More Made Men

Dennis Harvey November 3, 2006

Overall, Mafia cinema has been nine parts giddy, fantastical exploitation to (at best), one part semi-kinda-likely-to-be-realistic. Excluding TV movies (don’t forget “Mafia Princess” starring “All My Children’s” Susan Lucci), with one exception, here’s a short list of lesser remembered and/or excellent films that might make you an offer you can’t refuse. Please excuse any and all important omissions — as the Mafia has been a movie subject at least since 1912’s “The Adventures of Lieutenant Petrosino” (which dramatized a real-life NYPD detective’s study-abroad infiltration of the Sicilian Mafia), we might well’ve missed a gem or two. Here, we pick up cineMafia where yesterday’s “Excellent Cadavers” story left off.

1. “Donnie Brasco” (1997)
Given all respect due Scorsese, Mike Newell’s achingly sad feature is still the best Mafia movie of the 1990s. Johnny Depp plays an undercover FBI agent who ingratiates himself with NYC mob flunky Al Pacino (in rare restrained latterday form), to eventually tragic result.

2. “Gotti” (1996)
Armand Assante played the title figure in this strong HBO feature drama about the real life New York crime kingpin. Does crime pay, in generational terms? Not if you’ve seen subsequent reality series “Growing Up Gotti,” in which the jailbird’s actual aging trophy wife and incredibly loutish sons flouted their tackiness on national TV.

3. “Jane Austen’s Mafia!” (1998)
From the people — OK, some of the people — who gave you “Airplane!” comes this criminally underrated spoof of criminal melodramas. Funny trumps stupid at least 51 percent of the time.

4. “Mafiosi” (1962)
Re-release restoration is overdue for director Alberto Lattuada’s late neo-realist classic about a Milan automotive-factory supervisor’s (Alberto Sordi) return with wife and children to his Sicilian homeland. There, he is reminded — in eventually startling, violent fashion — how much he owes his success to Mafia influence.

5. “The Seduction of Mimi” (1972)
One of the movies that briefly made Lina Wertmüller an auteur to be reckoned with, this comedy-drama stars Giancarlo Giannini — an actor incomparable at being weak/panicked — as a Sicilian dockworker blundering into deep trouble with the Mafia.

6. “The Brotherhood” (1968)
Before “The Godfather” came along, this Martin Ritt-directed drama was often considered the best U.S. drama about the mafia. Kirk Douglas and Alex Cord play brothers vying for control of their powerful family “business.”

7. “Pay or Die” (1960)
Ernest Borgnine alert! The king of belligerence starred in this tough little “B” thriller about NYC protection rackets in the 1910s, when the Mafia was first importing muscle from the homeland.

8. “Inside Deep Throat” (2005)
Among other things, this delightful documentary relating the story behind (and impact of) history’s most successful porn flick reveals the extent to which 1970s adult filmmaking, exhibition and profit-making (or taking) was mob-controlled. Trivia note: “Throat’s” director Gerard Damiano later made “Skin-Flicks” (1979), which was actually about a director trying to make a good porn film rather than the usual cheesy one his financiers demand.

9. “Lucky Luciano” (1974)
Italian director Francesco Rosi’s international co-production (with mixed Italian and American actors) offers a factual if dry account of the notorious crime kingpin’s rise and fall. Another notable biopic is Pasquale Scimeca’s 2000 “Placido Rizzotto,” about the real-life Sicilian union activist killed by the Mafia in 1948.

10. “The Executors” (1976)
In “The Godfather’s” wake tons of knock-off mafia movies were made on both sides of the Atlantic. This English-language Italian production (also known as “Street People”) features Roger Moore — between James Bond assignments — and Stacy Keach as tough guys dispatched to find out who secretly stuffed a ton of smuggled heroin into their mob boss’ beloved giant Sicilian crucifix (!). As if that weren’t enough, this trigger-happy action nonsense is set right here in San Francisco.