"International junk of no interest, by far the worst film yet produced by Dino De Laurentis since he left Rome to make movies in this country."
VINCENT CANBY, The New York Times
March 16, 1974.
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On the violent streets of Chicago, crime is the heresy and
is a one-man Inquisition.
Who is the former cop
Who fights crime 'cause he just can't stop?
Academy Award winner Isaac Hayes.
Hayes did the same math you just did. The "preacherman" and the "po-lice man" add up to two tough guys. So what did they do, have a kid? No, it just turns out that after the film was shot and Hayes had turned in his score and theme song, Signor De Laurentis and his partners at Paramount Pictures realized that their movie's bad guy, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, had become bankable. Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem had come out the year before, and That Man Bolt was opening around the same time as Duccio Tessari's Italo-blaxploitation combo, 35 years ago this month. So just because the man Tenebrous Kate calls "the Black Shatner" is a bad guy this time, that doesn't mean he's not a tough guy, too. The two qualities sort of go together. So here's how they sold the film.
Williamson is "Joe Snake," the owner of the Red Rooster bar and a pinball arcade/bowling alley in Chicago's grindhouse district. He's harboring Tony Red, a survivor of a robbery of Mob money. It's a tense situation, since the only reason Snake keeps Tony is around is because he knows where the loot is, but Tony won't tell him because "I like living." Unfortunately for everyone, Tony is shot down during a meeting with insurance investigator Gene Lombardo, who dies with him.
Lombardo's demise brings Father Charlie into the story. I didn't catch the name of his church, but let's call it St. Pugnacious, where they hand out beatings like sacraments. The bit you saw with the Father bitch-slapping first a parishioner, then a fellow priest, sets the tone for Lino Ventura's entire performance. Imagine James Cagney playing Father Flanagan of Boys Town as if he were Cody Jarrett from White Heat and you may begin to get the idea. Whatever subtleties Ventura mastered in films like Classe Tous Risques (see below) are set aside like worldly things for this occasion. St. Pugnacious features what a bishop calls an "ex-voto arsenal" of guns turned in by repentant thugs. It's a constant temptation to what Father Charlie calls his "flock of starving wolves," but he's confident that no one would dare steal from him.
For the sake of the widow, Father Charlie decides to find out who killed Lombardo. Nobody expects this kind of inquisition, least of all the Red Rooster bartender. In mufti, the Father invades the bar, shows off his strength by squashing a bottle cap between his fingers, follows the bartender into his office, and strangles the sucker with a phone cord until he gets the answers he wants.
There are thugs waiting for him outside, but his fists and some timely bike fu make short work of them. He's finally overpowered on his way to see Tony Red's girlfriend. The goons put him into a serial-worthy predicament, meaning to feed him to a factory furnace, when the mystery man who's been following the Father around steps in to clean house. This is Tough Guy No. 2, Lee Stevens, a disgraced former police captain. He was blamed for Tony Red's robbery because he had left his post for a woman. Now he lives in poverty, frying eggs on an iron. But he knows everything about Father Charlie: an erstwhile juvenile delinquent on a typical Lino Ventura career track (crime, then death) until a religious experience in prison set him on the priesthood path. The iron also comes in handy to press the Father's pants. In return, Charlie gives Stevens $28 to get his gun out of hock.
Now partners in investigation, the Two Tough Guys find the Red Rooster closed due to the proprietor's death by truck. They take their inquiries to the grindhouse district, making possible priceless footage of Chicago movie houses circa 1973. A local with access to the Tribune and Sun-Times could probably tell us the week when these scenes were filmed from the titles on the theater marquees. Prostitutes provide more local color. Father Charlie fends one off by saying "I played with dolls as a boy." To which the hooker responds, "Good, I have a kid brother. He got to make money too."
Finally they enter the arcade where Joe Snake is keeping Tony's girlfriend Fay (Paula Kelly) -- who just happens to be the woman who seduced Lee Stevens before the heist. Payback time!
After she tells what she can, the TTG face some more goons in a parking garage. This is the bit from the trailer when they force their enemies to jump into the river, sarcastically telling their leader that they're so scared that they'll piss themselves. The punch line: our heroes prove their truthfulness by actually pissing on their victims.
Fred Williamson has a high standard to meet if he wants to be considered a Tough Guy in this picture. But Joe Snake finally asserts himself past the halfway point as he manipulates Fay into recovering the loot (she knew where it was all along), only to take it from her by force. After she desperately calls Stevens for help, Joe clubs him down, shoots Fay, and fixes to frame Stevens for the murder. The cops nearly have him before Father Charlie pedals to the rescue with an "unloaded" machine gun from his sacred arsenal. Pondering Fay's fate, Stevens reflects: "He must have been some kind of freak to shoot her that way."
Fred or Freak?
All that remains is an incredible final showdown at the arcade that obviously influenced the making of There Will Be Blood. Indeed, Lino and Isaac do everything but drink poor Fred's milkshake. He may already have been top-billed elsewhere, but the Hammer was still paying his dues at this point. This film may well have helped convince him to take creative control of his career in order to avoid such humiliation in the future. As it is, he might console himself by noting that it took two tough guys to even knock him out, and then with the use of foreign objects.
* * *
The "Two Tough Guys" theme to Three Tough Guys sets the tone for a film that isn't quite coherent. Tessari, a versatile genre veteran, struggles to please disparate audiences: the Europeans who presumably wanted to see Lino Ventura invade America, and the Americans who almost certainly had never heard of Ventura but were curious to see Isaac Hayes's acting debut opposite Fred Williamson. Ventura is top billed on the poster and in the actual film, while Hayes is named first in the trailer. Hayes was clearly learning a new craft but has a natural authority, while Ventura was most likely dubbed. If so, the voice actor is smart enough to use a foreign accent, but it sounds too scratchy and crabby to match what I've heard of Ventura speaking French. I suspect that Americans didn't know what to make of Lino. While he was close in age to Charles Bronson, then on the brink of long-awaited superstardom, he simply had no history here (apart from playing opposite Bronson in The Valachi Papers) to make him meaningful to grindhouse audiences.
But isn't Vincent Canby's grim verdict just a bit exaggerated? He seems guilty not so much of snobbery but of reverse philisitism, a refusal to recognize any aesthetic values but his own, as if there were only one legitimate way to be entertained by a movie. No interest? By my standards, it has even more interest now than it did then, as a document of its time, an experiment in international genre crossover, and a battle of blaxploitation behemoths. Sometimes you just want junk food, and for me, Three Tough Guys is a roll of SweeTarts: pure cinematic magnesium stearate with colors you can taste, and a Lino Ventura beatdown with every bite.
Of course, my copy of the movie from the infamous Grindhouse Experience collection is more like a 35 year old roll of candy. You can judge for yourself from my screencaps. It looks like it was just hauled out from the basement of one of those Chicago theaters, after it was imploded. But I can't hold my breath waiting for a letterboxed version of this movie. This may be the best edition we ever get, so let's treasure it.