Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli Davis Conspiracy


Michael Borelli meets the press.

Michael Borelli meets the press.

(2014) Documentary (Benaroya) Michael Borelli, Bob Davis, Robert Fullerton, Cindy Parmenter, Robin Levine, Liz Borelli, Kim Peterson, Melody Davis, Alan Dill, Frank Moya, Sam Raskin, Ron Kavanagh, Marge Gindro, Terry D’Prero, Larry Addeo, Chuck Brega, Rhoda Goldstein, Anna Venditti, Stanley Perlmutter. Directed by Sheldon Wilson

Florida Film Festival 2015

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but then again, truth can sometimes resemble fiction. Take the cases of Michael Borelli and Bob Davis, for example. It feels like a movie about corrupt cops, the unjustly accused and a heinous murder but every word of it is true.

Borelli was a retired New York City police officer who wanted to utilize his skills as a baker. He moved west to Denver in the mid-70s to order to open up a New York City-style bakery which he felt would be a great success. He was persuaded instead to open up a restaurant; one of his partners was Hal Levine, a furniture store owner.

Levine was a gambler, and not just in a business sense. He had an addiction that he kept hidden from his partners and used the funds from Borelli’s successful restaurant to pay down his own debt which had become out of control. A life insurance policy was taken out on him with the partnership the beneficiary. Five months later, Levine was dead, gruesomely murdered with his wife also nearly killed during the assault.

The Denver police at the time had an organized crime unit which was on the verge of being broken up because, let’s face it, there wasn’t any organized crime in Denver. Sgt. Cantwell, one of the members of the unit, knew that if the unit went away so would his fairly cushy job that had little accountability. So he looked for Godfathers where there weren’t any. And he decided that the Levine murder fit all the earmarks of the crime.

He saw Borelli as guilty by reason of being Italian; the quick-tempered ex-cop was certain to be a foot soldier in one of the big crime families. He was Italian, wasn’t he? So Cantwell looked into the crime. Now with a suspect, he had to get through the inconvenient fact that Borelli had an alibi – he was in New York when the murder happened. No problem. He just through in Bob Davis, a former colleague of Borelli’s and a close friend. Even though Davis had only been to Denver once and there was no proof that he was there at all. Except…

…for the testimony of one Terry Lee D’Prero, who claimed to have been in the house (for which there was evidence) but wasn’t there to kill anybody but to put the fear of God into Levine. It was Davis who pulled the trigger. On D’Prero’s testimony alone were both Borelli and Davis convicted since the evidence against them was sketchy at best.

Too sketchy, in fact, as defense attorney Alan Dill started looking into the case deeper. He discovered that D’Prero’s testimony was full of holes, but because D’Prero had allegedly testified against high-ranking Mafiosi, he had been put into witness protection and had disappeared from view.

In prison, Borelli was actually treated as if he were Mafiosi and he didn’t dissuade the general prison population of the notion. He knew that if they learned that he wasn’t, he’d just be an ex-cop and that might very well be a death sentence for him so he played the part. Even prison officials bought into it.

At least Borelli had that to fall back on. Davis suffered brutally and throughout the affair was treated far worse than Borelli was. Amazingly, both men remained close friends – and are so to this day. Such a thing even had the somewhat creepy judge who presided at their trials shaking his head.

This is one of the more compelling stories you’ll find in a documentary this year. It has everything – corrupt police officers, a brutal murder, a judge possibly more interested in notoriety than justice, two former cops and best friends – everything but a book by Mario Puzo to base it on. The story is what keeps you going and there are quite a few twists and turns. Some of the things are astonishing; I won’t ruin them by stating them here, only that you’ll end up wondering why they don’t make ’em like Michael Borelli and Bob Davis anymore.

Initially, the filmmakers used an old radio interview with Borelli as narration which I thought was a nifty move. I wish they had kept it up throughout, just for continuity’s sake. Otherwise this is pretty standard stuff – talking head interviews, archival footage and photographs from the time. There also really isn’t any testimony from the opposing side; although the judge who decided the case was interviewed, none of the police were for obvious reasons.

They also have crime scene photos of Levine and his wife and be warned, they are graphic and disturbing. Those who decide to venture to see this should be aware that those images are in there; some may be upset by them. Personally, I question the need to have them in the film; we understand from the interviews that the murders were brutal. We didn’t need to see the visual evidence to confirm it.

So ultimately this is a terrific tale told in a somewhat pedestrian manner. Wilson should be commended, however, for perseverance in ferreting out the truth over the course of years investigating the case. I found the story so intriguing that it overcame the documentary 101 style that it is told in. Others may not be so charitable. In any case, it’s a story that deserves the telling and reminds us that justice ideally is blind but in reality, the justice system rarely is.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Borelli is an interesting interview. Ties things up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary use of crime scene photos. A bit too rote in terms of how the story is told.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic crime scene photos. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Sheldon Wilson once served as an instructor for film direction at the University of Southern California’s graduate film program.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Aspie Seeking Love

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2015 Florida Film Festival


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The Florida Film Festival has made their official announcement as to what movies and shorts they’ll be presenting this year and it is an impressive schedule indeed. Like last year, there will be 170 films on the schedule with more world premieres than the Festival has ever presented. There are also more movies by a very large margin directed by women this year.

As Enzian president Henry Maldonado is fond of saying about the Festival, there really is something for everybody. While we won’t be previewing every one of the 170 films being presented this year here, here are some to whet your appetite for the festival this year.

This year’s opening night film is Welcome to Me which stars Kristen Wiig as a socially challenged and borderline personality disorder woman who wins $86 million in the lottery and decides to purchase a talk show with it – with her as the host and the only guest. After her performance in last years The Skeleton Twins she’s definitely on the fast track to become one of the premiere comic actresses in Hollywood.

At the top of my personal list of must-sees at the festival is Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter which features Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi as a Japanese office drone caught in a dreary life. After watching Fargo and mistaking it for a documentary, she becomes obsessed with the idea that there is buried treasure in South Dakota – and she means to find it, setting off a journey that will change her forever. Fans of nature documentaries will get the opportunity to catch DisneyNature’s Monkey Kingdom a full week before it opens in theaters across the country as the intrepid DisneyNature camera crew heads into the jungles of Thailand to follow a family of monkeys displaced from their homes.

Previously reviewed here in Cinema365, The Search for General Tso looks at one of the most beloved Chinese-American dishes, how it came to be, and essentially the history of Chinese cuisine and culture in the United States. If it doesn’t make you hungry for Chinese food, I don’t know what will. Grazers looks at a farming co-operative that tries to survive in a world dominated by big agribusiness and increasingly hostile to small family farmers.

Aspie Seeks Love follows the search of a man afflicted with Asperger’s Disease for true love, which is a subject most of us can relate to. Limited Partnership follows the first same-sex couple in the world to get married and the obstacles they faced in merely trying to be allowed to live together in a documentary that is likely to get your blood boiling and your heartstrings tugged. Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound follows one of the most influential figures in modern country music that you’ve never heard of.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is an awkwardly titled but charming Swedish film about a dynamite expert who has lived a colorful life who decides to escape the retirement home he has been warehoused in on the occasion of his 100th birthday. X+Y is a lovely Irish film about a young man with social issues finding self-confident when he is selected to represent Ireland in the International Math Olympiad.

Sunshine Superman profiles Carl Boenish, the progenitor of base jumping which answers the question “Who was crazy enough to do it first?” Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy looks at a notorious murder in Denver that would expose corruption in the Denver police department as well as in the Denver media but would not break the friendship of two unjustly accused men.

The Tribe won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year and is entirely without dialogue, subtitles, music or sound effects, putting us in the world of the deaf-mute characters who are themselves played by deaf-mute non-professionals. Taking place in a school for deaf and mute teens, a new arrival learns to navigate the sometimes dangerous currents of a school ruled by a gang who with the tacit approval of the school’s administration are involved with drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and assault.

The Editor is a midnight cult classic in the making from the wild Canadian filmmakers co-op Astron-6 who give us their take on an Italian giallo with a film editor who loses his fingers in a bizarre accident becomes the number one suspect when a series of gruesome murders take place among the lead actors of the bottom-feeding films he’s been working on. The Case of the Three-Sided Dream is a documentary about jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk and his unique style of playing.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is the story of the National Lampoon, the magazine that began at Harvard and became the touchstone of comedy in the 70s and 80s, helping shape Saturday Night LiveSCTV, and a series of movies that included the Vacation series. Reversal is a horror tale of revenge and human trafficking that shocked audiences at Sundance earlier this year.

Tomorrow We Disappear follows the Bohemian residents of an Indian slum who are fighting to protect their homes from a developer who wants to build a shopping mall there. Welcome to Leith is a terrifying documentary about a white supremacist who attempts to take over a North Dakota town. The Keeping Room is the harrowing experience of three young women in the waning days of the Civil War trying to protect their farm from a pair of rogue Union soldiers. Gabriel follows a young man on a trial release from the hospital where he has been institutionalized for mental illness

The Festival will also be presenting three different movies on the Enzian lawn that are free admission for anyone who wants to come. (500) Days of Summer, Donnie Darko and Amalie are all quality movies and well worth seeing, particularly in the cozy confines of the Enzian lawn. As far as screenings for other films that aren’t new, Godard’s French New Wave classic Alphaville will be the closing night retrospective and Girl Happy will be presented in Winter Park’s Central Park.

As always there will be celebrity guests. The great Sam Rockwell, one of my favorite actors working today, will be present for a screening of maybe his best film, Moon, followed by a Q&A afterwards. Also, Bob Balaban will be on hand to talk about his long career as one of Hollywood’s best character actors and also a pretty good director in his own right.

There are also parties, panel discussions and informal get-togethers in the Eden Bar. It is an opportunity to rub shoulders with filmmakers and film buffs and talk about movies both famous and not. Those looking to buy tickets can still purchase packages that run from $50 for five vouchers for any five movies (which you can choose before they go on sale to the general public) to $180 for twenty. You can also get passes which range from the Matinee pass which admits you to all movies that begin before 5 PM (except for special screenings such as An Afternoon With…) for $99 to the fancy shmancy Producer Pass which gets you early entry to every film and entry to every event at the Festival. That’ll only set you back $1500. More popular is the Film Lover’s Pass which runs $600 and gets you early entry to all films, access to press screenings so you can get an early jump on your festival viewing and admittance to the opening night party.  Individual tickets go on sale this Saturday the 21st and can be purchased online, by phone or in person at the Enzian box office.

As with years past, Cinema365 intends to give as much coverage to the Festival as is humanly possible. All Festival-related reviews will include the Festival banner, which includes a link to their online ticketing system in case you want to purchase tickets yourself. There is also a link to it in the picture at the top of the post; just click on it and whoosh, there you are.

This is an event we at Cinema365 look forward to all year long. It is a chance to catch up with old friends, meet new ones and discover films we might not ordinarily have had a chance to see. It is one of the most filmgoer-friendly festivals in the country and consistently shows up in lists of top Film Festivals around the world. It is an event you shouldn’t miss and if you are or can be in the Orlando area from April 10th through April 19th, you owe it to yourself to check this out. If you can make it, be sure and drop us a line at cinema365@live.com and let us know so we can meet up. Look forward to seeing you all there!