The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. Lillo Brancato was born in Bogotá, Colombia, but adopted and raised in New York by Italian-American parents. Spotted by a talent scout he was rewarded with the starring role in a major motion picture alongside his hero and 2 times Academy Award winner Robert De Niro. His career sored further, landing a role in the Sopranos and other movies. However with the help of a heroin addiction he managed to flush his acting career down the pishadoo when a house break went wrong. His partner in crime (and girlfriend’s father) shot dead a neighbour who came to investigate the break-in who also happened to be an off duty New York police officer. While his partner is serving life with no parole, Brancato has only recently been released from prison after serving 8 years of a 10 year stretch. Playing the role of teenage Calogero Anello in A Bronx Tale, he was told by his father the "saddest thing in life is wasted talent and the choices that you make will shape your life forever". In this ironic twist, Brancato did not heed the advice of his on screen father, "but you can ask anybody from my neighbourhood... and they'll just tell you. This is just another Bronx tale".
Lillo Brancato aside, A Bronx Tale is a somewhat auto biographical story by the excellent Chazz Palminteri. Palminteri wrote the story as a one-man stage show which was later adapted for the big screen and gave Robert De Niro his first opportunity in the director’s chair.
“Why did you say I did a good thing for a bad man?” a nine year old Calogero asks his father “Because sometimes you have to do things that aren't right”. Despite witnessing the local mobster Sonny LoSpecchio shoot and kill another man in broad daylight, Calogero refused to finger him to the police. Although confused about right and wrong, even at his tender age, he knows enough to know that a rat is the lowest thing you could be in his neighbourhood – East 187th Street.
Calogero’s father Lorenzo also knows enough about the streets to have a healthy dose of respect for how it works, but he resists the allure of the power and glamour of the local mob. He drives a bus for the city; he works hard, gets paid enough to get by and is proud that he earns his living respectfully, maintaining his principles. He also knows his 9 year old son is torn between the two paths that are beginning to unfold in front of him.
Sat on his front stoop, Calogero and his friends watch and even imitate the local wiseguys, especially Sonny. Cologero’s head is turned by the 'clothes, cars, money' lavishly bandied by them and has little appreciation for how hard his father has to work just to eat steak once a week. With his head filled with ideas from Sonny LoSpecchio, Calogero tells his father “the working man is a sucker”. “Wrong” Lorenzo responds “Pulling a trigger doesn't take strength. Get up every day and work for a living! Let's see him try that! Your father's the tough guy!” These aren't just words to Lorenzo, he firmly belives what he's saying and is proud to live his life this way. The young Calogero doesn’t understand though. Like a lot of the life lessons being doled out to him, he’s continually being told when you're older, you'll understand.
Sonny takes a shine to the kid who refused to finger him to the cops. He invites Calogero round to Chez Bippy, the local wiseguy hangout and lets him earn money garnering tips for serving the street hoods their drinks – wiseguys tip well. His stash builds up fast, but his haul of $600 is soon discovered and Lorenzo insists he give the money back.
De Niro is brilliant in the scene in which the bus driver confronts the wiseguy, when returning his son’s money. “I’m not afraid of you” he says to Sonny who retorts “You should be”. Unmoved “I know what you can do, but this time you're wrong. This is my son, not yours!” The Gangster is not used to being talked to in this manner and he usually makes sure that those who do are not in a position do so again, but he decides to give Lorenzo a pass. Sonny has respect for the father standing up for his son, for the young boy he’s also fond of; he’s also somewhat pleased that Calogero has a strong role model at home. So instead of further hostilities we learn that eight years pass by without the two men ever talking again. Throughout this time, Lorenzo insists his son stays away from the bar, but the allure is too great and Calogero continues to work there covertly.
Time passes by and the excellent Francis Capra who plays the 9 year old Calogero is replaced by Lillo Brancato playing the character aged 17. It’s 1968 and the World has changed, but East 187th Street remains relatively untouched by the hands of time. One of the few changes is that Sonny is now a boss and he and Calogero have grown very close; a second father who teaches him the way of the streets.
Sonny though is not your typical movie gangster like Jimmy Conway, Nicky Santoro or Sonny Corleone; he’s very self-aware. He knows that in his position it’s better to be feared than loved “fear lasts longer”. He treats his men well, but not too well otherwise he’s not needed “the trick is not to be hated”; Sonny is clearly a fan of Niccolò Machiavelli having read The Prince while in prison. He’s exudes cool. He’s so cool he drives his 1965 Plymouth Belvedere backwards down one way streets to avoid the long route – who’s going to stop him, he’s Sonny ‘fucking’ LoSpecchio. He’s warm and charismatic and though like the rest of the neighbourhood rarely ventures too far from home, has wisdom beyond that of a regular wiseguy. He’s the local boss though and you don’t become this by handing out hugs. We see several explosions of violence all of which pale in comparison to the chillingly cool manner in which he locks the door of the bar, trapping the Hell’s Angels bikers inside “Now yous can’t leave” he says, before they’re whipped to within an inch of their lives. This tells you everything you need to know about why he’s number one in this neighbourhood.
Chazz Palminteri is the only actor who could have delivered this evocative performance of Sonny LoSpecchio. Lo specchio meaning the mirror in Italian tells you everything you need to know about what the character means to the actor. He's a composite character which embodies a lot of Palminteri's early memories on the street and the character he knew. He also knows the guy inside out and he’s been using only three fingers on stage for a long time. Palminteri turned down other offers for movie rights to his show, before De Niro came along with an offer to make the film, because of his stipulation that he must play Sonny – smart move.
Outside the bubble of East 187th Street time does not stand still – there is a growing African American community a few blocks up which causes consternation among the Italians. Calogero’s friends – Slick, Crazy Mario, Aldo and Ralphie - give a bunch of black kids a beating; a beating he wants nothing to do with - partly because they don’t bother him and partly because he’s been struck by the Thunderbolt – a pretty African American girl named Jane Williams.
A Bronx Tale delicately treads over the race issues, but never shys away from the difficult conflict that was all true present at the time. Credit for this must go to the direction from Robert De Niro and the writing of Chazz Palminteri. However, if you want to watch a film about Black civil rights watch Mississippi Burning; Malcolm X; 12 Years a Slave; or To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s not to say A Bronx Tale does anything wrong, but it’s far cry from the final word on the issue.
Conflicted about how possible it’s going to be for an Italian in his neighbourhood to date a black girl, Calogero poses a hypothetical question to his father “Joey Osso from down the block? He asked me what I thought about him dating a coloured girl.” From the most level-headed ‘get along with everybody’ guy he knows Lorenzo replies “Joey can't find white girls… When it comes to marriage, we should marry within our own.” Lorenzo doesn’t for one minute think his opinions are racist; for the Bronx in 1968 maybe he’s pretty open minded, but this just further reinforces the insular mentality of the neighbourhood.
A Bronx Tale
Directed by Robert De Niro
Written by Chazz Palminteri
Robert De Niro Lorenzo Anello;
Chazz Palminteri Sonny LoSpecchio;
Francis Capra Calogero (age 9);
Lillo Brancato, Jr. Calogero (age 17);
Kathrine Narducci Rosina Anello;
Taral Hicks Jane Williams;
Joe Pesci Carmine;
Clem Caserta Jimmy Whispers;
Robert D'Andrea Tony Toupee;
Eddie Montanaro Eddie Mush;
Joe D'Onofrio Slick (age 17);
Louis Vanaria Crazy Mario (age 17);
Luigi D'Angelo Aldo (age 17);
Dominick Rocchio Ralphie (age 17)
" I was getting two educations, one from the street and one from school. "
- Calogero Anello
Why not check out other gangster flicks
Sonny on the other hand surprises Calogero. “When you're alone, late at night in bed just you and her under the covers, that's all that matters”. Mafiosi are not usually known for their racial tolerance. Take Tony Soprano for instance, more than thirty years later; just the sight of a packet of Uncle Ben’s rice is enough to give him a panic attack after he meets his daughter Meadow’s boyfriend Noah Tannenbaum for the first time, a mixed race son of an African American and a Jew.
Sonny tells Calogero to give her the test; after opening the car door for her and letting her get in “If she doesn't reach over and lift up that button for you so you can get in, dump her. She's a selfish broad and all you're seeing is the tip of the iceberg. Dump her fast.” Of course remote central-locking put an end to the Sonny test a long time ago. We’ll just have to stick with the Mario test instead…
When it comes to choosing whose path to follow, it would appear that he’s learned enough from his two mentors to choose his own. He’ll not be standing on street corners nor is he prepared to drive a city bus barely scraping by. He’ll do things his own way and that includes dating Jane, a young lady not from his neighbourhood.
Robert De Niro chose to cast himself as the gangster antithetic, Calogero’s father. An over protective patriarch who to his nine year son is simply someone who is stopping him doing what he wants to do – a hindrance to hanging out with the cool people and earning decent money. Lorenzo has the potential to be a weak and annoying character, but De Niro makes him credible and every bit as strong as Sonny. It would have been difficult for the movie to provide the required balance to allow Calogero to make the choices he has to make at the end if he wasn’t Sonny’s equal. De Niro shaped this gangster flick into a father/son movie dedicating it to his own father; perhaps the strength he drew on for Lorenzo came from personal experience.
For those who have dismissed A Bronx Tale as a mediocre Scorsese imitation then they’ve clearly failed to peel back the layers of this morality tale set against the neighbourhood mobster backdrop. Unlike in Goodfellas where a young Henry Hill is drawn into and embraces the wiseguy way of life, Calogero is similarly attracted to it, but spends the movie wrestling with whose footsteps to follow in, his father’s or Sonny’s. The movie posters and media covers depict De Niro and Palminteri head to head as if they’re the two protagonists butting heads, but this is far from the case. They’re more like the little angel and devil sat on either side of Calogero’s shoulder telling him what to do.
The choices he’s going to make at this age are going to shape his life. At Sonny’s wake as Calogero stands over the open casket of his gangster mentor, thinking he’s alone, he is surprised to find one last mourner, Carmine (a cool cameo by Joe Pesci). Carmine is the man who’s life Sonny saved when he shot dead the man on the street, he’s also another respected wiseguy who will be looking after Sonny’s crew and he respectfully offers to look after Calogero too “You need anything, come and see me at the bar”. Calogero though is coming to terms with the unfolding world around him and who he wants to be. He tells Carmine “I'll give the bar a rest for a while, but thanks anyway.” At the wake he also learns that his father never hated Sonny, he was simply mad at him for making son grow up so fast.
I don’t think anyone was surprised that Robert De Niro chose a gangster movie with which to lose his directing virginity. The big surprise is that nearly two decades later The Good Sheperd has been his only other dalliance. He has spoken about directing sequels to The Good Sheperd and could be in line to direct the pilot episode for a TV sequel, but nevertheless, an accomplished debut with A Bronx Tale hinted at much more to come.
The Martin Scorsese influence is understandably visible in De Niro’s work. This is not a slight, rather a compliment. East 187th Street neighbourhood is so intrinsic to the story and De Niro brings it to life very carefully with rich detail, clearly having paid attention during the making of Goodfellas and earlier collaborations. Echoes of Scorsese come through also in the voice over commentary, a hall mark of some of Marty’s best work. However, in A Bronx Tale the voice over courtesy of the older Calogero helps to maintain the stage-show narration origins of Palminteri’s one man performance.
The whole story takes place inside a bubble. The film rarely leaves East 187th Street underpinning the insular nature of the neighbourhood and its inhabitants. When it does leave, it’s always for a very striking impact: Calogero rides the bus with his father to the City Island terminus, and they both treat it like a ‘vacation’; he walks his new belle home to Webster Avenue the African American neighbourhood a few blocks up, but it might as well be the other side of the World – intimidated he’s reluctant to venture too far and leaves Jane to walk the rest of the way. When the African American kids pass through any of the streets that the East 187th street kids consider their turf they take exception to it and violence is the usual outcome. It’s not just a question of skin colour either. The Hell’s Angles bikers that stop for a drink are treated with the same distain and given short shrift.
Throughout the movie Calogero is continually wrestling with conflicted emotions: whether to turn in a murderer or keep his mouth shut; whether to follow his father’s advice or Sonny’s; whether to date an African American girl or stick with an Italian. The death of his friends sends his head spinning in a similar manner. He’s just lost his friends in a grizzly death, but he also knows how close he came to being in the car at the fateful time.
He’s glad to be alive and he’s very grateful to Sonny for pulling him out of the car. Coming to terms with the nights revelations he decides to find Sonny and tell him he’s grateful for saving his life; alas he’s never able to do so. Calogero arrives at Chez Bippy’s just in time to see him shot in the head. It turns out the shooter was the son of the man that Sonny shot dead in the street in front of a nine year old Calogero al those years ago.
The beating that Calogero’s friends give to the African American kids is later reciprocated with an egging of their hangout, the Deuces Wild social club. Not to be outdone Slick, Aldo, Mario and Ralphie pack up their Molotov cocktails and hightail it in a stolen 1965 Plymouth Belvedere to the black neighbourhood, Webster Avenue. Bumping into Calogero on the way, he finds himself an unwanted conspirator alongside them in the back of the car. Smiling on the outside, but dying on the inside Calogero wants out “What was I going to say? Let me out. I'm afraid" his voice-over states - afraid of the recriminations from the neighbourhood for not having the gumption of his peers. Even the disapproving words floating around his head of what his two mentors, his father and Sonny, would say aren’t enough to make him get out. However, moments later he’s saved by the real Sonny who physically drags him out of the car. Sonny saves him from going through with the ordeal, but ultimately saves his life as the ill-advised counter offensive goes disastrously wrong and the case of homemade explosives ignite in the car killing each and every one of them. “They started out as white boys. Now they are toast” a watching black gang member succinctly comments.
Most Notable Gangster Moment:
Sonny Lospecchio locked the door of the bar, trapping the troublesome Hells Angels Bikers inside and said "Now yous can't leave" . The rear door of the bar then suddenly opened and a bunch of wiseguys piled in to give the bikers a good beating.
Body Count: Six
1. Sonny LoSpecchio shot dead a man attacking Carmine in the middle of the street with a baseball bat.
2-5. Slick, Aldo, Mario and Ralphie were all killed when their Molotov cocktails exploded in their car.
6. Sonny LoSpecchio was shot in the head from close range, by the son of the man he killed in the street
Sonny used a Smith & Wesson Model 36 to shoot dead a man in the street
Sonny was shot and killed by a man using a Colt Detective Special .38
Calogero and his friends attempted to purchase a Star Model B 9x19mm pistol
The man Sonny shot wielded a baseball bat an attempt to kill Carmine
Slick, Aldo, Mario & Ralpoh hurled Molotov cocktails at the African American neighbourhood, before being blown up by their own IEDs
Most retro F-bomb dropped:
"Jive-ass white motherfucker!"
Sonny owned a 1968 Cadillac DeVille Convertible. He drove it backwards around the one-way system and he let Calogero it use for his date with Jane
Jane drove a 1968 Chevrolet Bel Air
Slick, Aldo, Mario & Ralphie stole a 1965 Plymouth Belvedere Two-Door Sedan and drove over to Webster Avenue to throw Molotov cocktails at the Black Neighbourhood. This vehicle was blown up.
The guy with the baseball bat who was shot by Sonny drove a 1957 Mercury Montclair Phaeton Coupe
Carmine drove a 1960 Cadillac Coupe DeVille Two-Door Hardtop Coupe when he was hit by the guy with a baseball bat
Lorenzo was a bus driver for the city. He took Calogero to the City Island terminus in a 1954 GM TDH 4505 (No. 7141) Surface Transportation System
Written by Bada Bing
(1993) - TriBeCa Productions