Friday, July 6, 2012

Execution Squad (1972) review


Enrico Maria Salerno (Commissioner Bertone), Mario Adorf (District Attorney Ricciuti), Mariangela Melato (Sandra), Franco Fabrizi (Bettarini), Cyril Cusack (Stolfi), Laura Belli (Anna Maria Sprovieri), Jurgen Drews (Michele Settecamini), Piero Tiberi (Mario Stateletti), Luciano Bonanni (Raf Valenti)

Directed by Stefano Vanzina

The Short Version: One of the Eurocrime genres best and most influenial films has yet to gain its overdue respect in America, but its influence is evident most noticeably in Eastwood's MAGNUM FORCE from 1973. Vanzina's picture is far more political and a far better film in its exploration of a violence laden Italian society and the lengths some go to "clean up the city". Salerno is spectacular here and Adorf is suitably subdued as the meddling and liberal assistant DA. Stelvio Cipriani's score is magnificently melancholic and, along with the film, one of the best the genre has to offer. Highly recommended.

Commissioner Bertone is a by the book cop dealing with rampant crime in a city over-run by violence and senseless brutality. Strapped by a liberal justice system, many crimes go unpunished with the criminals ending up back on the streets to kill again. However, the bodies of some of the released criminals turn up dead. Bertone soon discovers that a secret organization of vigilantes is working the night shift cleaning the streets of the scum the police can't keep behind bars. A young criminal--on the run after a bungled robbery costs the lives of two innocents and another after a failed arrest--is the syndicates next victim. Bertone tries to bring the kid to justice under the law, but the mysterious squad of executioners are closing in.

Considered the launching point for the Eurocrime genre in the 1970s, the genre had many crime pictures before it, but EXECUTION SQUAD was a big success inspiring a number of like-minded movies with increasing levels of violence and often with political messages at their core. Considering the wave of political violence that erupted in Italy during the late 60s, this all too real violence would soon erupt on European cinema screens. Often referred to as rip-offs of American action pictures, these were, predominantly, nothing of the sort.

While some of these movies were close approximations of such movies as Coppola's THE GODFATHER (1971), EXECUTION SQUAD was cloned in Eastwood's MAGNUM FORCE (1973), a film with a very similar plot, if less political than its Italian antecedent. Eastwood was no stranger to Italian movies, of course, having gotten his start in Sergio Leone westerns. He also copied a mediocre Euro western (DJANGO, THE BASTARD) for his own version of that tale as HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973).

Anyway, Vanzina's movie (the director is often listed, or referred to simply as Steno) works from a wonderful script (of which he shares a story and screenplay credit) that tackles a ton of hot topic subjects in a relatively brief 100 minutes. Leading the pack of choice performances are Enrico Maria Salerno as Bertone. The man is on fire here. His frustration with the media and liberal authority figures who exacerbate the problem flow from his facial features like beads of sweat. Salerno rarely, if ever smiles in this movie. He perfectly conveys similar emotional outbursts that were taken to over the top levels by the likes of genre favorite Maurizio Merli.

Merli shot to stardom just a few years later after the success of Enzo G. Castellari's influential HIGH CRIME (1973) starring Franco Nero essaying real life policeman, Luigi Calabresi. There's a hint of Calabresi in Salerno's Bertone, but the excessive force attributed to the real life tough cop (who was assassinated in May of 1972) is mentioned only in passing in relation to Salerno's character; which may only have been media fiction to levy a fake image of the character to the public. Throughout this movie, Bertone is seen doing his job by the book, which, judging by Salerno's nuances, he doesn't always want to do things according to the law, but a sense of duty compels him to stay in line.

This strikes an interesting dichotomy with the "street cleaning squad" which is, as we later learn, made up of former police officers jettisoned from the police force for excessive brutality. The notion of a late night vigilante unit eliminating criminals that authorities are powerless to keep behind bars is a favorable one for a terrorized public wishing for justice. But there seems to be a darker, more sinister mission underneath the surface where this surprisingly high society syndicate is concerned.

This secret, fascistic execution squad does indeed eliminate society's undesirables, but they don't stop there. Not only extremist criminals, but others such as prostitutes and homosexuals are targets as well. In the eyes of this well funded group, the variance of the victims is symbolic as explained by Stolfi in the film. Prostitutes are viewed as lowering the morale of what should be a clean city, while homosexuals are viewed as the corruption of the youth. The anarchists, or youth extremists are seen as a danger to authority with their propensity for unnecessary violence and destruction of property.

With Italy's abolition of the death penalty and the liberal judicial system strangling the authorities ability to successfully convict the criminal element, a purge is deemed necessary by this murderous Third Party. There's also a hint that a number of Bertone's subordinates are interested in subverting their services to these Fascistic avenging angels. In addition, there's a bit of grim irony in some of the murder sequences. They're often committed near, or around areas where signs displaying the phrase, "ROMA E' ANCHE TUA AIUTACI A TENERLA PULITA" (WITH YOUR HELP, WE CAN KEEP ROME CLEAN) adorn walls, or sides of buildings.

The theme of a hidden societal exter-mination squad was a popular one and was also the centerpiece of a number of other Italian crime pictures. The aforementioned actor, Maurizio Merli, made his big entrance in the genre with the starring role in Marino Girolami's VIOLENT ROME (1975). This was one of the Calabresi styled 'Violent Cop' films that was popularized throughout the decade by this actor. Nero started this style, but Merli made it fashionable. In this film, Richard Conte is the brains behind the secret society of 'street sweepers'.

Umberto Lenzi did a version utilizing this concept in his equally interesting MANHUNT IN THE CITY (1975) starring Henry Silva. The Brute Corps of this film aren't as integral to the narrative as they are in EXECUTION SQUAD, but these hooded hitmen provide a crutch with which to aid in Silva's eventual turn from a fragile family man into his own private vigilante.

This archetype was also expanded further in such films as COLT .38 SPECIAL SQUAD (1976) and STUNT SQUAD (1977), both pictures starring Marcel Bozzuffi, an actor who also participated in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971).

William Lustig also paid tribute to the Italian crime genre in his VIGILANTE (1982), a film that featured a similar styled group of scum squashers led by Fred Williamson. However, these men weren't interested in toppling a city's social and economic system to turn it into a dictatorship; it was merely presented as violent vindication for innocent lives lost because of legal loopholes and technicalities.

Also in the cast of EXECUTION SQUAD is Mario Adorf. He plays Ricciuti, the Assistant District Attorney, and the character who constantly has a watchful eye on Bertone to make sure he doesn't break the law. Adorf is arguably more associated with rabid, brutish characters such as those he essayed in films such as FOR A ROOF, A SKY FULL OF STARS (1967), THE SPECIALIST (1969), MILAN CALIBER 9 and MANHUNT (both 1972). Here, he rarely raises his voice and is constantly at odds with Bertone. Ricciuti is possibly the one voice in the crowd keeping him morally centered even if Ricciuti's tactics ultimately compound the situation.

Fans of 1980s FLASH GORDON will recognize the lovely Mariangela Melato as a kindly reporter, Bertone's love interest in the film. She acts as the media's moral center and seems more interested in facts than sensationalism.

The score by Stelvio Cipriani is one of the best damn scores the genre ever produced. It's grim, downbeat and highly hummable and you'll likely have it in your head for a day or two after you've seen the movie. It's wonderfully melancholic, almost militaristic at times, but always Italian in flavor. A dynamite score and one of the genres most memorable.

Virtually unknown in the west, EXECUTION SQUAD was a big success and has found acclaim pretty much everywhere but in America where it was marketed by the Fanfare Corporation, an indy company that handled exploitation movies, as little more than a standard cop thriller. Stefano Vanzina's movie deserves a much wider audience; and considering its central plot device was the blueprint not just for the Italian variants, but for an entry in the DIRTY HARRY series, you'd think it would have garnered a lot more attention and respectability in North America by now. With expert direction, performances, and a shocker conclusion, this vastly important entry in the violent world of the Italian crime genre is at the top of the list and one of the best examples of this underrated form of cinema.

*US poster image: movie poster shop*

This review is representative of the Al!ve 2 disc R2 DVD from Germany.

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