5 films affected by real-life crime

Hidden under all the glam and bright lights of the film industry, is there a shady, rotten core of organised crime?

Elite Squad

This month sees the DVD release of Elite Squad, a film almost as infamous for its subject matter as its plight in production and distribution. International filmic history is littered with stories of films marred by real-life crime events, some rumour and some disturbing fact. Here’s a look at five such stories…

Exit WoundsAfter several underhand meetings, Steven Seagal was approached by the infamous organised-crime family, The Gambinos, on the set of Exit Wounds. Through a legal contract, a ‘connected’ agent, Jules Nasso arranged for Seagal to appear in four upcoming action flicks: Genghis Khan, Blood on the Moon, Smash and Grab, and Prince of Central Park, an arrangement allegedly organised by the Gambino Family.

Due to pay The Family $150,000 for each project, Seagal was reticent to work with the Mafia and keen to shed his action man image. He was said to be ‘petrified’ and declined all work, much to their disappointment.

The FBI had the Gambino family under surveillance at the time and monitored conversations in which members of the Family discussed threatening Seagal at his home. The FBI overheard; “I wish we had a gun on us, that would have been funny” and “It was like right out of the movies.”

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Rumours of Seagal’s underworld connections were leaked and two American journalists started reporting on the extortion threats. Both received prompt threats from The Mob – one ordered to stop when held at gun point, the other’s car windscreen was smashed in and adorned with a dead fish, a single rose and a note simply saying ‘STOP’.

Thanks to the FBI’s surveillance and the rather public nature of the case, Seagal lives to fight another day, albeit in straight-to-DVD titles.

Elite SquadThe Brazilian film Elite Squad was filmed in and around the favellas of Rio di Janeiro and depicts the war between the (mostly) corrupt police force and the drug trade. Director Jose Padilha, aware that the slums of Rio are saturated with crime and run by local drug cartels, tried to avoid working with criminals due to his doctrine and the anti-drugs trade theme of the film.

As a result of this, the production team were hijacked on-route to a location by a group of fake policemen. All the prop guns the crew were using were stolen. The production was halted for two weeks as the real police raided the slums to retrieve the fake guns.

After the hijacking the faction that stole the prop guns apprehended Padilha. He was surrounded by eight heavily armed drug dealers who accused him of endangering their neighbourhood and demanded that he pay recompense. The drug dealers took Padilha on a tour of their favela, pointing out housing that needed repairs; Padilha was to foot the bill.

Under the impression that he was to be murdered, the dealers escorted Padilha away from the main drag. In a very narrow alley one of the drug dealers mistakenly dropped a grenade; it fell from his flack-jacket and bounced off the Padilha’s shoe. It then rolled to a close proximity. The director thought, “We’re dead,” but thankfully, the grenade didn’t blow. It was faulty.

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As Elite Squad approached final post-production stages, a copy of the film was stolen. From this one pirated copy a social and cultural phenomenon arose; word spread quickly of the film’s calibre as thousands of people saw it. People in Rio started to use slang from the film in everyday speech. A market research company was employed to find out the audience’s response to the film: It was discovered that eleven to fifteen million people had seen the film before it opened in cinemas.

Historically, the best selling film in Brazil was seen by only eight million people.

GomorrahAuthor Roberto Saviano has had to flee his home country of Italy after the release of Gomorrah, a film based on his book and screenplay by the same name

Gomorra is a play on words that alludes to the organised-crime scene in Naples, or ‘Camorra’, an Old Testament biblical book of Genesis which recounts the destruction of a city. Saviano started receiving threats when his book was published in 2006. It reveals that the sprawling network of criminal gangs in the city of Naples is now larger and more dangerous than that of Sicily.

The author started to receive disturbing anonymous phone calls, was told by waiters in restaurants that he was not welcome and shunned by local shopkeepers. In a bold move, Saviano spoke out against the syndicate leaders, a move which was met with more hostility: further death threats and physical and vocal abuse from the city’s mayor!

Rather belatedly, the Italian police put Saviano under armed protection as the film adaptation went into production. Last year, Gomorrah (UK title) was released internationally. The Italian police claimed to have uncovered a plot by the Cammorra to murder Roberto Saviano, by blowing up his car “before Christmas”. To avoid this little present from the Mob, Saviano fled the country and is now in hiding.

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Deep ThroatThe highest-grossing X-rated film of all time, Deep Throat was shot over six days, cost $25,000 and recouped its budget in its opening week. Gerard Damiano directed the film under the pseudonym of Jerry Gerand and sold the rights to the film to members of the notorious Peraino mob family who funded the production. When asked why he had done so, Damiano replied, “Look, you want me to get both my legs broken?”

The Mafia controlled the distribution of the film, and when Deep Throat began pulling spectacular amounts of money, the Mob cut Damiano out and sold the film directly to cinemas around the US.

Years after the release of the film, Linda Lovelace, who starred in the film, claimed that she was held at gunpoint and forced to perform in the movie.

HollywoodlandLoved by the film community of the 1950s, Eddie J Mannix was a Hollywood producer and Vice-President of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Mannix was a fun-loving and gregarious gentleman who had a rather shady past: he was suspected by the authorities on both the East and West coasts of the US of having connections to many high-profile gangsters and to organised-crime

Bob Hoskins played Mannix in the 2006 film Hollywoodland. Hoskin’s depiction was that of a mob boss-cum-movie-mogul, an interpretation that, perhaps, wasn’t too far from the truth. The real-life New Jersey businessman was accused of killing his first wife in a bogus car accident, and he was also suspected of being involved in the death of MGM executive Paul Bern. Both cases are unsolved.

In later life, both Mannix and wife, Toni Lanier, were implicated in the disputed murder of TV Superman actor, George Reeves, who was shot in his LA home. Reeves was found dead on his bed whilst friends held a party downstairs. The case is now thought to be one of suicide, however a lot of controversy surrounds the events of that evening. Many of the statements gave different stories and some of the forensics evidence suggests that it wasn’t a suicide. Television star Reeves was played by Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland.

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It is suggested that in 1937, Hollywood producer Albert Broccoli, actor Wallace Beery and gangster Pat DiCicco beat comedian Ted Healy to death in a Sunset Boulevard car park. Eddie J Mannix sent Beery to Europe to escape investigation and engineered a cover-up that accused several college students in the murder.

Elite Squad is released on DVD and Blu-ray 26 January

Our review of the DVD is here.

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22 January 2009

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