While it hardly qualifies as an essential entry in the ’70s crime-cinema canon, low-budget indie The Death Collector—more widely distributed under the title Family Enforcer—gets the dirty job done. Set amid the ambition, betrayal, and violence of New York City goodfellas, the movie borrows a bit of Francis Coppola’s novelistic style, as well as a bit of Martin Scorsese’s gritty swagger. In other words, there are many good reasons why The Death Collector didn’t create major career opportunities for its writer-director, Ralph De Vito. Although his work here is basically competent, the picture is so derivative (and so plainly juiced by editing-room fixes) that it falls well short of being an impressive cinematic debut. In fact, but for the presence of one supporting actor, it’s probable The Death Collector would have slipped into oblivion long ago.
Joe Pesci, later to find stardom as a tough guy in Scorsese pictures, plays his first significant film role here as a hoodlum in the protagonist’s orbit. His performance is more inventive and vital than anything else onscreen, and during one memorable bit, when his character pelts an effeminate lounge singer with peanuts for the crime of playing “Beautiful Dreamer,” Pesci presages his many onscreen outbursts of cheerful psychosis. Alas, Pesci’s character is a relatively small part of the mix, and the actor at the center of The Death Collector is far less interesting to watch.
Joe Cortese, affecting a stiff De Niro Lite quality, stars as Jerry, an ex-con who uses old Mafia connections while starting a new career as a debt collector. As the movie progresses, he evolves from a generic thug to a slick crook with a briefcase and a suit. Unsurprisingly, he makes enemies, so midway through the story he’s shot and nearly killed—but, of course, he survives to seek revenge. Although the plot is pedestrian, De Vito deserves some credit for creating Scorsese-esque authenticity during scenes of thugs hanging out in bars and restaurants and the like. Nonetheless, if there’s a compelling reason for watching The Death Collector, beyond enjoying Pesci’s work, that reason is not immediately apparent on first viewing.
The Death Collector: FUNKY