It may be the Christmas season for most people, but this year at the New Beverly, we’re celebrating our own December holiday – Crooksmas! All month long, we’re devoting our screen to celebrating our favorite rogues, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, vipers, snipers, con men, muggers, bank robbers, and Methodists. And this month’s first Grindhouse screening on Tuesday, December 4th pairs up two solid seventies crime dramas involving The Black Hand, The Camorra, The Commission – The Mob! – each featuring a legendary acting team in the thick of the business.
Veteran hitman Jeff Heston (Charles Bronson), enjoying an island holiday with his girlfriend Vanessa (Jill Ireland), is betrayed and left for dead by a fellow gunman… and watches Vanessa run off with him. Heston survives, serves a prison sentence, and once free, sets about tracking down the turncoats. The quest for retribution puts him in the orbit of New Orleans boss Al Weber (Telly Savalas), who wants free agent Heston in his organization. Once Heston discovers that Weber’s new wife is Vanessa, what had been a personal vendetta now turns into a one-man crusade to undermine and dismantle The Family.
Writer/director Sergio Sollima had previously helmed three well-received westerns – The Big Gundown, Face to Face, and Run Man Run, all starring Tomas Milian – when he shifted into present-day action with this production, originally titled Violent City. The original story was conceived by Massimo De Rita, who had produced Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Evil Eye, and Arduino Maiuri, who conceived and co-directed the spy spoof Kiss the Girls and Make them Die; as a duo, they would provide uncredited rewrites on two more Bronson films, The Valachi Papers and The Valdez Horses (aka Chino), as well as conceive more poliziotteschi, including Street Law. Dissatisfied with their original vision, Sollima reworked their concept with contributions from Sauro Scavolini, who co-wrote several gialli and Sergio Martino’s Loving Cousins (aka High School Girl), which played the Bev in February 2017, and future Oscar-nominee Lina Wertmuller. Jon Voight and Tony Musante were initially courted for the role of Heston before the significantly older Bronson was cast, and Sharon Tate had been considered to play Vanessa until Bronson insisted on his wife Jill Ireland taking the role; it was her first headlining collaboration with her husband after small roles in his films Villa Rides, Lola, and Rider on the Rain. The prolific Ennio Morricone provided the score, and two cues, “Rito Finale” and “Norme con Ironie”, were later repurposed in Django Unchained.
Although Violent City had been shot in the United States with backing from Universal’s French division, and released in most parts of the world in 1970, no American studios were initially interested in releasing it stateside. Small outfit International Coproductions finally picked it up for the grindhouse circuit in 1973, renaming it The Family, and creating a title logo mimicking The Godfather’s unique font. After 1974, when Bronson became a U.S. box office star with Death Wish and Savalas headlined the cop drama “Kojak”, the film was given a much wider reissue, with some theatre ads billing Savalas over Bronson even though Savalas had only 20 minutes worth of screentime. It was also one of the rare poliziotteschi to get a network TV premiere as the CBS Thursday Night Movie on January 30, 1975; that same night the CBS Late Movie aired another Telly Savalas film, Sol Madrid, which played the Bev in August 2015.
Jerry Bolanti (Joe Cortese) has just gotten out of prison, and through his old neighborhood relationships, builds a reputation as an effectively menacing debt collector for local wiseguy Tony Iadavia (Lou Crisculolo). With assistance from cohorts Joe (Joe Pesci) and Serge (Bobby Alto), Jerry envisions a comfortable life of ease for him and his girlfriend. But his attempt to call in the marker from the belligerent Bernie Feldshuh (Frank Vincent) ignites a series of bloody escalating reprisals between the two parties, with many unforeseen victims left behind. As Jerry’s ability to bring back payments due becomes more dangerous, he learns all too well the daily workplace hazards of serving as the Family Enforcer.
Family Enforcer, also known as The Death Collector, was the first film produced by the team of Peter S. Davis & William N. Panzer, who would achieve immortality for launching the Highlander film series, which in turn spawned TV and video game spinoffs. Other crew members who went on to greater fortune include assistant director C. Tad Devlin, who would produce Sleeping with the Enemy and Disney’s George of the Jungle, production manager John H. Starke, who would become executive producer of Step Up and Sicario, and key grip Constantine Makris, who would be cinematographer for over 100 episodes of “Law & Order” and direct over 60 episodes as well before moving on to direct installments of “Orange is the New Black.” This would be the only feature film credit for writer/director Ralph DeVito; his followup drama, Anna, starring actress/singer Lillian Roth with Pesci as her son, shot for six weeks in 1980, but during a break in filming, the 69-year-old Roth unexpectedly succumbed to a stroke and died, forcing the project to shutdown unfinished.
While Family Enforcer did not initially gather much notice upon its release in 1976, its place in history was earned when director Martin Scorsese saw it a few years later on a late-night TV broadcast, and subsequently invited its three main stars to participate in his then-upcoming biopic Raging Bull. Pesci and Vincent of course became stars from their casting, and would return for more films with Scorsese, but Cortese would ultimately leave the production, with United Artists steering him into another NY-based project filming concurrently: the controversial thriller Windows with Talia Shire, the sole directorial outing by cinematographer Gordon Willis. Cortese would later appear in Evilspeak, Monsignor, the sci-fi series “Something is Out There,” and in Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” music video. He continues to be cast in striking character roles today, including two appearances on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and in the just-released drama Green Book with Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali. Much like Pesci & Vincent, who had backgrounds in music and stand-up comedy, Bobby Alto, playing Pesci’s pal Serge, was also a musician and comic: he achieved particular notoriety for singing on the 1980 Mad Magazine flexidisc “It’s a Super Spectacular Day,” which would play one of eight different bummer endings depending on where you placed the needle.
In an evening that already features Bronson & Ireland, Pesci & Vincent, and sex & violence, the pairing that makes it all special is the New Beverly & yourself! So bring your mob to the first Grindhouse Tuesday of December. Just remember to obey our benign but firm “omerta” during the show!
(Thanks to writer Paul Talbot, author of Bronson’s Loose and Bronson’s Loose Again for some of the deep production information. His books are great reading for Bronson fans of all eras!)