Review: Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The 70s

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Director Enzo G. Castellari on Italian crime flicks: “We made a lot… maybe too many!”

Largely inspired by such Hollywood blockbusters as Dirty Harry, The French Connection, The Godfather , Serpico and Death Wish, Italian crime cinema attained its absolute apex during the 1970s. But the roots of Eurocrime movies go a good deal deeper than that. As long ago as the turn of the last century, criminal activity was the main theme of one of the earliest entries of Italian cinema, namely Roberto Troncone’s Camorra (1905); which concerned the indigenous Neapolitan underworld – comprising guappi (‘gangsters’) and contrabbandieri (‘smugglers’) – plying their illicit profession for ill-gotten gains. This same basic milieu was the setting for numerous later entries in Italian crime cinema, often films of the indigenous Neapolitan sceneggiata school. Attesting to the ever-enduring appeal and fascination of organized crime with cinema audiences, more than a century later Matteo Garrone’s bleak social drama Gomarrah (2008) – whose soundalike title is a sly Biblical pun-play on ‘Camorra’ – dwelled on a similar general subject, albeit brought much more up to date with modern times. Not only is real-life organized crime deeply rooted in Italian culture itself, but also the long-standing tradition of crime cinema (popularly known as polizieschi or poliziotteschi in the vernacular).

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And so to Mike Malloy’s documentary Eurocrime!, which is very much a contemporary effort while attaining and maintaining an ideal balance between the old and the new.

After first being bitten by the Eurocrime bug sometime back in his teens circa the early-’90s, Malloy eventually got a notion to make a documentary on the subject, and Eurocrime! is the welcome end-result. While working as a film journalist in 2007, he cut a quick demo (sans even a single interview subject at that time), which he eventually greatly expanded. Working with very little front money, most of what he succeeded in raising himself went on certain of his interviewees’ ‘sitting fees.’ Having canned ample amounts of DV footage and upon teaching himself digital editing techniques, Malloy then spent some four years lovingly assembling and honing his brainchild. The TLC lavished upon Eurocrime! is evident in every frame, and its creators’ enthusiasm for their project can be felt like a tangible force holding all the disparate ingredients together. Rather than merely aim his camera at a succession of talking heads, Malloy really mixes up his media, throwing in everything and the kitchen sink to grab and hold our attention for the duration. And you can rest assured you’ll be held spellbound throughout, what with all that he throws at you. Blink, and you might miss something!

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Scattered liberally throughout Eurocrime! are innumerable film clips, along with scads of international promotional materials such as posters, press books, lobby-cards and stills.

Malloy well knows that the sounds of Eurocrime are every bit as important as its sights, and hence his doc comes equipped with a soundtrack which is fittingly evocative of the era it mainly covers (which fits roughly between 1968 and 1978). Consisting exclusively of original compositions, the score (whose contributors also include the do-it-all Malloy and another outfit called Milano 35) really recaptures the throbulant, funked-up quintessence of ’70s spaghetti cinema soundtracks à la Cipriani, Micalizzi and Bacalov. Indeed, the replication is so spot-on that you might easily mistake much of the music for either licensed original tracks or else faithful cover versions of same.

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In addition to the music as a key linking device, it is all further tied together into a cohesive whole by Aaron Stielstra’s efficiently matter-of-fact voiceover narration and some funky ‘animated dramatizations’ courtesy of Chad Kaplan. Factoid-packed and visually-saturated – some skeptics might perhaps be of the opinion that it is too ‘busy’ in spots – it is an intricately edited and obsessively detailed labour of love (lust?) which not only clearly illustrates Malloy’s affection for the material, but also its interview subjects’ own for their in most cases extensive work within the genre. Eurocrime! manages to muster an impressive array of talent to sit and be interviewed (often by Malloy personally): the roster including such high-profile crime scenesters as Franco Nero, John Saxon, Henry Silva, Antonio Sabàto, Fred Williamson, Luc Merenda, Joe Dallesandro, Chris Mitchum, John Steiner and Leonard Mann. Also receiving more than mere passing attention are character actors Sal Borgese and John Dulaney, plus stuntman Ottaviano dell’Acqua; while behind-camera personnel interviewed include directors E.G. Castellari, Mario Caiano and Claudio Fragasso. So there is a lot of priceless first-hand experience to be shared here!

While Steiner and Silva come across as virtual polar opposites of the kinds of characters they are most notorious for playing onscreen, Sabàto seems very much like one of his filmography’s numerous smugly conceited gangsters (the ruthless S.O.B. pimp he played in Umberto Lenzi’s first ’70s crime flick Milano Rovente, perhaps?). While being interviewed here, possibly he was only playing it up for the camera c/o the Stanislavsky Method, but I prefer to think of it as the real him. And speaking of showing his ‘true colours,’ here seen resplendent in a hot-pink denim vest and a matching muscle-shirt to best show off his admittedly still ripped physique – not bad for a guy now into his seventies – he comes across as egotistical and arrogant in the extreme, yet strangely and inexplicably likeable for it (much like his jumped-up picciotto in Alberto de Martino’s Crime Boss , come to think of it!). That said, if any Italian actor might possibly be suspected of possessing real-life Mob ties, I can easily imagine Sabàto doing so! Early into Malloy’s doc, Sabàto succinctly opines regarding organized crime’s influence on domestic Italian movie production, “I believe the Mafia is always involved.” When he says this, you get the distinct impression that his words are coming right from the horse’s mouth.

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Giving the doc – which is broken up into seven loose chapters – some valid historical and sociocultural context, most of the films it covers were produced during a nation-wide crime wave in Italy of previously unheard-of astronomical proportions.

Elsewhere, other interviewees – especially seasoned spaghetsploitation rounder Harrison – relate first-hand recollections about hands-on mob involvement in productions down at the street level, so you have no reason to doubt that such a state of affairs was actually the case (and probably still is, even in these times of greatly-lessened movie production in Mamma Italia). In other bits of business, Nero is heard reminiscing with surprisingly respectful fondness about his professional rival and ‘lookalike’ impersonator, the late Maurizio Merli (described by Malloy’s script as “almost like a flesh and blood Robocop”), who is now considered by most genre aficionados to be topmost Eurocrime icon of all, albeit with Nero running him neck-and-neck a close second. Elsewhere, Silva and Mann talk about directors ‘stealing’ shots of local landmarks guerilla style without proper shooting permits while off on location in the U.S. of A.; and Dallesandro – who still sounds exactly as he did without looking much like his old self anymore – speaks with obvious wistful nostalgia about popping wheelies on motorbikes along Neapolitan streets, much to the surprise of passersby. Indeed, there are literally scores of other anecdotal nuggets such as these to be savoured.

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Also invaluable are comments made by those who had worked behind the cameras in the post-synching process. Those interviewed include former Corman cohort and sometime spaghetti western actor Michael Forest, who during the ’70s contributed prolifically to dubbing the English dialogue tracks for untold numbers of Italian movies (he put words into Eurocrime kingpin Merli’s mouth on more than one occasion; oftentimes he would vocalize more than one character in a single film!). Fellow voice-dubber Ted Rusoff also provides us with some pertinent observations about how things were well out of the limelight down in the trenches at the dubbing studios. Amusingly, the obviously egotistically self-absorbed verging on outright narcissistic signor Sabàto – the definite villain of the piece! – is heard to cast aspersions on those mostly unsung and unseen if indispensable personalities who toiled thanklessly behind the mikes (“I don’t call those people actors” [etc]); as though all their contributions were beneath contempt and they were nothing but a bunch of talentless hacks who contributed nothing of any value whatsoever.

Representing the – ahem – ‘feminist’ perspective in this overview of a genre of exploitation cinema which is largely known not just for its general misanthropy but specifically for frequent acts of misogyny too, is Eurocrime!’s sole if by no means only token female interviewee, the lovely Nicoletta Machiavelli. She explains how she was highly selective in her choice of roles in order to prevent herself being misused and abused onscreen by those filmmakers under whom she worked; although such careful career selectivity amongst actresses of the day was certainly more an exception than the norm (in most cases, a starlet either got nude or worse, or she simply didn’t get the job). In a laudably non-hypocritical and audaciously anti-PC fashion, Malloy champions the cause of Feminism amidst what many feminists might well consider gratuitous movie clips depicting violence against women. But just to illustrate the ‘equal-opportunity’ nature of violence within the Eurocrime genre, the graphic (fake) castration of a male is shown elsewhere, and in shocking close-up too; so it all evens out. Said cock-cutting scene – from The Mean Machine – is discussed with much amusement by that film’s star Chris Mitchum, who cringes (as will any other males in the audience) at the mere idea of such a gruesome fate.

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Rather than merely touching all the bases as broadly as possible by skimming across the surface of its topic, the doc is more than content to burrow beneath it and even crawl on its underbelly along the garbage-strewn gutters and back alleys of Eurocrime, digging up some real dirt in the process. Nary a split-second is wasted in this well-stuffed compendium of all things Eurocrime, for which virtually no rock is left unturned. Indeed, there is so much cool and compelling stuff jam-packed into its 2+-hour length that I am hard put to pick and choose what specific parts to mention. Better to let potential viewers experience it all for themselves rather than have me itemize all the many memorable moments here anyway.

I will say that a definite high point for me personally was seeing Henry Silva putting in his two lire’s worth. For a guy who was then already in his early-eighties, he is one quick-witted hombre who evidently still has a lot of youthful vivacity left in him. During one of his numerous interview clips, Silva says, “I have a leaning towards gangster films” – a casual statement which perhaps goes far in explaining why he starred in close to a score of crimers over the course of his quite lengthy career on the Continent. I think that also he was typecast by Roman producers, who placed him in parts that were often simply slight variations of his vicious title hoodlum in William Asher’s offbeat Hollywood-made gangster pic Johnny Cool (1963). That film was a decent-sized hit in Europe, a fact which as a consequence assured Silva many subsequent years of virtually uninterrupted employment within the Roman film industry (he was still playing similar roles even into the ’80s, and still could even in his eighties). Touchingly, towards the close of the doc when the possibility of a resurgence in Eurocrime movie production is raised, Silva is heard to wax enthusiastic about returning to Italy to star in more: “I’m beginning to feel like going over there. If you didn’t pay me, I wouldn’t care,” he claims. A number of his former colleagues – Harrison, Mann and Steiner included – are also heard to espouse similar sentiments. Hence, might a new renaissance in Italian crime cinema be lurking just over the horizon? We can all only hope…

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While I can honestly and without false modesty say that I was already highly knowledgeable in the subject matter long before I ever saw this documentary, Eurocrime! nonetheless taught me a great many things I never knew prior to watching it. The begin-all and end-all on the topic, it is both the easy-reader primer and advanced education combined; geared equally towards the casually curious newbie and more hardcore enthusiast alike.

Also included here – and very much the icing on the cake for anyone who has has been inspired by the documentary – are a huge collection of Eurocrime trailers, many of them mini-masterpieces in their own right. In the baffling absence from the UK market of most of the actual films (every obscure, no-mark 1980s horror film seems to get a bells ‘n’ whistles blu-ray release these days, but these films are still largely AWOL), this is a great sampler to set you up for imports and further exploration.

STEVE FENTON

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