Fernando Di Leo, glorious bastard

Europudding casts, past-prime Hollywood actors, and a verve that influenced Tarrantino in Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection

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Henry Silva and Woody Strode in 1972's The Italian Collection (

ITALIAN CRIME CINEMA Italian cinema has a long history of innovators, but — like every other country, albeit more so — it survived commercially for decades via genre imitators. Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci, and so on couldn't have existed without the fiscal cushion provided by genre-feeds to the international market: first via mythological muscle man fantasies that reduced Hollywood's Cecil B. DeMille-styled antiquity epics to more cost-effective displays of simple brawn, spear-throwing, and horse-riding over Hollywood-level stars and production values. Then via spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood the star he hadn't become on home turf, reworking a quintessentially American genre toward border-blurring maxi-minimalism.

That was the 1950s and '60s. Fernando Di Leo began as a scenarist, contributing to myriad spaghetti westerns including Sergio Leone's Dollars films, though he never liked the genre. ("Happily, I have a great capacity for writing incredible crap.") He stirred controversy with early directorial efforts about female sexual frigidity and juvenile delinquency, really hitting his stride with a series of the violent crime dramas that dominated 1970s Italian commercial cinema — alongside horror films and the neverending sex comedy genre.

Often tapping the "elephant's graveyard" of past-prime Hollywood actors who preferred to take starring or lucrative "guest star" roles in European films rather than support whippersnappers back home, these movies were made with the international market in mind. Some are even baldly imitative of The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), and other influential U.S. hits of the era, to the point of unconvincingly fudging cultural and geographic compasses.

But while Di Leo's films duly mixed veteran American actors into "Europudding" casts, his poliziotteschi exercises (he later voiced a preference for the term "noir") were specifically Italian, with strong undercurrents of social criticism toward corrupt cops, politicians, and church officials — particularly those who'd disingenuously claim the Mafia "no longer existed."

It certainly existed in these movies, four of which are showcased in "Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection," a box set representing DVD specialty label RaroVideo's launch into the U.S. market. (It's simultaneously releasing Fellini's 1971 circus homage The Clowns as well.) It's quickly apparent why this director was a professed huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, though they differ in politics (does QT have any?) and taste for verbal pyrotechnics (of which QT has arguably too much). The flamboyant tough guys played by beloved character actors, intricately internecine plots, explosions of outré violence, and vintage leisure-suited cool, however, passed from one to the other like DNA.

Caliber 9 (1972), first of the "Milieu Trilogy," starts out as an unremarkable series of you-hit-me, I-hit-you shootings and explosions in the wake of the disappearance of $300,000 after a robbery. Primary suspicion falls on stony Ugo (Gastone Moschin, hitherto a comic actor), a bagman just out of prison who steadfastly denies that he absconded with the loot belonging to crime boss "the Americano." But by the end every last viewer certainty has been overturned.

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