The Plot: Tony (Harry Baer) is a small time collector for a gambling outfit who uses both his wits as well as his tremendous fighting abilities to get the job done. While working one night he sees young Rick (Al Cliver) being beaten by his mafia boss Scarface (Jack Palance). He helps Rick back to his place and the two become fast friends. At work Tony is given the opportunity to make a huge play for his outfit by collecting a gambling debt worth three million lira from Scarface himself. Tony and Rick come up with a genius scam that works and allows the two to skim an extra eight million lira just for themselves. Unfortunately Scarface is far more powerful than these small time hoods and now Rick and Tony will have to hide out and ultimately fight back against Scarface and his army of mafia goons. What follows is an Italian crime film like no other!
The polizia genre is generally a very mixed bag to be honest with you. There are really fun and inventive movies made in the wake of the craze, but there are also quite a few relatively boring genre pieces scattered amongst the litter. For a genre that was around for such a short period of time it is actually quite extensive. There were so many Italian crime films made during the seventies that to actually become an expert in the field one would have to sit through dozens and dozens of films. From the more popular Castellari and Umberto Lenzi features to the obscure titles with no-name actors and directors. Amongst this litanny of filmmakers out trying to cash in on the success of these movies, Fernando Di Leo may be one of the most intriguing names that are thrown about. He is one of the few filmmakers that gained the majority of his notoriety solely from this particular genre. Differing from Lenzi and Castellari who had bigger hits coming from cannibal films and the post-apocalyptic genre respectfully, Di Leo’s biggest cult items come in the form of polizia movies and he has been quite well regarded for them. Il Boss and Mister Scarface are both universally considered two of the best polizia titles ever made and both are products of his own creation. Although I too am a big fan of Il Boss, Mister Scarface may very well end up being my favorite Polizia title that I have ever seen.
From the outset, the one thing that immediately sets Mister Scarface (also known as Rulers of the City) apart from its adversaries is the action. Most polizia titles set forth with the promise of action galore, but more often than not they instead refer back to intrigue and power plays within these crime organizations. This is fine within itself, but I would have a difficult time referring to these films as part of the action genre in the same vein that John Woo’s earlier works were quintessential action titles. Ferdinando Di Leo instead goes directly for the audience and their jugular. With our leading man Tony, the rough and tumble kid who prefers to use his fists over a gun in most instances, we are thrown into many hand to hand fight sequences. As someone who has been spoiled by the rich and beautiful choreography of Hong Kong action for most of my life, I am rarely impressed by the fight sequence in Eurocult cinema. For the most part the punches look more like slaps and are usually thrown in such a slow looping manner that there is never any question whether the other person could find time to block such a pre-meditated strike. However, the fight sequences in Mister Scarface seem to be a lot tighter than the average. The punches are still a bit too looping for my taste, but the brutality and viciousness of the fight scenes make up for this fact. The character of Tony comes across as a legitimate tough guy, despite his baby faced appearance and this is mainly due to his spectacular work with the fight choreography.
Along with the fight sequences Di Leo spices things up with plenty of the expected car chases and shootouts, which I will get to shortly. The meat and potatoes of the film is the story though. I realize this sounds contradictory to what I have stated in the previous paragraph, but the script for Mister Scarface is very solid! Starting the film off with an absolutely beautiful slow motion sequence which shows the character Scarface and one of his henchmen murdering some poor gentleman right in front of his son, we know good and well that this young man will somehow factor back into the story but we simply don’t know how just yet. For the majority of the picture, any character in the movie could be the little boy in question. The ultimate finale where all is revealed is both surprising for its audacious and intelligent writing and also for the tremendous amount of action that surrounds the story. During a nearly twenty minute action sequence Di Leo throws everything he can at the audience. From epic car chases shot from the back seat perspective to one of our characters running around this abandoned warehouse location with a shotgun and killing dozens of villains. This is unbridled action cinema and delivers on all of the promise that has ever been expected of the polizia genre.
Featuring a cast of familiar (and not so familiar) faces, Di Leo gets excellent work out of all involved. Jack Palance is easily the most familiar name to audiences and with his European fare he can be hot or cold, but here he actually delivers and seems more animated than usual. Many of these older Hollywood veterans who had these bit parts in the Italian industry were heavily promoted as stars but only served on the picture for a hand full of days and that seems again to be the case here. Palance may not have a demanding presence throughout the movie, but when he is on screen he is commanding and in better fashion than in some of his other lesser works. Harry Baer who is a German actor who did little in the Italian film industry outside of this picture but still works regularly in his home country, is actually the little engine that could in this picture. He keeps on pushing through scene after scene and although he has the appearance of a choir boy, his tough guy persona is well sold throughout the movie. Not only through the previously mentioned fight scenes but also through his macho sexism. Sleeping with easy women, biting off more than he can chew and generally being the archetype of the arrogant young man with far too much self confidence. A particular moment that stands out to me that defines his character is when he broadly proclaims “We should go hide out with those whores… and while we’re there, we can bang them!”. The vulgarity of the statement defines the character and yet he remains charismatic, charming and most of all entertaining. Al Cliver is likely the second most popular cast member, as he will never be forgotten for his roles in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi, The Beyond, The New Gladiators and Jesus Franco’s Cannibals. His character is the opposite of Tony’s testosterone fueled youth-in-revolt attitude and is much more laid back in his demeanor. Although not as charming, he makes a tremendous mark on the picture.
- Mister Scarface/I padroni della città was the last film produced by Fernando Di Leo’s production company: Cineproduzioni Daunia 70. In the face of uncertain economic times and the popularity of television slowly killing Italian cinema, it would prove to be the end of the company that brought us Di Leo’s milieu trilogy: Milano Calibro 9, Manhunt in the City and Il Boss.
- The film still apparently plays on Italian television to this day and enjoyed some late popularity in its home country.
There is very little I can possibly think of in terms of things I didn’t like about Mister Scarface. At this point it may be my favorite polizia title and now one of my favorite action movies as well. Although it has been a long time since I handed out a rating this high, I feel it is necessary. I give Mister Scarface a five out of five. I think if there is one polizia movie that you should see and you are new to the genre, this is the one. It will either completely spoil you and ruin every polizia experience you have afterward, or it will open the doors for you and lead you to a new world. No matter which way it goes, you should see Mister Scarface. There is some negativity out there on the net about the film, but I think this generally comes from the very poor North American DVD releases for the film. I suggest tracking down the European DVD from the Raro label, under the title of Rulers of the City (although I prefer the US title of Mister Scarface because it seems sleazier!), because it is the best way to see the film.