Writer-director Michael Corrente took the title and setting for his first movie from the Italian-American section of Providence, Rhode Island. Corrente grew up nearby, and he clearly knows his territory.
Originally shot in black-and-white, but available in color on DVD, Federal Hill is a middle-class Mean Streets. The movie churns some of the same ground as Scorsese’s classic, but without the gritty edge. These young wannabe wiseguys are comfortable. Their problem is they’re restless.
Nicky (Anthony DeSando) is an excellent mechanic whose father owns a used car lot so he gets to cruise around town each night in a borrowed Caddy or some other hot car.
Ralphie’s dad founded a construction company, and while the old man now suffers fits of debilitating depression, he is still a master bricklayer. So is Ralphie (Nicholas Turturro), but he’d rather make his money breaking into homes and stealing cash and jewelry.
“What’s with the ninja suit?” Nicky asks when Ralphie shows up one night on the corner dressed in a black hoodie, black sneakers and black jeans.
“I just got off work,” says Ralphie, who we watched minutes earlier breaking into a home and making off with a bed sheet full of necklaces, bracelets and other valuables.
Nicky, Ralphie and three friends—including Frankie (Michael Raynor), whose father Sal (Frank Vincent) is the local mob boss—are all struggling in one way or another to find themselves. Nicky deals a little coke on the side. Frankie is an apprentice wiseguy. Bobby (Jason Andrews) works as a valet parking attendant at a fancy restaurant. Joey (Robert Turano) is an ex-con trying to go straight.
Ralphie is the wild card, a short-tempered tough guy who may be having problems with his own sexual identity. Out driving with the guys one night, he stops to brutalize a street-corner male hooker. His friends cringe as he rips out the man’s earring and then laughs about it. His intense, over-the-top homophobia hints at an internal conflict. The nature of his affection for Nicky, his best friend, also raises questions that are never answered.
A subplot involving students from Brown University gives Corrente the opportunity to play the Ivy League off these blue-collar ethnics. Nicky’s infatuation with a coed he meets when she wants to buy some coke for a frat party brings the two worlds together and into conflict.
“Don’t go nuts over her cause it ain’t gonna work,” Ralphie tells his friend, offering advice that is based on genuine concern . . . and, perhaps, jealousy.
But Nicky won’t listen. And after first being rebuffed, he wins her over when he takes her home and prepares a dish of spaghetti aiolo that is just perfection. A little wine and before you know it, they’re in bed.
She’s blonde (of course). Her name is Wendy (Not for nothing, but isn’t that the perfect name for a WASP coed?) And she gets Nicky thinking about life beyond The Hill.
We know it can’t work. And so, it seems, does she.
Weeks into their relationship, Wendy (Libby Langdon) reluctantly agrees to let Nicky treat her and her parents—who are visiting for the weekend—to dinner at a fancy restaurant in the neighborhood. When Nicky takes charge at the table and orders for everyone in Italian, Wendy’s mother asks where he studied the language. The thought that he learned at home from his grandparents is not something she would ever consider.
In his own way, Nicky is just as clueless. He thinks that he might be able to accompany Wendy on a summer archaeological dig in Italy. He could cook, he says, and fix the machines.
Ralphie, for all his anger and pent-up frustration, is the only member of the group who sees things as they are and is prepared to deal with them. Stopped by a cop for speeding and with the stash from a recent burglary in the car, Ralphie “accidentally” drops a $20 bill as he hands the cop his license and registration.
The cash lands on the ground and Ralphie asks, “Is that yours?”
The cop picks up the bill, looks at it and tells Ralphie, “No. It ain’t mine. Mine’s a fifty.”
Life on the streets.
Ralphie also wants to leave The Hill and would like to take Nicky with him. His plan to finance their getaway evolves as he helps Bobby settle a $30,000 debt to wiseguys threatening to bust up Bobby if he doesn’t come up with the cash. Ralphie figures out how to get the money—and then some—by breaking into the homes of local mobsters while they dine at the restaurant where Bobby parks cars. This puts Ralphie directly in conflict with Frankie’s father, Sal, after the mob boss surmises that his son’s young friend is behind the rash of break-ins.
“He’s got to have keys, this kid,” Sal says. “Either that or he’s a ghost.”
Ralphie does have keys and the way he gets them and pulls off the heists comes from a story taken from the life of a genuine mobster (see below).
No one in Federal Hill, however, gets what he’s hoping for, which may be part of the message Corrente wanted to deliver in his first film.
But after settling the score with Sal, Ralphie does get to lay some brick.
HIT: A jazz score and some great cinematography set the tone for the movie. Federal Hill does for Providence what scores of gangster movies have done for New York. The city becomes a character, part of the story.
MISS: Some of the dialogue sounds forced. When Sal taps his son Frankie to take care of Ralphie, he tells him, “It’s time for you to do a little work.” This is genuine wiseguy talk.
But then he adds, “It’s time for you to make your bones.” The second line is totally unnecessary and seems aimed at the same WASP crowd that gave us Wendy and her parents. Wendy’s attempt at sincerity also rings hollow when she tells Nicky, “It’s not your cock or your coke. I like you, Nicky Russo.” Oh.
REALITY CHECK: Ralphie gets copies of the keys to the houses and security systems of mobsters from the key chains they leave with Bobby after he parks their cars at the restaurant. He provides a press that Bobby uses to make copies. Then, while the wiseguys are out enjoying dinner, Ralphie cleans out their houses.
Philadelphia mobster Nicholas “Nicky Crow” Caramandi, who made his living as a con man and hustler, recounted this same scam in the book Blood and Honor that was published in 1991, three years before the release of Federal Hill. Caramandi, who became a government informant, had a parking attendant at a garage in Center City Philadelphia working for him. The garage catered to the theater and restaurant crowd—mostly wealthy couples from the suburbs coming into the city for dinner and a show on a Saturday night.
Caramandi would pick out a valuable car, go into the glove compartment to find the registration, which listed a home address, then take the house key from the chain left with the parking attendant and bring it to a nearby locksmith in on the scam. After bringing the original key back to the parking lot, Caramandi and two associates would head to a ritzy suburb, where they would clean out the house. Jewelry, furs and cash were the items of choice he said because they were the easiest to fence. But on any given night, they would take whatever they thought they could get away with.
BEST LINE: Ralphie’s attempt to make it with a coed at a frat party he and Nicky crash leads to one of the best putdown lines ever. After Ralphie tells the coed, who is dancing by herself, that he likes her pants and that there seems to be enough room in there for both of them, the young woman gives him a withering stare and replies, “Why on earth would I want you in my pants? I’ve got one asshole in there already.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Federal Hill has sincerity on its side and a fair degree of authenticity. You get the feeling the director really has no idea you’ve heard this story before: neighborhood guys stuck in a rut of crime and squalor. One guy in the group has aspirations to beauty. Another can’t see past the sidewalk.”—Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Minimal. Lots of shouting and slapping, but very little gun play. The attack on the male hooker is the most brutal scene.
BODY COUNT: Two.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Brooklyn Rules (2007), the story of three young Italian-American guys in Brooklyn struggling to find their way, dodging mob connections and looking to make it on their own. Corrente directed this one as well. It stars Freddie Prinze Jr., Scott Caan and Jerry Ferrara.
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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.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”