The two films I saw more frequently than any other growing up featuring Al Lettieri pitted him against two of the actors I’ve always numbered among my favorites. One the King of Cool, the other a member of both The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen and my personal favorite of the so called action stars of cinema.
The Getaway (1972) Al Lettieri vs. Steve McQueen
“That’s a walk-in bank. You don’t have to be Dillinger for this one. “
For me personally, this is a great example of everything I love in an action movie. It’s directed by the one and only Sam Peckinpah, still at the height of his powers and it’s scripted by Walter Hill. Hill would go on to be one of my favorite directors of the late seventies on into the eighties. Then we come to the cast. Steve McQueen takes the lead role in the film that teamed him with Ali MacGraw, and the rest is history so the saying goes. While McQueen may be referenced as The King of Cool, his main adversary Al Lettieri could be called The King of Bullies. Now assign the rest of the roles to Peckinpah regulars including Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Bo Hopkins and Dub Taylor and you’ve got a film there’s no way one should overlook.
“You’re back up all the way.” says McQueen to his new partner in crime, Lettieri. McQueen stars here as Doc McCoy who has been sprung from jail by a crooked politician played by Ben Johnson. McQueen owes him and the debt is to pull a heist job and split the take. Right from the start, McQueen is uneasy when Johnson assigns him Lettieri and Bo Hopkins as his robbery team.
Verbal sparring will commence between Steve and Al during the planning stage right through to the attempted split of the take. Al isn’t to be trusted and after an explosive heist that sees Al beginning his double cross by taking out Hopkins, he won’t get the same jump on McQueen. It’s Al left in the ditch with multiple gun shots to the chest. McQueen believes he’s silenced Lettieri for good but a bullet proof vest has spared him from death and other than one shot hitting him in the collar bone, he’s still healthy enough to threaten all those he’ll come in contact with. Like a wounded animal, Lettieri has never been more dangerous.
Seeking refuge and medical attention, Lettieri is about to turn the lives of a married couple upside down. Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague on The Andy Griffith Show) plays a meek veterinarian and Sally Struthers his empty headed wife. In no time at all, he’s bullied Dodson into submission and turned Sally into his gun moll and she’s more than receptive. While McQueen and MacGraw are travelling south to the Mexican border, Lettieri is in pursuit with one major advantage, McQueen thinks he’s dead. The pair are going to renew their animosities at an old hotel run by Dub Taylor and Peckinpah delivers an amazing shootout in a beautifully edited slow motion frenzy.
Someone’s gotta come out ahead. McQueen or Lettieri?
This is one of those great McQueen antihero roles. He stands on the outside of the law but he’s the guy were rooting for. He’s the best of a bad bunch. Once again, the stronger the villain, the better the film and with Peckinpah directing, this one’s a sure fire winner. Along with Mr. Majestyk, these two films were ones I saw repeatedly on TV growing up and both McQueen and Bronson drew me in. Al was the heavily mustached guy that scared the hell out of me and while I may not have liked him in my younger years, I came to appreciate what he brought to both of these featured titles after multiple viewings and now of course, I wish we had so many more movies featuring this powerful on screen performer.
While his demeanor on screen is usually one of menace, he could smile and here’s a nice shot off camera hanging on the set with fellow cast members.
Mr. Majestyk (1974) Al Lettieri vs. Charles Bronson
“There’s a melon I gotta pick.”
This Richard Fleischer directed tale by way of noted writer Elmore Leonard is one that is frequently mentioned when the everyday movie fan recalls some favorite Charles Bronson movie from years past. Why? I believe the reasons for this are partly due to the watermelon farming backdrop making it an easy film to recall and the inclusion of two scene stealing actors facing off against the steely eyed hero that Bronson had become by this point of his career. Al Lettieri as the Mafia hitman who has a personal vendetta against Charlie and also Paul Koslo as a winy instigator who becomes the perfect whipping boy to the scenery chewing bully that Lettieri wonderfully brings to the screen.
Throwing logical police procedures out the window, this film firmly focuses on the rivalry between Bronson and Lettieri. Bronson plays a quiet farmer who treats those around him honestly. Be it the migrant workers or the boss who brings him the crews to pick his melons now that the crop has ripened. Early on he’ll welcome a group of migrant workers to his farm led by his romantic interest Linda Cristal. Miss Cristal is well cast here as a tough Latino who measures up to Charlie quite well.
Enter Paul Koslo who attempts to muscle our hero with some underhanded tricks and untrained workers to pick his crops. It’s one of those great Bronson scenes that stands out among his many on screen skirmishes. Bronson of course will run Koslo off after laying a beating on him and assaulting him with a shotgun. It also features one of my favorite Bronson quotes when he tells Koslo, “You make sounds like you’re a mean little ass kicker. Only I ain’t convinced. You keep talking I’m gonna take your head off.”
The plot moves simply from there, Koslo has Bronson arrested and he’s off to a holding cell via a prison transport bus. It’s here that Bronson will make a firm enemy in Lettieri. Al is a notorious Mafia hitman. He’s finally been caught in the act and rumored to have been involved in multiple homicides. When a spectacular escape plan is pulled resulting in carnage, death and explosions, Bronson sees this as an opportunity to clear his slate by driving off with a handcuffed Al. His plan is to return Lettieri to the police in exchange for having his assault charges dropped. At first Lettieri believes he may be able to smooth talk Bronson into working with him and the two will be off to the sunny south after a phone call. When he begins to see the plan Bronson has set in motion, his tone changes drastically.
“You make a deal with me or you’re dead!”
When things don’t go well for Bronson and Lettieri gets away with the help of lady friend, Lee Purcell he wants one thing only. To add Bronson to his list of kills and the first thing he does is get Koslo to drop the charges so Bronson is released to pick his melons and serve as bait under the watchful eye of the local police force. “I said tell him not ask him!” he spits out at his number one, Taylor Lacher when he questions what if Koslo doesn’t want to drop the charge.
It’s here that the film really picks up steam and allows Lettieri to chew the scenery as he growls and barks his lines. Usually in an aggressive tone while bullying Koslo who is in way over his head. His attempts at acting tough are extremely comical when standing next to Lettieri who just breathes intimidation. Lettieri will begin to muscle Bronson’s workers with threats of violence leaving Charlie without any laborers and the crops going bad. These two mustached warriors are headed to a violent showdown where the bully gets worried once the passive Bronson begins to turn the tables resulting in a wild car/truck chase in the Colorado countryside and an action packed finale.
“That melon picker sucked us in.”
“Let’s finish it Frank. I got work to do.”
This one’s pretty much impossible not to enjoy and for me is the most colorful role that Lettieri got to play during his run of mobsters. Of all the actors who played the bad guy opposite Bronson, Al may be the one that comes off best. He’s given plenty of screen time and once again overpowers those around him and it’s hard not to take your eyes off him when he’s on camera. He proves to be a very formidable match for Bronson who was at this time peaking in his world wide popularity.
Lettieri’s role as Frank Renda proved to be the final highpoint of his career. He appeared in a couple of Italian productions that I’ve yet to see and in October of 1975 would die suddenly of a heart attack. Of the four films I’ve featured here, I suppose The Godfather is the one most have probably seen him in but I prefer his two roles where he attempts to terrorize McQueen and Bronson. Perhaps it’s because they’re more colorful than the low key character he played in The Godfather and the lack of screen time opposite Duke in McQ.
I’ve always thought that the actor Dennis Farina was a good comparison to Lettieri and what might have been ahead had Al not died so young. Farina started out playing mobsters and dislikable characters but as he aged a bit, he came alive on screen with a personality that was hard to dismiss. I think we could have seen that in Al if the opportunities presented themselves had he lived longer.
If you haven’t seen these two films, there are plenty of reasons besides Al Lettieri to look them up. McQueen, Bronson, directors Peckinpah and Fleischer, writers Hill and Leonard and a host of character actors that make each and every film they appear in just a little bit better.
Once again, don’t forget to check out the other villains that are being featured as part of the on line blogathon that focuses the attention squarely on those we love to hate.