“”Stiletto” – EXCITEMENT from the Author of “The Carpetbaggers” and “The Adventurers””
Director: Bernard L. Kowalski
Cast: Alex Cord, Britt Ekland, Patrick O’Neal
Synopsis: A rich, jet-setting playboy has a secret life: he’s also a professional Mafia hitman.
Given the plot-heavy, dialogue-driven nature of Harold Robbins’ novels, it’s surprising that his body of work hasn’t thrown up a few more decent movies than it has. Only the 1964 adaptation of his mammoth best-seller, The Carpetbaggers, its spin-off movie, Nevada Smith (1966), and King Creole (1958) have really come anywhere close to being good movies. Stiletto was one of Robbins’ earlier novels (it was published in 1960), which means there was probably more focus on some depth of characterisation than there would be in his later novels. Sometime in the 1970s, it became clear that he had abandoned any notional thoughts of literary respectability and was simply writing to finance his lifestyle. He once brashly informed the world that he was its greatest writer, but whatever writing talent he might have possessed was ultimately sacrificed at the altar of greedy self-gratification.
Arriving after a wordless, sepia-toned prologue in which we see Cesare Cardinali (Alex Cord) saved by a man named Matteo (Joseph Wiseman) from being beaten to death by angry villagers after knifing a man in revenge for the rape of a woman, Stiletto’s opening credits seem to last forever. They play out over a scene in a casino which introduces us to both Jack Priestley’s garish Technicolor cinematography and Cardinali’s new incarnation as a wealthy mob-employed playboy-cum-hit man. His target is a mob informer whom, we later learn, has refused to enter a witness protection program, and in order to perform the hit unseen, Cardinali somehow orchestrates a diversion which involves a bra-less busty female gambler losing her top so that he can smoothly insert his trademark stiletto blade between the shoulder blades of his victim.
Cardinali’s successful hit is bad news for dogged cop Baker (Patrick O’Neal) and the district attorney (John Dehner) whose court case against Matteo, now identified as a high-ranking mob boss, depended upon the dead man’s testimony. There are, however, two other former friends of Matteo who might be persuaded to testify against Matteo if only they can be tracked down before Cardinali gets to them. Meanwhile, Cardinali is getting a little fed up of his life of crime, regardless of the fact that it keeps him in a life of luxury and a plentiful supply of gorgeous women, chief of which are dusky Ahn Dessie (Barbara McNair) and willowy blonde Illeana (Britt Ekland). After all, the more famous he becomes thanks to his jet-setting playboy lifestyle, the more difficult it becomes to kill his victims without being recognised. As it is, a cop called Baker is starting to sniff around as part of his investigation into the murder of that guy in the casino…
The story Stiletto tells could have been an absorbing one in more skilful hands. Unfortunately, directing duties were handed to Bernard Kowalski who started his career helming drive-in rubbish like Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1958) before toiling in TV hell on virtually every 1960s and 1970s American TV show you’ve ever heard of. Kowalski was a journeyman director at best, and his TV background is evident in almost every frame of Stiletto. He shoots his characters from a low angle so many times that I started wondering whether cinematographer Priestley was a midget, and has little sense of pacing when it comes to staging a fight. Writing credit goes to A. J. Russell, another refugee from American TV, so it’s hardly surprising that the movie has the look and feel of a TV movie at times, and it’s difficult to see what contribution W. R. Burnett (who wrote the novels upon which The Asphalt Jungle and Little Caesar were based) made to the screenplay.
Thankfully, Stiletto boasts a terrific cast which goes a little way towards counteracting the indifference found in most other departments. Patrick O’Neal adds a touch of class to proceedings as the resolute detective determined to bring mob boss Matteo to heel. The slender Joseph Wiseman, familiar to most as Dr. No, makes a suave bad guy, and Eduardo Ciannelli effortlessly raises the bar in his tiny role. The movie also boasts a host of familiar faces, many of whom were at the beginning of a successful career; Roy Scheider plays an oily mob lawyer, Charles Durning shares a couple of scenes with O’Neal as a cop, Olympia Dukakis plays a housewife, and Raul Julia makes his un-credited screen debut as a party guest. Unfortunately, the pleasure at seeing so many familiar faces (including Leonardo Cimino and John Dehmer whose names you might not recognise but whose faces you will) is tempered a little by the wooden performance of leading man Alex Cord and the inept efforts of Britt Ekland.
My thanks to Ann L. for providing me with a copy of this movie.
(Reviewed 28th November 2013)