RETRO REVIEW: “Mister Scarface” (1976)

“Mister Scarface” is very much a movie of its time. Inevitably some will read that as a criticism, and I understand why. Movies don’t always age well,. But it also seems that people’s ability (or in many cases willingness) to not only see past but admire a movie’s limitations, especially among today’s younger audiences, has waned. That’s a shame. But for anyone who loves genre history, genre filmmaking, and genre storytelling, there’s much to enjoy in this breezy Italian poliziottesco noir.

Poliziotteschi (also called Euro-crime and spaghetti crime) movies were born out of a consummation between the violent French crime films of the late 1960s, the quick rise of exploitation flicks, and the resurgence of mobster movies. They were also heavily inspired by Italy’s real-life political and social turmoil of the day. Cynicism and frustration was prevalent, and many filmmakers chose to express it in their work. Among them was director and screenwriter Fernando Di Leo.

“Mister Scarface” came near the end of Di Leo’s feature film career yet it very much falls in line with many of his previous crime movies. Written by Di Leo and Peter Berling, the story follows Tony (Harry Baer) who collects protection movie for a local mob ran by Don Luigi Cerchio (Edmund Purdom). Tony has grown tired of the small-time work. He’s ready to earn some real dough so that he can realize his dream of moving to Rio de Janeiro and living high with his brother Ric (Al Cliver).

After a powerful rival mob boss, known by the moniker Mister Scarface (a movie-stealing Jack Palance), knowingly cuts Luigi a hot check to cover his gambling losses, Tony sees an opportunity. While Luigi is hesitant about confronting Scarface, Tony convinces his boss to give him a shot, hoping it will move him up the gang’s ladder. He recruits Ric and Napoli (Vittorio Caprioli), one of Luigi’s enforcers. But rather than winning the boss’ trust, the trio puts Luigi in Scarface’s crosshairs which ends up triggering a violent mob war.

It may sound pretty by-the-book, but Di Leo packs quite a bit into the film’s taut 98 minutes. Minus a giggle-worthy exception or two, the script is pretty crafty in the way it immerses us into its Italian gangland. It’s done through a propulsive story that throws a few twists our way as it steamrolls towards an action-fueled showdown in an old abandoned slaughterhouse. It’s such a well-conceived and well-executed climax.

But Di Leo immerses us most through his characters. While none of them can be deemed “good people”, Di Leo’s affection for them is evident and infectious. Before long we find ourselves sympathetic towards this guy or rooting for that guy. Of course this is a gangster flick meaning many of them are going to die. And in several cases (to Di Leo’s credit) we actually care. A few really good performances help. Some of the acting is shaky (at best). But we get especially strong work from Purdom, Caprioli, and of course Jack Palance who exudes gravitas, swagger, and menace.

Admittedly, there are a few unintentionally funny bits that I couldn’t help but laugh at. Take Tony riding around the city of Rome in a red dune buggy (one that immediately called to mind memories of Hanna-Barbera’s Saturday morning cartoon “Speed Buggy” from the 70s). Not sure why they went with a dune buggy in the big city, but ok. And then there’s Tony’s fighting which is a funky mix of karate and interpretive dance. And his goofy banter doesn’t help.

Without question, the movie’s age and budget bleed through (in some instances more so than others). But in terms of genre and the filmmakers who helped shape them, “Mister Scarface” has all the savory poliziotteschi ingredients. It’s certainly not Fernando Di Leo’s best film, and it’s tame next his other mob movies such “The Boss” and “The Italian Connection”. But it’s such a fun watch, especially for those who not only recognize the history of genre filmmaking, but who also celebrate it.


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