The most in-depth look at Frank D'Angelo's cinematic oeuvre to date.
On Friday, Sicilian Vampire, the latest film from Frank D’Angelo, began its exclusive premiere engagement at Vaughan’s Colossus Cineplex. This is the Canadian businessman-turned-entertainment mogul’s fourth film since 2013; love him or hate him, by now you can’t deny that he’s a filmmaker with a consistent vision and personal style. To celebrate the film’s release, Torontoist invited the two biggest Frank D’Angelo superfans on its masthead to try to put the filmmaker’s career in context.
Towards a Theory of Frank
WS: Frank D’Angelo is about to hit the big time. For years, he has been a Canadian institution—the former owner of Steelback Brewery, CHCH’s answer to Johnny Carson, the man who coaxed Ben Johnson to admit he “Cheetahs all the time,” the standard-bearer of R&B, and the most prolific Canadian filmmaker this side of Xavier Dolan. Toronto audiences are already familiar with Real Gangsters!™, The Big Fat Stone, and No Depo$it—films he wrote, directed, acted in, and scored, in an assertion of authorial presence unseen since Charlie Chaplin. But Sicilian Vampire (which opened on February 26 at the Cineplex Cinema in Vaughan) seems to herald a new era in D’Angelo’s career. With a recent (albeit caustically negative) feature in Vanity Fair, a profile in Maclean’s, a mention on TMZ, exposure on the festival circuit, and an appearance by D’Angelo on The Anthony Cumia Show, the filmmaker’s latest effort has all the earmarks of an international breakthrough. For D’Angelo, this belated recognition must feel like sweet vindication. Rarely has such a distinctive filmmaker been met with such resistance.
JH: “Life goes on / without me” sings Frank in his show-stopping performance of “Just A Gigolo” in Sicilian Vampire—lyrics which may serve as the lament of a productive Toronto filmmaker consistently overlooked by the so-called “critical community” in his hometown, despite releasing a feature film every nine months. It would be as if Takashi Miike were ignored in Tokyo, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder in ’70s West Berlin. Like many Canadian artists, Frank has had to seek acclaim outside his home country; Sicilian Vampire had its world premiere not at TIFF (even though his restaurant Forget About It! is situated across the street from Bell Lightbox) but at the recent Big Apple Film Festival in New York City, where it was awarded Best Soundtrack by the festival jury. In their deeply cynical coverage, Vanity Fair reported that only 50 people were at the premiere, but only 50 people were at the first Velvet Underground concert and every one of those in attendance started their own band. The Shock Of The New is a very real phenomenon in the world of art and art criticism; 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bonnie & Clyde were famously panned in their initial releases by esteemed critics who soon reversed their judgments. But Frank doesn’t make his films for the critics; he is a populist filmmaker first and foremost. A better gauge of his impact can be found in the data presented at the IMDB; Sicilian Vampire is only just opening in theatres now and already has over 8,000 votes from users, giving it a 9.0 rating average. By comparison, two acknowledged masterpieces from film history, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, only
maintain an 8.4 average.
WS: You know what else stalls at 8.4? A little movie called Citizen Kane. It has been said that multifaceted artists inspire resentment, and it is true that Canadian critics have been cool towards D’Angelo’s output. This would be the time for me to come clean: I myself lobbed a few brickbats at the man last year in this very publication upon the release of his recession thriller No Depo$it. And yet, I can’t deny that D’Angelo’s work has stayed with me while more polished work has faded away. I own all of his previous films on Blu-Ray, and regularly introduce them to guests who have responded favourably (I sometimes fancy that I’m something akin to D’Angelo’s John the Baptist). Moreover, since publishing my article, I’ve been approached by many others—people who have seen him perform live, or have visited one of his restaurants, or have stumbled onto his late night talk show, or saw Real Gangsters!™ during its broadcast on CityTV last summer—who have also become intoxicated by this man, and are eager to share the enthusiasm. Many filmmakers are talented, but how many have actually brought people together?
Jesse, what is it that makes D’Angelo so interesting? Why, despite my earlier reservations, do I keep returning to No Depo$it again and again?
JH: In retrospect it was all there from the beginning. In Frank’s first film Real Gangsters!™, an early scene depicts the titular wise guys cracking wise about their favourite moments from gangster movies. It was a bold decision for a first time filmmaker to place his own work in the pantheon of the great crime films but after four features with a fifth on the way (and no doubt a sixth in the planning stages) we can see the bigger picture he’s painting—nothing less than a D’Angeloniverse, transcending simple genre comparison, at this point his work is a genre unto itself.
WS: True. Like so many notable filmmakers—including Tarantino, Scorsese, and Coppola, to cite his most obvious touchstones—D’Angelo wears his influences on his sleeve, but creates cinematic landscapes that are unmistakably his own.
JH: Frank’s films offer us at once the familiar and the unfamiliar—famous faces, actors we recall from the Free Pay TV preview weekends of our childhood, in somewhat familiar storylines (crime dramas, vampire thrillers) but presented in a bold off-the cuff manner, with freeform improvisation in dialogue and camera placement that could be compared to jazz more than even cinema (perhaps owing to Frank’s background as a musician accustomed to working with 15-piece bands). His films unfold before our eyes as if they were quickly rushed into production, propelled by what I would call The Fierce Urgency Of Now—as if there was no way Frank COULDN’T tell these stories.
Cast of Characters
JH: F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Frank D’Angelo has proved that for Canadian lives, there are any number of acts, and actors to play parts in his numerous films. The caravan of players in D’Angelo’s films form the deepest bench of regular deployable talent since the glory days of Robert Altman. Once an actor debuts in the D’Angeloverse, they become a star fixed in his ever-expanding constellation.
WS: “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces then,” the faded silent movie queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) tells screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard. Sicilian Vampire has plenty of dialogue (long, flowing dialogue that combines poetry and profanity in a way recalling Mamet), but more than anything, it offers faces. There is James Caan, his face lined by failed marriages and a rocky career. There is Daniel Baldwin, his ripening cheeks offset by a jet-black goatee. There is Robert Davi, his famously pockmarked visage made only rougher by the passage of time. There is Michael Pare, his still-boyish good looks obscured behind a greying beard. And of course, there is Frank D’Angelo, who casts himself in the lead role as mob enforcer Santo Trafficanti—his oddly-parted hair by now almost as iconic as Chaplin’s moustache.
During a recent viewing of No Depo$it, a friend observed, “This is like an alternate universe where everybody is over 50.” He likely meant this as a knock, but it gets to the heart of what’s wonderful about D’Angelo’s films. These are hard men who have lived long lives, from Hollywood to Hamilton with scars to show it.
JH: Another thing about Frank: he realizes that older audiences are an underserved market, and that they want to see classic stars on the big screen (Eric Roberts, Paul Sorvino, Armand Assante, Robert Loggia #RIP).
WS: Any doubts about D’Angelo’s own talents as an actor are firmly laid to rest by the film’s centerpiece scene: an extended conversation between D’Angelo and legendary actor James Caan (The Godfather). Knowing that this meeting of two generations of acting titans has been long awaited, D’Angelo cheekily extends the scene to its breaking point: Caan greets him in the lobby of a hotel, and we follow the two legends as they walk through the halls and up the elevator to Caan’s office. From there, the gravity of the two men, and all the baggage they bring from their previous triumphs, in conversation with each other can only be compared to the famous meeting of De Niro and Pacino in Heat.
JH: It’s actually the passing of a torch; Caan anoints Frank as his true successor. He even bears silent witness as an attractive female nurse draws blood from Frank in a scene of sacramental significance. Here is a man who literally bleeds for his art. I got chills when D’Angelo and Caan were first on the screen together, but if the gossip mongers at TMZ are to be believed, Caan revealed in recent court proceedings in Hollywood that he was reduced to appearing in films such as Sicilian Vampire to keep up with mounting alimony payments, so film fans were stunned to see a subsequent photo from the set of Frank’s latest feature, The Red Maple Leaf, of Caan and the director breaking bread together. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Lovers of film history will recall the famous disputes between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog—a tempestuous union that came together for five films. Michael Madsen appeared in Frank’s No Depo$it in 2015; did anyone accuse him of financial motivations for agreeing to appear in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight later that year? Why is it so hard for the naysayers to accept that these actors are simply motivated to work with a visionary filmmaker?
WS: What is it about the Frank D’Angelo Cinematic Universe that casts such a spell? Is it the cold, antiseptic office/restaurant locations, where you’ll see a Don Cherry poster in what is supposed to be a New York Police Department precinct? Is it D’Angelo’s keen understanding of himself as an icon—the way his music plays on the soundtrack while he appears onscreen, creating a hall-of-mirrors effect? Is it his repeated use of a stock company of character actors and aging stars—like the Mercury Theatre stranded in Sartre’s No Exit? The D’Angelo canon belongs alongside such visionary achievements as Metropolis, Blade Runner and Brazil on a list of films that create a universe entirely their own.
JH: I’ve heard tell that tourists have gone to New York to look for locations of No Depo$it only to discover that the film was made in Hamilton, Ontario. Just as Stanley Kubrick was able to create deeply realized worlds such as Vietnam and Manhattan on locations in England, so has Frank successfully recreated the quiet desperation of modern America in the unassuming city of Hamilton, although on a fraction of Kubrick’s budgets.
WS: It’s not just Hamilton that creates this impression—it’s D’Angelo virtuosic editing. No Depo$it opens with a montage of stock footage of contemporary America before merging seamlessly into sunny, tree-lined streets of downtown Hamilton (paging Norman Rockwell). Such editing calls to mind Orson Welles, another independent maverick who told stories of extraordinary scope on shoestring budgets (specifically, the famous battle scene in Chimes at Midnight, in which a mere two dozen extras are made to look like a warring kingdom).
JH: D’Angelo ironically approaches a microphone at the beginning of the musical number that serves as the centrepiece of Sicilian Vampire and says to Armand Assante, “You’re always fuckin’ making me do things I don’t wanna do.” Anyone who has been carefully following D’Angelo’s career has to smile at the irony of this line because no filmmaker today displays this much formal control over his work. His self-contained universes extend to almost Charlie Kaufman levels of denseness and detail. In No Depo$it, a hot dog stand only sells D’Angelo brand products and during the climactic hostage siege in the film, Frank cuts away to media coverage of the siege as captured by a fictional cable news network “NSS” which shares graphic design and on-air talent as his real-life sports webchannel Next Sports Star. And as in all his films all of the music (diegetic, non-diegetic and occasionally live performance) is performed only by Frank.
WS: But the personal is political. With his invocation of his own trademark brands, D’Angelo slyly comments on his own participation in the capitalist system that brings Pare down. (Also, it’s worth noting that the upcoming Jodie Foster-directed thriller Money Monster, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, appears to be a virtual remake of D’Angelo’s film).
JH: Frank spells Daryl Hannah’s name wrong on the poster of Sicilan Vampire in perhaps a cheeky rebuke to the notorious perfectionism of other critically-lauded directors such as David Fincher or Stanley Kubrick. These auteurs notoriously required dozens of takes to achieve their aims; Frank is able to get everything he needs in one take or less on his ruthlessly efficient film sets, where feature films are shot in five days. As Frank himself says to his crew in the behind the scenes footage of his previous film No Depo$it which was presented on a special episode of The Being Frank Show, “We’re not fuckin’ making Gone With the Wind here.”
WS: And yet, it has been thrilling to watch D’Angelo’s craft evolve from film to film. Though Frank’s ideas and settings remain much the same, we’re a long way from the affectless digital cinematography of Real Gangsters™. In Sicilian Vampire, just look at the unforgettable scene in which Santo, transformed into a vampire, rescues his daughter from a pack of thugs at a nightclub. The bold neon colours, the Wong Kar-wai-like step-frame camerawork, and the synth music (D’Angelo first foray into club beats as a singer/songwriter) make for an intoxicating fusion of sound and image. And let’s not overlook that Sicilian Vampire also offers D’Angelo’s most ambitious use of digital effects yet, shown to great effect in the witty image of a farting mouse.
WS: D’Angelo is so well known as a purveyor of genre entertainment that he is often underrated as a philosopher. Like Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen, he has a worldview that is consistent from film to film: bleak, fatalistic, but with a sense of gallows humour. Real Gangsters!™ began with the unforgettable assertion: “The last thing I remember my mother saying to me was, ‘Jack, my Jackie, I love you with all my heart.’ I gave her a kiss and that was the last time I saw my mother. The finality of life, it sucks big fuckin’ cock.” Real Gangsters!™ offered the more hopeful statement, “It’s nice to be great, but it’s great to be nice.” Sicilian Vampire once again shows D’Angelo’s fascination in the whims of fate (“Life is timing, and timing is life. Things can change in a millisecond”) and his respect for bedrock values (“Family is the most important thing in a man’s life. Don’t matter how many cars, how much cash, or how powerful he is—if he don’t got no family, he’s nothing”).
Sometimes I sense unwillingness in critics to really deal with radical ideas. It is true that Frank D’Angelo’s craftsmanship is sometimes less than perfect, and that his route from businessman to fiftysomething matinee idol has been unconventional. But in dwelling on these facts, are critics simply trying to distract themselves from confronting Frank’s uncomfortable truths about loyalty, trust, and family?
JH: The bat flying out of a box full of bananas and sinking its fangs into Frank’s neck that propels the plot of Sicilian Vampire was one of the most startling iconic images captured on film since the famous eyeball-slitting sequence from Un Chien Andalou. The shock of this moment is magnified by the preceding 20-minute sequence of men sitting around a table playing cards, shooting the breeze. This approach lulls the audience into a false sense of complacency that is abruptly wrenched apart at the pleasure of the filmmaker, in the manner of contemporary European filmmakers (and fellow international film festival darlings) Gaspar Noe and Michael Haneke. Like Godard, Frank gives the audience what they supposedly want but not how they expect to receive it: the climactic scene of the film takes place in a strip club but the only toplessness on display is that of screen veteran Paul Sorvino. Frank consistently confounds expectations: anyone in the audience expecting a 2 hour film called Sicilian Vampire to contain even one jokey reference to garlic will walk away disappointed.
WS: I think we need to deal with D’Angelo’s unvarnished depiction of the mafia. Whenever a morally ambiguous mass-appeal film reaches screens, it seems that we find ourselves having the same tired debate: does the filmmaker endorse his characters? (I detect a certain class bias here. Critics are fine with moral ambiguity in the rarefied world of art-house cinema, but not in the films of a populist, mass-appeal artist like D’Angelo). It’s true that D’Angelo revels in the mob-world setting, and shares some of his characters’ views on loyalty and trust. But whether or not he “endorses” them is besides the point. The world we live in can sometimes be an ugly place, and it is the duty of an artist to reflect it—not sanitize it.
JH: It’s interesting to see Frank incorporate the history of the cinematic vampire into the modern crime thriller. Again with his confounding of expectations—D’Angelo’s vampire is a throwback to the sexless vampyre tradition in silent cinema, along the lines of Murnau’s Nosferatu as opposed to the more sexualized depictions of the vampire like another Frank (Langella) in 1979’s Dracula, or The Hunger (#RIPTonyScott) that modern audiences would expect to be twinned with a story of mob violence.
WS: Though D’Angelo’s films depict a frightening world of violence and betrayal, what is too often overlooked are the small moments of lyricism, and his genuine affection for his characters. Consider the lighthearted moment in Real Gangsters!™ when the mobsters discuss always getting that last drop of urine on their pants. Or now in Sicilian Vampire, the beautiful scene in which D’Angelo allows his doomed protagonist one last good time—a rousing rendition of “Just a Gigolo”—before he meets his ultimate fate.
WS: Sicilian Vampire is undeniably D’Angelo’s most confident articulation yet of his worldview and aesthetic. Where can he go from here? I’m optimistic that this unique storyteller is hitting his stride. He recently wrapped production on his fifth film, The Red Maple Leaf, a political kidnapping thriller that is reportedly “one of his most ambitious projects to date.” D’Angelo veterans Caan, Pare, Daniel Baldwin, Paul Sorvino and the late Robert Loggia join newcomers Mira Sorvino, Martin Landau, and Kris Kristofferson (as the President of the United States) in a film that promises to meld D’Angelo’s Canadian patriotism with his well-documented fascination with America. It also promises to continue his evolution as a political filmmaker—an avenue he explored so fruitfully in No Depo$it.
JH: The Red Maple Leaf promises to feature a musical number that fuses the national anthems of Canada and the United States. These two countries famously share the longest peaceful border in the world, but filmmakers such as Frank D’Angelo blur such distinctions through their work, rendering the very concept of a border theoretical. “Loyalty and Trust is Everything” is not only the tagline for Sicilian Vampire, but also a solemn promise to his fans, whose continuing loyalty he has rewarded and deepening trust he has earned, film after film. His mission statement.
Sicilian Vampire is now playing at the Colossus Cineplex in Woodbridge.