Directed by the underrated Alberto De Martino this is one of those Italian crime films that followed in the wake of The Godfather's international success, though its pace and dynamics are perhaps more reminiscent of classic Hollywood gangster films like Little Caesar, insofar as it deals with the ascendancy of a 'proletarian' gangster rather than with the power struggles of a well-established family in the crime aristocracy.
Unlike the 1930s films, however, there's no censorship or other requirement to present the protagonist's subsequently inevitable and thereby tragic fall. Instead, as with the Corleone family in The Godfather he can be better understood as succeeding by one set of criteria (business) and failing by another (personal).
We open with Antonio Mancuso (Anonio Sabato) getting permission from the local Don to leave Sicily for Milan, away from the possibilities that he sees as defining his future: starvation or being torn apart by lupara blasts.
The country mouse in the city?
On arrival in Milan, Antonio is given a high-profile job by Turi Petralia: the assassination of Loretto Abondano. It has a personal aspect as well, with Abondano being responsible for the murder of Antonio's father Vito many years ago. The situation is complicated by the fact that Vito was reputedly a traitor – a fact Turi had hoped to exploit by disposing of Antonio once the job is done.
The killer coming with a smile on his face
But Antonio is not the country bumpkin that he has appeared – “I know what you think Turi: I'm young, I've got no friends, I'm a country hick. Nevertheless, I'm no shit. I got the picture. I took some precautions and here I am” – and surprises Petralia.
The minions waiting in a spaghetti western configuration
Rather than killing Petralia, Antonio leaves him alive and indebted, declining a bundle of money in favour of his agreed-upon fee. It is all, as both men agree, strictly a matter of business.
Antonio next contacts his brother, Nicola, who has hitherto been a moderately successful pimp with “a stable of six or seven” in and hatches a plan: they secretly switch a consignment of narcotics from Godfather Don Vincenzo's men, let the replacement consignment be captured by the police and then offer to retrieve the original – i.e. the only one anyone else is aware of – in exchange for place in his family.
The daring plan succeeds – here we can forgive the skirting over the obvious plot holes as part and parcel of the 90 minute genre formula movie, especially since Vincenzo quickly surmises what has really happened – with the two men soon developing a close relationship, almost father-son like at times. (“You know something? I was like you when I was young” “I'd like to be like you. What do I have to do?”)
Unfortunately Vincenzo soon proves to not quite be the man he once was, showing signs of weakness and megalomania that can only re-ignite Antonio's ambition, especially when fuelled by the scheming of the ex-Don's daughter, Vincenzo's niece the beautiful Monica (Paola Tedesco).
Given the various locations within and outwith Italy – Palermo, Rome, Milan and Hamburg – and the presence of Savalas in the guest-star role, Mob Boss clearly had a reasonable budget.
Antonio Sabato again seems more comfortable playing a bad guy than a hero. If we perhaps engage with his character in more of a detached, observational manner we also prefer him to most of the other mafioso presented insofar as he at least has vestiges of a code of honour about him, being committed to his family's reputation and well-being and against the indiscriminate killing of civilians who have not chosen the gangster's life, as seen when one unfortunate is thrown out of a speeding car: “You shithead!” “Why? Are you afraid of killing?” “I only kill on commission or in self defence.”
The most significant scene in this regard is probably that of the family's reunion dinner where over complaints about Nicola's occupation – “a common pimp – I'd rather he was a killer or a thief. Even if he ended up in jail at least he'd have some self-respect,” remarks his wife – and a delightfully spaghetti eating montage, De Martino places a folk-sounding theme complete with ocarina: if ever you want an image of old southern / Sicilian attitudes and habits transcending time and place this would be a contender.
It's also a scene which perhaps indicates how the character of Antonio might have played to the intended vernacular audience, as someone more “like us” than the others presented and thus more of an identification figure, however ambiguous, than he appears to outsiders such as myself.
This in turn also impart an air of uncertainty over how to interpret some of the earlier lost in the city antics. Does he express bemusement at the automatic door of the airport because he doesn't know any better or because he knows that he's being appraised by Turi's men? Are 'we' laughing at him, with him, or being suckered just like his diegetic watchers, with their evalaution that “He's a real peasant [...] nothing but a punk kid, a cafone”?
Savalas doesn't doesn't completely convince as the Godfather figure, especially when he's the only American actor in the cast. His character also seems inconsistently written at times, though his forgetting the “only business” mantra when seeking to position himself above the rest of the family and referring to “cosa mia” could also be read as a sign that he is losing touch.
Paola Tedesco provides some compensation by virtue of doing more than just providing eye candy and love interest in pursuing her character's own enigmatic agenda.
De Martino's direction of the chases, shoot-outs and brawls is competent rather than inspired. Normally this would be a weakness though here it functions to film's overall benefit, giving it a more balanced feel than is often the case with filone cinema.
Indeed, the most memorable sequence is a montage dealing with the aftermath of mob rub out, in which one of the losers is processed into soap and then sent back to his bemused boss, who is clearly at something of a loss over what to do.
Turi gets punched in the face
Elsewhere we also get some nice single-shot set pieces and cuts, like Turi's opening the door to dramatically receive a punch in the face from Antonio's fist coming unexpectedly into the frame, ot one of those camera move transitions between inside and outside worlds through the window itself.
Francesco De Masi's crime jazz score is decent but nothing particularly outstanding or memorable, with most of the cues – the eating scene excepted – being rather generic and not always ideally suited to the on-screen action.
The dubbing of the film, in accented English, causes an element of confusion at times, with Sicilian rather than Italian terms being left untranslated and an English conversation at a bar in one of the German-set scenes being butted into by Antonio on grounds of 'unexpectedly' hearing his Italian mother tongue.
[The film is available for download from Cinemageddon]