Running time: 85 mins
Director: Michele Lupo
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Tony Lo Bianco, Edwige Fenech
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Comedy
Mob boss Frankie Diomede triggers a gang war in
Genoa when a French hood tries to step into
his turf. Insuring that fingers can’t be
pointed at him, Diomede has himself caught and incarcerated on a minor charge
while he systematically cleans the streets.
Things take a dangerous turn for the worse when the mob boss' competitors
pull enough strings to keep the Don behind bars long enough for them to wipe
out his organisation leaving just Tony Breda, the man wannabe hood crazy enough
to stand by his side.
In 1973 on the Italian Exploitation circuit there are a few directors with enough talent and style to pull off the vision of legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, one such director is Lupo – the man with a proven track record of hard edged ‘one man against many’ movies like Arizona Colt, Your Turn to Die and Seven Slaves Against Rome already tucked securely under his belt. When you add to that the screen presence of cinematic powerhouse Lee Van Cleef (Frankie) and the eager up and coming talent of Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection) Mean Frank and Crazy Tony would have to go a hell of a long way to fall flat on it’s face like similar prison break title Strike of the Tortured Angels.
Fear not. Lupo is perhaps one of the steadiest hands you’re likely to find in the under appreciated world of Exploitation cinema. From the get-go Mean Frank and Crazy Tony demonstrates a level of confidence and flair you’d expect to find coming out of the major Studio players. From the opening credit sequence, which is stylish yet beautifully simplistic, to the dark room power tool execution and the DePalma like tracking of Van Cleef’s Frankie through Genoa airport there is a level of reassurance that talent will raise production value – rather than the other way around. Lupo’s camera uses a depth of field rarely attempted by the directors of supposed “B-Movie’s” (a horrid expression at the best of times). Several shots are almost intrusive in the personal space of the performers, in particular the prison transport scene between Lo Bianco and Van Cleef and Tony’s entrance into his cell show a skill set that would later championed as a construct of Scorsese – who would pioneer similar camerawork in Taxi Driver to widespread praise. Lupo’s direction like that of Bo Arne Vibenius, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock is one of the purest form of visual storytelling. Great cinema tells a beautiful visual story with the help of script and sound but the best can do it on imagery alone. Mean Frank and Crazy Tony has several beautifully impressive moments that flirt with a visual perfection that’s rarely seen…ever.
Riz Ortolani’s work on the film is a revelation. His career in recent years has seen a resurgence having worked on Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Inglourious Basterds and Drive will hopefully lead him to adding many more works to the two hundred plus scores he has been responsible for. One might even hope that he’ll return to the urban warpath/underground world of organized crime and maybe even a collaboration with Michael Mann which would no doubt provide him with the chance to offer up something as dreamy, rhythmic and melancholy as this majestic piece of poetry. It seems odd, almost contradictory to say how Mean Frank and Crazy Tony is so beautifully shot that it can tell a visual story without need of sound and then go on to lavish enormous portions of praise upon the score but just because it can exist without a score doesn’t mean it should have to – especially when the score is as effortlessly magnificent as this. As beautifully complex as the score is, the screenplay is simplistic. Not in a negative way, though Frankie’s plan is somewhat convoluted at first once inside the film rolls out smooth as a well conceived genre piece. Sergio Donati’s writing can be more, he’s proved that scripting Once Upon A Time in the West and his uncredited work on For a Few Dollars More but he is also one who is not above telling a simple, engaging and entertaining narrative as A Fistful of Dynamite, Raw Deal and Man on Fire will all stand up and proudly state. Mean Frankie and Crazy Tony sits somewhere in between his Spaghetti Western and Urban Crime work as it has facets of both genres – in that both genres are so close in lineage and is water tight. There’s no fat on Donati’s screenplay, it’s a lean and mean story that is more entertaining than it needs to be original.
Van Cleef is pure Don. He has the assured presence that would see praise lavished upon Brando for his work in The Godfather but it’s more animalistic. By 1973 Van Cleef had an image thanks to his outings with Sergio Leone, it’s this tough and intimidating old wolf image that he does so well and that Clint Eastwood would adopt as his own a few decades later. His performance is one of restraint, never showy, always honest to the narrative and the character and though it might be something of a culture shock to see him hang up the six shooter for an Italian pin stripe he’s absolute Cleef. Wonderful and incredibly generous on screen. Lo Bianco (as Tony) gives a pitch perfect performance. The wannabe gangster of the beginning of the film is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard in that Tony models himself to heavily in the world he aspires to belong to but it’s his gradual transformation and lifelong desired actualisation that’s the most incredible. Lo Bianco’s slow evolution from gangland wannabe to right hand man of Diomede, the Don’s foremost trusted Capo, is fantastic. The most impressive thing about it is how, as an audience member, you never question it. His mannerisms and screen presence is so beautifully rendered that it seems obvious. Truly some of Lo Bianco’s best work.
It’s a cliché to say, but clichés are around for a reason, Mean Frank and Crazy Tony is probably one of the best crime films you are not watching. So go change that! It’s influence on gangland cinema is subtle but ever present since it’s release and though it might strive for nothing more than being entertainment it achieves this goal and more. A stylish, no nonsense genre piece that throws it’s back into every punch, a bar raising triumph of Exploitation cinema.