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When Analyze This (1999) was released movie audiences were amazed that Robert De Niro could be so adept at comedy. After all, De Niro was best known for playing gangsters and loners in the films of Martin Scorsese. Before that, however, De Niro got his start as a comic actor in Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), directed by Brian De Palma, and most noticeably in this comedy The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1971).
De Niro would not have gotten the part except for a bad break that ended up being very lucky. In early 1971, Paramount was beginning production of their film version of The Godfather (1972) and was battling with director Francis Coppola over his selection of the little-known New York actor Al Pacino for the important role of Michael Corleone. Pacino's participation became doubly unlikely after his agent signed him for a role in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, which would begin filming long before The Godfather would be finished. To keep Pacino, Coppola offered them De Niro, then cast in the small part of a member of the Corleone gang that betrays The Godfather and is killed. De Niro thus lost his part in The Godfather, but his absence enabled him to play the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II (1974), the role that earned him his first Academy Award.
Despite being cast in a comic role, De Niro approached it with the intensity for which he would later become famous. Since he was portraying an Italian newly arrived in America, De Niro flew to Italy for a week, using a tape recorder to capture the precise accent. When he returned his preparation overwhelmed his co-star Leigh Taylor-Young. "At the start of the second week of rehearsal, the director asked us to leave the hotel in character...I was a bit horrified, because I was now aware I was working with a great talent who had a perfect accent, and I felt I didn't have a clue yet about my character, let alone a proper Brooklyn accent." The two set out with Taylor-Young introducing De Niro to passers-by as a recent Italian immigrant. De Niro's character was also supposed to be a kleptomaniac so he stayed true to his character on that point as well, swiping two shirts and stuffing them under his jacket as they walked through Macy's. Taylor-Young and De Niro were arrested for shoplifting as soon as they left the store but a call from the producers got them out of jail.
In the movie, De Niro plays Mario Trantino, an Italian bicycle racer that gets involved in a Brooklyn gang war. Kid Sally Palumbo (Jerry Orbach) operates his gang under the auspices of mob boss Baccala (Lionel Stander). Trying to get out from under the boss' thumb means killing Baccala, but Kid Sally's gang proves unequal to the task and backfiring schemes make funerals an everyday occurrence. When Kid Sally's sister (Leigh Taylor-Young) starts dating Mario, who is then in the middle of pulling a scam on Baccala, Kid Sally sees his chance at last.
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight was based on a popular 1968 novel by New York columnist Jimmy Breslin who was inspired by the story on an actual gang war that took place in the early Sixties. "Crazy" Joe Gallo and his gang felt slighted after they murdered gambler and loan shark Frankie Shots under orders from boss Joseph Profaci but received none of Frankie's numbers business. Gallo retaliated by kidnapping some of Profaci's relatives. Meanwhile, Gallo and his gang made several unsuccessful attempts, including a car bombing, on the life of Profaci's chief lieutenant, Carmine Persico. Gallo went to prison in 1962 and the conflict gradually wound down.
Coincidentally, Joey Gallo left prison in 1971 just as filming of this comic version of his earlier exploits began. Naturally Gallo hated the book, but he decided to at least meet the young actor Jerry Orbach whose character, Kid Sally, was based on him. The future star of the television show Law and Order became a close friend to the gangster, introducing him to the New York celebrity world. Orbach even had drinks with Gallo at the Copacabana shortly before the Columbo family murdered him at Umberto's Clam House on April 7, 1972.
In addition to Jerry Orbach and Robert De Niro, other actors from this movie continued in the crime genre. Michael Gazzo, briefly seen as one of Baccala's crew, went on to play Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather, Part II. Burt Young, who plays an explosives guy and is most famous now for his role in Rocky (1976), appeared in the television series The Sopranos as a character named "Bacala." The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight provides a rare opportunity to see these future stars at an early moment in their careers.
Producers: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Director: James Goldstone
Screenplay: Waldo Salt, based on the novel by Jimmy Breslin
Art Direction: Robert Gundlach
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Original Music: Dave Grusin
Film Editing: Edward A. Biery
Set Decoration: George DiTitta
Costume Design: Joseph Garibaldi Aulisi
Principal Cast: Jerry Orbach (Kid Sally Palumbo), Leigh Taylor-Young (Angela Palumbo), Jo Van Fleet (Big Momma), Lionel Stander (Baccala), Robert De Niro (Mario Trantino), Irving Selbst (Big Jelly), Herve Villechaize (Beppo).
C-97 min. Letterboxed.
by Brian Cady