Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Street People (1976)

Let’s talk for a moment about some of the great sunken (facial) cheeks in cinema history.  Now, they can be of any nationality, but in my opinion, the best ones are from Europe, Britain to be more precise.  For my money, no one, but no one, had a greater set of sunken cheeks than Peter Cushing.  The same man who destroyed Dracula and reconstructed Frankenstein’s monster on a multitude of occasions also had a facial structure that could be as couthie as it could be menacing.  Sure, the indented cheek look has become indicative of the drug-addicted, zombified, and just plain dead (have a look at Lon Chaney’s iconic makeup for 1925’s The Phantom Of The Opera, if you doubt, and yes, I know the Phantom was not actually dead, but he was meant to evoke the look of a deceased person), but there was a time when the sunken-cheeked were held in a higher regard.  

Giving the impression of aristocracy, I always expect any (male) royalty to look like Mr. Cushing (even though according to Wikipedia, he was made an Officer in the Order Of The British Empire but was never knighted and therefore denied use of the honorary title “Sir,” a travesty, if you ask me) or Henry VIII (all chubby and beardy).  There have been runners up, to be sure.  Ernest Thesiger appeared as severe as the taut skin stretched across his skull.  Ron Wood looks like he belongs more in a chartered accountant office than behind a guitar.  But it is Roger Moore whose cheeks actually come closest to embodying the duality that Cushing’s did so effortlessly, I think.  For the life of me, though, I always think he’s sucking them in, sort of the cuckoo of the sunken cheek set.  Maybe it’s all in my head, maybe Moore’s cheeks are like that naturally, but I just don’t believe so. 

Mafia boss Salvatore (Ivo Garrani) receives a visit from nephew, lawyer, and polyglot Ulysses (Moore, whose British accent is explained with the exposition that he was sent to school in England) to go over some paperwork involved in finally making Sal’s business legit.  Meanwhile, a massive cross which was imported by Sal from Sicily is unloaded at the neighboring dock for the sake of the fishermen and blessed by priest and former pal of Salvatore, Frank (Ettore Manni).  That night, the crucifix is stolen from the dock by Nicoletta, Pano, and Fortunato (Fausto Tozzi, Pietro Martellanza, and the great Romano Puppo, respectively) and opened to reveal a cache of heroin with which the trio absconds.  Infuriated that someone would use something he was responsible for to smuggle drugs into America without his knowledge, Salvatore approaches capo di tutti capi Don Continenza (Ennio Balbo), who puts out the order to have the three scalawags caught.  Reaching out to frequent partner and Formula One race car driver Charlie (Stacy Keach), Ulysses sets about tracking down the heroin, the thieves, and the person behind it all.

Maurizio Lucidi’s Street People (aka Gli Esecutori aka The Sicilian Cross) is a sort of odd duck in the Eurocrime subgenre.  There is a lot of footage that genuinely appears to have been shot on location in California (predominantly San Francisco) and involving some complicated car stunt work (the car scenes apparently being the ones shot and directed by Guglielmo Garroni), which would seem to indicate that a decent chunk of change was spent in the production (although  I couldn’t locate anything definitive in regards to the film’s budget for this review).  The film also has a light, adventuresome ambience, which is only augmented by the interplay between Moore and Keach.  

By 1976, Moore had established his more tongue-in-cheek/campier take on James Bond in Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun, and his charming twofistedness bleeds into these proceedings.  By that same token, Keach had also established his gruff-but-endearing demeanor and sense of humor in such work as The Gravy Train (aka The Dion Brothers), and he is much more the rough side to Moore’s stiff upper lip.  Working against the film, though, is a script which is wildly convoluted and confused in keeping track of which characters are being referred to at any given time.  Granted, the version I watched is, by all accounts, the shorter of two by about thirteen minutes.  It’s within the realm of speculation that the protracted runtime clears up some aspects or constructs a more connected story, but since the longer of the two is seemingly the Swedish cut, I’d wager it’s just thirteen added minutes of hardcore pornography (just kidding).      

Anchored by the dichotomy between Moore and Keach, the film is filled with such juxtapositions.  The first and most obvious is that of the criminal versus the clergy.  Sal and Frank were close friends in Italy, but their paths diverged, so the two resent each other, though Sal still craves forgiveness and acceptance from his erstwhile amigo.  But as is typical in such films, it’s the priest who possesses the iron will to not buckle, no matter how he may feel about his friend deep down.  It’s interesting to note here that Frank really does feel nothing but contempt for Sal.  There is no redemption for the old Mafioso (at least in the eyes of this particular clergyman), despite his aim to reform and get out of the Organization.  As the search goes on, Charlie is placed as the street level everyman both in look and function.  He talks jive with an old drug pusher (trying to “get to Dream Street, Mama”) and his buddy Chico (Charlie threatens to spread the word that Chico is “a turkey deluxe”) who inhabits a strip club where the racer is well-known (the significance being that Charlie is a man who cannot control his desires/emotions like Ulysses can).  Of course, Ulysses is always meticulously dressed and always in control.  He is as skilled physically as Charlie, but his first weapon is his mind.  The two are further joined/separated by their motivations.  Charlie is doing this work simply for the bread.  He is mercenary in his actions.  Ulysses is also interested in the money, but he will work for free if it means his honor is threatened or he needs to take care of “a family matter” of one variety or another.    
It’s this sense of honor which is most at risk in Street People.  There is a pall of duplicity hanging over every frame of the film, and we expect every single character to have ulterior motives for what they do.  We expect them all to be villains at heart, and that they’re not (there’s really only one, to be honest) is an intriguing subversion of audience assumptions.  Even Ulysses is not completely honest with the people he claims to love like family, but this plot path ultimately just peters out and fades away.  When everything is revealed at the climax, though, it’s all so simple and relatively obvious, the whole excursion feels just a little like a waste.  That the film doesn’t hold together at its core isn’t the worst thing that could happen, since the individual elements/scenes work well enough in and of themselves that by the end credits, the film is not quite adiaphorous and in fact leans more toward satisfying than offputting.  But if you’re looking for coherence, seek it elsewhere.

MVT:  Keach’s onscreen portrayal of Charlie is just big enough without going too over the top.  His constant jabs at Ulysses (treating him with a sense of faux reverence and reminding him that he can be a pompous ass, a trait Ulysses seems to embrace) are an amusing way to define the relationship between the two.  Plus, any character that can talk as much jive as well as Charlie can has to be cool, right?

Make Or Break:  The Make is the scene where Charlie takes a car for a test drive around the streets of San Francisco (you can imagine what happens).  It’s funny, and well-shot, and impressive for what they accomplished onscreen.  It’s essentially a non-car-chase car chase scene, and it worked superbly for me on all levels.

Score:  6.25/10

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