Fearing retired mobster Rudy Hamberg (Eddie Constantine) is about to become an informant for the F.B.I., the New York mob contract professional killers Schaft (Henry Silva) and Phil (Jack Klugman) to eliminate him at his hideout somewhere in France. Phil was an old friend of Rudy’s but now takes the job insisting he wants revenge because Rudy cruelly abandoned his pregnant sister. This does not sit right with Schaft. He believes Phil is willing to kill his friend solely for the money. As the hit-men reach Paris and take in the sights while seeking their quarry they engage in a long-running ethical debate over their assignment. Meanwhile Rudy learns the assassins are on his tail and tries to get his girlfriend Sylvia (Elsa Martinelli) safely out of harm’s way so he can prepare to fight back. What neither group know are the Mob have inexplicably changed their minds and are trying to reach Schaft and Phil before it is too late.
Back in the Nineties you had a wave of postmodern crime films like Pulp Fiction (1994) and Two Days in the Valley (1996) that loved to spotlight wisecracking, chalk-and-cheese hit-men duos. Critics commonly trace their origins back to Don Siegel's adaptation of The Killers (1964). However Je vous salve, Mafia! a.k.a. Hail, Mafia!, a far more obscure Franco-American co-production, concerns a squabbling pair of professional killers whose existential banter also foreshadow a future slew of Quentin Tarantino imitators (interestingly, the plot also anticipates Stephen Frears' acclaimed The Hit (1984)). While a normal thriller would likely focus on the imperilled couple played by Eddie Constantine and Elsa Martinelli, both bigger names in European cinema at the time, here the film curiously sidelines both allotting far less screen time and only the barest wisp of a soap opera subplot. It is the Silva-Klugman double-act that is clearly of more interest to French writer-producer-director Raoul Lévy. He fashions Hail, Mafia!, based loosely on a novel by Pierre Lasou, around their psychological interplay, ongoing ethical debates and Tarantino-esque musings about cultural differences. The result is a quirky crime film that fascinates and frustrates in equal measure, at once refreshingly unconventional but also obtuse and lacking genuine substance.
Parts of Hail, Mafia! have that jazzy, free-form, stream-of-consciousness pulp ambience so beloved by late period Orson Welles, the French New Wave and even Jess Franco (specifically his pastiches of Welles thrillers like Death Whistles the Blues (1962)). However away from the more impressionistic sequences, Lévy's stark fly-on-the-wall style of direction, often simply following the antiheroes through their daily grind, often leaves this looking like a documentary about hit-men by Albert Maysles and David Maysles. Lévy, who directed only three films, made his name as a producer of Brigitte Bardot's early hits. In fact Hail, Mafia! features a scene with Schaft and Phil transfixed while a clip from ... And God Created Woman (1956) plays on television with B.B. scorching up the screen with her iconic dance number. Tragically Lévy went on to commit suicide in 1966, allegedly either because of the costly box-office failure of his star-studded epic Marco Polo (1965) or his unrequited love for Bardot.
Jumping around in time, dwelling on intense John Cassavetes-like soul-searching dialogue, the film does its obtuse plot no favours and barely holds together. Yet it still conveys a unique existential tone likely to resonate with fans of offbeat 'arty' thrillers. Supplying the glue that just about binds the movie are the lively jazz score by Hubert Rostaing and compelling performances by Henry Silva and Jack Klugman. For Silva, Hail, Mafia! marked the start of what eventually became a fertile side-career for the Hollywood heavy in Euro-crime thrillers. For co-star Jack Klugman, best known as a TV staple in sitcom The Odd Couple and most notably crime-solving coroner Quincy, M.D., but here compellingly broody and on edge, this stands as proof that had his career gone a different way he could have been a fascinating screen presence.