Saturday, September 17, 2011

#8: Mad Dog

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 2: Side B

As Mad Dog opens we see Nanni Vitali (Helmut Berger) and three accomplices barreling out the front door of a jail. Not exactly the most elaborate of prison breaks, but it gets the film, also known as The Mad Dog Killer, Ferocious and Beast With A Gun, off to a propulsive start. The prisoners grab a guard as a hostage, steal a nearby car and speed off with the police in pursuit. When Nanni finds out the guard’s gun isn’t actually loaded he slaps the guard around and throws him from the moving car, apparently out of utter contempt. Later, Nanni and his shifty-eyed crew flag down another car being driven by a young couple, slap the guy around, rip open the woman’s shirt, hop in the couple’s car and speed off once again.

 “I was afraid they were going to kill us,” the woman tells her boyfriend before looking into the back of the car Nanni left behind and seeing the bloody, battered body of that car’s driver. She screams and the film cuts to Nanni and the crew at a gas station, where they slap the attendant around, slap the attendant’s son around, steal some money from the register and speed off yet again.

At this point I started wondering if the film was going to keep introducing one-dimensional, peripheral characters solely so Nanni could brutalize them. It’s like an endless, repetitive fever dream: A man slaps another man around, gets in a car and speeds off. A man slaps another man around, gets in a car and speeds off. A man slaps another man around, gets in a car and speeds off. 

Sure enough, Nanni and the crew find someone else to brutalize. They kidnap the police informer who got Nanni sentenced to twenty-three years in the joint and drive he and his girlfriend out to that staple of low-budget action flicks of the 1970s and 80s: The gravel pit. I’ve never actually been to a gravel pit in person, but through the magic of cinema I feel like I have. The mounds of gravel, the muddy ground, the overcast skies--it’s all so real to me.

Anyway, Nanni slaps the informer around, then drags his girlfriend off to rape her. How does the viewer know this is what he’s doing? Helpfully, the camera lingers on the rape for a long, uncomfortable moment. It’s here that I asked myself, really, what’s the point of Mad Dog? Are we supposed to be so disgusted with Nanni we can’t wait until he gets his comeuppance? Are we supposed to find him somehow compelling? The complete lack of psychological depth to Nanni is almost fearless on the filmmakers' part. And yet the experience of watching the character is wearying, pointless. The Poliziotteschi, the genre of Italian crime films to which Mad Dog belongs, isn’t necessarily known for subtlety or rich characterization, but Mad Dog is particularly crude. Are Nanni’s terrible deeds exploitative or is the film itself exploitative? I fear it’s a fine line. But what I fear most of all is that this film might single handedly end the moviegoer’s love affair with the gravel pit.  

Anybody else seen Mad Dog? Have a different opinion of it? Have a better recommendation for Italian crime films? Any gravel pit favorites?


  1. The Italian Connection, Caliber 9 and The Boss are the tops when it comes to Italian crime films of the 1970s. Also -- and you may have already read this someplace -- in the movie Jackie Brown, Robert Deniro and Bridget Fonda are watching Mad Dog on television at one point. I'm sure it doesn't surprise you that Tarantino is a fan.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. This is one of those sub genres I'm not overly familiar with and I was hoping there were better examples of it than Mad Dog. I did know that it was featured in Jackie Brown--which is the only Tarantino movie I really like, though that's a whole other discussion.