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Sacco & Vanzetti

by Glenn Erickson May 21, 2022

Welcome to Ground Zero for ‘Committed Cinema’ Italian style. Director Giuiano Montaldo filmed his dream project on location in Ireland and a bit in Boston, with top stars Gian Maria Volontè and Riccardo Cucciolla. In one of the highest-profile American ‘media’ trials ever the famed immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti were tried for a crime but convicted by politics: even the judge asserted they were guilty by definition. Montaldo shows how wrongly justice can be served without whitewashing the defendants. UK actors Cyril Cusack and Milo O’Shea up the performance level, and the Ennio Morricone / Joan Baez songs have kept the film alive.


Sacco & Vanzetti
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1971 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 125 min. / Street Date May 3, 2022 / Sacco e Vanzetti; Intolerance (shooting title?) / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Gian Maria Volontè, Riccardo Cucciolla, Cyril Cusack, Rosanna Fratello, Geoffrey Keen, Milo O’Shea, William Prince, Claude Mann, Edward Jewesbury, Armenia Balducci, Valentino Orfeo, Pier Archisi, Desmond Perry, Sergio Fantoni.
Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti
Production Designer: Aurelio Crugnola
Costume Designer: Ernrico Sabbatini
Film Editor: Nino Baragli
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Song Lyrics and vocals: Joan Baez
Screenplay by Fabrizio Onofri, Giuliano Montaldo story by Fabrizio Onofri, Giuliano Montaldo, Mino Roli
Produced by Arrigo Colombo, Giorgio Papi
Directed by
Giuliano Montaldo

This major Italian release arrived in 1971 when America was fed up with Vietnam, a chaotic economy, and a White House contemptous of the rule of law. A figurative love song to the century’s most famous U.S. anarchists, it was distributed here by a small company called UMC Pictures, which handled marginal foreign and art product, like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Glen and Randa, but also helped Mel Brooks become a film director with The Producers. Although starring two top Italian names the most prominent talent associated with the picture was the singer Joan Baez. Richard Nixon’s so-called ‘silent majority’ surely perceived Sacco & Vanzetti as pure Communist propaganda.

In 1920 a shoe company in Braintree Massachusetts was robbed in broad daylight. Two men were shot to death. The trial and appeals for two suspects Nicola Sacco & Bartolomeo Vanzetti dragged on for six years, becoming a shockingly anti-Democratic, anti-American circus. The proceedings grew into a huge international case, as depicted in Peter Miller’s documentary Sacco & Vanzetti.

The Sacco & Vanzetti affair came out of a post- WW1 fear of more ‘Bolshevik’ revolutions, an atmosphere of anti-Communist hysteria. History has not firmly determined S&V’s guilt or innocence. Some research has claimed that others committed the robbery, and other accounts attest that Vanzetti admitted his complicity to at least one interviewer. High emotions made an objective conclusion all but impossible — the immigrant defendants soon became legendary symbols of injustice.

 

Liberals still argue that the prevailing issue was not guilt or innocence but the fact that the trial was conducted as a state lynching, with prosecutors presuming the facts, faking evidence, and openly asserting that the defendants were guilty by definition of who they were: immigrant ingrates that ‘didn’t appreciate’ America and criticized its cherished institutions. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti definitely were anarchist activists, and possibly violent ones; they had proved associations with anarchist criminals. When arrested they were carrying small arms. Judges and prosecutors saw them as dangerous foreign scum, involved in insurrectionist activity that needed to be put down.

A liberal fund paid for a vigorous court defense. The trial became a world event, and a huge volume of opinion was written in both American and foreign papers. The main cry for S&V’s exoneration was simply that their guilt was un-proven, based on suspect testimony and evidence.

 

The movie’s interpretation.

That’s the story of the real Sacco & Vanzetti. Giuliano Montaldo’s Sacco & Vanzetti sticks with the leftist point of view, and is fair only in that it doesn’t fake events or change any particulars. It doesn’t illustrate the defendants’ alleged radical connections because little of that was brought out in the trial. Wthout admitting to any violent activity Vanzetti openly admitted he was a political radical and wanted to change the government.

The movie’s emotional argument relates the Sacco & Vanzetti affair to the general suppression of social justice issues. It is one of many political films produced in the wake of the May 1968 uprising among students and workers in several world capitals. A group of ‘committed’ Italian directors created films that presumed that some form of major social change was needed. Crime pictures and even Italian westerns turned political at this time, protesting Capitalism and American imperialism.

Although a period picture, Sacco & Vanzetti shows the same forces present in the working class of 1921 Boston, in a trial that becomes a media circus. Judge Webster Thayer (Geoffrey Keen) doesn’t hide his feelings about the defendant’s politics. The prosecutor Frederick Katzman (Cyril Cusack) is simply unscrupulous — he has no qualms about suppressing and faking evidence as needed, and dragging ethnic prejudice into the proceedings. Sacco and Vanzetti have wide political support but make a serious mistake with their defense. Hired to defend them is Fred Moore (Milo O’Shea), a firebrand mouthpiece for political radicals who puts on a loud and emotional defense, placing grand political theater before the welfare of his clients. A defense that downplayed politics and concentrated on the prosecution’s shaky case might have fared better for the accused — or with this judge and prosecutor, the trial might have been shorter, an open-and-shut case.

 

The hard-headed, fatalistic Vanzetti weathers the ordeal in a stoic manner, while the nervous Sacco eventually breaks down under the pressure of public hatred, prison hardships and courtroom injustice. For a while he’s away in recovery. The defense doesn’t thrust the defendant’s wives into the dramatic spotlight. The immigrant spouses Virginia Vanzetti (Armenia Balducci) and Rosa Sacco (Rosanna Fratello) protect the children first and support their husbands by being dignified presences in court. They’re largely ignored. Nicola is crushed when his young son regards him as a stranger, a ‘bad man.’

Infuriated by defense attorney Fred Moore’s emotional outbursts and courtroom theatrics, Judge Thayer is soon shutting down legitimate defense attempts to discredit prosecution witnesses and evidence. The judge projects an attitude that the defendants’ guilt is obvious. Moore keeps harping on issues beyond the guilt or innocence of the accused. His antics all but guarantee that Sacco and Vanzetti are perceived as active terrorists, not just politically radical in their convictions. Moore is optimistic, yet the verdict seems a foregone conclusion.

 

Balancing the courtroom trial are scenes of the wider context that Moore is talking about. The B&W opening depicts one of the now- almost forgotten Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, a Department of Justice round-up of political undesirables. Union activity was equated with Bolshevik disruption. Suspected radicals were arrested, often just on hearsay, and many were summarily deported. Racism and ethnic prejudice was also a major factor — the crime for many deportees was simply being an impoverished Italian or Jewish immigrant.

The midnight DOJ raid shows poor Italians rousted almost at random, setting the stage for Sacco and Vanzetti’s arrest on a streetcar. Later on the authorities perp-walk the defendants to trial through the city streets, creating a mob scene for a news photographers and newsreel cameras. The defense pull their own showoff moves that in no way serve the men on trial. The actual Italian consul (Sergio Fantoni) takes the stand at one point, to voice his disgust at the prosecution’s slander of his countrymen.

Yes, the poor never have an advantage when they push back against unjust treatment in the labor force. Conditions for raw immigrants were terrible, jammed into filthy tenements, etc.. Vanzetti made several speeches in public, but I think it is Sacco who at one point rails that he escaped the criminal terror of his homeland, only to find similar oppression here, but with official government sanction.

A ‘committed’ director?

At least from a cursory look at his credits, Giuliano Montaldo was a commercially-oriented writer and director for whom Sacco & Vanzetti was a breakout both in prestige and political expression. Montaldo wrote thrillers and comedies and some well-regarded dramas, but he’s most noted in the U.S. for the gangland story Machine Gun McCain and Grand Slam aka Ad ogni costo, a flashy heist caper filmed partly in Brazil.

Sacco & Vanzetti is entirely different. Montaldo partly adopts the standoffish style of Francesco Rosi’s political investigation Salvatore Giuliano. There are relatively few scenes with the defendants’ families. Events are covered with a semi-docu reserve and political context is emphasized at all times. But many scenes operate to emotional effect as well. The movie’s sympathies are 100% for the defendants.

The fine performances of Volontè, Cucciolla, O’Shea, Cusack, and Keen keep Sacco & Vanzetti at a constant boil. There are also some machinations among the wealthy & somewhat flaky liberal supporters, and some prosecution witnesses that are far too eager to invent memories of events. One reporter (William Prince) supports the defendants too openly, and loses his job.

The film has an excellent period feel, with impressive sets; I don’t know Boston and so have no idea what might have been filmed there, but neighborhoods in Ireland were converted to look like old cobblestoned Boston streets. We wonder if Sergio Leone passed through during filming, when filming the few scenes he needed for his flashbacks in Duck You Sucker.

Two special contributions greatly enhance the show’s overall impact. Nino Baragli’s editing of the raid scenes is brilliant, as are the action passages depicting witness versions of the robbery. When the trial becomes an international scandal we see actual newsreel footage from the 1920s, of huge protests in several world capitols. The knockout vintage film makes the legend of Sacco and Vanzetti suddenly seem consequential, relevant in the present tense. By the thousands, real people around the globe took time out to gather to peacefully protest the injustice going down in Massachusetts. The authentic footage also underscores the authenticity of designer Enrico Sabbatini’s period costumes.

The other major contribution is a pair of songs by Ennio Morricone and Joan Baez, that likely received more American distribution than the movie itself. Folk singer and songwriter Joan Baez strongly opposed the war in Vietnam, a fact that nobody in my generation could ignore when she appeared in Woodstock to talk about  her husband David Harris, who had just begun serving time for draft evasion.

Morricone composed an ominous three-part ballad, “La ballata di Sacco e Vanzetti” enhanced by Baez’s lyrics. The words were taken partly from Vanzetti’s own letters:

“Father I am a prisoner . . . against us is the law with its immensity of strength and power…”

The film finishes with “Here’s to You,” an anthem that distills actual Vanzetti quotes into a repeating four-line mantra:

“Here’s to you, Nicola and Bart / Rest forever here in our hearts /
The last and final moment is yours / That agony is your triumph.”

Music attracted some divisive criticism as well. Vincent Canby’s New York Times review reveals his politcial bias from the get-go:

“. . . an absolutely dreadful soundtrack song, “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti” (one lyric of which goes: “Here’s to you, Sacco and Bart/Something something forever in my heart”), sung by Joan Baez, Miss Protest of 1968. Her voice is thus used to certify the movie’s noble intentions, but through the cheapest of means.”

Giuliano Montaldo’s movie doubles down on the notion that the Sacco and Vanzetti affair was the injustice of the century. The film’s advocacy doesn’t seem strained because the injustice was real, and the trial indeed an ugly circus. A century later the subject remains divisive, remembered either as a reverent symbol for ‘the cause,’ or an attempt by Enemies of America to create martyrs. It also persists as an easy joke about Italian-Americans. As a college student, this reviewer had never heard of Sacco and Vanzetti until a dialogue reference showed up in Billy Wilder’s comedy Avanti!  A Sicilian hotel porter protests his deportation from America with a loaded slogan: “Remember Sacco and Vanzetti!”

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Sacco & Vanzetti is a fine encoding of this European hit, licensed directly from Unidis-Jolly (as are the recent Kino releases of Sergio Sollima’s Cittá Violenta and Giuliano Montaldo’s Grand Slam). The color is rich and the audio clear (the opening and closing are designed in B&W). More importantly, the show is uncut.

Audio tracks in both Italian and English are included; the English appears to be the preferred, especially with all those UK actors at work. I can’t tell whether or not Gian Maria Volontè’s voice is his own in English. He’s certainly an impressive presence, even when just standing or sitting trying to look strong. Photos of the real Bartolomeo Vanzetti present a very different image.

Alex Cox offers a fine commentary that covers many aspects of the film; it inadvertently also shows the limitations of the audio commentary format. At one point Cox simply says that his talk will not be wall-to-wall verbiage because the movie is so long. So we end up watching parts of the movie again for no particular reason. It’s a clear case for either a select-scene commentary, or the separate ‘visual essay’ format which has become fashionable (although it has its drawbacks as well). The best thing about director Cox’s approach to this obviously political show is that he explains the views of the filmmakers fully, neither defending nor criticizing them.

A graphics-oriented trailer sells the movie as an emotional protest film. Matted bloodstain transitions suggest that the trailer maker is the same artist who made Sergio Leone’s main title sequences. It’s either incomplete or a textless remnant because it also ends abruptly; it could be the opening of a longer promo.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Sacco & Vanzetti
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (original English & Italian audio tracks
Supplements: Commentary by Alex Cox, Trailer (?).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 18, 2022
(6724sacc)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.