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James Caan in Thief (1981)
James Caan in Thief (1981)

Geoff Pevere

Cinema loves a bad boy: three films about men who went too far Add to ...

‘A man’s got to know his limitations,” said Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callaghan in the 1973 rogue-cop movie Magnum Force, but everybody knew Harry’s boundaries ran further off the reserve than just about anybody else’s. That’s why we loved him: We could count on Callaghan to do the kind of dirty work we only dreamed of doing.

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But the fact of men not knowing their limitations, and getting whacked for transgressing them, is an equally entrenched form of movie drama. In three current Blu-ray and DVD releases, the history of men punished for playing fast with the rules can be fascinatingly tracked.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion: In Elio Petri’s 1970 upward poke of a political satire, just released by Criterion, the volatile Gian Maria Volonte (who played Eastwood’s scruffy nemesis in Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) appeared as a psychopathic Roman police inspector who commits murder simply to prove that power guarantees impunity. Liberally spreading evidence of his guilt at the crime scene, he invites suspicion precisely because he has a theory to prove: that even if caught, he won’t be charged, because the best way to commit murder is to be in the business of enforcing the law.

Petri’s movie, which blends the forensic precision of a police procedural with the cranked-up tone of farce, was made at a charged moment in Italian politics, when the forces of dissent and the agencies of authority were digging in with equal lack of subtlety. The decade anticipated by Investigation would mark an especially bloody one in Italian politics. On the day Petri and his crew were filming an imaginary terrorist attack on their fictional police station, a real explosion ripped through the Piazza Fonata in Milan, killing 17 people. The news media and police blamed anarchists – wrongly, it turned out – and the volatility of the situation was in no way alleviated when one of the so-called anarchists allegedly jumped out a fourth-floor window of the Milan police station and died. In an instant, Petri’s movie vaulted the fence separating speculative satire and real-world commentary.

Thief: Frank (James Caan), the protagonist of Michael Mann’s 1981 debut theatrical feature (another Criterion release), is another guy convinced of his extralegal invincibility, but only if he abides by a strict personal code. When pulling one of his specialty high-tech heists, Frank lives by no one’s rules but his own, and he never sells out his skills for cash. But the prison-hardened Frank has a weakness: He wants a home and a family, and when a seemingly benign benefactor (Robert Prosky) offers to bankroll Frank’s dream if he will do a job for him, Frank lets his principles slip and his world comes crashing in.

The film is notable for announcing not only Mann’s fetchingly distinctive arrival on the U.S. movie-making scene, but also a hard-edged, nocturnal urban slickness of style that would come to define an era. Thief also resonated for its depiction of a protagonist so alienated from conventional morality and professionalism that he retreated into his own personal realm of honour. The poignant thing about Frank is that he has decency and principle to burn, but only when it comes to breaking the law. What is fascinating is Mann’s conviction of the corporatized corruption of crime; the Reagan-era deregulation soon to follow begins on the rain-slicked, night-time streets of Chicago.

Buffalo ’66: When Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) is sprung from prison in 1998, all he has is a full bladder and, in the first 15 fifteen minutes of Gallo’s fiercely eccentric feature debut, all he does is scramble for relief. Sent to the slammer for betting 10 large he didn’t have on the Buffalo Bills, he is determined to make good with his aggravatingly oblivious, uncaring parents (Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). To this end, he kidnaps a doe-eyed, voluptuous young dance-school student (Christina Ricci) to pose as his wife.

Where Volonte’s chief cop had power on his side, and Caan’s Frank at least had a code, Billy has squat but a delusion that his entire miserable life can be redeemed if he kills the former Bills player who blew the fatal field kick. But Billy can’t even take a leak. Unfolding in a Buffalo ceilinged by grey winter skies, and following the terminally deluded Billy as he pursues his doomed goal, Buffalo ’66 (Lionsgate) is an ode to hermetic self-deception, a road movie without a map and running on toxic fumes.

But it’s also undeniably funny and strangely tender, a portrait of a man so out of tune with his own limitations that he’s a tragic buffoon, an end-of-the-century study of abject masculinity.

 

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