A Movie A Day #252: The Death Collector (1976, directed by Ralph De Vito)


Jerry Bolanti (Joe Cortese) is a cocky loud-mouth who has just returned to New Jersey after serving a prison sentence.  Jerry needs a work so a mid-level gangster named Tony (Lou Criscuolo) hires Jerry as a debt collector.  The problem is that Jerry is just not very good at his job.  His attempt to collect money from Bernie Feldshuh (Frank Vincent) leads to Bernie hiring a legendary hitman (Keith Davis) to kill Jerry.  Despite working with two experienced enforcers, Joe (Joe Pesci) and Serge (Bobby Alto), Jerry’s next job is just as unsuccessful and leads to even more unnecessary deaths.  Tony starts to wonder if maybe he made a mistake giving a job to Jerry and, unfortunately, no one simply gets fired from the Mafia.

A low-budget and nihilistic film, The Death Collector occupies a strange place in film history.  Though it was largely ignored when it was first released, one of the few people who did see it was actor Robert De Niro.  De Niro brought the film to the attention of Martin Scorsese, who was casting Raging Bull at the time.  Both Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent made their film debuts in The Death Collector and, after watching the movie, Scorsese cast both of them in Raging Bull.

The rest is history:

In Raging Bull, Pesci beats up Vincent.

In Goodfellas, Pesci kills Vincent.

In Casino, Vincent finally gets to kill Pesci.

If not for The Death Collector, Frank Vincent would never have told Joe Pesci to “get your fucking shinebox.”  If not for The Death Collector, Joe Pesci would never have thrown Frank Vincent in that trunk.  It all started with The Death Collector.

As for the film itself, The Death Collector was filmed on location in New Jersey and it occasionally has a raw and intense grittiness but it suffers because there’s never any reason to care about Jerry.  He starts the movie as an asshole and he ends the movie as an asshole and Joe Cortese’s bland performance fails to make Jerry into a compelling antihero.  The Death Collector works best whenever Vincent and Pesci are on-screen.  Pesci’s performance is slightly toned down version of the hyped-up maniacs that he became best known for playing while Vincent shows that, even in his first film, he was already a master at playing slightly ridiculous tough guys.

The Death Collector can also be found under the title, Family Enforcer.  It’s been released on DVD by several companies, all of which claim that the film “stars” Joe Pesci.  My copy has a picture of Pesci that was lifted from 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag on the cover.

A Movie A Day #30: Prince of the City (1981, directed by Sidney Lumet)


220px-prince_of_the_city_foldedIn 1970s New York City, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is a self-described “prince of the city.”  A narcotics detective, Ciello is the youngest member of the Special Investigations Unit.  Because of their constant success, the SIU is given wide latitude by their superiors at the police department.  The SIU puts mobsters and drug dealers behind bars.  They get results.  If they sometimes cut corners or skim a little money for themselves, who cares?

It turns out that a lot of people care.  When a federal prosecutor, Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker), first approaches Ciello and asks him if he knows anything about police corruption, Ciello refuses to speak to him.  As Ciello puts it, “I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”  But Ciello already has doubts.  His drug addict brother calls him out on his hypocrisy. Ciello spends one harrowing night with one of his informants, a pathetic addict who Ciello keeps supplied with heroin in return for information.  Ciello finally agrees to help the investigation but with one condition: he will not testify against anyone in the SIU.  Before accepting Ciello’s help, Cappalino asks him one question.  Has Ciello ever done anything illegal while a cop?  Ciello says that he has only broken the law three times and each time, it was a minor infraction.

For the next two years, Ciello wears a wire nearly every day and helps to build cases against other cops, some of which are more corrupt than others.  It turns out that being an informant is not as easy as it looks.  Along with getting burned by malfunctioning wires and having to deal with incompetent backup, Ciello struggles with his own guilt.  When Cappalino is assigned to another case, Ciello finds himself working with two prosecutors (Bob Balaban and James Tolkan) who are less sympathetic to him and his desire to protect the SIU.  When evidence comes to light that Ciello may have lied about the extent of his own corruption, Ciello may become the investigation’s newest target.

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Prince of the City is one of the best of Sidney Lumet’s many films but it is not as well-known as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, or even The Wiz.  Why is it such an underrated film?  As good as it is, Prince of the City is not always an easy movie to watch.  It’s nearly three hours long and almost every minute is spent with Danny Ciello, who is not always likable and often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.  Treat Williams gives an intense and powerful performance but he is such a raw nerve that sometimes it is a relief when Lumet cuts away to Jerry Orbach (as one of Ciello’s partners) telling off a district attorney or to a meeting where a group of prosecutors debate where a group of prosecutors debate whether or not to charge Ciello with perjury.

Prince of the City may be about the police but there’s very little of the typical cop movie clichés.  The most exciting scenes in the movie are the ones, like that scene with all the prosecutors arguing, where the characters debate what “corruption” actually means.  Throughout Prince of the City, Lumet contrasts the moral ambiguity of otherwise effective cops with the self-righteous certitude of the federal prosecutors.  Unlike Lumet’s other films about police corruption (Serpico, Q&A), Prince of the City doesn’t come down firmly on either side.

(Though the names have been changed, Prince of the City was based on a true story.  Ciello’s biggest ally among the investigators, Rick Cappalino, was based on a young federal prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.)

Prince of the City is dominated by Treat Williams but the entire cast is full of great New York character actors.  It would not surprise me if Jerry Orbach’s performance here was in the back of someone’s mind when he was cast as Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe.  Keep an eye out for familiar actors like Lance Henriksen, Lane Smith, Lee Richardson, Carmine Caridi, and Cynthia Nixon, all appearing in small roles.

Prince of the City is a very long movie but it needs to be.  Much as David Simon would later do with The Wire, Lumet uses this police story as a way to present a sprawling portrait of New York City.  In fact, if Prince of the City were made today, it probably would be a David Simon-penned miniseries for HBO.

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