Though not quite as accomplished as the “milieu trilogy” of Milan Calibre 9, Manhunt and Murder Inferno, this 1976 entry is nevertheless the kind of poliziotto that confirms Fernando Di Leo’s position as one of the key players in the filone in terms of style and themes alike.
We open with a slow-motion flashback sequence in which Jack Palace’s ‘Mr Scarface’ / Manzini guns down his partner in crime before the man’s son, whom he then punches out after the boy picks up an empty firearm and tries to shoot his father’s assassin.
The opening scene
What’s odd, however, is that the meaning of this traumatic fragment, beyond the basic fact that Manzini is clearly a badass, though not quite so unremittingly evil as to kill a child who might recognise him like Once Upon a Time in the West’s Frank – is that subsequent sequences appear completely unconnected to it.
Most poliziotto directors would have made it clear that the next character we’re introduced to, Tony, played by German actor and frequent Fassbinder collaborator Harry Baer, is the grown up version of the child who in now in search of revenge. Di Leo leaves us wondering and, indeed, thereafter appears to drop this plot thread. It’s not bad moviemaking, more another sign that he was willing to take risks and do things other filone filmmakers wouldn’t.
Is this the same child grown up?
Much the same can be said of his tendency to avoid straightforward identification figures. Baer’s Tony, like Gastone Moschin in Milan Calibre 9 and Mario Adorf in Manhunt, is clearly a more attractive proposition than the rest of the gang he’s with.
Is this Eleonora Fani?
He adheres to the gangster’s code, as also fore-grounded by his old-timer friend, Napoli, whom the others regard as a has-been or never-was and treat with attitudes ranging from disregard to contempt. (“You know you old guys are pretty funny, all that talk about practice. Give me a Honda and I’d make more snatches than you anyday. Works faster these days,” remarks one younger member, whose pocket Napoli then surreptitiously picks to demonstrate the value of his supposedly outmoded practice.)
He’s also a likeable, light hearted kind of guy – a characterisation further at odds with the conventional figure on a vendetta, if he is indeed such – whose goal is less to be padrone of the city than to make some money and retire to Brazil.
Moreover, he’s reluctant to use violence unnecessarily or to excess, despite being more capable in a hand-to-hand fight than anyone else in either gang. (“You’re beginning to tire me. If I have to fight you like this every week for what you pay our friend, one of us might get hurt,” as he says to one reluctant – and armed – debtor he knocks out with his hands and feet alone, leaving no doubt as to who might get hurt next time round.)
Yet, despite all this, there’s nevertheless the sense that, like the protagonists of the spaghetti westerns Di Leo co-authored, Tony’s the hero because he’s the one who wins the fights, rather than the one who wins the fights because he’s the hero. It’s a subtle, but important, distinction.
The relatively complicated plot really gets going as one of Manzini’s gang, Rick, played by Al Cliver, visits the illegal gambling den run by Tony’s boss, Luigi Cherico, played by Edmund Purdom and clearly cast, like Palance, for special guest star type marquee value.
Rick gets thrown out of the place after complaining – rightfully as it turns out – that its games are rigged by the house, but issues the warning that he or his boss will be back. Whilst Manzini makes a visit to the club to restore face, he is also displeased that Rick should have been fooled and expels him from the gang following a punishment beating. (“If you don’t know which table to sit at don’t go gambling. I stepped in because my men don’t get taken, but if a man gets taken for a sucker he can’t be one of mine”)
Joining a card game and claiming to be out of money, Manzini convinces the dealer to let him cash a cheque for three million lire. In the morning it’s discovered that the cheque is no good. After fighting and defeating his rival Peppi, who considers himself Cherico’s rightful number two, Tony rashly announces that he will get the money back from Manzini.
Back home, it is Rick, whom Tony had conveniently found and taken home to recuperate following his beating, who provides the method: The two men hire an actor from a variety hall and he and Tony then visit Manzini’s offices posing as tax inspectors, compelling the absent boss to pay up ten million lire to avoid an official investigation whilst also helping illustrate the world of corruption and collusion in which the 70s poliziotto as a whole is so firmly embedded.
Keeping seven million for themselves, Tony gives Cherico back his three million, expecting him to be pleased. Instead, however, his boss – encouraged by Peppi – is furious, fearful that Tony has just escalated the conflict with Manzini still further. Disgusted at the gang’s all-talk and little action approach, Tony announces that he is going it alone.
As Manzini makes his next move, sending his men to take care of the music hall performer, whose identity they have uncovered, Tony and Rick realise that continuing to play both ends against the middle – to introduce another spaghetti western theme Di Leo would have been familiar with – is going to prove a challenge, even when assisted by Napoli’s and his wise counsel. (“If you want to take this seriously you’ve got to learn. But a lot of these punks today have never passed the third grade – what do they know?”)
One of the numerous fight scenes
While taking some time to get up to full speed, it would be wrong to give the impression that Mr Scarface is all talk and little or no action, with several decently executed fight scenes affording Tony the opportunity to demonstrate his skills and – more importantly – nature even at this stage, not to mention one of those signature Di Leo girl dancing / camera dancing around girl scenes. But unlike Milan Calibre 9’s Barbara Bouchet, she’s strictly there for decoration, with this proving one of the more masculine films out there and, in the process, reminding one of Leone’s Dollars trilogy westerns.
The definitive Di Leo shot?
Much the same can be said of Gisela Hahn’s nightclub singer cum moll, Clara, clearly included as part of the German side of the co-production given the notable absence of any subplot between her and Tony; if we get no sign that Tony prefers men to women, as per one of Peppi’s taunts, romance isn’t a particular interest / weakness of his either.
Purdom and Hahn
Moreover, after the midway point those more interested in action than auteurism should be more than satisfied with the procession of chases and shootouts that ensue, especially when these culminating in a settling of accounts set against the always welcome abandoned slaughterhouse setting in which also we get an exploding car and a the running down of another bad guy by a motorcyclist doing a wheelie.
Note the various carnival posters expressing Tony's desire to go to Brazil
With a good cast featuring plenty of familiar faces amongst the supporting players, like Fulvio Mingozzi as Manzini’s initial victim; well-chosen locations and adroit use of the camera, and an effective score by regular Di Leo composer Luis Enrique Bacalov – albeit one lacking anything matching the brilliance of his outstanding, oft-used Preludio from Milan Calibre 9, but featuring some nice percussion and funky flute work nonetheless – Masters of the City is well worth a look for fans of the Di Leo or the poliziotto as a whole.