'70s films, '70s-era, AIP, American Independent Productions, Bullitt, cinema, crime film, drug smuggling, film reviews, films, gangster films, gangsters, heroin trafficking, Italian cinema, Ivo Garrani, mafia, Maurizio Lucidi, mean streets of San Francisco, Movies, race-car driver, Roger Corman, Roger Moore, San Francisco, Stacy Keach, Street People, The French Connection, Ulysses
When it comes to exploring new films, I like to let my instincts do the walking. Like some sort of mutant bloodhound, my nose is finally attuned to sniff out those cinematic delicacies that will most likely keep me entertained, if not actively jumping from my seat and thrusting devil horns into the flat-screen. Sometimes, the cover art can fire my imagination, leading me to wonder how much was made up by the artist and how much actually exists within the framework of the movie proper. Other times, I can be intrigued by a familiar name in the credits, some favorite actor “slumming” it in a B-grade effort to make some pocket cash. In a perfect storm situation, however, all of these disparate elements will align to make a previously unknown film into an absolute must-see. When I found out that Street People, a 1976 Italian gangster flick set on the mean streets of San Francisco, featured Roger Moore as a Sicilian/British mob lawyer and Stacy Keach as his best friend and champion race-car driver…well, let’s just say that the next move was obvious.
Following in the Italo-film tradition of spaghetti Westerns, Street People features an all-Italian cast, supplemented by Moore and Keach as the token Hollywood names. In many ways, the film is a very stereotypical ’70s Italian gangster film, filmed with gauzy flashbacks, double-crosses, conflict between the church and the mob, car chases, shoot-outs and familial drama. Moore, smack-dab in the middle of his residency as James Bond, plays the Sicilian/British lawyer Ulysses, tasked by his mob-boss uncle Salvatore (Ivo Garrani) with finding a missing shipment of heroin (hidden in a large crucifix, no less). Sal’s brother, Francis, is a cardinal and the theft of the crucifix/heroin, which included the messy murder of its guards, has put a black mark on the church. It’s up to Ulysses and his race-car drivin’ buddy Charlie (Keach) to get to the bottom of the mess and they’ll go from San Francisco to Sicily and back to solve the crime. Along the way, they’ll find out the truth about Sal and Francis’ relationship, the best way to send a message via fish and that every friendship is only as strong as its weakest link.
First of all, Street People is an absolute mess. It’s an awful lot of fun, don’t get me wrong…but it’s a complete mess. The narrative tends to jump all over the place, a problem which is only made worse by the frequent flashbacks. The flashbacks, themselves, tend to be so confusing and loopy (at one point, two characters seem to share a flashback in what must be the strangest attempt at economy I’ve ever seen in a conventional film) that they’re more fever dreams than plot elements. Combine this with the inherently thorny nature of the plot (it is, after all, supposed to be a mystery) and Street People often comes across as frustratingly vague. We always get the general sense of what’s going on (Ulysses and Charlie are looking for the drugs) but who they question, why they question them and where they go afterwards often seems arbitrary, as if we only ever get bits and pieces of any one scene. Chalk this up to the fact that the film was, most likely, re-edited when Roger Corman’s AIP company released it in America but, regardless, it doesn’t make for particularly smooth sailing.
As with other films of this era/ilk, much of Street People is decidedly low-rent, consisting of anonymous people pointing guns at either Moore or Keach, lather, rinse, repeat. The one exception to this, however, would have to be the films numerous and consistently impressive car chases. All of the car chases are thrillingly staged and executed, bringing to mind much more capable films like Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971) but a few of them are particularly great. One scene, in which Ulysses and Charlie must maneuver in and around a group of hostile semi-trucks during a high-speed freeway chase is fantastic and recalls a similarly good scene in one of the Bond films (perhaps even one of the Moore bond films, which would be a pretty neat extra layer). While the rest of Street People is neither noticeably better (or worse) than the average Italian gangster pic of the era, with the exception of Moore and Keach, the car chases are always exemplary and certainly worth a look.
Although the rest of the cast is so generic as to become easily interchangeable (including the mob boss), Moore and Keach do just fine in the their respective roles. Moore brings a slightly hard edge to Ulysses, although he keeps enough of the Bond finesse to make him a pretty cool customer. This is a much different tough guy than Bond, however, and it’s to Moore’s credit that he doesn’t play him as a carbon copy of his more famous day job. Keach is a blast and a half, bouncing around the camera frame like a manic wind-up monkey. His dialogue is some of the most outrageously dated in the entire film (the moment where he tries to buy drugs with a plaintive, “C’mon, mama…don’t you jive me now!” is an instant classic, as is his warning to a close-mouthed informant that he’ll “Spread the word that you’re a turkey deluxe”) and Keach manages to steal any and every scene he’s in. Although he plays Charlie as decidedly subservient to Ulysses (an odd choice, considering how take-charge Keach normally is in films), the two have an easy rapport that marks them as genuine friends and makes their scenes together a breezy joy. It also makes the film’s “twist” conclusion a real head-scratcher but it’s certainly not the only narrative lapse in the film.
Overall, Street People is an easy film to sit through but a slightly more difficult one to completely appreciate. While the story is needlessly convoluted and downright nonsensical, Moore and Keach make a constantly delightful duo and there’s no shortage of action scenes to keep things humming along, as well as some genuinely great car chases to offer a little needed eye-candy. If you’re a fan of ’70s-era Italo-crime films, Roger Moore or Stacy Keach, Street People should definitely scratch your itch.
See it now, fool, before I tell everyone that you’re a turkey deluxe.