Do hit men have a code of ethics? It might seem like a bit of an oxymoron to have hit men and ethics in the same sentence but in most movies about organized crime like The Godfather, The Public Enemy or Scarface, there does seem to be some sort of moral code observed among the rank and file of thugdom, regardless of how hypocritical it may seem. Rarely though do we see crime thrillers where hit men have philosophical discussions about their work and Hail, Mafia (1965) is not only fascinating for this reason but it’s also a criminally overlooked little B-movie. Taut, suspenseful, oddly funny at times and a road movie of sorts, the European produced movie stars Henry Silva and Jack Klugman as ill-matched assassins on a journey to silence their target, an expatriate American (Eddie Constantine) living in France.
One of the few films directed by Raoul Levy, who served as producer on such films as Roger Vadim’s ...And God Created Woman (1956), Peter Brook’s Moderato Cantabile (1960), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Verite (1960) and Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), Hail, Mafia begins in Paris as the camera follows a shadowy character down the street and he is revealed to be none other than Lemmy Caution himself as he lights a cigarette on a dark back street. Actually, Eddie Constantine is NOT playing Lemmy Caution in this film but is, at first, similar to that cool, unflappable, righteous rock of granite as he outwits and overcomes another potential assassin in an underground parking garage.
In Levy’s film, Constantine is playing an international businessman named Rudy Hamburg, who goes into hiding in the Bouches-du-Rhone region of southern France because he is afraid of being called before a Senate congressional committee to give inside information on the suspect financial records of a high profile construction company with ties to prominent people. The Mafia is equally nervous and decides to eliminate Rudy before the Feds can get him to spill the beans on any illegal mob activity in the operation. Rudy, of course, knows that disappearing completely is the best course of action and hightails it to a remote country getaway that only a trusted few know about.
At the same time, a Cosa Nostra gathering in New York City results in two hitmen, Schaft (Henry Silva) and Phil (Jack Klugman), being sent to Europe to silence Rudy, with Phil harboring a personal grudge against his target (and former friend) for impregnating and abandoning his younger sister. The rest of Hail, Mafia focuses on Schaft and Phil’s road trip toward their target while Rudy always stays one step ahead of the pair before accepting the inevitable final showdown.
It is Eddie Constantine who gets top billing in Hail, Mafia and that was due to his immense popularity in Europe at the time, thanks to his popular Lemmy Caution detective series and numerous crime and action films. Yet, the real stars of the film are Silva and Klugman and their road trip becomes the defining subject of the film as well as a unique character study of two hit men with different world views and agendas.
Schaft is the silent, tightly coiled model of a hired killer – cunning, careful and all business. Phil is more of a crass, New York mobster-type with a gift for gab and little patience for French culture which is one of the running jokes in the film. In fact, Phil is the epitome of the Ugly American on holiday in Europe, complaining about the food, the waiters, the accommodations, the language. In one scene, “House of the Rising Sun” is heard on the car radio (sung in French, of course) and Phil shakes his head incredously and says to Schaft, “Funny what they’ve done to that, eh?”
Early on in their journey, Schaft repels Phil’s attempts to make casual conversation or discuss anything personal but the latter proves to be relentlessly persistent.
Phil: Do you have somebody?
Schaft: Whatdaja mean somebody?
Phil: Somebody…somebody. A girl you live with. Don’t you like ’em?
Schaft: Yeah, but it depends what for.
Phil: You know what for. Look, nine out of ten guys in our racket have private lives. They got wives. They got kids.
Schaft: That’s their business. I’d have to be in an entirely different business if I wanted a girl mixed up in my life.
Schaft gets fed up with Phil’s questions and spells it out for him, saying, “We’re on a contract so let’s keep our distance.”
Phil: I’m the friendly type.
Schaft: I don’t want your friendship.
Phil: Why not?
Schaft: With friends like you I don’t need any enemies. Rudy Hamberg was a friend of yours, a real good friend and you asked to kill him for $50,000 dollars.
Eventually Schaft’s curiosity about Phil’s motives in wanting to ice his former friend leads to a deeper discussion with both men voicing their own peculiar views on their profession and code of conduct. This, to me, is the most fascinating aspect of Hail, Mafia and results in a unique blend of Gallic pulp fiction and existential drama. Consider this key exchange for example.
Schaft: There are certain things that are clean and certain things that aren’t. Do you think our work is clean?
Phil: I’m not ashamed of it. Only gutless wonders are ashamed of what they do.
Schaft: Yeah, but do you think it’s clean?
Phil: Yes, I do. Why?
Schaft: We got a great organization. We got our own laws and all the guys know those laws and if you make one little mistake you get a bullet right in the head. That’s it. That’s the way the business is but it’s among us. We kill among the organization. We don’t kill other people. If one day I get a bullet in the head, well…if I don’t go to the chair first…well, it’s normal, you know that? Correct. If I kill it’s right. If I get killed, that’s right. There are certain things that are right and then there are other things that are just plain rotten.
Phil: For instance?
Schaft: To kill a friend. To go out and kill a friend.
Phil: What would you do?
Schaft: I’d let the organization wipe me out just to protect a friend. I would. And if my friend were a marked guy I’d let somebody else do it. I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather get myself killed first.
Up until the late forties and early fifties, hit men in the movies were usually shadowy minor characters who served as a necessary plot device and were rarely developed as characters. They remained frightening ciphers for the most part in such films as The Killers (1946), where Charles McGraw and William Conrad stalk Burt Lancaster’s doomed protagonist, and The Narrow Margin (1952), in which hit men roam a westbound train for a witness in an upcoming criminal trial. But then we began to get more intimate glimpses of these professionals in movies such as The Big Combo (1955) and Murder by Contract (1958) in which hired killers were simply part of the work force, carrying out duties most people would rather avoid like plumbing, garbage disposal, and pest control. Not only do The Big Combo and Murder by Contract give a human face to these often cliched archetypes but even provide some psychological insight into the type of sociopathic personality that is drawn to contract killing as a lifestyle.
An even more radical development in the depiction of hit men on screen was when they began to talk about their work and personal lives, something that seems to go against the grain of their occupation. By the sixties you began to see more fully fleshed-out assassins as the main characters in such films as the low-budget 1961 indie Blast of Silence and the 1964 remake of The Killers where Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager become obsessed with finding out why their victim (John Cassavetes) accepted his death without resistance or fear (In the original, it was Edmond O’Brien’s insurance detective who initiated the investigation).
Or Hard Contract (1969), where James Coburn’s hired gun does an excessive amount of soul-searching about his true nature and purpose on earth. The latter movie was mostly lambasted by critics as pretentious for this very reason. But look how far we’ve come since then with such postmodern conceptions of hit men and women in movies like Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). I personally prefer this middle period in the sixties where we get some startling insights into the sort of men who can rationalize institutionalized murder as an acceptable and even admirable way of life. And Silva and Klugman’s dialogues in Hail, Mafia play an intriguing cat and mouse game with the truth.
Both Silva and Klugman were rarely leading men in Hollywood films but they often made much stronger impressions in supporting roles. Certainly Silva is one of the great screen heavies and his unusual facial features – the high cheekbones, the dark, piercing eyes and death skull smile – have served him well in numerous villainous roles. I first recall seeing him in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) when I was a school kid. By the time he appeared in that John Frankenheimer thriller, Silva was already a member of Frank Sinatra’s inner circle of friends. While he might not be one of the more publicized members of the so-called “Rat Pack,” he was party to many of their Las Vegas and Hollywood escapades.
He first worked with the Sinatra entourage in Ocean’s Eleven (1960), made a guest appearance on The Joey Bishop Show in 1961, joined the clan again for Sergeants 3 (1962), worked with Sinatra on The Manchurian Candidate, and then Peter Lawford, acting as executive producer, gave him the leading role in the gangster flick Johnny Cool (1963). But Silva had to go to Europe to receive top billing in films. There he reinvented himself as an action star in spaghetti Westerns (starting with The Hills Run Red in 1967) and crime dramas such as 1972’s The Italian Connection. Silva has often been identified in biographical materials as being of Puerto Rican heritage but he recently revealed in a DVD audio commentary for The Return of Mr. Moto (1965) that his father was Sicilian and his mother was from Northern Spain.
Most people probably know Jack Klugman primarily as a TV actor from the series Quincy and The Odd Couple but I prefer his earlier TV and film work that best reflect the New York stage trained actor’s affinity for dramatic roles – Playhouse 90 productions like The Thundering Wave (directed by John Frankenheimer) or memorable movie roles in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and The Detective (1968). Hail, Mafia is a definite high point in his filmography.
Besides the offbeat but appealing ying-yang chemistry between Silva and Klugman, one of the great pleasures of Hail, Mafia is the evocative glimpses of roadside France in the sixties – the truck stops, sidewalk cafes, gorgeous women, sleek cars and sunny Mediterranean climate. In one of my favorite moments, the duo wander into a roadside bar/cafe that has a primitive early version of some MTV jukebox with a video screen. Among the mostly all-male clientele, all eyes are glued to the screen, watching a clip from Roger Vadim’s ...And God Created Woman. It just happens to be the wild, jazz-hot finale as Brigitte Bardot goes into a free-form interpretive dance frenzy as African drummers set the rhythm.
Equally unforgettable is the bleak, brutal climax, set amid the desolate marshes and sand dunes of the Camargue in the Bouches-du-Rhone region where White Mane was filmed in 1953, Albert Lamorisse’s stunning short about the wild horses of the that region (It was Lamorisse’s first film and he would later direct the enduring children’s classic, The Red Balloon, in 1956.)
There are other things to savor in Hail, Mafia. The black and white cinematography by Raoul Coutard (whose previous assignment was Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, which also starred Constantine) and the lively jazz-influenced score by Hubert Rostaing are major assets. Elsa Martinelli and Micheline Presle are also in the cast and show up in mostly decorative supporting roles. Martinelli plays Rudy’s mistress and misinterprets his refusal to talk about the danger he is in as a sign that he is hiding something from her, most likely an affair with another woman. Presle, on the other hand, has only one scene; she plays Schaft’s contact in Paris and gives him insider information about Rudy’s business and location when the hit men arrive in France.
Former fashion model Martinelli enjoyed a brief buildup by the Hollywood publicity machine in the early sixties when she made her U.S. film debut in Howard Hawks’ Hatari (1962). Although she made a few other Hollywood financed films such as The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) with Charlton Heston, The V.I.P.s (1963) and Rampage (1963) opposite Robert Mitchum, she never really achieved the heights of stardom that fellow Italian actresses Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida attained here. As for Micheline Presle, she is a celebrated French actress who began making films in the late thirties and still acts occasionally. Among her most recent credits are Rue Mandar (2012) with Richard Berry and Thelma, Louise et Chantal (2010), directed by Benoit Petre and co-starring Jane Birkin.
No mention of Hail, Mafia is complete without a side note about the director Raoul Levy. Though he was more famous as a producer as I noted earlier, he did direct three features. The first, Marco the Magnificent (1965), was a sprawling international epic featuring Horst Buchholz, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Orson Welles, and many other prominent names in European cinema. His second feature was Hail, Mafia, and his final film was the ill-fated production, The Defector (1966), which was also the final movie for Montgomery Clift as well.
According to most Clift biographies, the actor was in such terrible physical and psychological shape during the making of the film that it’s a wonder the movie was even completed. The final result isn’t nearly the disaster some reviewers have labeled it but it is probably only safe to recommend it to the curious or Clift completists. For the most part, The Defector (now available on DVD from Warner Archive) is a rather muddled and convoluted Cold War espionage thriller but it does feature cinematography by Raoul Coutard, music by Serge Gainsbourg and some good supporting work by Roddy McDowall, Hardy Kruger, David Opatoshu and Macha Meril. Clift died before The Defector was released and Levy committed suicide a month after the film’s U.S. premiere in November of 1966. On the basis of Hail, Mafia, one wonders what Levy might have accomplished if he had lived to direct more films.
I have avoided addressing the visual quality of the Hail, Mafia DVD I screened for the entire post but I need to let you know that currently the only available version of this film is from Sinister Cinema (You can also stream it on Prime). I have great affection for this longtime distributor of VHS and DVD dubs if only for the fact that they continue to make available rare films that can’t be seen anywhere else. Many of their holdings are transfers from 16mm prints or worse but occasionally some are transfers from 35mm masters and look quite striking such as the stylish caper film Seven Golden Men (1965) and oddities like H-8… (1958), a highway disaster drama from Yugoslavia.
The Sinister release of Hail, Mafia, however, comes from a rather worn 16mm film, the audio is subpar, compounded by the post-production English dubbing, and the visuals have a soft, washed-out quality that does no justice to Raoul Coutard’s camerawork. Yet, you can still see and sense how great this film would look in a remastered print on the big screen. So, if you are a fan of either Constantine, Silva or Klugman and the Eurocrime subgenre that was at its peak in the sixties and seventies, this option is still the only game in town and essential viewing.
Other web sites of interest: