A Bronx Tale is more than a wonderful portrait of growing up around the mob in the 1960s. Written by Chazz Palminteri, directed by Robert De Niro and starring both, the movie is a primer on life. No film this side of The Godfather provides as many valuable life lessons. Such as:
“You want to see a real hero? Look at a guy who gets up in the morning and goes off to work and supports his family. That’s heroism.”
Those words come from Lorenzo Anello (De Niro), a bus driver trying to scrape by in New York’s Fordham neighborhood. They are meant to inspire his son Calogero (Lillo Brancato). Lorenzo leads the straight life, staying within his means (which means sitting in the nosebleed seats at the fights), cleaning up his bus each day and constantly preaching morality to his boy.
But the nine-year-old is intrigued by the gangsters living around him, particularly Sonny (Palminteri), the charismatic boss. “In my neighborhood he was a god,” Calogero says in narration. “I would sit on my stoop and watch him all day and night.”
One afternoon, Calogero witnesses Sonny shooting a man in a confrontation over a parking spot. Despite police pressure to pick the killer out of a lineup, Calogero refuses to rat. This impresses Sonny. Soon enough, he has the young boy running his errands and rolling his dice in the backroom craps game at his bar, the Chez Bippy. The blessed Calogero even makes 11 passes in a row.
“The working man is a sucker,” pronounces Sonny. This sets up a decade-long tug of war between Calogero’s two role models. It’s tough to stay loyal to Dad when the flashiest guy in town gives you $600 in spending cash.
“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t do the right thing, nothing happens.”
Lorenzo again. A connoisseur of jazz and baseball, Lorenzo is a believer in the American dream. If you work hard and believe in yourself, great things can happen. You can even become the next Mickey Mantle.
The words are really a father’s hope that his son will resist the allure of gangster life, that he will see how Sonny has squandered his abilities and chosen to go for the easy buck. After discovering the $600 Calogero has received for carrying drinks at the craps game, Lorenzo confronts Sonny in front of his men at the bar. This is, of course, a risky move. But Lorenzo gets Sonny to concede—kind of—that interfering with a man’s son is off limits, even for a Mafiosi.
Even though Calogero (nicknamed “C” by Sonny) sees his father’s courage, he still can’t stay away from the goodfellas. By age 17, he’s hanging with the local juvenile delinquents at their own social club, the Deuces Wild—a kind of Chez Bippy with training wheels. The aspiring wiseguys dress like hoods, toss rocks at black bus passengers riding through the neighborhood and buy guns, anticipating with glee the day they’ll get to shoot someone.
Sonny, for his part, doesn’t see this issue much differently than Lorenzo. He declares C’s friends “jerkoffs” and warns the boy not to aspire to his status. “Don’t do what I do,” he warns. “This is my life, not yours.”
“Mickey Mantle don’t care about you. So why care about him? Nobody cares.”
This is Sonny’s advice to C after the boy talks about how crushed he is by the Yankees’ loss in the 1960 World Series. He hates the Pittsburgh Pirates, C says, because they made “The Mick” cry. Mantle is a deity to him.
“Mickey Mantle makes $100,000 a year,” Sonny says. “How much does your father make?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Go ask Mickey Mantle to help if your father can’t pay the rent.”
“From that day on,” the kid concedes, “I never felt the same about the Yankees.”
The point is not to waste your time believing in idols. The “nobody cares,” part means not to think that others are looking out for you. You need to act for yourself, Sonny preaches. This comes into play as C’s friends grow older and noticeably more stupid. One night, the others use peer pressure to rope C into going along with them on a violent escapade that will prove fatal. Fortunately, Sonny sees what’s occurring and pulls C from the car just in time, saving his life.
“Give her The Test.”
This is Sonny’s method of determining whether a woman is worthy of a young man’s affections. The Test is simple: If you’re picking up a girl for a date, get out of your car and lock both doors. Let her in on the passenger side and then walk behind the car toward the driver’s side.
“Look through the rear window,” Sonny advises. “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.”
(Yes, we know The Test has become passé since power door openers came into being. But in 1968 this was an excellent measuring stick—much better than the Mario Test, which you’ll also see in this movie.)
In A Bronx Tale, C crosses racial lines by dating a black girl from school named Jane (Taral Hicks). Their relationship is threatened in a West Side Story way by hatred between their Italian and black neighborhoods (and by Calogero’s lying over his involvement in some violence). But ultimately it works out. And she passes The Test.
“Is it better to be loved or feared?”
“If I had my choice I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love.”
Had he not been a mob leader, Sonny would have made a great philosophy professor. Here he preaches life according to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Sonny knows that everyone laughs at his jokes not because they are funny, but out of respect.
“Fear keeps them loyal to me,” he says. “The trick is not being hated. I treat my men good. But if I give too much, I’m not needed. I give just enough where they need me but don’t hate me.”
While the rest of the neighborhood lives in fear of Sonny, C comes to love him. In the end though, the 17-year-old cannot save his mentor. During a party, as everyone is laughing, a young man nursing a longtime grudge sneaks up behind Sonny and shoots him dead.
In the closing scene, C attends his hero’s funeral. He notices the huge bouquets, observing, “Gangsters have this thing about flowers. Whoever sends the biggest arrangement cares the most.” And he notices the other mobsters cracking jokes and gossiping about how Sonny fell after he was shot.
“It was just like Sonny said it would be,” C says in narration. “Nobody cares.”
There’s a lot to be learned from A Bronx Tale. And there’s a lot to enjoy.
HIT: At times, this is a downright funny movie. You’ll laugh at the great side characters like Tony Toupee, Frankie Coffeecake, JoJo the Whale (so fat that “legend has it his shadow once killed a dog”). Our favorite is Eddie Mush, the walking jinx. The man cast in that role, Eddie Montanaro, is the real-life Eddie Mush from Palminteri’s youth. On Montanaro’s first day of shooting, it rained.
MISS: The biggest downside to A Bronx Tale is that it’s virtually impossible to find. Licensing rights were exclusively sold to Amazon.com in 2010, which means that the DVD is unavailable through Netflix or most video stores, if you can still find a video store in business.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “A Bronx Tale is a joy, a film that comes unerringly from someone’s heart and experience, and not from a power lunch of agents with clients to be packaged.”—Jay Carr, Boston Globe
GOOF: Nine-year-old Calogero wears a baseball jacket bearing the emblems of Major League teams, including the Mets. Problem is, the scene is supposed to be taking place in 1960. Any good baseball fan—especially a New Yorker—knows that the Mets didn’t become a franchise until 1962.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: We’ve watched it enough times to memorize every line of dialogue. We suggest you do the same.
PIVOTAL SCENE: A gang of tough-guy bikers roll into the neighborhood, landing in Sonny’s bar. These are most unwelcome outsiders.
Sonny, who’s been chatting outside, comes in to keep the peace. Have a beer on me and leave, he says with a smile. At the same time, he whispers to his aides, telling them to prepare.
The bikers get their beers—and spray them over the barkeep. Clearly, they intend to bust up the joint. When Sonny orders them out, the gang’s leader—an enormous red-bearded lug—tells the neighborhood’s protector, “I’ll tell you when the fuck we’ll leave. . . .”
Not a smart move. Sonny calmly locks the bar shut from the inside and tells the bikers, “Now youse can’t leave.”
The fight is won before the first punch is thrown. The bullies are intimidated. “All the courage and strength was drained from their bodies,” Calogero says in narration. “In that instant, they knew they made a mistake. They walked into the wrong bar.”
Sonny’s guys burst in from an adjoining room. They pummel the bikers with chairs, bats and bottles. The frenzy is reminiscent of the Billy Batts stomping in GoodFellas—multiplied by 10. In the end, the bikers are dragged outside and further beaten by neighborhood teens. Their choppers are bashed and overturned.
“Look at me,” Sonny says to the gang’s leader as his pulls his face off the ground. “I’m the one who did this to you.”
The bottom line is that the pros always know how to beat the amateurs. And no one messes around in Sonny’s neighborhood.
CASTING CALL: Gangster movie staple Frank Vincent (Billy Batts in GoodFellas) was originally set to play a mob don. His part was cut from the script before filming, but Vincent still got paid.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Other than the scene with the bikers in the bar, not overly high.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The music that’s used whenever Sonny holds court at Chez Bippy. It’s all Tony Bennett and Dino and Ol’ Blue Eyes, suggesting that this is one cool character.
BEST LINE: We already gave you a bunch, but here’s one more. Nine-year-old Calogero goes to church to confess that he lied to police about witnessing a murder. When the priest presses for details, Calogero says, “No, Father, I’m not telling nobody nothing.”
“Don’t be afraid, my son,” the priest says. “Nobody’s more powerful than God.”
“I don’t know about that,” answers Calogero. “Your guy’s bigger than my guy up there, but my guy’s bigger than yours down here.”
“You’ve got a point,” concedes the priest. “Five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys.”
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Lillo Brancato, the actor who plays Calogero at age 17, was unable to establish himself in Hollywood and eventually fell into using cocaine and heroin. In 2005, he was shot while engaging in a drug-fueled burglary in which a policeman was killed. He was acquitted of second-degree murder, but convicted of attempted burglary and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In a 2009 interview on the show 20/20, Brancato said he ignored advice from De Niro and squandered his opportunities. “Bob told me, ‘A lot of people are going to want to be your friends, you know, and they don’t have your best interest at heart.’ I kind of shrugged it off. . . . I am ashamed.”
Talk about wasted talent.
“I KNOW THAT GAL”: Calogero’s mother is played by Kathrine Narducci, whom you may recognize as Charmaine, the shrill wife of henpecked restaurateur Artie Bucco in The Sopranos. Narducci was not a professional actress before this movie and came to the open casting call to audition her nine-year-old son. De Niro spotted her and asked her to read.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Chazz Palminteri’s one-man show, A Bronx Tale, on which this movie is based. Palminteri masterfully plays 18 different roles over 90 minutes. He still occasionally tours the country performing the show.
BODY COUNT: Six, although four are just seen in body bags.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]