Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fernando di Leo's Loaded Guns (1975)

Nora Green (Ursula Andress) is an English flight attendant who, upon landing in Naples, is asked by an unknown gentleman to deliver a letter for one-hundred dollars. Nora accepts and arrives at an amusement park where she delivers the letter to Silvera (Woody Strode). The contents of the letter are a veiled threat by someone named "The American" who intends to kill Silvera, a local crime boss. Silvera demands to know who gave Nora the letter, and his henchmen give her a nasty pummelling. She's eventually freed by Silvera's men, who begin tailing her to discover the whereabouts of "The American," but Nora collapses on the park grounds from the beating. Young acrobat, Manuel (Marc Porel), scoops up Nora in his arms and takes her to rest at his home. Manuel is curious as to why she was at the amusement park: he takes her to see the police, where she meets Commissario Calogero (Lino Banfi), the bumbling police captain, and beautiful, eccentric Rosy (Isabella Biagini), the possible mistress of rival crime boss Don Calo (Aldo Giuffre). All appearances lead to Nora stumbling into a volatile situation, in between the two biggest crime syndicates in Naples, the police, and "The American," so she decides to play with them...just a little bit.
By 1975, when Loaded Guns was released, Fernando di Leo had already directed several well-respected and "serious" crime pictures: Milano calibro 9 (1972), Manhunt (1972), The Boss (1973), and Shoot First, Die Later (1974). At the risk of alienating the audience which he had built with those films, Di Leo decided to put "serious" films aside and make a more playful and comedic picture, one that he had co-written with Enzo Dell'Acqua over a decade before (when the two were working in Westerns). Di Leo envisioned Loaded Guns as a film like Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with a female protagonist who works over and in-between two rival crime families. This female protagonist would act in traditional "masculine" fashion by being sexually uninhibited, arrogant, and forthright while still keeping her traditional "feminine" traits. Di Leo wanted Swiss actress Ursula Andress for the role right from the beginning as his lead. Di Leo's producer, Armando Novelli, was hesitant for Di Leo to helm such a production, as were some of Di Leo's other collaborators, since Di Leo had built such a strong audience for his "serious" pictures. Nevertheless, Loaded Guns was completed and released, and probably more innovative and incendiary at the time of it's release, but it is nonetheless, a truly Di Leo film: playful and socially-critical, sometimes violent, frequently sexual, and of course, always irreverent.
Andress has always possessed a powerful sexuality on screen, and Di Leo does not hinder her in Loaded Guns. Her character, Nora Green, is the key to understanding Di Leo's style within the film. The film introduces some truly ridiculous and slapstick humor, suitable for any light comedy, but virtually unknown within Di Leo's cinema. Luis Bacalov, who frequently scores Di Leo's films, provides a Ragtime-ish score for the film, and it's a perfect accompaniment to the humor. The humor is broad but what is key is that it is almost all provided by the men: often buffoonish or seriously ironic, as the men are revealed as not self-assured and confident, but clueless and manipulated. The slapstick humor truly seems out of place but when the viewer sees the humor in relation Andress's character, it makes sense. For example, the very funny Lino Banfi plays two roles, and they are two examples of how Andress's character is able to operate successfully: Commissario Calogero, who cannot keep his inept police cohorts in line nor get Andress to stand still for a moment and cooperate, and a taxi driver, whose cab Andress frequently and fortuitously hops into. Andress's Green has both wrapped around her finger: the police aren't smart enough to keep up with her, and she can flash her legs and smile at the cab driver, having him melt on command, if she desires. The most subversive humor comes with the gangsters: both crime organizations (Silvera's and Don Calo's), including the police, have henchmen following her all over Naples, but she's not fazed. She instantly recognizes each and tells them where she's going and then gives each a wet kiss on the lips before exiting. Her romantic interest, Porel's Manuel thinks he has scooped up a damsel in distress at the amusement park but gets a true epiphany later, after she gives him good shagging, at gunpoint. It's funny to watch Nora cower in the corner while Manuel (who reveals himself also an ex-boxer) pummels Don Calo's men in a brawl: Manuel's not protecting Nora: she is letting him do all the dirty work. Most of the fights in the film, including a prolonged battle at the end, are full of ridiculous sight gags and gimmicks. Why? Because as Nora shows, and what Di Leo is trying to convey, is that men are controlling idiots, who often need a dose of humility by those we attempt to control.
Di Leo loves to leave the camera on Andress, and while the film is not graphically sexual, Loaded Guns ranges from risque to steamy. It's hilarious to watch Nora sashay out of Manuel's flat and into the elevator completely nude, where she asks the husband of an elderly couple to tie the back of her dress; or in a scene when Tano (Jimmy il Femomeno), the tramp-ish clown who works at Silvera's amusement park, encounters Andress in the bathtub, he immediately drops his pants and tells her his jacket "is not a problem." Nora doesn't bat an eye but suggests a little music before busting him over the head, only to call the bellboys to remove the "clog" in the bathtub. When Andress is sitting on a park bench or in a phone booth, she'll flash her legs from the cut in her skirt: her legs, e.g. her sexuality, are her loaded guns, and she can get what she wants with them. No doubt, this depiction of female sexuality probably rubbed the majority of the male audience the wrong way; and I think that is what Di Leo was going for.
Di Leo is a fierce opponent to conformity. Societal rules for gender roles or any societal rule that is oppressive and determinative, Di Leo shuns. Di Leo is a fierce advocate for freedom. In 1975 also, Di Leo directed and released Kidnap Syndicate, a serious film with overt themes of social criticism (even heavy-handed), unlike the playful Loaded Guns. In 1976, Di Leo would deliver Nick the Sting, which is very similar in tone and comedy to Loaded Guns, also set in the underworld, and Mr. Scarface, a film which I hold as a masterpiece, where Di Leo is able to synthesize his playful and comedic tone with his brooding and serious tone. The end result of Mr. Scarface is true court-jester cinema: biting satire combined with intense genre elements. In 1977, Di Leo would return to "serious" crime cinema with Blood and Diamonds, before helming his most controversial and irreverent film, To Be Twenty, a masterpiece and the culmination of all the themes with which he was working in the 1970s. In some ways, these themes and this style has always been present within Di Leo's cinema, perhaps just muted in most films, but Loaded Guns is the first film, in my opinion, where Di Leo loosens the seriousness and formalities and opens up. As with all of Di Leo's cinema, I enjoy Loaded Guns very much and I have no qualms in saying that I believe Di Leo is one of the best directors of the 1970s, period.
All objective facts about the production history of Loaded Guns are taken from the behind-the-scenes documentary, included on the Italian Raro release of Loaded Guns. Raro has released almost all of Di Leo's canon on dvd, and they are essential purchases for serious film buffs. See it.


Samuel Wilson said...

Di Leo had earned a right to experiment after the so-called "Milieu" trilogy, and I'd think he'd earned the trust of his audience if he wanted to go in new directions. The use of "the American" as a gang boss refers back to Milano Calibro 9, in which Lionel Stander is "the American," though the English dub changes his nickname to "the Mikado[!]" I'm a little leery toward Italian comedy from the Seventies myself, but I'd be willing to let di Leo take a shot.

Neil Fulwood said...

Nice one, Hans. A very evocative and incisive review. I must admit to having no knowledge of Di Leo's cinema: now I'm intrigued and I'll certainly be tracking down his work.

Mr.LargePackage said...

Outstanding review Hans. Back in the 70's I also starred in a film called Loaded Guns. It wasn't an action movie. And that is large and in charge.

Hans A. said...

First, thank you gentlemen for reading and commenting. I always appreciate it. I hope that you all get to see this one and check out more of Di Leo's work. Despite a growing cult following over the last few years, his work is still woefully underseen and underappreciated. Thank you very much again.