Sunday, December 6, 2015


Hot off the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s The GODFATHER (1972), Alberto De Martino’s COUNSELOR AT CRIME (1973) also treads much of the same territory as Coppola’s film, highlighting the Octopus-like ‘tentacles of the mafia’ and the conflicts usually associated between the various factions of the mob. Produced at the start of the then burgeoning poliziesco, De Martino’s film is definitely one of the early precursors to this once very popular and profitable genre of Italian film, although it should be more aptly referred to as a mafioso picture along the lines of Damiano Damiani’s MAFIA (1968) or Vittorio Schraldi’s criminally underrated I KISS THE HAND (1973) than your average poliziesco with hot-headed, vigilante-type commissarios.

Opening with picturesque locales of San Francisco, the film exposes the far-reaching and lucrative mob-influenced areas of business, such as the ports (complete with angered dock workers), the racetrack and junkyard, which seems to be Don Antonio Macaluso’s (Martin Balsam) primary headquarters.  When William Lucchesi, an out-of-control syphilitic mobster, begins stirring up shit with a local cop at a mob-controlled bowling alley (“I hate pigs! Always stealin’ money out of a dead man’s pockets!”), a hit is put out on him because, as one cop clearly states, “We got the canary, and they know he’s gonna sing.”  Although the hit doesn’t go as initially planned, Don Garofalo (Francisco Rabal), the second-in-command, eventually gets the job done when Santino, a local cop on the payroll, helps orchestrate the hit.

Meanwhile, Don Macaluso’s godson Thomas (Tomas Milian), his “consigliori”, is released from prison, but to Macaluso’s surprise, Thomas wants out of this life, which Macaluso begrudgingly agrees too, even though during an earlier “sit-down”, he forbade Garofalo to branch-out on his own.  Of course, this sparks all-out “mafia warfare” as Garofalo tries to “reshuffle the deck” within Don Macaluso’s once-powerful empire.

Italian locandina courtesy of Steve Fenton.

Considerably more expansive than your average Italian crime picture, De Martino and his crew make good use of the San Franciscan and Sicilian locales, including a brief but very welcome car chase through SF’s hilly streets.  For the duration of the film, Macaluso is on the run, which allows De Martino plenty of opportunities to stage various shootouts and altercations, including a hard-hitting gunfight where he and Thomas waste about two dozen of Garofalo’s men; the rooftop foot-chase in a small Sicilian hillside town is also quite effective, which leads to a terrific, poignant finale wherein Balsam and Milian really get to show off their acting chops.

Balsam and Milian have terrific chemistry and play well off each other, with Balsam giving an especially vigorous, physical performance (he also dubs his own voice), as a man who will stop at nothing to protect Thomas, the son he never had.  When Thomas decides to lead another type of life, Macaluso is fully aware of the repercussions this may have (“Thomas’ departure could be the last stone that starts the avalanche”), but he lets him leave all the same, hopefully to lead the kind of decent life he himself never could.  Balsam would continue to be an “American Guest Star”, usually as a token commissario, in numerous Italian crime pictures, such as Marcello Andrei’s SEASON FOR ASSASSINS (1977), but along with Damiano Damiani’s CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971), this was one of his meatier roles.  Tomas Milian is also especially good as the laconic “Counselor” (export prints used the Anglo/Canadian “The Counsellor”, hence the title change by U.S. distributor Joseph Green); who, after realizing the trouble he’s got Macaluso into, doesn’t sit by the wayside, despite the protestations of his girlfriend Laura (Dagmar Lassander in a throwaway part).  Milian looks great here, with a much more naturalistic, down-to-earth performance (nicely-dubbed by Larry Dolgin) which is similar to his work in Stelvio Massi’s superb EMERGENCY SQUAD (1974); this before he embarked on many of his over-the-top but very well-known roles in his subsequent poliziotteschi, usually hiding behind very obvious wigs or a ton of makeup.

Outside of Balsam and Milian, Francisco Rabal also lends the film considerable weight and plays an Italian-American mafioso to utter perfection with his jet-black hair and deceptive behaviour; he is a man to be feared.  Anyone even remotely involved with Macaluso is ‘taken care of’, and they are sealed-up inside an oil drum then encased in concrete. One poor bastard even gets stuffed into his own pizza oven!  

Journeyman director De Martino, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 86, keeps everything moving at a nice pace, and, as in his other crime pictures, CRIME BOSS (1972) and STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM (1976), he always got excellent performances from his ‘name’ casts.  Unfortunately, his output in the ’70s slowed considerably, and after directing The ANTICHRIST (1974) and HOLOCAUST 2000 (1977), two upscale EXORCIST-themed films, he capped his prolific career off with FORMULA FOR A MURDER (1985) and MIAMI HORROR (1985), a pair of instantly forgettable horror movies.

Handsomely shot by Aristide Massaccesi (better known to most as Joe D’Amato, director of an almost obscene amount of sleazy Eurotrash pics) and scored with one of Riz Ortolani’s typically brassy-but-effective scores, Germany’s Film Art DVD is a very welcome release, which finally retains the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is in English. Even though it’s still rather grainy and kinda soft, this is the best it has ever looked on home video, enabling the viewer to better appreciate Massaccesi’s carefully-composed compositions.  Extras include a brief photo/poster gallery and a wealth of poliziesco trailers for some of Film Art’s other releases.  For the record, these include Italian-language trailers for Mario Caiano’s BLOODY PAYROLL (1976), Sergio Martino’s SILENT ACTION (1975) and THE CHEATERS (1975), Enzo G. Castellari’s DAY OF THE COBRA (1980), Fernando Di Leo’s THE BOSS (1973), as well as English trailers for Stelvio Massi’s CONVOY BUSTERS (1978) and Umberto Lenzi’s BROTHERS TILL WE DIE (1978).  Of course, being a German DVD, this release also includes a German-language audio track as well.  Order COUNSELOR AT CRIME from Amazon Germany here.

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