Revenge is a dish best served cold and the recipe is given a distinctly Italian flavor by director Stelvio Massi in The Last Round (Italian title: Il Conto e Chiuso, 1976), a blue collar reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) for the poliziotteschi genre, which was originally inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest.
In this scenario by screenwriter Piero Regnoli (Like Rabid Dogs, Navajo Joe), the wandering samurai becomes a hitchhiker from the provinces who has a secret agenda in the city. Fast with his fists, an expert knife thrower and a friend to the downtrodden and poor, Marco (Carlos Monzon) bears some similarities to Charles Bronson and the tightly-coiled, inexpressive loner he played in Hard Times (1975). The difference is that Bronson was only acting the part of the bare-knuckle streetfighter in that film while Monzon is the real deal.
Considered one of the greatest middleweight boxers in the history of the sport, the Argentinean native made his film debut in La Mary (1974) but found the perfect showcase for his formidable presence in this, his first Italian film. He’s matched every step of the way by Luc Merenda as his nemesis Rico, a brutally efficient crime syndicate boss whose destiny is linked to the two photographs Marco carries with him in a music box.
Merenda plays against his GQ model appearance to create a character as diabolically evil as Jack Palance in Shane (1953), right down to the malevolent grin and expertise with a gun.
Stelvio Massi (Emergency Squad, Convoy Busters) takes the by-now familiar story – a stranger who comes to town and turns two criminal gangs against each other – and returns it to its original contemporary setting envisioned by Hammett. In Red Harvest the resulting carnage unfolds in a Montana mining town nicknamed “Poisonville;” in The Last Round, we’re in a nondescript factory town where the most evocative setting is a riverside shanty dwarfed by an industrial skyline.
Red Harvest was the blueprint for Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and every other remake right up to Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing (1996). Massi’s debt to both the Kurosaw and Sergio Leone versions is evident from his depiction of Marco’s samurai-like avenger to stylistic flourishes marked by disorienting camera angles and exaggerated sound effects.
Massi also brings some new and significant changes to the story, providing Marco with a backstory that motivates the bloody gang warfare; it involves a personal family tragedy and some lost years wandering the globe as a mercenary in such trouble spots as Syria, the Congo and Vietnam.
More significantly, Massi imbues the film with a political subtext that had particular resonance for the working class. Set against a background of grinding poverty and unemployment, The Last Round could be seen as a critique of Italy’s rising crime rate and urban corruption in the seventies. That was a transitional time when student protestors and the working class were clashing with the government over a stagnant and ineffectual bureaucracy.
In what must have been a liberating moment for Italian audiences, Marco slips through the system, confronts his oppressors, dispenses his own brand of justice and wanders off unnoticed and scot-free. It might be a vigilante response to a desperate situation but ultimately no one emerges unscathed – even the innocent blind girl who befriends Marco.
Right up through the final fadeout, The Last Round stays true to its film noir roots while elevating Carlos Monzon to iconic status in a role that wasn’t that far removed from his life off screen. His own rise and fall was as inexorable as that of American B-movie star Tom Neal of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945). Like Neal, Monzon had a tumultuous private life and sentenced to jail in 1989 for murdering his wife. He later died in a car crash in 1995 while returning to prison from a weekend furlough.
If all of this seems to imply that The Last Round is a complete downer, rest assured that its pleasures are many, from a highly original striptease act at the Black Cat nightclub showing the blonde sexpot Marestellan (Argentine actress Susana Gimenez who enjoyed a highly publicized affair with costar Monzon) to Luis Enriquez Bacalov’s seductive music score. The cinematography by Franco Delli Colli (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?) also effectively captures the striking visual contrasts between the gangsters’ posh lifestyles and the poverty of the have-nots.
All of it is served up by Massi in a lean, cut-to-the-chase narrative which never wastes time on superfluous romantic interludes or comic relief. Of the directors best known for their contributions to the poliziotteschi genre, Massi, along with Sergio Martino and Enzo G. Castellari, is one of the masters and for those unfamiliar with his films or this unique genre in Italian cinema, The Last Round is a great place to start.
Available in substandard bootleg VHS copies for years, The Last Round was finally released on DVD in November 2005 by No Shame Films and was packaged with a bonus CD disc of musical selections from 70s Italian action films. No Shame Films no longer exists as a distributor but you might be able to find copies of that set from online sellers.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared in the liner notes of the No Shame Films DVD of The Last Round
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