A little boy in bed is horrified to see his bank-robbing papa gunned down by his partner in crime, Manzari (Jack Palance), who receives the facial injury that is the source of his nickname: “Scarface.” Years later, Scarface is a powerful mob boss who swaggers with his entourage into town where Tony (Harry Baer) is stuck in a dead-end job collecting loan repayments for local mafioso Luigi Cherico (Edmund Purdom). Cruising the streets in his bright orange dune buggy (Hey, it’s the Seventies!), Tony draws an array of come-hither glances from sexy girls around town and puts the smackdown on hulking debters who don’t pay, despite looking as scrawny as a toothpick. When Luigi thinks twice about collecting a three million debt owed by Scarface, cocky Tony volunteers for the job. Stealing ten million from right under the mobster’s nose, he keeps seven million for himself but brings the wrath of Scarface down on all those around him.
It is strange that while the ambitious, politicized and at one point, critically acclaimed Italian gangster movies of Francesco Rosi are almost forgotten, film buffs and celebrity directors like Quentin Tarantino now heap praise upon the crime thrillers of Fernando Di Leo that were once derided as trash. Many have labelled him the Italian Jean-Pierre Melville but his films send out more mixed messages, alternately lambasting and valorizing macho mafioso ideals. I Padroni Della Citta a.k.a. Mister Scarface upholds the image established in Di Leo’s so-called “Milan Trilogy”: Milano Calibre 9 (1972), Manhunt (1972) and Il Boss (1973), sentimentalizing small-time thieves, pimps and thugs as lovable rogues, prostitutes as glamorous, insatiable nymphos looking for a “real man” to satisfy them, and chancers like Tony as likeable lads with admirable cheek. Although Di Leo draws a clear line between benevolent Luigi and a nasty, sharp-suited interloper like Scarface, to his credit he does show the underworld is a cesspool of sharks waiting to seize their chance and brings the mobster milieu to life in vivid, menacing detail.
Co-written by German actor Peter Berling, who has a small role in the film and has worked regularly with the likes of Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, Mister Scarface is a typical Italian pastiche in that it draws upon the familiarity of Paul Muni’s iconic image in the Howard Hawks classic Scarface (1932) rather than attempt to evoke its themes. It is a tight, action-packed crime picture with a surprising amount of humour supplied by aging mobster Napoli (Vittorio Caprioli - dubbed with an exaggerated Chico Marx accent), and enhanced by the sparse yet commanding soundtrack from Luiz Enrique Bacalov - which is excellent, except for that tone-deaf ballad crooned by one lounge singer. As always, Di Leo pays great attention to his nightclub scenes, more specifically the club dancers. Instead of his usual chanteuse of choice: babelicious Barbara Bouchet, here his camera swirls ecstatically around an anonymous Brazilian beauty whom Tony and his newfound friend Rick (Al Cliver) lure home along with a couple more girls for a lusty five-way.
German star Harry Baer, a regular in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early films, proves a diffident lead as the smirking, selfish Tony and less than convincing as a badass set beside an array of authentically glowering brutes. Instead, the man to watch is Lucio Fulci regular Al Cliver - best known for appearing in Zombie Flesh Eaters a.k.a. Zombie 2 (1979). For once his limitations as an actor befit his role as a laconic gambler and gunman who proves more pivotal to the plot and considerably more shrewd than ostensible hero Tony. It is Rick who orchestrates the memorable climax, featuring a shootout at a slaughterhouse and some fine motorcyle stunts, while Napoli amusingly fails to shoot straight. Although Jack Palance does not get as much screen-time as one would have hoped, he still dominates the film, exuding danger with those flinty eyes and shark-like grin. The veteran Hollywood heavy had a strong run of Italian crime thrillers throughout the Seventies before his stock crime boss schtick lapsed into caricature with Batman (1989) and Tango & Cash (1989).