Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 5, 2010
In the late ’60s many aging American actors were finding it hard to get good roles in Hollywood. The old studio system was collapsing and younger audiences wanted to see films featuring new faces and fresh blood. During this transitional period the Italian film industry was thriving and European directors expressed interest in working with Hollywood performers that they had admired from afar. This led actors like Woody Strode to start accepting roles in Italian genre films such as spaghetti westerns as well as giallo (thrillers) and poliziottesco (crime) movies where they often received top billing and were treated like stars. As an African American actor Woody Strode had other strikes against him in Hollywood where race relations were still extremely complicated and by 1968 he had grown increasingly frustrated by the racism he was experiencing in the US. At the time Europe was much more progressive in the way that it was handling race relations and many black performers found that very liberating.
One of the first Italian productions that Woody Strode appeared in was Sergio Leone’s western epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Leone’s film was overlooked for decades but now it’s rightfully considered to be one of the greatest westerns ever produced and that’s partially due to the film’s incredible opening sequence, which happens to feature Woody Strode. In Once Upon a Time in the West Strode plays one of three gun-toting killers that take up residence in a railway station while waiting for their intended victim to arrive by train. Strode only appears in the first 14 minutes of the film but it’s arguably 14 of the most powerful minutes in cinema history. The film relies on Strode to silently convey his character’s intentions in a wordless performance and he does it beautifully. Woody Strode was a handsome man but his large build was intimidating and he was able to effortlessly express an inner strength without the need for lots of dialogue. This was undoubtedly one of the actor’s strong points and he used this technique in many of the movies he made. After the success of Once Upon a Time in the West this ability made Woody Strode a hot commodity in Italy where language barriers could often limit the roles you were offered. With encouragement from Sergio Leone and his longtime friend director John Ford, Strode spent the next 10 years working in Italy where he became a respected international star who was recognized all over the world.
Some of the most successful Italian films that Woody Strode appeared in were spaghetti westerns such as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as well as Boot Hill (1969), The Devil’s Backbone (1971) and Keoma (1976), but he also had roles in some interesting crime films like Chuck Moll (1971), Loaded Guns (1975) and The Italian Connection aka La mala ordina (1972). The Italian Connection was the second film in director Fernando Di Leo’s loosely compiled Milieu Trilogy, which explored the violent world of organized crime in Italy. In the film Woody Strode plays a ruthless hitman hired by an American crime boss to go to Milan and kill a small time pimp named Luca Canali (Mario Adorf) who’s involved with a drug ring. Strode travels to Italy with his partner (American actor Henry Silva) and together the two men begin to track down Canali. Woody Strode and Henry Silva are an imposing pair and the two killers manage to terrify Milan’s criminal underworld before their own demise in the film’s bloody finale.
Woody Strode’s performance in The Italian Connection is reminiscent of his work in Once Upon a Time in the West where he had very little dialogue but still managed to be incredibly intimidating. You never question his character’s capabilities or intentions and that’s an important quality that should never be taken for granted. Any actor can wave a gun around and appear threatening, but Woody Strode was a powerful film figure with or without a weapon in his hand and his role in The Italian Connection is more complex than it might appear on its slick surface. In the film Strode’s forced to play the straight man when Henry Silvia turns into a clown and he also has to quietly fend off the advances of some beautiful Italian women who are attracted to his rugged good looks and powerful physique. At the time that Strode made The Italian Connection he was 53 years old but he was still a handsome man and director Fernando Di Leo knew how to make good use of Woody Strode’s compelling screen presence.
The Italian Connection is one of the more popular Italian poliziottesci films ever produced in Italy and I personally think it’s the best film in Fernando Di Leo’s impressive Milieu Trilogy, which also includes Caliber 9 (1972) and The Boss (1973). The film has been released numerous times under many different titles including Hired to Kill, Hit Men, Manhunt and most surprising of all, Black King Pin. Black King Pin gives top billing to Woody Strode and the title was probably used in an effort to attract African American audiences. At the time that The Italian Connection was released in Italy, blaxploitaion films like Superfly (1972), Black Caesar (1973) and Willie Dynamite (1973) were becoming hugely popular in the US and a title like Black King Pin probably got a lot of attention.
One of the film’s most well known fans is undoubtedly American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s own crime movies have often been inspired by the work of Italian director Fernando Di Leo. It’s important to note that Woody Strode and Henry Silva’s characters in The Italian Connection were a direct influence on the two hitmen that Samuel Jackson and John Travolta play in Pulp Fiction. The ruthless behavior, funny interactions and casual conversations between Tarantino’s two killers can be directly traced to the partnership that Woody Strode and Henry Silva shared in Di Leo’s film. The influence of Woody Strode’s powerful performance in The Italian Connection shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s still being felt today and can be seen in the countless crime movies that have followed in the wake of Pulp Fiction.
I don’t believe that The Italian Connection is available on DVD in the US yet, but it was released on video under the title Black King Pin and it’s also been released on DVD in Italy and Germany. If you’re a Woody Strode fan and would like to see him in one of his most influential roles you could consider getting an all-region disc player that allows you to watch international DVD releases. In the meantime lets hope that a capable company in the US will finally release Fernando Di Leo’s entire Milieu Trilogy on DVD so American audiences can easily have access to it. The films should appeal to fans of Martin Scorsese’s early crime films and Francis Ford Coppola’s own Godfather Trilogy.
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