The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
Dir. James Goldstone, U.S., 1971

by Nick Pinkerton

Respectable opinions hold that Jimmy Breslin’s 1971 mob farce The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is a very funny book, and watching James Goldstone’s film of the novel from the following year, you can believe it. Not that it’s a very funny film—nothing could be further from the case—but beneath its baggy timing, you can almost make out the shape of a good burlesque.

The film covers a turf tussle between Brooklyn Cosa Nostra, as Capo Baccala (Bronx-born line-gargler Lionel Stander, in one of his first American screen credits after a blacklist-imposed furlough into international co-productions) is challenged by small-time Red Hook chiseler Kid Sally Palumbo (Broadway star Jerry Orbach, in his big-screen breakthrough), and his titular bunch of incompetent crumbs, including a lummox with his bottom buttons perpetually popping, Big Jelly (Irving Selbst), and a badly dubbed Hervé Villechaize. Just predating the Godfather-sparked glut of mobsploitation, Gang aims to supplant the gangster-as-tragic-hero mythos with Kid Sally’s mooks, the shakiest guns in the East, penny ante neighborhood idiots with marinara on their expensive shirts.

There’s no lack of potential here: the movie’s full of young New York talent including, stranded in a purgatorial romantic subplot, Robert De Niro as a sneakthief in town from Calabria (his dimply “no speaka da English” cutie-pie is Wilmer Valderrama winsome); it sports a screenplay by Waldo Salt (who squeezed this credit between Serpico and Midnight Cowboy); and it has the pedigree of Breslin, Newsday’s sartorial shoe leather-reportage throwback (and Friedkin’s original “Popeye” Doyle!). All considered, you could well expect a great, eyewitness homely-funny study in borough provincialism—as it is, Gang is closer to one of those Fifties-era, diminishing returns Bowery Boys flicks.

The would-be big laffs—Kid Sally doing his round of collections with a secondhand circus lion, Jo Van Fleet hashing up that old classic, the potty-mouth grandma—are executed so sluggishly you can only manage a titter of relief when they’ve been humped through. Little attempts to perk up the tale of Keystone crooks only add to the strain; vaudevillian piano, slide whistles, and Italian flag-colored intertitles prod, to make sure you’re aware just how kooky the whole affair is. The better bits of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight are a parsimonious scattering—a few crowded reaction shots, all long, droopy faces and arrow collars, that might’ve been drawn by Jack Kirby; some knowing spatial gags about New York apartments; a couple gratifying blorbs of local color (“A muhrder ain’t in The Daily News ain’t no muhrder”). Pre-fame Burt Young briefly appears, and I perked up—in a tank top and Mets hat, with the last two bites of a deli sandwich in hand, he’d make the perfect Breslin schlemiel—but then he goes up in smoke after two scenes.

Truth is there’s plenty of straight-shooting movies out there with single moments that are funnier about small-time crooks than this entire colorless caricature: De Niro’s spazzy “Micky the Monkey” dance in Mean Streets (the film also nicks Gang’s jungle cat-in-the-storage room bit—was this an actual urban phenomenon?); some of the bluff from Nick Gomez’s undervalued Laws of Gravity (the “Mucker Ferguson” routine; “Bazooka Joe chewin’ no-comic reading faggot”); the shot of the projects kid sitting on the stolen Vespa in Gomez’s New Jersey Drive; Bogart pushing around pipsqueak cannon Elisha Cook, Jr. in The Maltese Falcon (handing over his snagged pistols: “A crippled newsie took ‘em away”). As per satire, I’ll confess that I prefer Jane Austen’s Mafia! It seems like the digital avalanche is full of cases like this: movies that you can’t believe you’ve never heard of, that justify their obscurity as soon as you watch them.