By James Kenney
Ahh, harken back to the days when even the lowliest of genre exercises could recklessly stage car stunts on populated city streets (in this case San Francisco), when even the current James Bond wasn’t paid so astronomically that even he couldn’t pass up an easy paycheck in a sleazy Eurocrime film, when Peckinpah-derived slow-motion shotgun deaths were all the rage, when full-bodied posters more thought-provoking than the film promoted would shout “TAKES YOU WHERE TAXI DRIVER DIDN’T DARE!”
If the film’s distributor, American International Pictures, means to the land of all dialogue being post-dubbed, where the zoom lens is king, where logic is deficient, then, indeed, Maurice Lucidi’s 1976 Street People, starring Sir Roger Moore and Stacy Keach, indeed does delve into areas Taxi Driver didn’t dare.
Which is not to say I didn’t like it. Lucidi, an experienced director of spaghetti westerns who made a decent “Giallo,” 1971’s The Designated Victim with Tomas Milian, is not incapable, the leads are compelling, the basic plot setup sufficient. However, Roger Moore probably didn’t expect the rather gratuitous nudity (in sequences he didn’t partake in) when he agreed to be in what he calls The Sicilian Cross, stating in his autobiography, My Word is My Bond,that it allowed his wife Luisa a few months to spend with her family in Rome. And that one sentence is his lone mention of the film in the book.
The script is credited to six people, a bunch of Italians and Ernest Tidyman, writer of The French Connection and Shaft, and, um, a very young Randall Kleiser(!), soon to direct Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and Summer Lovers. Moore, of all people, plays Ulysses(!!), the half-Sicilian (!!!) attorney for an ostensibly reformed mafia chieftain, who investigates when a cache of heroin is hijacked and the chieftain, also the uncle who has raised and educated him, is the chief suspect.
Suave, urbane Moore doesn’t quite fit in a 1970s Italian crime film milieu, with its silly plot, king-sized Italian emotions, and purely Italian (and dubbed) supporting cast save Keach. Ulysses’ uncle, Salvatore Francesco (Ivo Garrani, from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday) is the mafia chieftain who has imported a cross as a gift from his home village in Sicily to San Francisco, where his estranged best friend from Sicily is now San Francisco’s Bishop Lopetri, local head of the Catholic Church. Lopetri is played by Ettore Manni, who acted in a lot of stuff and accidentally shot himself to death (!!!!) in 1979.
Stacey Keach and his Funky Cap
Keach doesn’t have much to do. He’s Charley, a Grand-Prix race-car driver friend of Moore who gets involved simply so he can drive – he doesn’t have a direct relation to the situation,or have a character arc or anything (Moore does promise him a one million dollar payout for his help!!!!!). Perhaps needing the money and more likely just wanting to hang out in San Francisco and Sicily, Keach gives Moore someone to play off of without breaking a sweat. It is amusing when he, dressed in a denim outfit and a funky paperboy cap and looking like a white Curtis Mayfield, tries to buy heroin off of an old lady he keeps calling “mama” in a San Francisco alleyway, just to find out it’s powdered milk. He doesn’t have a habit, he’s only trying to determine what has happened to the stolen stash of heroin that was in the cross – apparently trying to score from a 75 year old lady in the tenderloin district is the way to go about this.
Later, knowing who stole the heroin, Moore has the loyal Charlie pretend to buy a car from the trio of thieves and then smash it up during the test drive, in an enjoyable sequence shot on location in San Francisco, including on the twisty turns of Lombard Street, possibly the steepest street in the city. Even Bullitt didn’t attempt this!
Roger Moore: Antihero!
It’s not really clear what Ulysses’ allegiances are, and he doesn’t seem to be that nice of a guy, really. He is working with some other mafioso behind his uncle Salvatore’s back, has no qualms shooting people (yes, he waits until they shoot first, but, man, he really gives it to them when they miss), and insults his girlfriend’s eggs.
Keach’s character isn’t much better as he suggests to Moore at the end that they sell the heroin for a profit (!!!!!)—he must be an awful Grand Prix driver, and wasn’t he getting one million 1976 dollars for this gig from Moore, anyway? Moore does have an anti-drug policy, fortuitously, so we are saved from Keach and Moore negotiating one more time with “Mama.”
The pressbook details how
“in the course of dope-smuggling history, the smugglers have often resorted to ingenious means to get their contraband past the watchful eyes of the customs officials and police – and even other smugglers who want to rip them off. However, the crooks in American-International’s new action-drama release “Street People” may have hit a new high – or low – in subterfuge. They manage to conceal more than a million dollars’ worth of heroin in a large cross which a beneficent Mafia chief has imported from Sicily to grace the spire of a San Francisco cathedral.”
Why the promotions people at American International tried to connect this to Taxi Driver of all things, isn’t really clear. The film is filled with sentimental flashbacks that build to revealing that Francesco killed Ulysses’ dad when he attempted to walk out on his mom, which I guess Ulysses is thankful for (?), and creates inevitable tension when we realize who was really behind the importing of the heroin and the theft in the first place. Other than Moore proving more willing to kill who he finds disagreeable than we expect, I’m not sure what his quest has to do with De Niro’s crazy, paranoiac taxi driver’s quest in the classic Scorsese drama. Another tag line used, “The Hunting Season Has Opened in the Naked City” is a bit more standard boilerplate, but Street People is not really that type of film either.
I dig Street People. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and has the best (location stunts, florid Italian cop movie emotions, Roger Moore) and the worst (zoom lenses, some out of focus bits, excessive use of slow motion) of 1970s genre cinema. Lots of the dialogue sounds post-dubbed, which sounds more dubious than usual only because I’m not used to Sir Roger Moore being caught up in such sloppy international coproductions; it doesn’t seem right watching him in this, much like witnessing Charlton Heston getting trapped in that hapless 1972 Call of the Wild international co-production. But that’s part of the thrill, seeing a different flavor of Moore, trapped in this overheated pot of Italian vengeance. Roger Moore IS Ulysses, lawyer with a gun and not afraid to use it!
Moore swiftly explains early on to his uncle that “Being half-English half-Sicilian was a good break for both of us,” and then the subject is dropped However, when Moore suggests to Keach that he’ll kill his uncle, if he finds out Francesco was behind the heroin being imported, and says it with grave import like it’s a Sicilian thing that springs out of his boiling Italian blood, it doesn’t really seem Moore’s style. Here’s where a more conventional Italian-heritage lead like Ben Gazzara or John Cassavetes would better sell the pathos – Moore never seems remotely a part of the “family,” both literal and figurative.
Where are the Girls?
The film could also use a Barbara Bouchet or Daniela Bianchi around to seduce Moore, take him to bed and then take a bullet for him at the 85-minute mark so he could really give a free rein to his murderous impulses when confronting the mafia scum (well, actually, he seems okay with most of the mafia, just not the heroin-dealing kind). Despite a fair amount of irreverent nudity, it’s a curiously sexless film; one would have thought the same marketing need that demanded Moore and Keach for international credibility would have demanded a pretty woman for the poster as well.
Ah, well, you can’t have everything. Still, Moore is the man necessary to clean up, as the press materials describes, “the kinky mess” found in Street People. We are reminded in the AIP pressbook that British-born Moore got his first break on the stage when he understudied David Tomlison on the “Little Hut,” in London, and his first motion picture was The Last Time I Saw Paris with Elizabeth Taylor. Keach, we’re reminded, was a product of the New York theatre and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, making waves as Buffalo Bill in the Broadway production of “Indians” before starring in End of the Road, followed by Fat City and The New Centurions.
How To Promote STREET PEOPLE
The press kit has some groovy promotion ideas, suggesting a “Street People Block Party” on opening day where you could have live or recorded disco music and a possible dance contest hosted by one of the local favorite disc jockeys, with the winners receiving passes to the movie. They also suggest that as the destruction of a new auto plays a large part in the film, obtain a new car wreck from your local junkyard and for a fee (perhaps 25 or 50 cents a swing, American International proposes), let your local “Street People” take out their frustrations by hitting the wreck with a sledge hammer(!!!!!!).
AIP also suggests a “Famous Detective Pairs” radio contest where you give passes to the contestant who can name the greatest number of famous sleuthing pairs, i.e., Sherlock Holmes and Watson or Starsky and Hutch. Bluntly, Ulysses and Charley don’t belong among such hallowed company but let it pass in the name of promotion. Another not-great idea is to have a “Police Anti-Dope Expo” where your local police department arranges to have anti-dope displays in your lobby throughout Street People’s playdate.
“Illustrations could be mounted on a large easel-type board and a preopening day lecture could be presented on ‘The Evils of Dope’ by a representative of your local police.”
We’ll skip discussion of the “Street People Clean Streets Rally” where you should print up stickers saying something like “Street People insist on Clean Streets” and then through your Department of Sanitation – who AIP adds “should be happy to cooperate” – affix the stickers to trash receptacles and street sweepers.
Ahh, those were the days. Perhaps Street People DOES go where Taxi Driver wouldn’t dare – onto the sides of your community’s local street sweepers. Anyway, I hope Roger’s wife enjoyed her time in Rome!