Created to appeal to fans of The Godfather series, the little-known Crazy Joe (1974) tells the “true life” story of Italian mobster “Crazy” Joe Gallo, a verbose, beleaguered (he spent seven years in jail) and eventually deposed key player in the infamous Colombo crime family.

At once a peek at the illicit world of illegal gambling, drug tracking and extortion, Crazy Joe—filmed entirely on the dark, dank, gritty streets of seventies New York City—is also a vivid documentation of a time past: a look at an abandoned, disheveled, under-populated netherworld blighted by the challenges of the day: “white flight,” inflation, bankruptcy and record crime.

As Crazy Joe, Peter Boyle is nothing short of fantastic—capturing at every turn both his mobster character’s ruthlessness and boyish charm; details that made Gallo—a man who killed adversaries at point blank range but also threw money in the air when visiting impoverished neighborhoods—something of a folk hero.

Offering Joe support are Fred Williamson as Willy, a minor underground figure whom Gallo befriends in jail. Not yet burdened by the expectations and fame that would come with his success as a Blaxploitation film star (Black Caesar, The Legend of Nigger Charley, That Man Bolt) Williamson is natural and convincing—providing the film with a street cred that both enlivens and rings true—a violent foul-mouthed prison altercation is particularly well done.

As perpetually intimidated mob lackey Mannie, Henry (later “The Fonz” from “Happy Days”) Winkler also does his part, slithering through scenes like the skinny, homely kid whose best friend (Gallo) is the high school bully. Herve (“Fantasy Island”) Villechaize is on hand as Samson, a diminutive mob spokesperson, as is beauteous distraction Paula Prentiss as Anne, Joe’s, patient, always supportive girlfriend. Other name players include Eli Wallach, Rip Torn and Charles Cioffi.

A severed hand delivered through the mail, a race riot (enflamed by Joe), and a murder by freshly poured cement are all part of the sordid mix. So are a myriad number of car chases, back alley brawls, Joe’s recue of a child from a burning building, and an impressive large cast Italian American rally.

The script and dialogue by Lewis John Carlino is also memorable:

Crazy Joe (to Willy): The problem with you is that you spend too much time with your animal instincts instead of developing your mind.

Willy: Yeah, well when you’re in the jungle baby, I figured your animal instincts could count.

Smoothly directed by Carlo Lizzani—whose forte was Italian-made, Italian-centered, crime films (The Violent Four, Roma Bene, Bandits in Milan) and grandly produced by Dino de Laurentiis (a year after producing the critically acclaimed Serpico) Crazy Joe is a busy, downbeat, pulled from the contemporary headlines crime drama. A colorful, fictionalized take on one of the mob’s most unlikely players.


Josiah Howard

Josiah Howard is the author of four books including “Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide” (now in a fourth printing). His writing credits include articles for the American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Readers Digest. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, Howard also lectures on cinema and is a frequent guest on entertainment news television.

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