The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971)
Before the Godfather came along, MGM released this mobster/black comedy featuring a large number of well known actors. The majority of them at the time were just getting started while raspy voiced Lionel Stander had been on the go since the thirties. And as far as raspy voiced characters go this one even adds Jo Van Fleet into the mix.
Following our cartoon credits we find our leading mobster Lionel sending his wife out to his car to start it up. Just in case. Before turning the ignition switch she says a prayer. Meanwhile he’s in the house under the table praying for the opposite effect. That indeed it’ll blow. One way to rid yourself of “the old lady.”
The main thrust of the story is the gang of the title headed by a very young Jerry Orbach. Members include a dubbed Herve Villechaize, Joe Santos of Kojak and a very large hungry lion.
The lion comes in handy when collecting protection money from local store owners. Seeing Villechaize (aka Tattoo on Fantasy Island) trying to stay out of the lions reach is very amusing for obvious reasons.
Orbach and the boys want more power in the underworld and come into conflict with the old boys club led by Stander. Van Fleet stars as Orbach’s overbearing Mother dressed in black, crucifix around her neck and the vocabulary of a sailor. She wants nothing better than to see her boys rise to the top and take out whoever stands in their way.
Into the plot comes a very young Robert De Niro as a con artist of sorts who begins to romance Orbach’s younger sister played by beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young. After meeting “the family” De Niro barely gets out of the dinner date with his life. They immediately employ him as a priest to get close to Stander and make their hit.
Organizing their assassinations, the Orbach gang has lost more men to mishaps then “hits” committed. They’re generally a group of inept goodfellas. Along the way they lose another young actor to a bombing gone wrong. It’s none other than Burt Young.
Eventually local law enforcement begins rousing the gang in hopes of preventing an all out gang war and the movie more or less meanders on to it’s fade out.
This turned out to be a harmless viewing but far from memorable. The enjoyment for me came from the simple things. The obvious jokes involved with a large lion in the gang, Lionel Stander and the cast of up and comers. Along with De Niro and company we also have gangland favorite Michael V. Gazzo, Jack Kehoe and Sesame Street’s own Paul Benedict turning up for a scene or two.
According to trivia I have read, Al Pacino was originally slated to play the De Niro role but had his contract bought out once it was determined that he had won the coveted role of Michael Corleone. Perhaps even more interesting when you realize that De Niro signed on after losing the Corleone role. Still it worked out fine for both in the end.
I found this James Goldstone directed flick on DVD a while back while rummaging around a second hand store if you feel the need to check out this early appearance by Mr. De Niro and company.