HCF REWIND NO. 221: CONTRABAND AKA LUCA IL CONTRABANDIERE, THE NAPLES CONNECTION, THE SMUGGLER [Italy 1980]
OUT NOW ON DVD
RUNNING TIME:90 min
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
DISTRIBUTED BY SHAMELESS SCREEN ENTERTAINMENT
Luca Di Angelo is a smuggler, one member of an organized team trafficking cigarettes and booze up and down the coast off Naples, Italy. After a run-in with the police, Luca and his brother Mickey suspect Scherino, the head of a rival gang of smugglers, of passing on their actives. Lucia and Mickey take their accusations to their boss Perlante, who agrees to look into it, but after a night-time fire at Mickey’s racing stables kills a valued racehorse, he and Luca drive over to inspect the damage and Mickey is machine-gunned to death by assassins dressed as cops. Luca barely escapes with his life and swears revenge, despite the pleas of his wife Adele….
The Holy Trinity of Italian horror is generally regarded as Dario Argento, Mario Bava And Lucio Fulci, though true to form I would slightly tweak that and have Bava at the top. In any case, Fulci usually comes third, but then again he also made far more films outside the horror genre: in fact, the man made movies of all sorts, and not just when he was beginning his career, from westerns to family movies to even a film about bottom pinching. Contraband is his only entry in the gangster movie genre, or more specifically the poliziotteschi [which translates as ‘police-related’] sub genre that was very popular in Italy in the 70’s and virtually took over from the westerns, though typically Fulci tweaks the formula and has the police as bystanders for most of the time while the gangsters are the centre of the action. Like many of Fulci’s films it’s a little sloppy in places and was obviously somewhat rushed, while the story sometimes seems like a compilation of gangster movie cliches, but it shows an adeptness and fondness for its genre that makes me wish Fulci had done more films in this world, and is overall highly enjoyable as long as you can stomach some extreme violence, and boy do I mean extreme violence! Of course, if you’re already familiar with some of his horror work, then you know what you’re going to get, and actually Contraband is a good film with which to start exploring some of his non-horror stuff.
It was shot between Zombie Flesh Eaters and City Of The Living Dead during the director’s most fertile period, and the period where he also gained an international cult following as well as notoriety. Filmed mostly on location in Naples, it began life under the title Vicious [a most appropriate title], and was shot as Mean Blood before being eventually called what translates as Luca The Smuggler in Italy. One of the two overseas titles The Naples Connection was probably chosen because Marcel Bozzuffi had also been in The French Connection. After a reasonably successful if hardly striking domestic release, UK [though it’s hard to believe now, many of Fulci’s films did get into British cinemas] and US cinema releases didn’t happen, and the film unsurprisingly was cut in many places, the UK video losing around three minutes, and even an early DVD release was cut. It’s taken till now for Contraband to get an uncut UK release, and Shameless, one of my favourite UK DVD labels because of both their dedication to releasing as many obscure and strange gems as possible and their yellow [which of course translates as giallo in Italian] covers, has even given usm in addition to the familiar English language version, an Italian language track with English subtitles. I feel that the poor English dubbing really hurt this movie, more than some of Fulci’s others [something like The Beyond, with its surreal, dreamlike manner, doesn’t really suffer much in this respect], and hopefully this Italian language release will increase its reputation, though I will say that my review copy suffered from some background hiss during some scenes of the Italian language version.
You’ll probably wonder what I’m talking about during the first half an hour or so of this film, which, despite opening with a great boat chase over which I could almost hear the James Bond theme playing in my mind, is neither not very violent nor that great, the film not always doing a good job of introducing its characters or situations, and sometimes seeming content to replay familiar gangster movie clichés or memorable moments from other films, from an obvious variation on Sonny Corleone’s death from The Godfather to a body crashing through somebody’s window though, unlike the one in The Public Enemy and others, it’s been disfigured by acid, Fulci and his other writers usually taking care to provide variations. Fabio Testi, a common leading man in films like this of the time, convinces as someone who has the ability, charisma and possibly ruthlessness to rise up through the underground but is basically a half-decent guy. The film takes pains to establish his troubled family life, and overall it’s fairly slow paced, though not at all boring, for a while until Luca’s brother is killed, after which the film adopts an unsually fast pace for a Fulci picture. The stakes get higher and higher as not only does Luca set out to find out who was behind the murder and avenge his brother’s death, but his band of comparatively harmless booze and cigarette smugglers are having both their livelihoods and their lives threatened by a new and far more brutal breed of gangster more interested in smuggling and dealing cocaine and heroin.
This is of course what was happening at the time in the Italian underworld and the film asks us to differentiate between ‘good’ gangsters, who were widely respected and even loved by the poor, and ‘bad’ gangsters, in a typical example of the deliberately uneasy moral element to much of Fulci’s non-horror work. Meanwhile the cops are mostly ineffectual except for one big raid sequence which contains some humorous moments like a guy taking his dinner with him as he’s being grabbed. In fact, there are some amusing moments throughout, such as some scenes involving Luca’s constantly busy doctor, while what I used to think was a rather ugly looking and badly shot movie due to bad prints is sometimes quite nice visually, with lots of pretty, slightly soft focus early morning photography, though generally it’s a lot less stylised than most Fulci films of the time, the director opting for a realistic vibe. There is though some interesting staging, most notably two action scenes taking place by a lime pit and on a derelict ship titled up at a steep angle, and a rather rousing climax which I won’t ruin by describing in detail. It will, though, answer the question of who this strange old guy watching spaghetti westerns being shown throughout is, as well as give you the sight of Fulci himself, in what is certainly the memorable of the Hitchcock-style cameos he often gave himself, letting loose with a machine gun!
From about half an hour in Contraband gets almost unrelenting in its brutality, with two particular scenes – a woman’s face getting burned by a bunsen burner, and someone’s wife getting raped while the husband hears at the other end of the telephone [this prefigures a similar scene in The New York Ripper] – being very uncomfortable to watch indeed. Whether this stuff is gratuitous or not comes down to one’s one view on screen violence, and it’s probably more disturbing to watch than comparative scenes in, say, Zombie Flesh Eaters, because it doesn’t have a fantastical edge, though my view is that Fulci is simply showing, in the unflinching detail with which he specialised in [he did once say:“violence is Italian art” ], what was and still can be typical gangster behaviour, something which filmmakers as great as Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone have been criticised for doing. Fulci’s film is sometimes jarring with the way it tries to [perhaps mistakenly] lighten its horrors, such as the score by Fabio Frizzi with its groovy beats and catchy rhythms. An early disco scene replete with strobe lighting and people obviously not dancing to the right music is set to a wonderfully cheesy song called You Are Not The Same credited to Frizzi and Fulci. Count me in as one of those people who is disappointed that the soundtrack, unlike many of Frizzi’s others, still hasn’t been released.
Contraband shows carelessness at times, such as some jarring sound edits, though this is something many Fulci films share. It usually adds to, rather than detracts from, their appeal for fans, and even heightens their strange atmosphere. Some smoothing over and fine tuning would have certainly benefitted his sole gangster opus, set as it is in a more ‘real’ world, but Contraband still fascinates – even if some may say more in the manner of a car crash than anything else [and don’t we always slow down to see those?] – and has quite a lot of interesting things in it even if you forget the violence. It isn’t really one of the Godfather of Gore’s classics, but this uncompromising but also action-filled thriller is definitely worth checking out nonetheless. And yes, the ubiquitous [to 70’s Italian movies] bottle of J & B whisky is present and correct, in fact on one of the two sightings the camera zooms into it!
Look out for one of the coolest directorial cameos ever!
* Collector’s Limited Edition Lenticular Cover
* English plus Italian Audio with optional English Subtitles
* Alternative Italian Credits
* English Theatrical Trailer
* Shameless Crime Trailer Park