The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971) Lookback/Review
It ain't a great film, maybe not even a good film, but it's a historically important film. The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight came from Jimmy Breslin's 1968 novel and got De Niro arrested and out of The Godfather.
“Crazy” Joe “The Blond” Gallo and his brothers Kid Blast and Larry left behind a hefty movie legacy. The Gallo Wars of the late fifties and early sixties rocked the Profaci family. City gangsters “went to the mattresses.” The internecine war in the New York crime Borgata that became the current Colombo family inspired the Mario Puzo best-seller “The Godfather” and the movies it spawned. The COD (corpse on delivery) message that Luca Brasi was “sleeping with the fishes,” wasn’t the old Sicilian message explained in the film, it went back only a few years to the execution of “Joe Jelly” Gioelli by Sally D’Ambrosia. A fish was wrapped in Joe Jelly’s coat and dropped off in front of a candy store in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. Joe Gallo came up through the jukebox rackets and is credited as being one of the “Barbershop Quintet” that popped Albert “the Lord High Executioner” Anastasia while he was getting a shave. Joe Gallo was shot on his birthday at Umberto’s Clam House by Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran.
On the night Gallo was killed, he had gone to see Don Rickles at the Copacabana with his new wife and some friends, including the Law and Order actor Jerry Orbach. To the day he died Orbach remained tight-lipped about what happened on Gallo’s last night. Orbach played Joe Gallo in the film version of Jimmy Breslin’s book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, which also starred Robert De Niro in a part that was originally offered to Al Pacino, who passed on it to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Martin Scorsese recently did a read-through of a script on “The Irishman” Sheeran for Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight was directed by James Gladstone in 1971. Gladstone came from TV. He’d directed episodes of Star Trek, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Outer Limits and even a Dennis the Menace. The movie has a TV feel, in spite of the freedom of language, except for De Niro, who was so steeped in his character he got busted for shoplifting during the filming and the producers had to bail him out. De Niro got the role in a trade by Francis Ford Coppola so he could keep Al Pacino, who was originally cast as Mario Trantino. De Niro was cast in a small part in The Godfather. Had he been used, though, he probably wouldn’t have been eligible to play Vito Corleone in II.
Jerry Orbach played Kid Sally. The Bronx-born Orbach was well-known on Broadway and is now something of a TV legend for his long-running role on Law and Order. Angela was played by Leigh Taylor-Young, probably best known as Shirl, the furniture girl in Soylent Green. Before Gang she’d been on Peyton Place and married her co-star, Ryan O’Neal. She took a break from acting to raise their son. She is an ordained minister in the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, which sometimes battles cult charges.
The movie cast other veteran actors. Jo Van Fleet, who played the kitchen-knife wielding Big Momma, won a Tony Award in 1954 for her role in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful with Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint. She also won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1955 for playing James Dean’s estranged mother in East of Eden. She was nominated for a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Look Homeward, Angel. On TV she did Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Bonanza and The Wild Wild West. She was also Cinderella’s evil stepmom in Rogers and Hammerstein’s TV musical production starring Leslie Ann Warren and Ginger Rogers that was only shown once.
Best known for his role on Hart to Hart, Lionel Stander, who played Baccala, was also born in the Bronx and had been acting since the 1926 silent film Men of Steel. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures called Stander “a Red son of a bitch” in 1938 and threatened studios with $100,000 fine if they renewed his contract. This led to him ultimately being blacklisted. Stander was in the first group of Hollywood actors subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1940 for supposed Communist activities, along with Franchot Tone, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Clifford Odets and Budd Schulberg. His uncooperative testimony from May 1953 inspired the Eric Bentley play, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been. He testified “I am not a dupe, or a dope, or a moe, or a schmoe. I was absolutely conscious of what I was doing, and I am not ashamed of anything I said in public or private.”
Joseph Campanella’s brother Frank played Water Buffalo. He had been acting since playing “Mook the Moon-Man” in 1949’s sci-fi series Captain Video and His Video Rangers. Frank Campanella helped De Niro learn Sicilian to play Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II. Hervé Villechaize, best known as Kahn’s sidekick on Fantasy Island, who also starred with Jonathan Frid in Oliver Stone’s first picture Frantic, played Beppo the dwarf (Gallo did have a midget in his crew.) Herve’s voice was dubbed by Paul Frees. Philip Sterling, who played District Attorney Goodman, was a jazz pianist before becoming an actor. He was a TV regular in the 70s appearing on 6 episodes of Barney Miller, M*A*S*H and L.A. Law as Judge Jonathan Cramer. Jack Kehoe plays a bartender who slips Baccala’s men a mickey. He played in Serpico, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Melvin and Howard, The Sting, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Car Wash, and Midnight Run.
Dorothi Fox has a cameo as a meter maid and Fran Stevens also has a cameo as Baccala’s wife. Michael Gazzo who’s part of the crew, went on to play Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather, Part II. Also in the cast was Irving Selbst as Big Jelly, Joe Santos as Exmo, Carmine Caridi as Tony the Indian, Harry Basch as DeLauria, Sander Vanocur as Television Commentator, Phil Bruns as Gallagher, Despo Diamantidou as “the best professional mourner in South Brooklyn,” Sam Coppola as Julie, James Sloyan as Joey, Paul Benedict as Shots O’Toole, Lou Criscuolo as Junior, George Loros as Jerry and Harry Davis as Dominic Laviano. Burt Young, Sylvester Stallone’s brother-in-law in Rocky (and who I love in Once Upon a Time in America), plays Willie Quarequlo, a demolition expert who is supposed to live a charmed life because his name means “happy death.”
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is about Kid Sally Palumbo’s crew. They bust their nuts, do deuces and treys in jail and get oogotz in return for their work as enforcers in Baccala’s decina in the DeLaurio crime family. Baccala lets Kid Sally run DeLaurio’s six-day Bike race at Brooklyn’s 532nd Armory. Mario Trantino comes to America, his pockets full of American chocolate bars (he ate nothing but “chipmunks and dandelions” in Catanza) to pedal in the bike race. He’s a “smart-ass wop” who loves everything about America. Kid Sally’s sister, Angela, is introduced to Mario on the night before the race and they hit it off. As the bike race is about to start, the gangsters are told that the ramps aren’t finished because the army wouldn’t clear out the motor pool to make room. The race gets cancelled and a riot breaks out. Baccala is unhappy and demotes Palumbo to chauffeur. Mario decides to stay in America and steals priestly garments for a charity con. Angela sets him up in a $75 a month dive apartment in Alphabet City. Big Mama advises Palumbo’s crew to go out to Ocean Parkway and kill Baccala’s underboss, Water Buffalo. Buffalo foils the attempt by moving a plank over a puddle, forcing the hitmen to take off their $120 Foot Joys. In the book Breslin points out that most Sicilians lived in worn out sneakers and even when they’re rich can’t “pass up a shoe store without going in and buying a new pair.”
Back at Palumbo’s apartment the fashion-conscious assassins say they splayed Buffalo with so many shots, his brains looked like “lobster eggs in Fra diablo sauce” against the wall. But the hit didn’t make the papers and “a murder ain’t in the Daily News ain’t no murder.” Water Buffalo gets his revenge. The gang tries another hit. Killing through construction demolition is supposed to be as easy as changing the channel on TV. The gang is going to “change the channel on Baccala from living to dead” making it “rain Baccala all over Brooklyn,” but “happy death” gets blown up by a police radio when planting a bomb under Baccala’s car. Each assassin from the Palumbo crew winds up whacking themselves. The Palumbo crew houses a lion in the basement of Ace Vending (the same name as Gallo’s company).
One day they give the lion a bath in a car wash and take her out to help make collections, but wind up feeding the lion the money. The police sweat the Palumbo crew and family for information, including Angela who runs to Mario for comfort. One of Palumbo’s crew fingers Mario as a sham priest who’s gotten close to Baccala. Kid Sally tells him, “You meet. We shoot.” “I no meet.” They crew plots a kidnapping while Mario is absolutely giving Baccala absolution. Kid Sally tries to shoot Baccala but the gun blows up in his hand. Baccala thinks this is a miracle. The gang tries to scare the Water Buffalo by throwing him to the lion but he has a heart attack. They throw his body off the Verrazano Bridge, but it lands on a barge. The DA’s office stages a bust for the TV cameras, delaying the raid until Channel 7 shows up. They link the sister to student violence. Mario refuses to testify against Angela and gets deported. Angela frees the lion to roam the streets of Brooklyn. Baccala and his wife get it in a car. Palumbo pleads guilty to “conspiracy to murder Brooklyn.”
No one ever accused The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight of being a great film, or even a good film. But with the coming based-on-real-life gangster movies, like Iceman and The Irishman, on the way, it is a historically important film. It is too broad to be anywhere nearly as funny as the book (I particlarly love a scene in the book where mobsters are feeding a jukebox to cover up sounds of a beating. They put on the new record by The Beatles, thinking it’s hard rock, but it turns out to be “Penny Lane,” which is too pretty and too quiet). Joey Gallo’s gang thought it was so unfunny they vowed revenge. One of the first things Joe Gallo did when he got out of prison in 1971 was to arrange a sit-down with Orbach, who became a great friend to the end.
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Den of Geek Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars