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Retro Review: THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973)

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THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS
(Italy - 1973; US release 1975)

Directed by Sergio Martino. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi. Cast: Luc Merenda, Richard Conte, Silvano Tranquilli, Carlo Alighiero, Martine Brochard, Chris Avram, Luciano Bartoli, Lia Tanzi, Steffen Zacharias, Bruno Corazzari, Luciano Rossi, Cyrille Spiga, Rosario Borelli, Antony Vernon (Antonio Casale), Bruno Boschetti, Sergio Smacchi, Tom Felleghy. (R, 99 mins)

After the artistic triumphs of Dario Argento's gialli, the next most notable figure in the genre in the early 1970s was arguably the journeyman Sergio Martino. Frequently teamed with the stunning Edwige Fenech, Martino cranked out a series of verbosely-titled gialli like 1971's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL, and 1972's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY, and his 1973 masterpiece TORSO. Though directors like Umberto Lenzi and Fernando Di Leo also dabbled in gialli, their strengths at that point in time were the violent, politically-charged poliziotteschi, a craze to which Martino inevitably contributed a handful of entries, beginning with 1973's THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, which has just been released on Blu-ray from Code Red.






Though it works in the social and political implications of an early '70s Milan that these films frequently presented as a violent, crime-infested hellhole, there's a definite DIRTY HARRY influence to THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS in its central character, Giorgio Caneparo (Luc Merenda). A standard-issue plays-by-his-own-rules cop, hot-tempered Caneparo is read the riot act by his boss Del Buono (Chris Avram) after blowing away a pair of escapees from a locomotive prisoner transport when they were already cornered and ready to give up and he was more than capable of simply arresting them. Del Buono suggests Caneparo lay low and look into some robberies that he's been investigating, and no sooner than mentioning that does Del Buono get gunned down in the street by a trio of mystery assailants. Obsessed with avenging his boss and fed up with the useless lip service paid to his memory ("Pathetic!" he shouts, interrupting an official government tribute to his slain boss), Caneparo goes undercover to infiltrate the bank robbery operation, which is being coordinated by Milan mob boss Padulo (Richard Conte). Caneparo gets a job as a wheelman for Padulo's current crew, and his first job with them goes off the rails when a psycho Padulo flunky (Bruno Corazzari) opens fire on a pregnant woman for no reason. But the rationale for the robberies runs deeper, as Caneparo gradually figures out that Padulo isn't quite who he says he is, and that the supposedly powerful mobster is just a cog in the wheel, serving much more powerful masters with more ambitiously sinister plans.


Those plans are never completely clear given the muddled political subtext of THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS. There's a lot of talk in Ernesto Gastaldi's script about creating an aura of chaos around Milan and throughout Italy and "rebuilding this country all over again," which probably played better for Italian audiences living through the political tumult of that era. But even in the English-dubbed version released in the US by Scotia in 1975, the film is a solid second-tier polizia offering, with a memorable score by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, some not-quite-but-still-spirited FRENCH CONNECTION-style car chases and Merenda (dubbed by Michael Forest) a believably pissed-off lone wolf cop in the Dirty Harry vein (he even gets a final moment comparable to tossing his badge away in disgust). It's also worth noting for those with polizia experience that THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS is also the source of that oft-used shot of a car crashing through a stack of cardboard boxes engulfed in flames, which resurfaced in seemingly a dozen other polizias and even more trailers. Born in 1943, Merenda got his first big break as a doomed French racing driver in the 1971 Steve McQueen vanity project LE MANS. He would go on to work with Martino on several occasions, most notably in a supporting role in TORSO and in a pair of entertaining 1975 actioners, GAMBLING CITY and SILENT ACTION. Merenda was a regular presence in Italian action films throughout the '70s and he would shift to Italian TV in the '80s. He grew disenchanted with the entertainment industry and walked away, retiring from acting in 1992 to focus on his family and opening a successful antique shop in Paris, which he still runs to this day, taking a break only to make a one-off return to the screen when Merenda superfan Eli Roth talked him into accepting a small role in 2007's HOSTEL PART II.


Richard Conte (1910-1975)
After a memorable turn as the duplicitous Barzini in 1972's THE GODFATHER, veteran American actor Conte found himself in much demand in Italy. In 1973 alone, including THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, he played mob figures in no less than seven Italian crime movies, including Fernando Di Leo's THE BOSS and the gangster spoof MY BROTHER ANASTASIA, which teamed him with beloved Italian comedian Alberto Sordi. Conte and Merenda reteamed in 1974 for Di Leo's SHOOT FIRST...DIE LATER, with Merenda as a corrupt cop and Conte as a subservient mob lawyer who jumps at the chance to throw his boss under the bus and take over as soon as he's feeling unappreciated. Thanks to the worldwide success of THE GODFATHER, Conte was such a sought-after export-value name for the Italian crime genre that he wound up spending the rest of his career in Europe and never appeared in another American film. Conte died in April 1975 from complications of a heart attack and a subsequent series of strokes (he's dubbed by someone else and looks noticeably frail and aged in SHOOT FIRST...DIE LATER compared to THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS just a year earlier), and by the end of his life, the jobs he was getting in Italy were on a marked decline compared to the exemplary polizia work and GODFATHER-associated star treatment he was receiving just two years earlier. Conte's final film found him as a glum, morose exorcist in 1975's tawdry and embarrassing NAKED EXORCISM, by far the worst Italian EXORCIST ripoff of them all, released in the US as THE POSSESSOR in 1977, two years after his death.



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