Monday, April 6, 2009

Italian Crime Cinema: Blood In the Streets & A Decade of Violence Part 1

Maurizio Merli in a classic pose from FEAR IN THE CITY (1976)


Throughout the 1970's a genre about violence, justice, the Mafia and political statements would take hold of the public conscience in Italy leading into the early part of the 1980's. The poliziotteschi, or poliziesco genre (Italian Crime Films, Policeman Thrillers) is a term referencing the hundreds of Italian crime action, or dramatic suspense thrillers that resonated the tumultuous Italian society of the time. These movies were often called rip offs of American pictures that featured similar subject matter.

Violent shootout at the conclusion of FEAR IN THE CITY (1976)

Yet despite obvious similarities, the Italian counterparts were steeped in civil unrest and unbridled pugnacity that threatened the populace of esteemed Italian cities in Naples, Milan, Sicily, Turin and Rome. These films reflected startling accuracy regarding the aggression perpetrated on civilians living in municipal locations as well as recreating controversial and violent assassinations and deaths of prominent authority figures.

Henry Silva (right) in CRY OF A PROSTITUTE (1974)

Often replicating the all too real violence in the streets of Italy, the crime pictures offered assorted styles detailing the various workings of the criminal underworld. These criminals, mobsters and 'Syndicate Sadists' were depicted in serious fashion with only occasional bursts of aggression by some directors and shown as being prone to acts of extreme violence by others. Whereas some filmmakers would take a more respectable approach to the material, others would aim for a more sensational experience reinforcing the exploitation elements to an alarming extreme. Some directors such as the criminally underrated Damiano Damiani continuously directed movies of great importance that required the audience to think and ponder the obvious political subtext his pictures contained.

Two assassins shoot down a target in HOW TO KILL A JUDGE (1974)

Another director that was a bit more daring in his approach towards scandalous issues and civic controversy was Fernando Di Leo. Some of his films such as THE BOSS (1973) and SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER (1975) attracted a lot of heated attention from both critics and audiences by painting public figures in a less than honorable light. Director Umberto Lenzi would fluctuate between creating a serious account of a criminal psychotic (ALMOST HUMAN) and helming a tasteless exercise in sadism and grim violence (ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH). Lenzi, like the other two filmmakers, was one of the genres best directors. But unlike both Di Leo and Damiani, Lenzi didn't mind 'getting his hands dirty' when it came to the exploitation factor.

Oliver Reed takes aim in REVOLVER (1973)

In America, similar films detailing the Italian mafia, or brutish and determined cops specializing in excessive force to get results was made popular in the form of such Hollywood films like THE GODFATHER (1972), DIRTY HARRY (1971) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Docile and passive civilians turned vigilante became popular in such films as DEATH WISH (1974). Based on a novel written by Brian Garfield in 1972, the wildly popular cinematic adaptation directed by Michael Winner was also the subject of Enzo G. Castellari's STREET LAW (1974) starring Franco Nero.

Franco Nero takes matters into his own hands in STREET LAW (1973)

Despite similarities to both the novel and the US movie, STREET LAW no doubt touched a nerve in Italy much like Bronson's portrayal of Paul Kersey did to frightened civilians living in the violent era of 1970's New York City. As opposed to the usual heroic policeman, Castellari's film portrays Nero as Carlo Antonelli, a businessman who finds himself fighting back against the criminal element.

Martin Balsam & Tomas Milian in THE COUNSELLOR (1973)

Regardless of the connection to dangerously true to life events triggering the Italian crime pictures, it is easy to dismiss them as clones of the above mentioned US productions. Some of them are pretty obvious, though. THE COUNSELLOR (1973) is a lovingly made imitation of THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE SICILIAN CONNECTION (1972) bears semblance to THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Most of these films may have been partially triggered by the success of the American crime actioners, but they clearly reflected terrible incidents and controversial heroes of the Italian people such as Police Sergeant Luigi Calabresi.

Franco Gasparri in MARK THE NARC (1975)

He formed the basis of a massive onslaught of brutally determined cop thrillers overflowing with violence (more on him later). These cop films could just as well be thought of as copycats of DIRTY HARRY (1971), but it goes a bit deeper than that. Possibly the international success of these American films gave the Italian filmmakers the inspiration to translate their own crime ridden society to the screen echoing the harrowing ordeals taking place out in the streets daily. The various styles of the Italian crime pictures are discussed below as well as their significance to the criminal epidemic spreading all over Italy in the 1970's.


Prior to the genre starting off in full with films such as Damiano Damiani's CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971), Steno's EXECUTION SQUAD (1972) and Enzo G. Castellari's genre defining HIGH CRIME (1973), there were a lot of early examples that foreshadowed great things to come over the next couple of years when the films would take on an image of all too real violence in the streets.

Henry Silva is a trained killer in ASSASSINATION (1967)

Some of them were heist pictures like GRAND SLAM (1967), or espionage, spy thrillers such as Emilio Miraglia's ASSASSINATION (1967) and his crime film, THE FALLING MAN (1968), both starring frequent Italian movie heavy, Henry Silva. Others were suspense outings such as THE DAY OF THE OWL (1968) from master filmmaker, Damiano Damiani, a film that starred Franco Nero and Claudia Cardinale. Another was a particularly weak effort from western ace, Duccio Tessari entitled THE BASTARD (1968) starring the reliable Guiliano Gemma and the incendiary Klaus Kinski as brothers no less(!) in a modern day spaghetti western masquerading as a crime picture.

Charles Bronson as a hitman living in a VIOLENT CITY (1970)

Another ace filmmaker, Sergio Sollima, a master at directing political thrillers and westerns, entered the genre with CITTA VIOLENTA (VIOLENT CITY 1970). Starring Charles Bronson, it deals with a double crossed hitman out to get those that have betrayed him. Like MILAN CALIBER 9 (1972), there's the noirish addition of the perpetually evil female that brings about much disaster for the protagonist. One other early example is also one of the most curious and interesting of the bunch, Alberto De Martino's THE INSATIABLES (1969) starring Robert Hoffman, Luciana Paluzzi and a small role for Frank Wolff as a homosexual.

Giving chase to the vicious robbers in BANDITS IN MILAN (1968)

One of the first Italian movies detailing the rampant and widespread criminal activity all over Italy was the 1968 production, BANDITI A MILANO (BANDITS IN MILAN). The film was based on a real life bank robbery gone terribly wrong that took place in Milan on September 25, 1967. Directed with an accent towards the authentic, Carlo Lizzani directs this film in a documentary style and doesn't pull any punches in its depiction of violence that occurred on that fateful day in September of '67. Gian Maria Volonte, a serious actor of stage and screen, had forsaken a career as a stereotypical spaghetti western bad guy wishing to only partake in films of importance and social significance. Here, he plays the cinematic embodiment of Pietro Cavallero, the true to life leader of the gang of killers that set off on a string of robberies between Milan and Turin.

Tomas Milian as the determined inspector out to arrest the BANDITS IN MILAN (1968)

Tomas Milian, a Cuban actor who came to the publics attention in BOCCACCIO '70 (1962), plays the policeman determined to bring the robberies to a halt and the perpetrators to justice. Genre fans got a massive injection of Milian's kinetic and noteworthy acting style in a series of Italian westerns that brought him a great deal of fame. During the crime boom, Milian likewise found himself a niche playing all sides of the polizio spectrum. BANDITI A MILANO gained good critical notices and became a huge hit at the Italian box office and was a major precursor to the cinematic crime wave about to wreck havoc in the Italian multiplexes.

Luc Merenda (left) & Tomas Milian (right) from SILENT ACTION (1975)

Once the template of the Italian crime film had been established around 1971, several films would provide the basis for varying styles of the polizio pictures. One style is the political thriller/police procedural often dealing with cops that work outside of the law, or a good cop struggling with his ideals, or just simply corruption in its most "mature" form; venality in high places, or from individuals that are virtually untouchable. These films also sometimes dealt with the political violence from such terrorist groups as the 'Black Terrorism' of the Ordine Nuovo (New Order) and the Communist ideology of the Red Brigades (Brigate Rossi;BR), or even terrorism from lower class youth gangs.

Luc Merenda (left) & Mel Ferrer (right) in Sergio Martino's SILENT ACTION (1975)

Basically, the three dominant styles can be classified as the Political Crime Thriller, The Mafia movies and the Violent Cop films. That's not taking into consideration the comedic cop pictures that came later much in the way the spaghetti western turned to comedy in the 1970's. There's also dozens of other movies in the genre that mix elements of all three styles, or even marry the crime movie with the giallo thriller creating a a perfect match as both genres traded on various plot devices.

Oliver Reed (left) & Fabio Testi (right) from Sollima's REVOLVER (1973)

These Political Crime films often eschewed the barrage of ultra violence and depravity peppered with car chases and excessive force of the many escapist police thrillers. That's not to say this group doesn't feature any action, just not in the exploitation sense of the wilder police capers. Some of the movies representing this approach are the award winning, INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970), CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971), REVOLVER (1973), KILLER COP (1974) and SILENT ACTION (1975).

Tomas Milian as Rambo in Umberto Lenzi's SYNDICATE SADISTS (1975)

This style of film also encompassed the violent youth of the day (both the lower and middle class) which formed the basis for a handful of movies such as YOUNG, VIOLENT & DANGEROUS (1976). These films were not quite in the same field as those productions that painted a gloomy portrait of violence and corruption within the representation of law and order. Here, it was the melding of the lower class and the middle class youths propagating acts of violence against society; whether it be for reasons of poverty or for social acceptance. Many films would be a mixture of styles. Towards the end of the decade, a string of crime comedies would prove popular spearheaded by one of Italian cinemas most beloved actors, Tomas Milian.

An assassination attempt from CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (1971)

This first example, the Political Thriller (like the other two), was representative of the 'Years of Bullets', a time between the late 60's and the early 80's wherein the Italian populace was plagued with frequent assassinations, kidnappings, robberies and bombings. What sets this style of the poliziotteschi apart from the others are the conspiracies and mysteries surrounding the crimes as well as the political underpinnings the films were molded around. There was far more going on in these political thrillers than the escapist violence of many later films.

Franco Nero gets close to the truth from HOW TO KILL A JUDGE (1974)

During the 'Years of Bullets', authorities and world powers were said to have used a 'Strategy of Tension' to manipulate and control the frightened citizens of the various Italian metropolis'. This was allegedly accomplished by the spread of propaganda and illegal means such as the creation of false evidence in order to land convictions on suspected terrorists or other such extremist groups. The above titles fit into this criteria in one form or another.

The revered Gian Maria Volonte from INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970)

One of the best Italian crime movies is also one of the best suspense thrillers ever made period regardless of its country of origin. Starring the venerable Gian Maria Volonte, this film perfectly captures the notion that the representation of the law can cause as much deception and anarchy as the very criminals and political terrorists they are sworn to make war with. The picture in question is the classic INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970).

The murder committed during the opening minutes of INVESTIGATION...(1970)

Winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Volonte plays a police Captain who murders his paramour during sex and purposely leaves clues connecting him to the crime. His reasoning is to show that because of his position within a bureaucratic system, that he is virtually untouchable and above the law. Elio Petri's film navigates through the political machinations of the Fascistic authoritative regime and the (abuse of) power wielded by it laying bear the public fear of the governing bodies during the 'Years of Bullets'.

Volonte rallies his troops

It's an incredibly powerful movie brilliantly shot and photographed by Luigi Kuveiller. The movie is blatantly fascist in its depiction of a raving chief of police (Volonte) whose reasons for murdering his mistress weren't completely to test his vulnerability, but to also avenge humiliation to his character. Through a series of flashbacks, we see what led to the brutal murder which takes place during the opening moments of the movie. One of the most fascinating things about Petri's film is that it's left to the audience to decide what is going on with Volonte's character at times.

The revolutionary fighting against the fascistic regime of an oppressive government

Does he really want to prove his superiority in light of his sexual inadequacies (these painfully pointed out by his mistress)? Does he do this by placing blatant clues that are discarded despite signifying his guilt? Or does he truly desire to give himself up for the crime he has committed? The latter proves to be the possible answer towards the end as he confronts an arrested revolutionary, the young lover of his mistress, the man whom he was insultingly compared with on his sexual prowess.

The Captain crumbled

Once the young man is convinced that the powerful chief of police is the killer, Volonte's character crumbles under the pressure brought on by the lower echelon his fascist regime is determined to stamp out. It is at this point, fearing the crime being ousted by his political enemy, the chief writes a letter admitting his guilt. Soon after there's a scene where he is visited by his subordinates and they totally denounce his confession professing that the state must be protected and he should forget this admission of guilt as it would cripple the governing body. This is soon shown to be all in his mind, yet he is visited by his colleagues and judging by the final shot, the dream was a premonition for the action to follow.

The frightening realization that a crime may go unpunished for the good of the government

INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970) is a fascinating study of human nature. It's a vision into the minds of a potential dictatorial regime spearheaded by a man who put up a facade of an impenetrable persona brought on by impotence. It's also a frightening portrayal of the means by which authorities will go to protect their political power and maintain a fearful grip on the civilian population. Underneath all its political underpinnings and depiction of social upheaval, at its core, the center of the problem revolves around a woman and the power they can wield. But in the case of the sexual wild woman portrayed by Florinda Bolkan, her power over men begats her demise as well as the downfall of the fascist police Captain who used his power of position to mask his sexual deficiencies.

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