is really given a chance to shine and the infectious, jazzy-funk score from Luis Enriquez Bacalov makes him seem like the coolest person who has ever lived. The prolific actor has been in seemingly more crime thrillers than anyone on the planet and it’s nice to see him take center stage, rather than relegated to side roles, as he is in La mala ordina (though no one can rock a yellow bathrobe quite like he can). He moved on from a coveted acceptance in the Actor’s Studio early in his career into films like Ocean’s 11 (1960), and became typecast as thugs, gangsters, and villains, which he brought to Italy in the mid-60s when he became a poliziotteschi staple.

Sadly Di Leo did not reunite with Silva for his immediate follow up films: after Il boss, Di Leo made a romance, La seduzione (The Seduction, 1973), about a young girl who seduces and begins an affair with her mother’s lover, before moving back to similar territory as Il boss with Il poliziotto è marcio. The protagonist here is French actor and poliziotteschi regular, Luc Merenda, starring as a gleefully wanton, corrupt detective, Malacarne. This film also examines the mafia (and Richard Conte returns in a small role as a mob boss’s lawyer and right hand man), but from the perspective of an officer on their payroll, one who is regarded as a local hero.

It is revealed that when Malacarne first goes on the take, it’s for small amounts of money in exchange for small favors. He participates in tobacco and alcohol running schemes, but the greedier he becomes, he gets sucked into rackets involving drugs and guns—much to his growing reluctance. The film strangely abandons the pessimism of some of Di Leo’s other titles, in the sense that Malacarne begins to genuinely care about the people in his life, especially those who have accidentally become caught up in with his mafia business. This particularly applies to his father (played by the wonderful Salvo Randone), a lonely, small town Carabinieri whose sole joy seems to be his son’s success in the world, who is shattered when he learns the truth. In this sense, the film is bleaker and more devastating than titles like Milano calibro 9 and Il boss, where characters there are generally all malicious and amoral, and it allows Di Leo to transform this into something of a revenge film in its last act (somewhat like La mala ordina).

Unlike some of his earlier films, Il poliziotto è marcio spends a surprising amount of time on character development. The deadpan Merenda makes a compelling lead and it’s impossible not to like him even though you know he’s kind of a bastard. Di Leo also slowly and carefully follows Malacarne’s changing relationship with the mob as the film mimics the structure of a mystery and places more of an emphasis on crime-solving elements more so than a title like Il boss. In a sense, Il poliziotto è marcio tones down some of the explosive violence—though there are a number of grisly murders and a fun car chase—but be warned that there is a fair amount of violence against women and animals, and the presence of two flamboyantly gay (and quite creepy) hitmen who work for the mob. And unlike Il boss, several of the people murdered are innocent, making their death scenes far more impacting (though generally not surprising). Pascal (Raymond Pellegrin), the lead gangster, is a particularly frustrating character, and unlike the main gangsters in a lot of Di Leo’s other films, makes impulsive, irrational decisions that set violent events in motion (rather than Machiavellian power plays), but that make the revenge plot so much more devastating.

Neither Il boss nor Il poliziotto è marcio get the attention they deserve—certainly not compared to Milano calibro 9—but hopefully more people will be able to see them thanks to the recent Blu-ray box sets from Raro Video. Di Leo followed Il poliziotto è marcio with a comedy—Sesso in testa (1974), about a woman doing a study on the relationship between men and prostitutes, which is inspired by some of her own personal experience—and one of his more ignored (and silly) crime films, Colpo in canna (1975), where Ursula Andress stars as a flight attendant who arrives in Italy and is caught up in a crime plot and trapped between rival gangs. He would return his oeuvre with La città sconvolta: caccia spietata ai rapitori (Kidnap Syndicate, 1975), which I’ll explore in the third and final part of this series.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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