Sunday, May 16, 2010


Got a little bit of World Enough and Time today before a three week hiatus. By that time, maybe the Habs will have hoisted the Cup, and I can post a panegyric on their puckmastery. In the Mean Time, maybe I can squeeze a couple of ramblings in through the out door.

Something has been percolating in my pineal gland for a while. I nearly lost that little buddy when I was semi-lobotomized during the Interruptnum -- thankfully the seat of my soul still seems to be sentient, and it chimes in from time to time. But let's not put des cartes before the horse. (Sorry, that's not a very clever joke, but hey, I had brain cancer, so fuck it).

Now that my third eye is pried open, I can dig out a few things to ramble on about. And one of them has to with movies. Certain kinds of them, and the inspired casting of these certain kinds of movies. Crime films, to be only slightly more precise -- this is an expansive genre, of course. American and/or Italian mafia, French bank heisters, British supergrass, hip-hop gangstas, Japanese Yakuza, et cet.

What I've been struck by is the casting of these types of films. Particularly Italian mob movies and/or TV shows produced in the US, and even more particularly, in the New York/New Jersey area.

I'm not talking about the iconic actors. There seem to be three levels to these casting rosters. On the primary level, you've got your De Niros, Pacinos, Pescis, Braccos, and even the non-Italians -- Keitel, Walken, et cet. In France, Delon and Belmondo. In Italy, Volonte and Milian. In Japan, Kitano and Aikawa. In the UK, Hoskins, Caine and the great Ian McShane. And of course, most recently, a new addition to the American pantheon, James Gandolfini. Often particular directors are associated with this primary caste. Scorsese with De Niro, De Palma/Coppola with Pacino, Ferrara with Keitel/Walken, Melville with Delon, Rosi with Volonte, Fulci with Milian, Sugawara with Fukasaku, Aikawa and Ishibashi with Miike, Kitano with Kitano (and usually his pals Terajima and Osugi), Kiyoshi Kurasawa with Yakusho, Akira Kurasawa with Mifune and Nakadai, Pasolini with Franco Citti, Chabrol with Audran and Huppert ....

I've always enjoyed seeing a director repeatedly go with a favoured guy/girl/ensemble. In the majority of Coen Bros movies, you can usually find not only the Turturros, Buscemis and Goodmans, but the Politos, Mahoneys, Shaloubs, Stormares and Stephen Roots of the world. And of course the great Dan Hedaya at least once. And recurrent cameos from Holly Hunter and Bruce Campbell. Philip Stone seemed to appear in every Kubrick masterpiece, no matter how bit the part. In most David Lynch films you'll find at least one of Jack Nance, Brad Dourif, or Dean Stockwell, as well as the remarkable Harry Dean Stanton. The most powerful scene in my cinematic memory was the final encounter between Stanton and Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story -- slowly dying of cancer the entire shoot, Farnsworth's performance is the most heroic I have ever seen put to film, and I was considerably affected when I learned of his suicide shortly after. I loved P. T. Anderson's acting troupe which remained intact until they all became big fish -- Julianne Moore, William Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and John C. Reilly (Philip Baker Hall, the best of them all, never became a big fish). And Lars von Trier sticks with actors who will never become fish of any sort, like Udo Kier and Jean-Marc Barr.

But I digress. Back to the Wiseguys. On the secondary level, you have your David Proval, John Cazale, Al Letteri, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, Richard Castellano, Michael Gazzo, Joe Pantoliano, Victor Argo, Robert Loggia and the truly great Frank Vincent (Billy Batts, Frank Marino, Phil Leotardo). As well, in another example of The Sopranos subtle sublimity in terms of casting cross-pollination, Dominic Chianese. Even Michael Imperioli evolved from the unfortunate "Spider" to the doomed Christopher Moltisante. The intertextuality of the casting decisions that David Chase made during the majestic run of the Sopranos is too dizzyingly brilliant to assess here -- it deserves an entire blog, and I'm sure that there are many out there.
Let me just say -- compare Richard Romanus from Mean Streets to Lorraine Bracco's (Harvey Keitel's ex-wife) ineffectual ex-husband in the Sopranos, obsessed as he is with Italian-American stereotyping.

But my favourites are from the tertiary level. The guys that show up for every audition for a New York movie. The ones that usually get billed as "Thug #2", or "Angry patron in bar". Sometimes they get chunkier roles, like Paul Herman as "Beansy". But in the main I'm referring to guys like Frank Sivero, Frank Adonis, Beau and Mike Starr, Vinny Vella, Rocco Sisto, Chuck Low, James Russo, Joe Bono, Vincent Pastore, Tony Sirico, along with much of the cast of Copland -- almost all of whom went on to play crucial roles in the Sopranos. Even Frank Pellegrino, the owner of Rao's in Little Italy -- I almost got a table in there back in 2001. Sadly, it didn't appeal to my girlfriend at the time -- we needed to get to Macy's before it closed. Joe Spinell -- along with John Cazale, one of the two tragic heroes of American cinema in the 70s.

All of these guys you would recognize upon seeing a photograph or a screen shot, but their names are largely unknown. I am here today to rescue them from the condescension of posterity.

NB. Someone who is particularly memorable for me, and belongs on the primary plane, albeit only from two "gangster" films, is the great Terence Stamp. Willie Parker and Wilson (The Limey), gain him entry into the pantheon. Let alone the "Visitor" in Teorema. We won't talk about General Zod in "Superman II" though.

Another honourable mention -- Michael Gambon as Spica, the 1980s British/17c Dutch gangster in The Cook, the Thief ...

The kids will know him better, unfortunately, from the film franchise that I refuse to mention.


  1. Don't forget the great film noir classics of the '40s and '50s. Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, John Garfield, Robert Mitchum. I've watched a good 10-15 of these in the last month or so. The cinematographers of this era had skills that are now lost. Must be seen on a flatscreen with a remastered print. Check out Charles Bronson in Crime Wave. One the greatest film noirs ever.


  2. My favourite Robert Ryan line is from a western, Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" -- we're after men! and by God, I wish I was with them.

    the greatest western ever -- about masculinity, growing old, honour and the changing technologies of death