Saturday, July 27, 2013

Italian Crime Squad

By David Luhrssen
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  Fellini, Antonioni and Visconti were dominant Italians on the international art house circuit in the '60s and '70s, but Italy's thriving movie industry knocked out scores of films in more populist genres. Spaghetti westerns, thanks to the success of Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, were the most familiar Italian exports in the U.S but horror and crime dramas also snuck into the grind houses and drive-ins.

Three gangster films from the late '60s-early '70s are collected in handsome Blu-ray and DVD sets, The Fernando di Leo Crime Collection: Volume 2. Di Leo began as a spaghetti western screenwriter but found his forte in contemporary gunslingers. The trio assembled in Volume 2, Kidnap Syndicate, Shoot First, Die Later and Naked Violence, can't be called great films but contain many great scenes. Di Leo was masterful at building tension; the screenplays included sly sideways glances everything from fascistic attitudes among some Italian officials to the shallowness of the art scene.

Luc Merenda, the star of Kidnap Syndicate and Shoot First, had sullen Mick Jaggerish features and looked good in leather and jeans. In Shoot First he plays a Dirty Harry-style police detective (but dirtier for being on the take) and in Kidnap Syndicate, the aggrieved father of a murdered boy. Even as a corrupt cop, he has a code that he's reluctant to break; both characters are devoted to family and the murder of a loved one demands vengeance. If Shoot First was Italy's Dirty Harry, Kidnap Syndicate was its Death Wish.

Pervasive is the distorting effect of a system so corrupt that even a youthful anti-hero can't bring down. In Kidnap Syndicate, the great James Mason gives a subdued performance as a billionaire tycoon who would rather haggle with kidnappers over a few million than agree to their terms. The quirky villains of di Leo’s crime movies were inspirational to Quentin Tarantino and the editing and location scenes are often superb—as are the marvelous car chases in matchbox Fiats through winding medieval Italian alleys.

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