How can you beat a spoof on a mob war written by Jimmy Breslin, shot on the streets of South Brooklyn in 1971 starring Herve Villechaize, Robert DeNiro, Jerry Ohrbach and a live lion? Breslin had his own personal experiences with this thing of ours and, for whatever reason, decided to pen the satirical The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight after he was beat up in a restaurant by a Lucchese crime family associate who wasn’t happy with his reporting style.
This story more or less is this: “Kid” Sallie Palumbo (Jerry Ohrbach) wants reigning Brooklyn Mob Boss “Papa Baccala”(Lionel Stander) dead and vice versa. A circus lion is acquired when purchasing cages for a staged bicycle race. Natch! The race is cancelled due to a work stoppage and professional racer Robert Deniro– brought over from Italy just for the event– is stuck in New York. A kleptomaniac also, DeNiro channels both Chico and Harpo Marx and quietly steals everything that isn’t nailed down, including a priest’s collar and religious statues which he uses to attempt scam the mob themselves for church donations. Comedy ensues with the lion being used to intimidate the local Mom & Pop joints to give up their protection money: just imagine the reactions.
The story contains more stereotypes than you can make an obscene gesture at with knife wielding Italian grandmothers, professional mourners wailing at mob hit funerals and lots of head smacking and “heys!” The film was shot locally on the streets of Red Hook and features a noteworthy scene on the Carroll Street Bridge as a tugboat named Gowanus passes by. See the 333 Carroll Street building sans Scarano cube in the background!
This movie received almost universally horrible reviews when released. Thirty-seven years later, the camp value and over acting have turned it into a B movie worth watching. Rating: 3 Rice balls.– Lisanne McTernan
Junius Van Sinderen adds: Many thanks to Found In Brooklyn for the loan of Lisanne, whom we hope will review more New York City films in the near future. (Check her out on All Dolled Up too.) I grew up on Columbia Street myself & have a lot to say about all of this but let me guide ya’ll to BZA’s words & pictures here first. I remember Otto’s Scandinavian Bar vaguely as a kid; the Scandis were on the decline then– not surprising given they predated the Italians & Puerto Ricans there. Hubert Selby Jr. wrote about Columbia a bit, as did The Publisher in New York Calling. That the real estate fabulists & dupes of 21st century Brooklyn rarely talk about– or even acknowledge– ethnicity is but one of the many ways they radically distort both the present & a roiling past they know almost nothing about. Of the old shanties of Columbia St, or the even older days before there was a street, let alone one filled with the sounds of mandolins & guitarras, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight doesn’t suggest much. However, if the film shouldn’t be seen as more than a comic fantasia on themes by Joey Gallo & Joseph Profaci, that ain’t nuttin’, nor is BZA’s stash of ’80s & ’90s photos of Gowanus & Red Hook worth less than that either. (Brian Berger’s work– some of which was on FIB last October last October– has good ideas but, compared to The Abbott’s work of the same period, seems apprentice-like in execution. Sorry, Captain!)