On February 8th and 9th, Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997) is playing at the New Beverly Cinema paired with the highly original mafia comedy The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight (James Goldstone, 1971). These films, both based on true stories, also have direct connections to Al Pacino. In Donnie Brasco, it’s pretty straightforward: he’s the star of the film, the featured mobster. In The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, it’s a little more complicated but we’ve got a golden nugget that’s great for film trivia fans! When the Gang was originally cast, Pacino was hired to play one of the major characters but had to drop out before shooting began due to a small career conflict. He had to star in a little film called The Godfather (Frances Ford Coppola, 1972). Luckily, he was replaced on Gang by a young up-and-coming actor named Robert DeNiro, who, funnily enough, would also end up in Coppola’s epic saga.
Godfather references don’t stop there. This goofy comedy about mobsters and turf wars is widely considered to be a parody of the Mario Puzo novel. Truly, it’s pretty easy to see Lionel Stander’s character, Anthony ‘Baccala’ Vestrummo, as analogous to Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, and Jerry “Law & Order” Orbach’s Salvatore ‘Kid Sally’ Palumbo as Michael Corleone. On the other hand, Orbach and Stander in these roles are especially entertaining due to the fact that they are not even a little bit Italian. Orbach and Stander, respected and well-loved New York actors on both stage and screen, were both children of Jewish immigrants!
There are some truly fabulous appearances by great people in this quirky film. Within the first half hour, the delightful Paul Benedict shows up. If you’re not familiar with him, watch Michael Ritchie’s Smile (1975), Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972) or a few episodes of The Jeffersons (1975-85) where he plays the neighbor. As if that wasn’t enough, The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight marks the feature film debut of the one and only Herve Villechaize!
One word of warning on Herve – I wouldn’t blame you if you watched Gang and were a little confused by his voice. It sounds nothing like it used to on “Fantasy Island.” And that’s because it’s not actually his voice. The voice used for Herve is Paul Frees, famous voice over actor and impressionist. Best known for cartoon characters like Boris Badenov in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” or the Ghost Host in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, Frees provided the vocal stylings for Herve and thus his character, Beppo the Dwarf.
One last tip aside from Herve and Benedict – later on in the film, keep your eyes out for a certain bartender – that’s Jack Kehoe! He’s been in a variety of amazing works like Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973), Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980) and The Game (David Fincher, 1997). The great thing about these wacky comedies from the 70s is that they cast so many wonderful character actors. It’s such a joy to be able to watch everyone interact like this!
There are many standout performances in this film. The brilliant Jo Van Fleet is the Mobster Mama. Frank Campanella is great as Water Buffalo but it’s Robert DeNiro’s sensitive portrayal of a young Italian cyclist-cum-thief that really steals the show. Coming almost directly from the set of Brian DePalma’s Hi Mom!, DeNiro’s performance as Mario steals the film away from most of the bigger name actors. While Gang is supposed to be a comedy (and for the most part it is) DeNiro’s scenes with Angela (Leigh Taylor-Young) are incredibly tender and romantic. While both characters are presented as quite awkward and certainly outside the main gang structure according to the narrative, the film posits them as the one intimate relationship that has some normalcy. Surrounding them is chaos, but their pairing has some steadiness (at least temporarily). The love scene between Angela and Mario is romantic, intimate and fragile feeling, contrasting greatly with the humor and frenetic pace of the rest of the film. While their relationship may not ultimately lead to what we think it should, the inclusion of it is important.
Perhaps the way in which Angela and Mario inhabit this film space is exactly right. As we watch people tumbling and fumble and make huge Mobster Mistakes or try to Be Better Villains, the sweetness of Mario and Angela’s screen time becomes the most precious thing in the film. Is this intentional? Perhaps not. It is a comedy after all. But it is a bi-product of the excellent dramatic skills of Robert DeNiro, this newcomer who would, a few short years later, shake the film world as Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).
It’s an odd movie to be sure. Both Waldo Salt (the screenwriter) and Lionel Stander (Baccala) were victims of the evils of the House Un-American Activities Committee and that took quite a toll on Stander’s career, even if Salt was able to bounce back a little more quickly. The cast is strong and the center of parody is certainly not subtle. But it’s entirely enjoyable. And who knew that Jerry Orbach was EVER a young man? Didn’t we all think that he emerged from the womb with a trench coat and that gorgeous mane of salt and pepper hair? If nothing else, this film is 100% worth it just to watch Orbach pal around New York City with Herve Villechaize, threaten shop owners with a lion and take orders from Jo Van Fleet.
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight screens February 8 & 9.