Sunday, March 13, 2016

Crazy Joe (1974)

Brothers Joe (Peter Boyle) – Richard Widmark admirer and playing the crazy one more than actually being it - and Richie (Rip Torn) – the calm one - and their little gang of cronies (among those a Henry Winkler who will grow awesome facial hair during the course of the movie) are low-level mob operators who don’t feel they get the respect or the money they deserve for their services. When they’re basically patted on the back for a hit they commit, they think enough is enough, attack the villa of their capo, kidnap his number two (because the capo they planned to kill escapes) and some poor unluckies, and pretend that was their plan all along.

Cue a mafia group hearing under the lead of the scheming Don Vittorio (Eli Wallach) that concludes with the decision to let the two parties sort out their crap between themselves, two different betrayals, and a tiny mafia war, and Joe ends up in jail for a bit while Richie dies as a broken man. Joe’s reading up on his existentialist philosophy in jail - resulting in an inspired scene between him and his new buddy played by Fred Williamson discussing Camus among other things - so he’s not exactly out for revenge when he gets out, but he’s also not going to let bygones be bygones.

In this short synopsis, I make Crazy Joe’s plot sound much simpler than it actually is, for while it doesn’t aim for the sort of epic grandeur Coppola went for in a certain mafia movie and its sequel, its very own more shabby type grandeur does lead to a surprisingly complicated plot that takes place over the course of ten years or so, with the film spending its time not only on mob intrigue but also taking detours in directions you don’t exactly connect with the gangster film, and that surprised me rather pleasantly when the film wasn’t just effectively stimulating my genre glands.

For, despite being as genre conscious and imitative as a film mostly made by Italians behind the camera gets, Crazy Joe is not just interested in looking and feeling like other movies of its genre but also talks a bit of existential philosophy, changing times and the people who stand against them, US race relations, and trades in ambiguity. The last two bits pay off especially well for the movie, providing Fred Williamson the opportunity to put his typical swagger to use in ways that feel more than just his usual (and liked by me, don’t get me wrong) pose, giving that part of the plot particular resonance.

The film’s ambiguity does help its characterisations out too, portraying Joe as the kind of guy who has no compunctions killing for money (as long as it is enough money) but will also risk his life saving kids from a burning house (hey, I never said the film is subtle). As portrayed by Boyle, Joe starts as a character trying to style himself after Richard Widmark’s career-making crazy man spiel in Kiss of Death and somewhat learns to change and take control of parts of his life yet still fails. Joe fails in part because he can’t really let go of the past as much as he pretends to, and in part because the structures he is enmeshed in are the kind of conservative they are foes to all change that isn’t mandated from above. So the film certainly does the bit where you can read “mafia” as “society” too.

The whole she-bang is presented by Lizzani – your typical Italian all-genre movie hired hand for most of his career – in a not unexpected direct, semi-documentary style, with many a grubby looking shot of grubby New York streets and a nice eye for the interesting background detail. While the film isn’t particularly stylish, the comparative dryness of Lizzani’s direction works well with a film that really needs to have the feel of slightly enhanced authenticity. Consequently, what there is of violence does look messy and chaotic, not as if it were done by a bad choreographer, but in a way you’d imagine real violence of this kind does look in reality, people just stumbling about trying not to die and hurt the other guy as badly as possible at the same time. The director clearly knew when he had a good thing in his actors, so there are good performances by good actors all around, with nobody even close to phoning it in, Boyle being rather brilliant and Williamson in one of his career bests (probably because the film doesn’t need him to try so hard).

Not bad for a film whose main reason for existence probably was that Dino de Laurentiis wanted his own The Godfather (and didn’t get it).

No comments: