In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1993 and six from 1983. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
New York’s nighttime skyline shimmers and twinkles majestically at the start of A Bronx Tale. It’s accompanied by the tight, bent-note harmonics of “Streets of the Bronx,” a lovely, lilting doo-wop number that serves as the film’s musical motif.
It feels like the highest elevation before these sweet sounds would simply fade into nothingness. But it’s also a height from which Robert De Niro’s directorial debut descends from nostalgic mythmaking into sober reality. Spun out into lush Aaron Copland territory by orchestrator Stephen Endelman in the end credits, “Streets” is then paired with a more somber, earthbound street-corner point of view.
A Bronx Tale is most generically pigeonholed as a mafia or crime movie. And while a murder and a mobster are integral to its plot, the balls it breaks and the heads it busts are incidental to its power as a coming-of-age story stretching from 1960 to 1968. Judiciously violent, it’s practically a chamber piece alongside most of the seven films De Niro had then made with director Martin Scorsese; a biker-gang beatdown is as close as anything comes to Scorsese’s violent gangster swirl.
Instead, authenticity and wit are the more important Scorsese hallmarks that rubbed off on De Niro — whose equally outstanding sophomore directorial effort, The Good Shepherd, arrived 13 years later and whose third such film hopefully arrives before he’s 76.
De Niro perfectly evokes the era of stickball, stoop-sitting, sweaty summers and sedans that comfortably seat seven. And Chazz Palminteri’s script, adapted from his acclaimed autobiographical one-man play, is unafraid of piercing, profane punchlines.
The “sounds of Italian men romancing their women” offers a gutbuster before the opening credits even begin. A degenerate gambler named Eddie Mush has bad luck as contagious as the common cold. An acne-scarred hood named Frankie Coffeecake preens pointlessly in front of a mirror. Even Calogero’s priest uses humor as a wry weapon against the world’s wickedness.
Despite De Niro’s directorial credit, the filmmaking was reportedly as collaborative with Palminteri as it could be. Having long clutched to his film rights, even when reportedly offered $1 million by other suitors, Palminteri gave them to De Niro. That’s because only he agreed to let Palminteri write the screenplay and play Sonny LoSpecchio — the magnetic Mafioso with whom De Niro’s bus-driving Lorenzo Anello wages ideological war for the will of Lorenzo’s son, Calogero.
With furtive glances, a smart mouth and acute impatience, Francis Capra (who plays Calogero at age 9) embodies a child’s curiosity for adults — their mysterious ways, their access — and the quest for their approval. When Sonny finally looks Calogero’s way, as has been his wish, it may be the devil’s gaze.
That’s because Calogero sees Sonny gun a man down in cold blood and broad daylight and lies to the cops out of a necessity he doesn’t fully understand. When Lorenzo and Calogero venture outside to ostensibly finger a triggerman, they are seen as the perps — eyed accusatorially by those who embrace Sonny’s largesse.
The film then jumps forward eight years, with Calogero now under Sonny’s mob-boss wing, and, amid racial tensions, falling for a black girl named Jane (Taral Hicks).
At the time, Palminteri’s most visible credits were character roles in the misbegotten John Landis films Oscar and Innocent Blood or appearances on Dallas and Matlock. But a year after Bronx, he was Oscar-nominated for Bullets Over Broadway. The year after that, he landed a primo supporting part in The Usual Suspects. And although Palminteri’s roles are no longer prestige (with all due respect to Marvin Milkshake in The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure), he remains a pleasantly, and frequently, employed character actor.
His performance here proved the springboard for all of his success — convincingly menacing, dangerously untrusting and rife with monumental monologues that hint at the loneliness with which Sonny has built his kingdom. (Scarce and unnamed is the only woman with whom he canoodles.) A decade of reading Machiavelli in the slammer counts as a master’s degree for Sonny. He knows only a few coin ridges separate fear from love and he’s chosen, for better or worse, to live by the former.
Thankfully, Palminteri didn’t rest at his Hollywood calling card and gave De Niro something different to play as well — a kind father. Affable charm was certainly nothing new to De Niro (Midnight Run and Backdraft), but he’d never shown a warm, understated paternalism. He’d contrasted this character sharply earlier that same year as a brute in This Boy’s Life (which this column will cover later in the year) and didn’t revisit such gentle parentage until Everybody’s Fine in 2009.
Even then, there are flickers behind Lorenzo’s eyes as he considers, if only for a millisecond, buckling to one of Sonny’s offers. For what trouble, really, would it be to run numbers for an extra $150 a week on the route he drives anyway? Or accept free, choice ringside seats for a boxing match to give his son some joy? But Lorenzo seems to believe he already has unforgivably sinned by allowing Calogero to lie about Sonny and the murder, even if the truth would have targeted their family.
That Lorenzo remains rigid for Calogero’s sake — commendably so, more often than not — doesn’t mean he can’t be rattled. And De Niro is as unguarded and understated then as when he holds Calogero close after a moment-of-weakness slap.
De Niro and Palminteri share a couple of verbal, electrically ominous confrontations, but A Bronx Tale remains staunchly, and refreshingly, low key about whose influence on Calogero will, or should, win out. This is nothing as simple as an angel-devil story, pitting Sonny’s money and power versus Lorenzo’s morals and principles.
And neither man leads Calogero to the appropriately portioned tragedy of the third act — in which the day’s ethnic hierarchy traps teenagers in an irreversible act of brutality. (If A Bronx Tale has a glaring narrative flaw, it’s how Jane seems to forget a past-the-point-of-no-return pejorative Calogero shouts in her presence.)
Instead, it occupies a middle ground in which both men impart invaluable lessons and display patriarchal affection. The most famous such scene is the one in which Sonny outlines “the door test” for Calogero to determine whether Jane will be one of the three great women in his life.
That Sonny does so while driving in reverse turns what seems like an unexplained tic into a mantra for how this man lives life. Note also how, at the risk of seeming too unguarded, he boils the issue of trust and love down to the fear of an ultimatum.
Palminteri shares this, and many other fine scenes, with Lillo Brancato, Jr., a dead ringer for De Niro who plays a 17-year-old Calogero with the perfect blend of conflict, charisma and cockiness.
After this, Brancato bounced around with bit parts in Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State before a small, if pivotal, role on HBO’s The Sopranos. But in 2005, he was charged with first-degree attempted burglary for his role in a Bronx heist during which an off-duty police officer was shot and killed. Nearing the end of his 10-year prison sentence, Brancato is eligible for parole in 2014.
This is more than a grim case of life imitating art. As Brancato succinctly suggests in A Bronx Tale’s closing narration, an equally compelling story — perhaps one in which rage, rather than grace, is delivered — lives just around every street corner.