In Cult Catalogue, I offer my thoughts on cult movies, and try to determine whether or not they are essential, forgettable, or somewhere in between. Throughout this series I will endeavor to focus primarily on cultish, lesser-known, or largely forgotten films, though in the age of the Internet, nothing is ever truly forgotten, so occasionally the movies may seem more familiar. These posts will be less academic, and more in the vein of straight up reviews or blog posts, though occasionally I will attempt to bring in some sort of scholarship or academic approach to these write ups whenever warranted. More than anything, these posts simply represent my attempt to put forth my thoughts on lesser known cult films and so-called “bad” movies. Anyway, I hope you enjoy. As always, I welcome your feedback, so please, let me know what you think of this entry in the comments after the article.
Similar to Voyage of the Rock Aliens, I had never heard of the 1973 Italian gangster film No Way Out (aka Big Guns aka Tony Arzenta) prior to purchasing a copy of Trailer War, the superb compilation of old grindhouse, horror, kung fu, and exploitation movie trailers released by Drafthouse Films. When I saw the trailer, however, I knew immediately that I had to see the full movie, which stars French New Wave heartthrob Alain Delon (perhaps most famous for his role as existential assassin Jef Costello in the classic Le Samouraï from 1967). Here he plays Tony Arzenta, a freelance contract killer who has grown tired of the business of death and wants nothing more than to retire and spend time with his loving wife and son. Of course, as countless movies and television shows have illustrated, quitting the mafia is never easy, and Arzenta’s bosses waste no time in ordering a hit on the hit man himself. They plant a bomb in his car, and then sit back and wait for the fireworks. Unfortunately, while the assassination attempt misses Arzenta, his wife and son are not so lucky, and they both die in the explosion. After burying his family, Arzenta immediately sets out to get revenge on his former employers, and manages to tear up most of Europe in the process.
Directed by Duccio Tessari (director of the seminal spaghetti western A Pistol For Ringo), No Way Out initially feels like an exploitative and somewhat sleazy (not to mention wholly Italian) take on mythic mobster films like The Godfather (1972) and gritty crime thrillers such as Charley Varrick (1973). While those films function as useful reference points, however, they don’t quite indicate what to expect from this moody and stylish revenge film that features impressive action, impeccable direction, and a solid story filled with pathos and melancholy. Delon grounds No Way Out with his steely-eyed performance, which conveys the lifetime of yearning and pain that exists just beneath the surface of his stoic demeanor. Indeed, Arzenta has been hardened by years of cold-blooded killing, but Delon makes it clear that the character’s icy heart has begun to thaw thanks to his family’s love.
More importantly, though, the film consistently reinforces the idea that Arzenta’s love for his wife and son does not represent a weakness, but rather a new-found strength that grants him the ability to empathize with others and understand the value of human life. When Arzenta witnesses the explosion that takes the lives of his wife and child, his facial expression remains calm and detached, but his eyes indicate all the horror and anguish he feels at that moment. Delon conveys all of this subtly, and through his performance creates a character that recalls Jef Costello (and a host of other cinematic mafia hitmen) while still feeling completely distinct and iconic.
In conjunction with Delon’s measured performance, Tessari’s direction works to elevate the material, and thus the film somewhat transcends it’s pulpy roots. Granted, No Way Out never quite reaches the dizzying heights of something like The Godfather or The Godfather Part II, yet the film still manages to feel substantive and important throughout. Unlike some other Italian knockoff films, most of which exist solely to cash in on the reputation of another popular film or cinematic genre, No Way Out manages to stand on its own thanks primarily to Tessari’s deft direction. He brings a real sense of style and excitement to the entire film through his use of innovative shot compositions and lively camera placement/movement. For example, the film features not one but two thrilling car chases, and during these sequences, Tessari mounts the camera on the bumper of the lead car pointing backwards and granting a partial view of the lead car which dominates the foreground of the frame, and a full view of the pursuing car in the background struggling to keep up as they race through the winding streets of first Hamburg, Germany and later Copenhagen, Denmark. It’s a striking visual, not to mention a point of view rarely seen in even modern films, and it renders the sequence more visceral and exciting than it already is.
Even dialogue scenes are made more involving thanks to Tessari’s unconventional choice of camera placement, such as when a shot begins on a character’s partial reflection in a glass table and then slowly pans up to reveal the character in full. In other sequences, characters are partially obscured by an unknown object in the foreground, but such moments always feel calculated and intentional rather than the product of incompetence or shortsightedness. Furthermore, they have the effect of unsettling the viewer, and providing a sense of disorientation, confusion, or frustration that is no doubt meant to mirror the lead character’s state of mind as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his family. While these types of camera angles and movements are rather common to Italian cinema, in Tessari’s hands they feel fresh and vital and give the entire film a sense of exhilaration it might otherwise lack.
Ultimately, I don’t want to declare No Way Out a lost classic or anything like that, because I don’t want to risk overstating its merits. At the same time, though, I really fell in love with the film’s visual style and its potent mix of drama and action, and I would love to see it gain a wider reputation. I think cinephiles and film nerds in particular would appreciate No Way Out simply because it offers an exciting and somewhat fresh (for the time) stylistic and narrative take on not only the revenge pic but the gangster genre as a whole. Indeed, the international scope of the film recalls the epic scope of The Godfather, while still feeling fresh and exciting because it goes to locales that don’t normally feature in a gangster narrative (really, outside of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Pusher films, I personally can’t think of too many gangster films set in Copenhagen, Denmark).
It’s a shame that No Way Out isn’t more widely available, because it deserves to be seen in the best presentation possible and not just in the somewhat murky version currently available on YouTube (which is how I saw the film). Personally, I would love to see the film picked up for home video distribution by a boutique label like Drafthouse Films, because I believe it would fit in perfectly with their mission statement of releasing “visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world.” Plus, I think it would look pretty good on Blu-ray, and would love to have a copy of the movie in my collection. In any event, I think more people should take a look at No Way Out, because it is a film that deserves to be rescued from obscurity.
Final verdict: As I said, I kind of fell in love with this movie after my first viewing, and my love only increased following a second viewing (I watched it again for the purposes of this write up). Therefore, I’m going to declare this an essential cult film. It’s a fairly great, gritty, action-packed revenge flick featuring an excellent central performance and some stylistic and altogether exhilarating direction, and it’s just waiting for the sort of fervent cult following it deserves.
Next up: Blood Diner (1987)