Contraband: 70s Italian Crime

Film Title

Contraband / Luca il contrabbandiere (1980)

Synopsis

What’s your least favorite country?

Director

Lucio Fulci

Cast

Fabio Testi
Ivana Monti
Marcel Bozzuffi
Saverio Marconi


Did you find subtitles for this one?

I found a pack on several Scando languages, so that’s a no. The copy I watched patched up some missing bits with an unbelievably awful English dub, which added some unintended, welcomed comedy.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-02h35m00s167 Subtitled or no, could you explain the plot?

Luca (Fabio Testi) and his pals are a bunch of honest, hard-working cigarette smugglers whose biggest concern is evading the cops in their dashing wood motorboats. Their luck changes when several of the racket’s bosses are murdered by an evil gang of French heroin peddlers, who want to use the boats to pass something other than harmless tobacco. Will the Naples underworld go for it?

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B-list American actors / have-beens earning a fast paycheck

Not American, but the late Marcel Bozzuffi, whom you may remember as the ruthless hitman of The French connection, plays “The Marsigliese”, head of the drug-trafficking ring. Given Contraband’s classy qualities, that is taking a step up in the movie gangster ladder and falling a dozen in the actor ladder… Anyway, during his varied career Bozzuffi had the privilege of working for directors like Jean-Pierre Melville and Michelangelo Antonioni. And Lucio Fulci.

spaghetti

Typical examples of Italian scuzziness

There is the expected abundance of bushy mustaches, and some guy that gets grabbed while eating spaghetti and takes the plate along to jail. We are informed several times of the “fact” that the contraband of cigarettes feeds the mouths of about 200,000 Neapolitans, though it is unclear whether the merchandise goes on its way to the rest of Italy and Europe or stays in Naples to supply the local demand: in one scene, we see a dilapidated alley with no less than three guys selling packs of Malboros. Two hundred thousand people! The racket is so ingrained that even Catholic nuns transport the goods in mission vans.

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Random acts of sadistic violence

Luca stabs some dude in the heart and twists the blade while questioning him, but top honors have to go to the liaison woman who tries to pass a shipment of very diluted heroin to the Marsigliese. She gets half of her face roasted with a Bunsen burner, and while her flesh darkens and peels off, the Marsigliese leers with barely repressed pleasure. Not sadistic enough but worthy of mention is the guy executed in front of his entire parish, only seconds after gobbling down the sacred body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For most Catholics that would mean a ticket straight to heaven, but I’d venture that he was thinking of some soiled skin mag he eyed the night before. Too bad.

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Superfluous displays of Mediterranean misogyny

The mule lady uses her vagina to carry a dildo-shaped vessel containing drugs. How do I know? Because there is a pointless shot of her hand reaching for it. During a nightclub scene, the stroboscopic lights give us some quick glimpses of various intimate female parts, which likely resulted in the damage of thousands of VHS players through Italy when folks freeze-framed their rented copies in the days before Internet porn. Those with VHS players, anyway. There’s a crime boss so jaded with the usual pleasures of the flesh that, after taunting one of his goons about his dubious sexual inclination, orders his blond mistress to fuck the guy while he and his black mistress watch. The henchman, who has a Larry-from-The-Three-Stooges hairdo, looks certifiably scared while the woman smothers him with her gigantic breasts. I’m not sure which one of the two elicited the excited goading from the boss. Luca’s wife is kidnapped in order to force him to join the drug operation; when Luca refuses by phone, the Marsigliese orders his guys to beat the woman, then to rape her, then to sodomize her, and the powerless Luca keeps listening and screaming “no! no!” while the torture goes on. Holy shit, Luca, just agree to whatever the guy is asking and hang up! Isn’t that what you end up doing?

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Instances of South-European police incompetence

Italian police can’t do shit when several dons are gunned down in front of dozens of witnesses by the same unmasked hitman, but have no compunctions about launching a city-wide raid to crack on cigarette smuggling and cripple Naples’ main economy, if not Italy’s. As a curio, there was an “inspector Tarantino” around. The screenwriters couldn’t have possibly foreseen how ridiculous it sounds now.

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Body count

20, which is very low to call it one of the most violent films of all time, unless you take into account that it features the most realistic/exaggerated gunshot wounds that I’ve ever seen in a movie, with the possible exception of the last Rambo. Seriously, half the gun deaths were novelty deaths, and none of them were CGI, which might be the tipping factor. I’m torn between the exploding head of a dude that was already dead (corspe killing!) and the guy that gets his throat ripped out in glorious slow motion with a single, pitiful Beretta shot. Ten more deaths, and I would be calling this a good movie. Fifteen more, a masterpiece. Another twenty, and this would be my Infinite Jest.

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Is it any good?

A bloody mess. Unlike Live like a cop, die like a man, where its disparate elements nicely counterpointed each other, nothing mingles here. You have drab locations, generic gangster types and sickening, extreme, woefully infrequent displays of violence… all set against some stupid social commentary about how Italian criminals are decent folks who say no to drugs, boring boat chases, a very inappropriate score (read below) and a plodding storyline full of silly turns. One of the dumbest of these has Luca going to see an informer to discover who ordered the death of his brother. The informer gives Luca a note and is murdered within seconds. Luca throws the killer into a pit of toxic waste, and the next scene has the mangled corpse flying through one of the windows of the mansion of this mob boss that Luca suspects is the culprit. The mob boss says he’s innocent, and Luca receives a major beating. Days later, with Luca convalescing, his wife looks through his pockets and discovers the note, which points to the Marsigliese. Bravo, Luca.

Actually, even that pales when compared with the climax. There are several unexplained scenes through the film of an old man watching cheap westerns on TV. Turns out he is some kind of retired don, and when everything looks helpless, the guy calls up his septuagenarian pals on their country clubs and upscale nursing homes. They save the day by ambushing the Frenchies with hit-and-hide methods worthy of the Vietcong, but it looks as if the filmmakers had gone to the local bingo and distributed prop machine guns and sawed-offs to every bored geezer there. Which they likely did. Fulci himself shoots his load as one of the gun-toting capos, in what has to be the most embarrassing cameo ever not featuring John Woo. I hope his splatter flicks are better than this…

fulci

OLD

Prog-rock or proto-Morricone?

A cheesy, pornish disco score by Fabio Frizzi, which doesn’t quite fit in a wannabe epic crime saga with tons of flying viscera. There’s also a somber theme for the most solemn stretches that sounds an awful lot like that of a certain American gangster movie from the 70s, and makes me wonder how much Nino Rota’s heirs got in exchange for not suing. Possibly a truckload of Winstons.

About Miguel Sancho

Part-time engineering student, part-time postal worker, full-time failure man, Miguel Sancho hopes to escape one day from his native Spain, probably by means of an alcohol related death.

Follow Miguel at @miguelojsancho