Tuesday, December 15, 2009

TONY ARZENTA (Big Guns, 1973)

Alain Delon was talented enough as a performer that he did not get typecast as a hitman despite his tremendous and iconic success in such a role in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai from 1967. Yet here he is as a hitman again in a Franco-Italian co-production directed by Duccio Tessari, the maker of Three Tough Guys, and it's another role that stresses the Delon character's isolation. This time, though, the isolation is forced upon him, and the film roots for him to transcend it.

Tony Arzenta has a wife and a small child. On the day of the boy's birthday Tony has to leave in the middle of the party to kill a man. Since he is not some fantasy character who can successfully juggle a career of murder with bourgeois family responsibilities, he lets his boss (Richard Conte) know that he wants to retire. Both men realize that this is a cliched situation, and that however Conte feels, the mob isn't going to let Arzenta just walk away. Sure enough, despite some feeble protest from Conte, Arzenta is targeted for death by car bomb. Guess who borrows the car?

Conte is disgusted by the botched hit, but presses forward, telling an underling that the blood of Mrs. and Master Arzenta can be washed away only with Tony's blood. At the same time, he admits openly that if Arzenta kills him he'll deserve it for killing Tony's family. And that's what Tony intends to do, despite the warning from a friendly priest that "God's anger is far greater than yours, and so will be his revenge." Unfortunately, Tony has nothing else to do with his life. His family and his killing work had been everything. He lets his home go to pieces as he broods and plans his revenge, so that even his one remaining buddy can't help noticing the dust on the coffee table. This is a film with very conscientious art direction that emphasizes Arzenta's spiritual emptiness and his inability to function normally without a good woman in his life. One will come along (in the form of Carla Gravina), but until then a cat-and-mouse game spreads across Europe from Milan to Copenhagen as the cops look on, rooting for Tony to do their work for them, and mobsters use him as a pawn in their own power games. But as Tony warms to a potential new love, Conte tires of the game, having never really liked it, and looks for a peaceful resolution. The promise of reconciliation and a return to normal life, however, leave Arzenta at his most vulnerable to men's revenge if not to God's....

Delon leaps into action more than once during a vigorous stint as Tony Arzenta.

Videoasia's widescreen copy of Tony Arzenta in the Thug City Chronicles collection is a revelation of Duccio Tessari's directorial vision. I knew him only for Three Tough Guys, which Videoasia presented some time ago in a nasty looking standard-frame copy. Here we can see the command with which he can film stylish or barren interiors as well as vast urban spaces. He's an energetic director who really puts Delon through his paces, but he also effectively envisions Arzenta's muted yet self-consuming grief. He also gets a fine performance from Richard Conte, who lent gravitas to all manner of crime roles in the Seventies, most notably as Barzini in The Godfather but in numerous Italian films as well. Conte did his own dubbing, while Delon, who at least mouthed the film's English dialogue, is dubbed by another actor. That's probably what makes Conte's work stand out, but he also has an intriguing character to work with, one who's unrepentant about the vicious things he does or orders people to do, but still clearly doesn't like having to do them.

Duccio Tessari worked with cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti and production designer Lorenzo Baraldi to achieved the diverse settings of the film, from the coldly modern to the richly sleazy.

The action scenes are terrific, most notably an ambush in a Copenhagen square and a brutal shooting on a train that sends Arzenta's victim halfway through a window, to be smashed repeatedly against passing pillars and posts. Tony Arzenta can be elegant at one moment and vicious in the next, but that's the character's world, or the one he's stuck in once his dream of domestic bliss is destroyed.

Like many European crime or horror films, this movie has some almost incongruously sentimental theme music, this time from Gianni Ferrio. But Tessari's film may be the textbook example of why this music works. The sentimental (and in retrospect almost heartbreaking) theme song expresses Tony's own romantic hopes, and we find him playing some similarly sentimental music on what I take to be a primitive Euro 8-track player later in the film. The music expresses the emotions and longings that Tony can't, or can't allow himself to, and if some Euro movie music has something close to a Muzak feel, that's probably not accidental either. In those days, here in America as well, we were surrounded by lushly romantic, sentimental music as we went about our shopping or our office work. That music expresses an idealism that mocks our everyday experience, and we can imagine Tony Arzenta hearing it everywhere he goes, not on the soundtrack but in his own landscape, as he tries to assuage his emptiness with vengeance.

Tony Arzenta is one of the better European crime movies I've seen from the Seventies. It may not seem very ambitious at first glance (especially if encountered under its official alternate title, Big Guns), but fans of Alain Delon, at least, will not be disappointed with it, nor will Euro crime fans. And having looked at it twice in two days, the second time on the computer to harvest screen caps, I can say that it rewards multiple viewings with nuances that may be overshadowed by the spectacular mayhem the first time through. Not everyone needs to see a lot of European crime films; for them, Tony Arzenta should be on the short list for the genre.

Here's an Italian trailer uploaded by jonnyredeyes and including that theme song.


Temple of Schlock said...

I was lucky enough to see a nice Paramout release print of THREE TOUGH GUYS projected a number of years ago (co-billed with WATTSTAX) and can attest to some similarly smart framing and set design work in that Tessari film. The opening scene has an underworld figure entering a bar called the Red Rooster, the interior of which is bathed in red light, and asks to see a character named Tony Red. He meets instead with Joe Snake (Fred Williamson), who's in a red leather suit and black cowboy hat. And since all of this takes place in Chicago, birthplace of Playboy magazine, every waitress in the joint is wearing a Bunny costume altered to look like a rooster. Trust me, it's not very funny at home on TV, but in the theater I laughed out loud.

wiec? said...

very good movie and a great write up! i saw this movie a long time ago but didn't realize it until i was half way through your review. if i remember right i found it very layered in parts with a lot going on but not in a confusing way. and it was beautifully shot (as your sceencaps show). i put it on the side and figured i should get back to it some day. time to dust it off and give it another whirl.

Samuel Wilson said...

ToS: I envy you seeing that film on a big screen. I'd be happy with a widescreen video.

wiec?:There's a lot going on with mobsters squabbling over different territories in Europe but most of that is just there to establish the mob's power and isn't crucial to Tony's story.

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

Great review! Great movie. I just watched this last night and loved it.