Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fernando di Leo's I padroni della città (Mister Scarface) (1976)

Fernando di Leo's I padroni della città (Mister Scarface) (1976) is a wonderfully flippant production about two young thugs, each with a death wish, who take on and subsequently take down, a powerful and ruthless mob boss, Scarface (Jack Palance). (The original Italian title playfully and ironically is literally translated as The Owners of the City or The Rulers of the City.) Fernando di Leo takes on the typical cinematic reverence for the mafia and wins.
Tony (Harry Baer) works for Luigi (Edmund Purdom), a fearful, small-time crime boss, as a debt collector. Tony only comes home to sleep as he prefers to work the streets of Rome from his obnoxiously orange dune buggy. Tony's appearance is as unassuming as his attire, t-shirt and jeans, yet he is wholly proficient in his work. (He gives a mechanic a severe beatdown at his garage when he refuses to pay.) In addition to being proficient, Tony is completely under-appreciated and underestimated by Luigi. Luigi's suck-up and hulking thug, Peppe (Enzo Pulcrano) balks at Tony when asks for more lucrative work but eventually shuts his mouth when Tony kicks his ass. One evening at Luigi's gambling den (which he operates in addition to a pool hall), another young kid, Rick (Al Cliver) is playing cards at a table and is cheated by the dealer. Rick gets tossed out when he accuses the dealer of cheating. Soon after, Rick's boss, Scarface powerfully makes an entrance and begins gambling at the table. Scarface asks the house to accept a check for three million lira and the house accepts. Scarface splits, and his crew gives Rick a beatdown for getting cheated and boots him from the organization. Tony helps Rick recover. Scarface's check bounces, and Tony asks Luigi to let him enforce the debt. Luigi reluctantly accepts. Rick has a plan to help Tony.
"Keeping in mind all the exaggerations required in cinema," says di Leo, "I think I've made realistic films. Or putting aside my merit, more realistic than other films. Absolutely, all my characters are much more real. Much more real psychologically. Both petty criminals and big Mafia bosses. Even the film 'Mister Scarface' is very realistic. It's less known than my other films but that lifestyle, those ways, those robberies, muggings, characters...the life of crime is full of them. I will always claim that realism. Of course, in shootouts, instead of two shots, there are fifty. But guys, that's cinema."
I padroni della città again shows di Leo's overwhelming love for the outsiders at society's fringes. Those "petty criminals" who are often nameless victims in cinematic shootouts take center stage. Di Leo gives Tony and Rick and their compatriots the cinematic reverence reserved for upper-echelon Mafioso types with a loving eye to detail. One of di Leo's signature characters appears, the tramp, a Falstaffian, witty character who provides both humor and commentary in the form of Napoli, portrayed by Vittorio Caprioli. Caprioli's Napoli breathes life into this culture: he was born a small-time hustler and still is. Napoli is a survivor, perhaps because he adheres to an old code of friendship, loyalty, and honor. His humorous commentary is often spot-on, but few, especially Tony and Rick, are listening. It is unsurprising when Purdom's Luigi is missing (supposedly gone into hiding) and Peppe assumes power that Napoli is the lone dissenter among the crew.
In a brilliant street sequence, Tony goes to collect a debt in a small neighborhood from an old geezer holed up with his favorite prostitute. The old geezer plays dumb, and Tony cuts him a break to collect later in the day. Back at his dune buggy, the kids are playing in and around it. Tony makes a few jokes with the children and has enough time to notice the old geezer has summoned some buddies to attack Tony and steal his money. Tony handles the thugs quite easily. Watching the children, wide-eyed and curious, cheer on Tony after his battle is a fantastic touch. Di Leo tops it by having Tony pay a visit to the prostitute before exiting. In super-cool fashion, "maybe later," she says.
I padroni della città is by far not a romantic portrayal. When Tony is beating the garage mechanic at the beginning, despite the fact that Tony's cracking jokes, it is fairly disturbing to watch him severely beat the man. Tony and Rick often get the upper hand on Palance's Scarface, but Palance's character is never portrayed as a buffoon. Jack Palance comes off as extremely cold, calculated, and violent. Di Leo shares this anecdote about him: "I had an argument with Palance. He was important in cinema, he was cinema. I asked him not to look his co-stars in the eye when he was talking to them. In Southern Italy it is a sign of disrespect. It's like saying you're much lower than I. But he just couldn't get that through his head. I had to argue with him because he wouldn't stop it. He'd say: 'You wanted Jack Palance, I know what I'm doing.' No! Much later, after it was released he once came up and broke a pipe in half. I decided to give him two, I showed him the material and that's when a real actor understands. He realized I'd helped him grow, I'd improved him. (gestures hat removal) Chapeau."
If the plot of I padroni della città seems incredulous, that two impulsive, wise-cracking street thugs could topple a large mafia organization, neither Tony nor Rick nor, especially, di Leo cares. Cliver's Rick is motivated by a single desire, revenge, and willing to die for it. During the film's incredible and violent finale at the slaughterhouse, Rick gives Tony and Napoli an opportunity to exit before Scarface and company arrive. Both Tony and Napoli show their true colors: Tony's carefree and impulsive, and the violence before him isn't a problem. Napoli will stand by his friends (and make a few jokes along the way). I padroni della città is a rich portrait of societal and cinematic outsiders in playful, flippant di Leo fashion.
The Italian Raro DVD is essential, not only for picture quality (non-anamorphic widescreen with crisp print) but its supplements. There's an interview included with Di Leo (from where his quotes above are taken as are any objective facts here), Al Cliver, and others. Cliver shares some wonderful memories and anecdotes while making I padroni della città. I sometimes put in the DVD and let the menu screen run as Luis Enrique Bacalov's score plays over. It's a minimal and rhythmic score and among one of my favorites from the composer. The DVD includes the English dub which is precious for Palance dubs himself and also includes the Italian audio with English subtitles which is also essential.


Samuel Wilson said...

Hans, that's a much better copy than the one I saw, but my main problem with the film may be my fault. I judged it in comparison to di Leo's far more grim and tragic earlier crime films, in light of which Padroni della citta looks a little like Terence Hill vs. the Mob -- not a good thing in my book. I might think better of it if I saw it in something closer to its original form.

Hans A. said...

Samuel--that's understandable. Many of the region one's floating about are poor VHS transfers (which is how I saw the film originally). That original trilogy of crime flicks has really shaped Di Leo's subsequent image. He was far more diverse in his cinema, in my opinion. Thanks again Samuel for visiting and taking time to share your thoughts.

Alex B. said...

Mr Scarface is the only Di Leo crime film I've watched so far and I love it.
Some of the costume design and music make this a milestone of 70's Euro-style. Also, actor Raoul from Renato Polselli's films pops up as a thug.
Funny how Fassbinder actors such as Harry Baer and Peter Chatel would occasionally appear in these Italian genre productions.
And yeah, my (VHS ripped) DVD is also much more awful, half of it is in B/W.

Hans A. said...

Alex--I'm glad you like it. There are some anecdotes about Baer in the supplements. Poor guy apparently had haemorrhoids during filming and had to jump in and out of the car several times. I haven't watched any Fassbinder films for years and I should get back around to them.

Alex B. said...

Oh, poor Harry - wouldn't wish that to anyone. He's a great actor - manages to look cheerful despite literally suffering from a pain in the ass:))