The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight
Cast & Crew
Jo Van Fleet
Robert De Niro
New York City crime boss Anthony "Baccala" Vestrummo ponders the morning news as television anchor Sander Vanocur describes Baccala's empire and Brooklyn District Attorney Goodman's concerns that unrest among the local crime families may cause a gang war. After Baccala's dutiful wife performs her daily ritual of starting his car to make sure that no one has connected a bomb to the ignition, he drives from his Long Island mansion to his Brooklyn headquarters. Meanwhile, low-level gangster Salvatore "Kid Sally" Palumbo leaves his walk-up apartment as his gun-wielding grandmother, Big Momma Ferrara, warns him to watch himself. At Baccala's office, Sally argues that he wants to move up, prompting Baccala to promise Sally the lucrative job of running an upcoming bicycle race that will feature an Italian team. A short time after Sally jubilantly arranges for a bicycle track to be built inside a small stadium, the Italian bicyclists arrive in New York. One of the cyclists, Mario Trentano, adapts easily to his new surroundings, quickly stealing most of the amenities in his hotel. At a party to welcome the cyclists, Sally's sister Angela meets Mario and is amused when she sees him pocketing hors d'oeuvres and sandwiches. Later, after they walk through the neighborhood together, she gives Mario a token for the subway, but as soon as she leaves, he hails a taxi. On the day of the bicycle race, the entire Italian-American community joins in the festivities, but the stadium crowd turns hostile when they discover that the bicycle track has not been completed and, consequently, the race must be cancelled. Having failed in his big chance, Sally is demoted by Baccala, who berates him for his incompetence. After the other cyclists return to Italy, Mario, who wants to stay in New York, is forced out of his hotel, so Angela finds him an inexpensive, ramshackle room to rent. Some time later, Sally and his cohorts decide to execute a plan that Big Momma has suggested to assassinate Baccala. The first stage is to kill Baccala's bodyguard, Francis "Water Buffalo" Cosanto, but this fails when Sally's men accidentally shoot Water Buffalo's tire instead of him, then lose him when he escapes into a junk yard. That night, the men who failed their assignment boast that they completed the job, but later, Water Buffalo hits the men with his car, causing them to fall into Sally's basement, which houses the lion Sally adopted when he bought old circus cages to use as starting gates for the cyclists. Meanwhile, Mario steals a priest's suit from an ecclesiastical tailor and asks Dominic Laviano, a friend of Baccala, for money for poor Italian children. Thinking that Mario is, indeed, a priest, Laviano gives him Baccala's name and telephone number, saying that his friend that will contribute generously. After other attempts to murder Baccala and take over his mob turn out badly, Sally decides to use his lion to frighten some of the local merchants into paying him protection money. His tactics work, until he accidentally feeds the lion the bag of money he has collected instead of a bag of steaks. With gangland violence increasing, the frustrated mayor insists that Goodman do something to stop it. Goodman, in turn, has inspector Cornelius Gallagher arrest Sally and his family, hoping to get information. The police learn nothing, but decide that the pretty Angela, who is an NYU student, might be intriguing to the press. Upset and frightened when reporters follow her, Angela goes to Mario's place, where they make love. Later, Angela asks Mario to come to dinner at her house, where Big Jelly Catalano, one of Sally's henchmen, remembers having seen Mario dressed as a priest. Certain that Mario not only is a con man but has taken Angela's virginity, Big Momma is about to cut off his fingers when he produces Baccala's telephone number and says that Laviano has arranged a meeting. Sally now senses a golden opportunity, and Big Momma outlines a plan whereby Sally can kill Baccala while he is talking with Mario. Soon Mario has his meeting with Baccala and arrives at the designated restaurant in his clerical suit. Outside, Sally, Big Jelly and their cohort, Beppo the dwarf, are holding Water Buffalo prisoner and waiting for their chance to enter the restaurant. Aided by the bartender, who gives Baccala's men "mickeys," Sally walks into the restaurant and fires at point blank range, but the gun, which Big Jelly has fitted with the wrong caliber of bullets, blows up in Sally's hand, leaving Baccala unscathed. Thinking that he has been saved by a miracle, Baccala is overjoyed with Mario and promises him money. Sally and the others quickly get away in their van, and when the police arrive, Baccala and the others deny that they know or saw anything. Later, Sally tries to feed Water Buffalo to the lion, but Water Buffalo dies of a heart attack first, so Sally decides to dump the body off the Verrazzano Bridge. That plan also goes awry when the body lands on a passing tugboat. News of the incident further insenses the mayor and Goodman, who decide to stage a large-scale raid on Sally's office. Delayed because one of the television networks could not arrive on time, the raid finally takes place without bloodshed as Sally and his men casually play cards when Goodman, Gallagher and the police arrive and arrest the entire Palumbo family. Because Goodman has been wearing a gas mask, in case of tear gas, a reporter asks him to restage his entrance without the mask, but Goodman accidentally opens the basement where the lion lives, forcing him to call out to Sally for help. Later, at the police station, Goodman and Gallagher question Mario, who has also been picked up. They threaten him with deportation until Goodman says that if he testifies against Angela before the grand jury, he may stay in the country. Mario agrees, but when he is questioned before the grand jury, Mario pretends not to speak any English, infuriating Goodman. With no evidence against Angela, whom Goodman had hoped to tie to college radicals, she also is released, but not until after a police woman tells her that Mario did not testify against her and, as a consequence, is being deported. Angela then rushes to the airport but is only able to see Mario as he boards a plane for Italy. When she returns home, Angela goes to the basement and lets the lion go. The next morning, after announcing that a lion is at large in Brooklyn, Vanocur reports that Sally and his cohorts have confessed to various crimes and will each be serving a year in jail. After the broadcast, Baccala's wife successfully starts his car, Baccala kisses her goodbye, then shuts the door, causing the car to explode.
Jo Van Fleet
Robert De Niro
Sam J. Coppola
James J. Sloyan
Fat Thomas Rand
Margo Melson Winkler
William H. Boesen
Joseph Garibaldi Aulisi
Edward A. Biery
William [c.] Gerrity
Tom Priestley Jr.
Carlos Quiles Sr.
Harry W. Tetrick
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight
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
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight
Al Pacino was originally cast to play Robert De Niro's role but left to star in Godfather, The (1972). After De Niro replaced Pacino, he went to Italy for 10 days to research for his role.
This movie was supposedly based around the life of Joey Gallo, a New York gang leader. Word has it that the members of Gallo's crew wished to seek vengance on the writers.
The film opens with "Anthony 'Baccala' Vestrummo" watching a television news broadcast by well-known newsman Sander Vanocur. For several minutes, while the action shifts from the start of Baccala's day to that of "Salvatore 'Kid Sally' Palumbo," Vanocur's broadcast continues as voice-over narration, providing background on the characters and situations. At various points within the film, Vanocur's newscasts relate plot information, including the sequence involving the arrest of Palumbo's gang, when Vanocur is providing a live television feed. The explosion at the end of the film takes place just after another Vanocur newscast.
The novel on which the film was based, and to which the film was relatively faithful, was the first by noted New York columnist Jimmy Breslin. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler purchased the rights to the novel a few months prior to its publication in the fall of 1969. The film's pressbook stated that 1,110,000 copies of the novel were sold in its first month of publication. As some reviews of the film indicated, the story was a comic turn on the themes explored in Mario Puzo's internationally best-selling novel [and soon-to-be-released film adaptation] The Godfather (see below).
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight marked the feature film debut of actor Hervé Villechaize (1943-1993). Villechaize, whose first name appears as "Herve" in the onscreen credits, was best known for his appearance as "Tattoo" in the popular late 1970s-early 1980s television series Fantasy Island. Because Villechaize's character, "Beppo, the dwarf," is supposed to be an Italian-American, Beppo's lines were dubbed to mask the French-born actor's characteristic accent. Producer Winkler's wife, actress Margo Melson Winkler, portrayed an airline clerk in the film. She had acted in earlier films under the name Margo Melson and appeared in several additional films that her husband produced.
Although a March 4, 1969 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that the film was originally scheduled to be shot in London, it was shot entirely on location in New York City, with much of it shot in the Red Hook section of South Brooklyn, according to the film's pressbook. In an article in Hollywood Reporter on September 28, 1971, director James Goldstone was quoted extensively about problems the production had with local labor unions, which required extraneous drivers and other workers for the shoot. The article also reported that several producers set to shoot in New York City were considering moving elsewhere because of union contract requirements.
According to an item in Hank Grant's "Rambling Reporter" column in Hollywood Reporter on January 20, 1971, actors Marcello Mastroianni and Omar Shariff were, at one time, set to play "bumbling" gangsters in the film, with Mastroianni presumably cast as Baccala. As noted in news Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter news items in March 1971, Al Pacino was originally cast as "Mario Trentano," but his commitment to The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight would have precluded his appearance as "Michael Corleone" in The Godfather (see below), because of the lengthy, overlapping production schedule of the latter film. In early March 1971, M-G-M received an injunction against Pacino and Paramount Pictures, which was producing The Godfather. As noted in a 17 March Daily Variety news item, the dispute was settled for an undisclosed, out-of-court settlement, thus enabling Pacino to appear in The Godfather. The article suggested that terms most likely included a commitment by Pacino to act in a future M-G-M production, but, as of 2007, Pacino has never appeared in an M-G-M release. Robert De Niro received critical praise for his potrayal of Mario in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, with several reviews calling his performance the film's standout.
Released in United States Winter December 1971
Released in USA on video.
Released in United States Winter December 1971