As Gian-Piero Brunetta has noted, Francesco Rosi’s Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, 1972) and Lucky Luciano (1973) saw the Neapolitan filmmaker return to the narrative model of his first major success Salvatore Giuliano (1962) (1). Both films employ a non-linear structure in an attempt to outline the complex web of political and economic intrigue in which the eponymous character is enmeshed. They are both examples of “cine-inchieste” (“film-investigations”), and both feature Rosi’s favourite actor Gian-Maria Volonté in the title roles. While the central figure of Il caso Mattei – the eponymous Italian industrialist – may not be immediately familiar to non-Italian audiences, there are surely few who have not heard of the subject of the second film, the notorious Mafioso Charles “Lucky” Luciano. In his recent biography of the Sicilian-born mobster, Tim Newark points out that:
For the first 25 years of his criminal career, Charles “Lucky” Luciano was a vicious mobster who rose to become the multi-millionaire king of the New York underworld. For the next 25 years of his life, Luciano was a legend – but a fake master criminal without real power, his evil reputation manipulated and maintained by government agents who put him behind bars. (2)
Lucky Luciano was released between The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and The Godfather: Part II (Coppola, 1974) but purposely avoids the unabashed romanticism of those two (canonical) works. There is an overriding sobriety to Rosi’s film, with cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis opting for a rigorous, quasi-journalistic aesthetic far removed from Gordon Willis’ rich, Rembrandtian compositions for Coppola’s films. Greying, bespectacled and mild-mannered – looking more like an accountant than a mobster – Volonté’s Luciano combines perfectly with other aspects of the mise en scène. A world away from the flamboyancy of Al Capone, Rosi has admitted to being fascinated with the outward “mundaneness” of his subject:
This “quiet man with the sad eyes” as the Head of the Narcotics Bureau used to call him, apparently lived the life of a pensioner: he was quiet, had his routine, went to the races, the theatre, to restaurants, his dog in his arms. What was in the head of a man like this? What is in the brain of a master criminal? This is what I asked myself as I studied the character of Luciano. (3)
Cutting through the greyness is one key early scene. Heavily reminiscent of The Godfather – though even more daringly stylised – it’s a reconstruction of the events of 11 September 1931 (later dubbed “Night of the Sicilian Vespers”) when 40 leading Mafiosi were murdered, clearing the way for Luciano to become “boss of bosses”. Rosi uses the same montage style from the “baptism murder” sequence in Coppola’s film, cutting from a lavish dinner held in Luciano’s honour to scenes of bosses being shot to death in various locations, mostly in Peckinpah-esque slow-motion. In one arresting shot, with the camera at the bottom of a swimming pool looking up, a murdered boss plunges head-first into the water, blood swirling from his mouth. Another scene sees diegetic sound overlap, creating the somewhat surreal impression of convulsing bodies dancing to the music at Luciano’s dinner as they continue to be riddled with bullets.
Rosi then begins to examine the links between Luciano and those in political and economic power across the decades, from the Allied liberators in Naplesin 1944 to a United Nations Conference on drug trafficking in 1952. One sequence sees Commissioner Anslinger (Edmond O’Brien) and Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent Charles Siragusa (playing himself) seated alone in a vast conference room discussing a strategy to ensnare Luciano. In a quasi-Wellesian image, they are both in the foreground with long empty tables stretching into the background. Anslinger carefully outlines all the difficulties standing in the way of a conviction and it soon becomes clear that he and Siragusa have little room for maneuver. Critic Michel Ciment, in his indispensable 1976 volume Le Dossier Rosi, asked the director about Siragusa’s role in the fight against Luciano: “He feels like the victim of a conspiracy he can’t quite comprehend […] that someone or something is stopping him from carrying out his work the way he wants to” (4). Having the FBN agent play himself is a bold move on Rosi’s part – “a triumph of veracity” (5)according to Newark – but his scenes with established actors Volonté, O’Brien and Rod Steiger tend to expose his rather stilted delivery. In a relatively minor role, Steiger plays Gene Giannini, a New York drug dealer and informant of Siragusa’s who is dispatched to Naples to gather information on Luciano. He comes to a violent end upon his return to the US – another sequence that draws on the iconography of the US gangster picture.
In the five decades since his death in 1962, the figure of Charles “Lucky” Luciano has continued to resurface in film and television, most recently in the acclaimed HBO television series Boardwalk Empire (2010-11). Aside from Al Capone, he is arguably the most famous real-life Mafioso. Rosi, however, does not attempt a Hollywood-style, rise-and-fall biopic. In keeping with its director’s long-held interest in the mechanics of power, Lucky Luciano dares to de-centralise its subject, to shine the spotlight on larger forces at work.
- Gian Piero Brunetta, Storia del cinema italiano: Dal miracolo economico agli anni novanta, 3rd ed., Editori Riuniti, Roma, 1998, p. 261.
- Tim Newark, Lucky Luciano: Mafia Murderer and Secret Agent, Mainstream Publishing,Edinburgh, 2011, p. 11.
- “Questo ‘quiet man with the sad eyes’, come lo chiamava il capo delNarcotic Bureau, conduceva apparentemente la vita di un pensionato: era tranquillo, abitudinario, andava alle corse, a teatro, al ristorante, con il suo cagnolino in braccio. Cosa c’è nella testa di quest’uomo? Che cosa ha nel suo cervello un grande criminale? Questo mi chiedevo studiando il personaggio di Luciano.” Rosi in Aldo Tassone, Parla il cinema italiano, Edizioni Il Formichiere, Milano, 1979, p. 300. Translation by the author.
- “[…] il se sent victime d’une espèce de complot qu’il n’arrive pas å comprendre […] que quelqu’un ou quelque chose l’empêche de faire son métier comme il l’intend.” Rosi in Michel Ciment, Le Dossier Rosi, Éditions Stock,Paris, 1976, p. 151. Translation by the author.
- Newark, p. 269.
Lucky Luciano/Re: Lucky Luciano (1973Italy/USA/France 105 mins)
Prod Co: Harbor Productions/Les Films de la Boétie/Vides Cinematografica Prod: Franco Cristaldi Dir: Francesco Rosi Scr: Francesco Rosi,Lino Jannuzzi, Tonino Guerra Phot: Pasqualino De Santis Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Prod Des: Andrea Crisanti Mus: Piero Piccioni
Cast: Gian Maria Volonté,Edmond O’Brien, Charles Siragusa, Rod Steiger, Vincent Gardenia, Silverio Blasi, Charles Cioffi, Larry Gates