Much like Contraband 20 or so years later, Lucio Fulci's feature debut is a culture clash crime story set in Naples. The similarity ends there, however, since I Ladri is not a blood-drenched gangster tale but rather a comedy in the vein of the director's mentor Steno.
Events are set in motion by the arrival of Italian-American gangster Joe Castagnato in Naples. He is rightfully suspected of having masterminded a multi-million pound heist in the USA, but nothing has been found to definitively connect him to the crime to date.
The head of the Naples police, Commissario Di Savio, brings Joe in for a friendly chat and indicates that he has finally met his match. His faith in his own and his men's abilities seems somewhat misplaced however, with the QDN - Questura di Napoli - seeming to lack anything comparable to the FBI's high-tech scientific methods whilst Di Savio himself constantly forgets his underling La Nocella's name.
Meanwhile stevedore and petty criminal Vincenzo Scognamiglio, who was working when Joe's ship arrived at the dock, discovers gold hidden in amongst a consignment of pineapple jam from the US. His wife Maddalena soon puts two and two together and realises how Joe managed to get his loot out of the US and into Italy.
A noir-ish moment
She thus makes Joe an offer, not so much of the cannot refuse type as of the accepted to humour variety, setting the stage for all manner of double crosses and, in the case of Maddalena's in-laws, bungling...
Though now Euro-cult interest in I Ladri concentrates more on its director than star, Toto; attractive female lead, Giovanna Ralli; or the not entirely coherently inserted Guys and Dolls-style song and dance number featuring Fred Buscaglione, it's probable that at the time of its release Fulci's name was the least thing attracting audiences to the film.
Specifically no-one in 1959 would be aware that it was to mark the debut of a director who would go on to exert a strong influence on horror cinema worldwide, and if anything would seem likely to have pegged Fulci's career as following that of his mentor or other Italian style comedy figures like Big Deal on Madonna Street's Mario Monicelli or Love and Larceny's Dino Risi in trajectory.
Or maybe Fulci's 1960s career was, with the critical - if not commercial - difference that he ended up making vehicles not for Toto or Alberto Sordi, as respectable / international / art house faces of Italian comedy, but rather Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, their disreputable domestic-only equivalents.
Fulci's direction here is basically classical, with a preference for two- and medium length shots rather than close-ups and for fluid camera movements over montage style editing. In this regard it's fascinating to watch I Ladri and contrast Fulci's approach here to his later style, with the film serving to demonstrate just how radically Fulci's film-making practice changed over the course of the 1960s with the twin inspirations of new wave explorations of the hand-held camera and the zoom lens and Sergio Leone's experiments with the wide-screen frame and Techniscope process in particular.
The local gangster
The other obvious difference is the aforementioned absence of violence. Everyone, including the gangsters, is presented as basically harmless, preferring outsmarting to rubbing out the opposition. Admittedly this is in tune with the film's generic nature - though here we can also note that the same year's Some Like it Hot indicates that even the St Valentine's Day Massacre could be used as unlikely springboard for comedy - but it is still far removed from what many would expect give Fulci's later work and reputation.
Guys and Dolls
The closest the film gets to a "violence number" is the aforementioned production number, in which Fulci goes out of his way to make what could easily have been a somewhat stagey interlude cinematic. If the relationship between it and the narrative is perhaps something of the inverse of a film like Zombie, where the narrative exists more for the set pieces rather than the other way around, it nevertheless thus confirms that, even at this stage, Fulci had a talent for the big moment. (I would exempt The Beyond from this split, arguing that like Argento's Inferno, it is a film where the set-piece / narrative distinction no longer withstands.)
Those familiar with Don't Torture a Duckling may also see certain precedents in Fulci's position on issues of Italian identity, with the Neapolitans often proving smarter than they let on in using time-honoured cunning against more modern technologies, and the always-ambiguous figure of the Italian-American gangster. Depending on one's point of view, or indeed, who is asking the question, he is an admirable figure and / or a reprehensible one, demonstrating the best and / or worst of Southern Italian character traits.
Those who see the director as an arch-misogynist may be surprised by his treatment of Ralli's independent and resourceful heroine compared to her somewhat dim-witted husband and his immediate famiglia, the one a habitual layabout and the other a religious / superstitious - delete as you see fit - kleptomaniac.
Those not concerned with Fulci's status as auteur, meanwhile, may simply concern themselves with the question of whether or not the film is sufficiently funny, entertaining and worth a watch. The answer on each count has to be a yes.