Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fernando Di Leo's MANHUNT (La Mala Ordina, 1972)

Playing an exuberant thug who ends up the last man standing, Mario Adorf nearly stole Milano Calibro 9 from the incredible Gastone Moschin and earned himself the starring role in Fernando Di Leo's follow-up film, the second of what is called the "Milieu" or "Italian Mob" trilogy of films set in Milan. The effect, and you'll excuse a Classic Hollywood analogy, is as if, on the strength of The Glass Key, someone cast William Bendix in a starring role in a film noir, only it's the 1970s and you can have lots more violence, and hippies, too. Adorf might be more accurately described as half Bendix, half Al Lettieri. He has Lettieri's disheveled brutishness, but some of Bendix's sympathetic luggishness as well. Both qualities serve him well in this film.

Adorf plays Luca Canali, who gets some buildup in a pre-credits sequence before we actually meet the man. A New York mafia don is sending two Italian-speaking hitmen, army veterans both, to Milan to kill Canali, a local pimp suspected of stealing a major heroin shipment. The hitmen are Henry Silva as Dave and an alarmingly hirsute Woody Strode as Frank. They're instructed to make Canali's death as publicly gruesome as possible, and to behave like "the Italian idea of Americans" in the meantime, i.e. like asinine boors. This comes naturally to Dave, but Frank's a little too straightedge to follow these instructions exactly. He appears to require his maximum concentration just to spit out his lines. Strode and Silva both did their own dubbing, as far as I could tell, but this didn't come naturally to Strode, and his is an awkward performance, as if he were understandably self-conscious about that stuff on top of his head that usually isn't there.

Frank: "I don't want to interfere with your sex life, but if the women come after you, keep your hands in your pockets!"

We're then introduced to the infamous Luca Canali strolling through a Milan park with one of his whores. He gets into a scrap with some punks and bitch-slaps a few of them before the police show up. He gets in a few extra love taps on his last victim and tells the cop that he was trying to revive a poor man who had fainted. There's a slapstick quality to the first half of the film as long as we're encouraged to think of Canali as little more than a clown. At the same time, his portrait gets rounded a bit as we encounter his estranged wife and their sickly daughter. Di Leo is also patient enough to indulge in some character time for Dave and Frank, the former trying to score with hippie/disco chicks with little success, except when he throws money around. He finds out some info about Canali, but one of the hippie chicks, Trini, takes a moment to call Canali, who's been trying to recruit her (though not very forcefully), and tip him off that he's a wanted man. But she prefers her free-love existence in some sort of commie commune where every night seems to be an orgy combined with political indoctrination. Luca doesn't understand her life choices, but he's more affectionate toward her than he is to his current, cynical squeeze. She says Trini's a whore already, but Luca defends her honor. These are details that date the film but add to my enjoyment of it as a historic document of bad fashions and bad Euro-pop music.

The local Don (Adolfo Celi) doesn't like Dave and Frank running loose on his turf, so he sends his own men in search of Luca, ordering them to take him alive for delivery to the Americans. This leads to a Three Stooges-style battle in a lumber yard in which two goons slap our hero around, pull his nose, yank his tie, and force him to smell a rose until he can't stands no more.

"Stop and smell the roses, you son of a bitch!" Not actual dialogue from Manhunt.

This approach gets nobody nowhere. It humiliates the Don before the Americans, who kneecap the goons who let Luca get away. To show that he's even more hardcore, the Don then kills the goons. The stakes grow more severe as Luca's friends and loved ones are endangered in the effort to bring him to ground and he grows steadily more confused by the intensity of the manhunt. While Milano Calibro 9 worked on our uncertainty over whether the hero had or hadn't committed a big robbery, we become convinced fairly early in La Mala Ordina that Luca is innocent. He honestly hasn't got a clue why so many people are after such a small-timer as he. No one has ever taken him seriously before, most of Milan taking him for a softy and a weakling. But he's discovered resilience and resourcefulness in keeping ahead of his pursuers, and after the Don's men go after his family, he discovers the motivating power of rage. The movie climaxes in a furious car and foot chase through the city as Canali picks up the trail of vengeance.

Unfortunately, Di Leo can't top the chase scene in the half-hour he has left to tell his story. He takes the film in potentially interesting directions but doesn't develop them as fully as he could have. Luca hides out overnight at the hippie orgy house, for instance, but we never see what could have been his interesting reaction to the sexy radicalism surrounding him. We do get a too-protracted showdown between Luca and the Don, in which the old man at first talks Luca out of shooting him and then back into shooting him, that nearly stops the film dead. By the time we return to Dave and Frank, it's like an afterthought, and while Di Leo comes up with some violent business during the final battle in an auto graveyard, it still seems anticlimactic compared to the big chase.

La Mala Ordina (called Manhunt on VideoAsia's Thug City Chronicles set, but also known as Manhunt in Milan, The Italian Connection, Black Kingpin (!), etc) isn't as good as Milano Calibro 9, but it still has a lot going for it. While the previous film was based on a novel, this film still has a novelistic quality, at least through the first half, in its eye for social detail (not to mention the abstract sculptures Di Leo's art directors are fond of) and its willingness to let the actors do stuff beside advancing the plot. The music by Armando Trovaioli is funkier and brassier than the score for the previous film, and works best during the big action scenes. Among the actors, Silva really seems to be enjoying himself, and Adorf justifies Di Leo's confidence in him by giving a great performance that keeps you rooting for Luca Canali from the beginning to the literally gripping conclusion.

While these films along with Il Boss form a trilogy of Milanese crime films, there's no continuity to them except the reappearance of Adorf in La Mala Ordina and the return of Silva in a different role in Il Boss. I'll be watching the third film later this week, with a review to follow, but it seems likely already that Di Leo's Milan films are the nearest thing Italy produced to the crime sagas that Francis Ford Coppola produced in the U.S. and Kinji Fukasaku produced in Japan in the 1970s. I don't think I'll regret saying now that the trilogy should be required viewing for any fan of international crime cinema.

Here's an English language trailer (for "Manhunt"), uploaded to YouTube by JohnnyRedEyes.


Nigel M said...

Love this one but you are right that Calibro 9 does cast a pretty big shadow and this one does tend to sit in that shadow somewhat. I always say this but Adorf had a face that was made for this genre.

Wonder if this one had an influence of Pulp Fiction. I am sure dileo mentions that he thought so in one documentary (maybe the stra cult one)

Sam Juliano said...

Samuel, I hung with every word here during my prep period, and I must say this is a Hall of Fame kind of a review, one of the best I've ever read from you. It's a massive piece that examines the film from a sociological and artistic perspective. While I want to contribute something more than a cheerleader kind of comment, it's difficult not having seen the film to this point. In fact I also have not seen your previous review here at Mondo 70. Og course films like Lattuada's MAFIOSO come to mind, but the seemingly epic structure suggests in small measure THE BEST OF YOUTH.

Screencaps and trailers really bring the work into focus.

Samuel Wilson said...

Nigel: I've read that Di Leo claimed (on the basis of information or personal belief?) that Silva and Strode were the models for Travolta and Jackson, but that would have to be a matter of skin color alone, since Strode's personality has zero resemblance to Jackson's. Adorf deserves a lot of credit for his work in both films, since Rocco and Luca are quite different characters.

Sam: I can only repeat my recommendation of Milano Calibro 9 as the superior film of the two Di Leos I've seen so far, but both films have a more nuanced awareness of socio-political context than many other poliziotteschi films with which they're linked. These films aren't in the same category as Best of Youth, but that film actually whetted my appetite for Seventies Italian cinema, and films like Di Leo's have gratified that appetite quite nicely.