Jan 9, 2012

Mean Frank and Crazy Tony (1973)



Director: Michele Lupo
Producers: Dino DeLaurentiis, Franco Cancellieri
Writers: Nicola Badalucco, Sergio Donati, Luciano Vincenzoni
Music: Riz Ortolani
Cinematographers: Joe D'Amato, Aldo Tonti
Aquarius Film Releasing; 85 min; color

Cast:
Lee Van Cleef (Frankie Diomede), Tony Lo Bianco (Tony Breda), Edwige Fenech  (Orchidea), Jean Rochefort  (Louis Annunziata), Fausto Tozzi (Massara), Mario Erpichini (Joe Sciti), Jess Hahn (Jeannot)


Anyone who knows me well enough in person or in print knows that Lee Van Cleef is my favourite actor. Here was a talent capable of many great things, and seldom received what he deserved in his newfound fame after collaborating on two spaghetti westerns with Sergio Leone. With his sharp features (eagle eyes; high cheekbones), natural charisma, and dry demeanour, he was a striking six-foot-two presence onscreen. He could and should have been as big a star as Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, actors who quickly came back stateside to capitalize on their leading-man statuses after becoming stars in Europe. It remains unclear why he did not: perhaps because he stayed in Europe much longer than his American contemporaries, or did he remain there simply because offers for Hollywood films were few and far between?

As such, one cannot look at the post-Leone filmography of Van Cleef without a little bit of melancholy. Indeed, he still made some solid movies, and often turned in strong performances, but he perhaps unwisely remained with the spaghetti western genre right until the very end, when the films had lapsed into tired gimmickry and parody. (Or did he stay there simply because he had no other offers?) And so, as his projects diminished in quality, if he didn't give them all that he was capable of, well, they deserved no better (in my opinion, his nadir was the insufferable comedy-western Bad Man's River). Alas, while we're discussing a career full of many "could haves" and "should haves", it is fitting that for what would be the actor's eighty-seventh birthday, we discuss the exciting crime-comedy, Mean Frank and Crazy Tony. Upon witnessing his solid work here, it is a pity he didn't do more Italian crime pictures when they were in vogue, as did his American contemporaries Henry Silva or Telly Savalas.

This film is one of the many of Lee Van Cleef's output (circa 1968 to 1977), whose copyright status (or lack thereof) has always been questionable in America, resulting in poor quality releases on so-called "public domain" labels for home video. Most famously, good old Paragon (one of my favourite VHS labels, partially because of their baffling selection) released it under the title Escape From Death Row, with a bizarre credits sequence featuring cartoonish stills, and listing a completely different supporting cast (even ignoring co-stars Tony LoBianco or Edwige Fenech)! Who are these Barbara Moore and James Lane people displayed in these credits?

Mean Frank and Crazy Tony transposes to the crime genre the "older man and inexperienced youngster" pairing seen in previous Van Cleef spaghetti westerns For A Few Dollars More or Death Rides A Horse (not coincidentally, these films were also written by co-scripter Luciano Vincenzoni). It is a formula that is distilled by way of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless- not just for its wildly erratic mixture of styles (as violence clashes with slapstick), but that the Tony Breda character channels Belmondo in his portrayal of a two-cent hood who idolizes criminals. In Tony's flat, a huge poster of gangster Frankie Dio dwarfs other images of mobsters on the wall. Whereas Belmondo's Michel emulates Bogart's chin scratching, Tony attempts the cosmopolitan gangster pose by holding cigarettes between his pinky and ring finger.

There is trouble brewing among mob bosses, as a turf war is being waged. Smooth criminal Frankie Dio deliberately gets himself imprisoned, so that when he kills a rival mobster, he is made to look innocent of the crime since the murder would be perpetrated while he's behind bars. (Little do the authorities know that with the help of accomplices on the inside, Dio managed to sneak out of prison to commit the crime.)  Alas, the tables are turned on Dio, when his insiders fink him out, and his short prison term instead becomes a life sentence. Suddenly Dio's privileges of having a cell all to himself, his newsapers and cardigans, are squashed, and he is in general population, where suppressed homoeroticism and social class mutterings run beneath the surface. Tony, meanwhile, has landed in the clink with Dio for a minor sentence, befriends the crime lord, and when the younger man is back on the outside, he orchestrates a way for Dio to get out of jail to get revenge on the mobsters who double crossed him and also killed his brother.

Even the most ardent fan of Italian genre films would concede how wildly inconsistent they often are, and this film is surely no exception. The tone ranges uncomfortably from grisly violence to goofy slapstick, given a jaunty air with Riz Ortolani's ragtime jazz score, made even more bizarrely cartoonish by the English dubbing. Whatever inconsistencies the movie has, it is never dull. Michele Lupo has demonstrated himself as a fine director of action and suspense elsewhere (check out the terrific Kirk Douglas heist picture, The Master Touch), therefore unsurprisingly, the highlight of the film is surely the aftermath of the jailbreak, when Frank and Tony flee the law in a confiscated truck, destroying anything in its path.

The film works also because the key character relationships remain grounded and realistic, despite whatever insanity surrounds them. Regardless of Frank's warning, Tony willfully follows his idol into a world of death and danger- and when the young man sees Frankie kill someone, his reaction is appropriate horror. There is also a nice addition of European cinema sex siren Edwige Fenech as Tony's girlfriend. Although she is given little to do, there is a memorable scene where Tony steals something from her purse while she's taking a shower (and yes, the scene is also memorable because the actress is in her birthday suit). Once she notices that he has pinched something and runs away like a mischievous child, she smiles to herself. Although Tony gives her nothing but grief in their few screen moments together, a subtle moment like this reveals that deep down she has a soft spot for the guy.

Little touches like this elevate this effort above the standard caricatures one is accustomed to seeing in similar genre fare. Lee Van Cleef is marvelous in saying so much with little to no dialogue- where a glance or sideways smile gives us so much insight into Frankie's character. His simple gestures suggest a surrogate father-son relationship between the two men while on the lam. Mean Frank and Crazy Tony would be enjoyable enough fare as the movie never stops moving, but thankfully someone had the tact to make this fare into something more than popcorn fare. And best of all, at the heart of the movie is a solid performance by Lee Van Cleef in a role of dignity. Although he still had more films to come, this one feels like a "last movie" of sorts, as it is a valedictory to the familiar patriarchal relationship found in many of his Italian vehicles. Fittingly, we last see him in a longshoreman's coat, standing at the stern of a boat, which journeys into the screen background, and into the fog of memory and legend, having lived a full life as an adventurer.

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