Friday, August 18, 2017

Retro Review: COUNSELOR AT CRIME (1973)

(Spain/Italy - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Adriano Bolzoni, Vincenzo Flamini (Vincenzo Mannino), Leonardo Martin and Alberto De Martino. Cast: Martin Balsam, Tomas Milian, Francisco Rabal, John Anderson, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo Tamberlani, Manuel Zarzo, Eduardo Fajardo, George Rigaud, Franco Angrisano, Giovanni Carbone, Fortunato Arena, Carla Mancini, Lorenzo Piani, Sacheen Littlefeather, Nello Pazzafini. (R, 102 mins)

While most films in the polziotteschi subgenre of politically-charged Italian crime movies of the 1970s took place in Rome, Naples, and Sicily, COUNSELOR AT CRIME is a bit of an outlier in that it's set almost entirely in America. Journeyman director and co-writer Alberto De Martino (whose later credits included the EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST, the OMEN ripoff HOLOCAUST 2000, and the MST3K favorite THE PUMAMAN) fashions COUNSELOR as a pretty blatant, albeit contemporary GODFATHER knockoff. Shot largely in San Francisco and Albuquerque in January and February of 1973, COUNSELOR AT CRIME (or, as it was known in Italy, IL CONSIGLIORI) hits everything on the GODFATHER checklist: Sonny-at-the-causeway-like ambushes; a treacherous, Sollozzo-like troublemaker trying to make a name for himself by eliminating a powerful Don; an unexpected sojourn to Sicily when things get too hot at home in the States; and someone is even handed the severed head of a fish, a clever way to knock two things off the checklist by combining "sleeps with the fishes" with the horse's head in the movie mogul's bed. IL CONSIGLIORI was released in Europe in the summer of 1973 but didn't make its way to the US until 1975, when low-grade exploitation outfit Joseph Green Pictures picked it up and retitled it COUNSELOR AT CRIME. It's a largely by-the-numbers gangster picture that goes out of its way to look as American as possible, spotlighting the San Francisco locations where De Martino valiantly attempts to keep the Golden Gate Bridge visible as often as possible (there's even a sequence taking place at the same exit ramp where a pimp is killed in the same year's Dirty Harry movie MAGNUM FORCE), with Riz Ortolani's score having a definite "'70s cop show" sound to it when the composer isn't straight-up borrowing a key theme from his VALACHI PAPERS score from the previous year.

A low-level, syphilitic gangster loses his shit in a bowling alley, setting in motion a chain of events that sees underboss Garofalo (played by a backup Michael Ansara toupee planted on the head of Francisco Rabal) make a ballsy power play to take over the San Francisco organization ruled by Don Antonio Magadino (Martin Balsam). Magadino's mind is elsewhere since his godson and consigliere Thomas Accardo (Tomas Milian) is being paroled after serving a stretch for jury tampering in Santa Fe State Prison in New Mexico, the same joint that houses incarcerated Boss of Bosses Don Vito Albanese (American character actor John Anderson, dubbed by Robert Spafford). Accardo is welcomed back to the organization by Don Antonio, who raised him as his own son after he was orphaned as a child (a character trait in no way influenced by Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER), but Accardo has other plans. He continued his legal studies while in prison, and fell in love with Laura Murchison (Dagmar Lassander), a professor at the University of New Mexico. He wants to leave the Family, marry Laura, and live a normal life away from the Mafia. Don Antonio grants him his wish, despite the ironclad rule that no one leaves, which enrages Garofalo, who then plots to whack Accardo so he doesn't talk, and Don Antonio over his flagrant disregard of their sacred Mafia oath.

COUNSELOR AT CRIME offers one bit of interesting trivia that tangentially connects it to THE GODFATHER: it's one of the very few movie appearances of Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather, best known for taking the stage at the 1973 Oscars to refuse Marlon Brando's GODFATHER Oscar for him, and seen here in a brief bit as a hooker. Beyond that, it also offers one of the most low-key performances of Milian's career, a real surprise considering his string of flamboyantly over-the-top psycho characters in Umberto Lenzi classics like ALMOST HUMAN (1974) and ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976). Rabal is dubbed by the gruff Ed Mannix but definitely looks the part as the arrogant, untrustworthy Garofalo, and Balsam is a solid pro as the stern and paternal Don Antonio, and while he may not ooze the charismatic charm of Brando's Vito Corleone, it's superb casting, and De Martino even lets him take part in some action sequences and shootouts. Balsam was in the early years of a relentlessly busy decade that found the Oscar-winning actor (1965's A THOUSAND CLOWNS) alternating between supporting roles in A-list Hollywood projects (SUMMER WISHES WINTER DREAMS, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN) and starring roles in Italian crime films (CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN, CHRONICLE OF A HOMICIDE, MEET HIM AND DIE, DEATH RAGE), and his presence here definitely helps sell the idea of making it look like an American gangster movie, and he fares much better than the miscast Anderson, whose two scenes were actually shot inside Santa Fe State Prison, complete with several inmates in the chow line turning to look straight into the camera.

It's a mostly routine post-GODFATHER mob movie until a surprisingly strong finale where both Balsam and Milian really get to show some chops without saying much at all. And it's in the finale where COUNSELOR AT CRIME makes its only real attempt to branch off from THE GODFATHER with the notion that it's not the aging mob bosses who hand off the power to the next generation, but rather, it's the older generation that's still around to pick up the pieces when their dealings and grudges end up sacrificing that next, doomed generation. It's an interesting perspective that should've been explored in a more in-depth fashion by the script, which was written by De Martino with three other writers (including frequent collaborator Vincenzo Mannino) before being translated into English and reworked by an uncredited Michael V. Gazzo, the raspy-voiced playwright and sometime actor who would get an Oscar nomination for his performance as bitter mob informant Frankie Pentangeli in 1974's THE GODFATHER PART II.

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