HAIL! MAFIA (1965)
Crossing the Styx.
Two American hit men are dispatched to the south of France to rub out an ex-gangster suspected of ratting out the mob. While ostensibly a vehicle for expat American actor Eddie Constantine, the story is primarily centered on the pair of killers, who are played by veteran character actors Jack Klugman and Henry Silva. Narrative is stripped to the bone, the better to accommodate the film’s existential tone and complex characterizations. The confrontation is staged in the rugged Camargue region of France, where the man on the run, isolated by the barren, windswept terrain, nervously awaits his executioners. During the tough, suspenseful climax, the interplay of personal loyalties and professional responsibilities combusts with startling ferociousness. The bleak resolution leaves the viewer as emotionally devastated as the last man left standing.
Hail! Mafia opens with a number of tropes familiar to crime connoisseurs — nocturnal, rain-slicked streets; pensive soundtrack jazz; tight close-ups on a stolid, trench-coated figure. This one’s name is Rudy Hamburg, his slab-like face briefly revealed by the flame from a cigarette-combusting match moments before a mob torpedo endeavors to put some bullets into him. Director Raoul Levy serves up similar visual touches throughout the film, aided by the stark monochrome photography of Raoul Coutard. New York and Paris are conjured as densely shadowed urban labyrinths, the French countryside as desolate no man’s land. Atmospheric scenes of the killers sharing meals in nondescript diners, motoring down empty highways and stalking their prey during the nerve-shredding showdown are integrated with Hubert Rostaing’s evocative jazz score, creating indelible moments of visual and aural poetry.
Schaft treads softly and carries a big gun.
The gritty cinematography is well served by the discordant visual rhythm Levy applies to the film, as he frequently cuts away from scenes a beat or two before one expects. Much in the Godard manner, Levy’s editing style underlines Hamburg’s emotional fragmentation and growing rift with his girlfriend Sylvia (Elsa Martinelli). It also counterpoints the killers’ mutual dislike and distrust, which is manifest in the way they circle each other like sharks competing for the same meal.
Despite is lamentable obscurity, Hail! Mafia belongs in the Olympus of crime cinema. That its recognition has for decades lagged behind its value is, perhaps, understandable in light of Levy’s subsequent career path. Best known as a producer of Brigitte Bardot films, he seemed destined for a brilliant directing career, but tragically made just one more film before committing suicide at the age of 44. Nevertheless, his legacy is secure on the strength of this iconoclastic take on the genre. Those who like their crime films hard and unsentimental should seek out and hail this overlooked masterpiece.
Rudy's best friend.
Although he’s forced to share the spotlight, Constantine is given a rare opportunity to act rather than just replicate the tough guy poses he flaunted in scores of cheap euro-crime pictures. His depiction of a man caught up in circumstances beyond his control is honest and oddly moving, especially as he and Sylvia play out the end of their love affair. In the opening hard-boiled voiceover, he expresses bitter irony at being targeted for death by the organization to which he’s always been faithful: “I know very few senators, cops or politicians who hate the sight of dollars. The organization has plenty of dollars — and plenty of Lugers and Colts. If it’s a matter of choosing between the banknote or a bullet, most people make the same decision. It’s human nature, I guess. Of course, there are some exceptions: me, for example. I know when not to talk, but nobody believes me, neither the cops...or the others.”
But the film’s revelation — and its greatest strength — is the screen time given to Klugman and Silva, unique actors whose gifts were often underutilized. It’s fascinating to watch these idiosyncratic performers limn the parameters of their enigmatic relationship. Silva plays Schaft, a consummate pro to whom this is just another routine assignment. Klugman is the more emotional Phil, who carries a bitter grudge against his old pal Hamburg for having deflowered his teenage sister. Much of the film is spent on the interaction between this odd couple of killers as they gradually come to terms over their differences. From the start, Schaft views his fellow assassin with distaste. According to his personal code of honor, he could never kill a friend, and considers Phil a rat. The latter, however, genuinely admires Schaft and tries vainly to earn his respect. Despite their initial antagonism, shared values eventually bring them together. Klugman invests his role with his usual hyper-intensity and nervous physical mannerisms. It’s arguably his best dramatic work outside of 12 Angry Men (1957). Silva, one of the screen’s transcendent heavies, is also afforded a rare chance to flesh out a characterization in depth. His performance in this film helped launch him as a successful European action star.
Brother hit men — uneasy partners.
Don’t exist in this film.
A deserted underground garage provides an evocative setting for the film’s opening showdown between Hamburg and a mob gunman. The latter succeeds only in killing Rudy’s windshield before being dispatched by the true professional.
The confrontation in the Camargue unfolds to the rhythm of pistols, shotguns and machine guns, with an added chorus of an unwelcome oil fire that engulfs Hamburg. As he rolls in marshland muck to put out the flames, an outbuilding suddenly explodes, followed by a breathtaking cut to a herd of terrified horses in flight. Hamburg somehow gets up and follows their example, looking like a refugee from Dante’s Inferno, with Phil and Schaft in hot pursuit.
Nowhere to run.
Rudy Hamburg [after avoiding an assassin’s bullet]: “Why can’t they use top-class killers? Guys who know their business? When one of the big boys gets caught, then it’s the real panic. Yeah, then they really get scared.”
Schaft: “There are certain things that are clean, and other things which aren’t. Do you think our work is clean?”
Phil: “I’m not ashamed of it. Only gutless wonders are ashamed of what they do.”
Schaft: “Yeah, but do you think it’s clean?”
Phil: “Yes, I do.”
Schaft: “So do I. We’ve got a great organization. We’ve got our own laws, and all the guys know those laws. And if you make one little mistake, you get a bullet right in the head. That’s it. That’s the way the business is. But it’s among us. We kill among the organization; we don’t kill other people. If one day I get a bullet in the head — if I don’t go to the chair first — well, it’s normal. You know that? It’s correct. If I kill, it’s right. If I get killed, that’s right.”
Good to the last shot.
The End Titles
Director: Raoul Levy; screenplay: Jean Cau, Raoul Levy; producer: Raoul Levy; music: Hubert Rostaing; cinematography: Raoul Coutard; editing: Victoria Mercanton
Eddie Constantine (Rudy Hamburg); Henry Silva (Schaft); Jack Klugman (Phil); Elsa Martinelli (Sylvia); Micheline Presle (Daisy); Michael Lonsdale (secretary); Carl Studer (Ruidosa); Ricky Cooper (Ben); Tener Eckelberry (Hyman)