Thursday, March 25, 2010

Film Review: VIOLENT CITY (1970, Sergio Sollima)

Stars: 3.9 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Telly Savalas, George Savalas, Michel Constantin, Umberto Orsini. Music by Ennio Morricone. Screenplay co-written by Lina Wertmüller (SWEPT AWAY, SEVEN BEAUTIES).
Tag-line: "The Godfather" Gave You an Offer You Couldn't Refuse. "The Family" Gives You No Alternative." Classic.
Best one-liner: “You shouldn’t tell daddy lies.”

Sergio Sollima’s VIOLENT CITY is a fairly standard Eurocrime flick full of the standard revenge seekers, codes of honor, jealousy, femmes fatale, mob bosses, and absurd dubbing. But there are a few elements- including the squinty, stoic presence of Charles Bronson; the New Orleans locale; the freaky patchwork of flashbacks, hallucinations, and psychedlia; the unnverving, animalistic, avant-garde Ennio Morricone score; and a shocking, stylish, expressionistic, take no prisoners finale- which really push this thing over the edge. It's no REVOLVER, but it's certainly well worth a watch. (In fact, at times it almost seems to be a loose remake of my all-time favorite noir, OUT OF THE PAST?!) But as in many (Italian) films of this type, it's not the big car chases or the big shootouts that win you over-

Though the shootouts and chases are by no means bad– note the use of frightened children.

-instead it's the bizarro subtleties, eclectic performances, and screwy flourishes. So here's 11 reasons why Sollima's VIOLENT CITY is a place worth visiting:

#1. Bronson is not scared of tarantulas. Or at least mind-blowingly outré tarantula puppets (its unsettling movements must be seen to be believed). In a display of raw machismo, he allows the monster spider to slowly walk past his crotch as he ponders the meaning of his life from the confines of a jail cell.

What's even more ridiculous is that this scene is really well done. The Morricone score drones with suspenseful foreboding; Bronson's cell-mates watch in jaw-clenching horror– and the scene ends with a masterfully jarring *WHOMP* of a finale.

#2. Morricone twangs. I don't care if Lee van Cleef is unbuttoning his saddle to reveal an arsenal of guns or Bronson is revealing that his picnic basket is full of weapons- Morricone will provide a booming, thunderous TWANNNG-G-G! to accompany it. His sense of humor is often apparent in his scores, and VIOLENT CITY is no exception- but he'll quickly wipe away that smirk and replace it with a sonorous growl if he has to...

#3. Telly Savalas. As a suave New Orleansonian mob boss, Savalas gets lots of massages and dispenses fatherly advice to Bronson ("You shouldn't tell daddy lies").

In fact, he's always making references to how Bronson is some greenhorn who can't remember the good ole days (“You wouldn’t understand, you’re too young").

Well, for starters, Bronson is a year older than Savalas; but secondly, Bronson looks like a well-grizzled war vet shitkicker who's no stranger to the insides of a coal mine (well...that's because it's all true), whereas Savalas kinda looks like Mr. Potato Head.

I think it's the glasses that really pull it all together.

In all seriousness, though, Savalas is great. He collaborated four times with Bronson, and here, his smooth, skeezy, and hobnobby presence is an excellent foil to Bronson's laconic badass.

#4. George Savalas, Telly's brother. What is this, FORCED TO KILL?

#5. Bronson's disdainful refusal of a girl drink from Savalas- which, in a single moment, perfectly lays out the relationship between the two men.

#6. Lina Wertmüller's work on the screenplay. An interesting choice for co-writer on an action flick, Wertmüller's solo work tackles politics, gender dynamics, and the natural forces which drive men and women alike to act so despicably, again and again. Her influence comes through most clearly in the semi-complex love/hate hate/love relationship between Bronson and Jill Ireland's character.

#7. Sleazy Antonioni. When beautiful Italo-cinematography collides with genre cinema, a sort of seedy, art house aesthetic emerges, which I clearly like quite a bit.

If Bronson were in L'AVVENTURA, it'd probably look a lot like this.

#8. Bronson's lawyer is hitting on him the entire movie. I'm not sure that Bronson was aware of it- in fact, I'm certain he wasn't, but there's an extremely awkward, one-sided homoerotic dynamic at play here.

Umberto Orsini: unrequited love at the tennis court.

Bronson: flattered, but possibly unable to even fathom the concept of same-sex attraction.

#9. Bronson passive-aggressively stomps on Jill Ireland's photos a full 32 years before Asia Argento would aggressive-aggressively stomp on photos of Vincent Gallo in SCARLET DIVA.

#10. Bronson as a sicky.

I'm not sure I can exactly pinpoint it, but there's something extremely clichéd and surreal about this image, which is fantastic. Get the man an ice pack, please.

#11. Not exactly part of the film, but in an interview with Sollima on the Anchor Bay DVD, he is reminiscing about how Jon Voight was originally considered for the Bronson role. Only he doesn't say "Jon Voight"– he says "Angelina Jolie's dad."

Annnnd on that note... nearly four stars.

-Sean Gill


dave said...

oh Man, this looks great! I'm a huge fan of Italian 70's film, but I haven't explored the Polizie genre at all. There's tons of familiar faces (and music) from the Spaghetti Westerns in this one, tho, so it seems like a perfect place to start!

Actually, I recently finished a Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, "Showdown at the BK Corral" It's basically a Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at

HK Fanatic said...

It's almost frightening how easily you made this movie look like "Charles Bronson in an 70's Italian arthouse film" with your well-chosen screencaps!

Sean Gill said...


Yeah, this film's basically an urban spaghetti western- not exactly like the concept of your album, but I suspect it'll be up your alley. I enjoyed your album- it's certainly a bizarre concept executed with spaghetti-luvin' gusto. I particularly liked "The Proposition," but I suppose anything Morricone-related is a winner in my book. The only other Morricone-style rap I can think of is the music that concludes Bill Lustig's MANIAC COP 2 (which involves some very FISTFUL OF DOLLARS-esque whistling).

Ha-thanks! Though I've yet to check out the Rene Clement/Bronson collaboration RIDER ON THE RAIN which is supposedly genuine arthouse Bronson. I've got it at home but have yet to watch it...