Like much of Italian genre cinema of the 1960s and 70s, Duccio Tessari’s Tony Arzenta is built out of familiar building blocks. As an Italian crime thriller (or polizieschi), the 1973 film tells a story of a gruesome and murderous criminal underworld given free reign. Tony Arzenta stars Alain Delon as the titular character, but he may as well not have a name, for this is yet another one of the actor’s implacable, near-mute hitmen; a pure killing machine with the good fortune to be preposterously handsome. As a mob hitman looking for a way out of the gangster life, Tony is targeted by his former employers. After a failed hit and a familial tragedy, Delon’s character goes on a John Wick-style killing spree of revenge.
Known as Big Guns and No Way Out in English, Tony Arzenta premiered in the midst of Italy’s “Years of Lead” era. At this point, Italian society was buffeted by an increase in violence from both right-wing and left-wing organizations, alongside Mafia gangs gaining increased visibility in the public imagination. Italian cinema, already with a fine propensity for violence and sex, became increasingly more aggressive through spaghetti westerns, gialli and polizieschi.
Tony Arzenta’s violence is appropriately brutal, with Tessari pushing the gore and finding imaginative and gruesome ways of offing mafia capos. One particular highlight involves a gangster pushed out backwards through a train window, but caught on the glass, with his body bearing the full brunt of a tunnel wall. Tessari holds on the shot in half-obscured darkness, confronting viewers with the malleability and fragility of the lifeless human.
Delon racks up a kill count throughout Tony Arzenta, but each death is swift and sudden. The title character might sneak into a swish penthouse, confront his nemesis and then fire off a bullet, but the force of each single death is potent. Bodies crumple and collapse; blood gushes. There is a certain raw, highly stylized pleasure to these kills. Morality be damned, it’s just hugely entertaining to see gangsters get offed in variously unpleasant ways. And a car chase early on in Tony Arzenta showcases the full influence of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), with its realist intonations and sense of actual danger as cars bottle through city streets.
In the beautiful Tony Arzenta restoration that I watched at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, the film’ stylistic choices are consistently ostentatious and pleasurable. The location shooting captures a half-glamourous, half-tawdry 70s European milieu, as the action shifts between the greys of a wintry Milan and Copenhagen, and the boiling summer of Sicily via a trip through the Alps. The rooms in which these mafia heads live are garish — bright colors and flash popping everywhere. But on the streets, they appear in unassuming suits — legitimate businessmen to the naked eye. Once Tony is cast out of that world, his milieu also shifts — less glamor, more grotty hotels populated by sad faces in the hallways.
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On the big screen, Tony Arzenta has such a gloriously stylish appeal that it’s a wonder why it hasn’t been re-appraised as a true great of Italian genre cinema from the 60s and 70s, right up there with Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood collaborations and Dario Argento’s Suspiria. But then again, that’s exactly why Il Cinema Ritrovato exists — to reassert and reappraise the canon, to look at the past anew and find the hidden gems.
One of the curious flaws of film canonization is that much of our knowledge and taste is based exclusively on what is available. Plus, availability comes with its own set of fallibilities. Il Cinema Ritrovato screens a great many films on 35mm and many others on beautiful digital restorations, often helmed by the archives of both national states or by the studios large enough to fund an archive of their own. The decisions behind what to restore or not are, of course, privy to concerns of budget, politics and the tastes of those who manage the archives. And for cinephiles today who value pristine presentations — found either in high-quality cinemas with expensive DCP systems or on boutique Blu-ray/4k UHD reissues — the quality of restoration becomes paramount to a film’s enduring quality.
Citizen Kane, for example, was critically acclaimed but a commercial flop at the time of release; however, its christening as the pinnacle of cinema occurred when it was finally screened in France during the post-war era, as the Cahiers du Cinema critics latched onto it. Indeed, the story of how Citizen Kane came to be “the greatest film ever made” is maybe even more interesting than the work itself, showcasing how historiography, media and public intellectualism can shape film history. Citizen Kane has rarely — if ever — been inaccessible for most cinephiles. First came repertory screenings and VHS tapes. Then, there were restorations and digitizations for home release versions and streaming services. If you’re skint, a trip to the Pirate Bay or your local library will help you fill in this key totem of world film history. Citizen Kane’s constant and ready availability has helped cement its place at the top — the same also goes for The 400 Blows (1959), The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) and The Godfather (1972).
But that’s exactly why the canon always needs to be challenged and shifted. With 35mm film non-existent in consumer terms, most of us now watch films on a DCP in cinemas or via streaming services, with a smattering of us holding fast to our DVD/Blu-ray/4K collections.
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Restorations help shape the availability of the canon. If you can’t see a film, how do you talk about it? If you can’t talk about it, how do you get others to see it? With a few exceptions for work such as Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (widely regarded as a masterpiece but traditionally hard-to-see because no restoration has been allowed… until this year when a new restoration screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato), most unrestored works risk slipping out the conversation.
This applies to Italian genre cinema. About 10 years ago, many spaghetti westerns were restored and re-issued (beyond the Sergio Leone classics), often on boutique Blu-ray labels like Arrow and Eureka, leading to a surge of cinephile interest. Gradually, attentions shifted to gialli. Sure, Argento’s work has always been largely easy to find, but restorations and reissues of wider works by Mario Bava (always highly regarded, but not always easy to find, at least not for me) and once lesser-known names like Sergio Martino have been re-appraised and re-introduced to a generation of audiences, thus shifting the canon.
In the meantime, polizieschi have only recently started to re-emerge after years in the shadow of their Italo-genre brethren. Re-issues in the past year of Martino’s Silent Action from Fractured Visions and a five-film boxset from Arrow have regenerated consumer interest in the films after archivists, restorers and historians have already done their bit. Of course, directors like Martino and Tessari were comfortable making spaghetti westerns and gialli too, so perhaps it was only a matter of time until polizieschi got their turn. Again, the discussion of these films in the wider cinephiliac imagination comes down to availability. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation at times. Is Citizen Kane so canonized because it is that good, or is it canonized because it is always available? Do some films get ignored because they are unavailable or do they get ignored because they aren’t that good to begin with? This is precisely where I stand with Tony Arzenta.
Up until Il Cinema Ritrovato, Tony Arzenta was entirely alien to me. Likewise, the polizieschi genre has long remained one that I’ve read about rather than actively embraced. And though some people hunt down poor quality DVDs or pirate hard-to-find films, the first option isn’t ideal and the second isn’t legal. That in turn pushes such films further down the wider conversation of cinephilia until they become available once more. So, what comes first when we re-appraise a movie from years gone by: the restoration or the film?
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.