Wednesday, December 31, 2014
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Contraband
Lucio Fulci’s immortality in the annals of genre film rests principally on his unique brand of extreme yet dreamlike horror movies (most notably the loosely connected “Gates of Hell” trilogy) and a quartet of world-class gialli in ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’, ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’, ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ and ‘Perversion Story’. But how does he fare with a straight-forward crime movie? Let’s find out.
‘Contraband’ was made in 1980, on the cusp of his last great throw of the dice as a filmmaker with ‘City of the Living Dead’, ‘The Beyond’ and ‘The House by the Cemetery’. Already, a sense of ennui was entering his work, as ‘The Black Cat’, ‘The New York Ripper’ (a film whose very notoriety can’t quite eclipse a sense of its director’s total disengagement) and ‘Manhattan Baby’ all date from this period. Within just a few years, he would arrive at the dreary final stage of his career, from ‘Aenigma’ to ‘Door to Silence’.
But let us not dwell on such stuff. ‘Contraband’ is a cops ‘n’ mobsters crime thriller about the Naples underworld, smuggling, power plays, betrayal and violent death. And – with a caveat that we’ll get to in just a moment – it’s a pretty entertaining outing that demonstrates Fulci could pull off the car chases, shoot outs and hand-to-hand stuff just as well as, say, Enzo G. Castellari with ‘The Heroin Busters’ or Fernando di Leo with ‘Milano calibro 9’.
What Fulci doesn’t quite achieve is the narrative focus of Castellari’s film or di Leo’s ability to plot the hierarchical structure of the underworld. Indeed, ‘Contraband’ often seems like it doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be – a revenge thriller, a poliziotteschi, an examination of the mechanics of drug smuggling à la ‘The French Connection’, or an epic of warring crime families in the vein of ‘The Godfather’. Sometimes it seems like Fulci has just assembled a collection of scenes homaging his favourite crime flicks and never mind that there’s no real through line or that he’s happily introducing new characters with barely a smidgin of context or explanation right up until the bullet-riddled final act.
Which isn’t to say that things don’t start out very plot-heavy. In short order, following a commendably actionful speedboat chase, we’re introduced to Luca (Fabio Testi) and his wife Adele (Ivana Monti) who are enjoying the high life (although Adele balks at the company her husband keeps) from the profits of a cigarette smuggling operation. Luca and his brother Mickey (Enrico Maisto) work for playboy capo Perlante (Saverio Marconi), one of a number of mob bosses involved in an uneasy fraternity called The Order of the Blue Motorboat. (I’m not making this up.)
When Mickey is assassinated, Luca suspects Perlante’s immediate rival Scherino (Ferninand Murolo) and ill-advisedly launches a one-man vendetta. Scherino disabuses him of his suspicions – and has a henchman beat the crap out of him for good measure – but before Luca’s investigations can lead him elsewhere, Naples explodes in a welter of violence as the Order’s cigarette smuggling ring is targeted by ruthless drug smuggler Marsigliesi (Marcel Bozzuffi). How ruthless is this gentleman? He puts a beatdown on a female drug runner and burns her face off with a Bunsen burner when she demands the wrong price in a transaction. Not one for negotiation, Marsigliesi.
As mentioned above, Fulci doesn’t do a particularly coherent job of teasing out the rivalries and interrelationships, and as ‘Contraband’ moves towards the hour mark, simple storytelling is replaced by a succession of sequences which generally end with gunblasts and chunks of flesh flying everywhere. Eventually, he stops pretending the film’s anything but an exploitationer and has Adele fall into Marsigliesi’s hands: cue graphic misogynistic violence on par with anything ‘The New York Ripper’.
What Fulci does achieve, however, is an effective contrast between the old guard of Naples’ criminal class – weary; retired; old men long out of the game – and the new breed of flashy, shallow, venal hoods who have replaced them. Fulci also has a hell of a lot bringing them back into the game, under the leadership of the pragmatic Morrone (Guido Alberti), when they decide enough is enough and teach the young pretenders a lesson.
‘Contraband’ is no classic and there are moments – Adele’s travails; a cluster of the assassination scenes – where Fulci delights in violence at the cost of narrative momentum; but on the whole it moves at a decent pace, the cast are on-form and Sergio Salvati’s cinematography grittily captures Naples: its streets and harbor and its sense of menace.