Content Warning: This article contains references to violence and sexual assault.
After fascism, Italy became the coolest place in the world. Fashion was king, style was everywhere and their film industry was booming. While directors like Fellini and Antonioni have won favor with the arthouse crowd, dozens of others have made careers chasing Hollywood trends. They made them theirs. Perhaps the most famous are Italian westerns, followed by booms of giallo and horror. But another cycle of such films that reflects both a specific cinematic tradition and a localized Italian moment is the poliziotteschi, or detective film.
What is Poliziotteschi?
Apparently born from American cop movies like Bullitt and Dirty Harry, poliziotteschi has become a supremely introspective look at the real rise in crime, corruption and violence in Italy. Arrow Video commemorated this unique cycle with a new box set, titled Years of Lead. This title derives from a specific period of political and social upheaval in Italy from the end of the 1960s to the end of the 1980s. The resurgence of far-right and far-left extremism marked the real years of lead. . All of this has manifested itself in terrorism, major crimes and political corruption.
I recently wrote about a specific poliziottesco from this period, the fascinating and disturbing of Sergio Martino Silent action. In this piece, I spoke of the often militaristic and fascist super-cop at the heart of most of the genre. This kind of hero in American films started in a dark place in the 70s and grew into a cartoon character of machismo in the 80s. However, as the box set explores, the “super-cop” in Italy was less. a spread of macho stereotypes as a reaction to a seemingly lost battle on all sides.
The five films in the Years of Lead box set aren’t titles you’d expect to top the “most popular” lists in the genre. However, they each illustrate a different aspect inherent in the poliziottesco that sets it apart. The cycle had different moods, if you will.
The first two films of the set represent a vein of poliziotteschi which is perhaps the least “funny” of the group. Thrill-seeking, middle and upper class people who are bored and do increasingly heinous acts because they can.
wild three (1975)
wild three (1975) presents three young men in mid-level positions in an IT company. The frontman, Ovidio (Joe Dallesandro), has a loveless marriage. He sees himself as a toothless cog in the wheel of his own life. Ovidio and his friends begin to engage in a series of violent criminal acts, including murder and sexual assault. Throughout their series of crimes, the three men return to work apparently to once again justify their murderous acts; the world shits on them, so they deserve to shoot it.
While the film is entirely from Ovidio’s point of view, wild three also has a character “Ahab”, a kind of antagonist on the right side of the law. Here is Inspector Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno, brother of director Vittorio Salerno). He has a Columbo quality to him, shabby and a bit head-brained. At least on the surface. He seems to know immediately that Ovidio is guilty but spends most of the movie trying to prove it. Along the way, he has ironic conversations about society and the place of men within it. It reminds me a bit of the scenes between Christian Bale and Willem Defoe in American psychopath.
While the atrocities committed by the men are gruesome, director Salerno and his co-writer, the great Ernesto Gastaldi, keep the story purely about the psychology behind them. They kill because they can and because they want to. And because, for them, modern Italian life has forgotten them, which ultimately makes the film a success.
Like mad dogs (1976)
However, I cannot say the same for Like mad dogs (1976). This film also focuses on a trio of hit men, this time two men and a woman. All of them are the children of the old money and are just bored and sadistic. They are engaged in a series of prolonged sequences of kidnappings, torture and murder of prostitutes in the region. The police are on their heels, but of course you need the entire film for any sort of comeuppance.
This one didn’t work for me, largely because it lacks the intelligence and social commentary, and even cinematic prowess, of wild three. The actual Circeo massacre inspired the film. Director Mario Imperioli does not hesitate to portray the depravities and the joy of laughter of the assassins. It’s shocking, but ultimately it’s sensational.
Although I don’t like it, I will say that Like mad dogs does a great job of showcasing this specific type of poliziottesco. Sadistic and unmotivated crime was one of the many types on the rise during the lead years. The police, here a seemingly ineffective group, cannot tackle senseless crimes like these.
Colt 38: Special squad (1976)
Which leads well to our next film, Colt 38: Special squad (1976), a film about the police in search of all means to “take back” the city. This film feels particularly indebted to the Dirty Harry films, especially the second, Magnum Force. A villainous gangster from Marseille (Ivan Rassimov) murders the wife of Turin police captain Vanni (Marcel Boffuzzi) in retaliation for the death of her brother. Completely consumed with anger and guilt, Vanni forms a team of young police officers on motorcycles. He gives everyone an unregistered Colt 38 Diamondback revolver in order to hit criminals where it hurts.
Obviously, this sounds like one of the different styles of “super-cop” crime movies of the time, but writer-director Massimo Dallamano, while giving audiences plenty of action, shows the problem with giving so much. power to the cops. La Marseillaise, an excellent villain antagonist, begins to increase the severity of crimes in an attempt to beat the self-defense police. Eventually Turin becomes a war zone, its innocent citizens are collateral damage. At the end of the day, it’s not about ending the crime. It’s a pissing contest between a cop and a murderer and no one comes out unscathed.
Road runner (1977)
Easily the lightest film of the set, we then turn our attention to Road runner (1977), one of the funniest action movies I’ve seen in a long time. A team of daring bank robbers led by a suave Frenchman (Angelo Infanti) make daring escapades in their oversized sports cars. A veteran police captain (Giancarlo Sbragia), once one of Rome’s best drivers, decides to catch the thieves by modifying an old Ferrari and using a boiling young cop (Maurizio Merli) to infiltrate the gang and take them down.
This film is delightfully free from complicated socio-political issues and instead decides to devote itself entirely to what is like boys playing with full-size model cars. The stunts and wrecks in the film all reflect actual police chases that took place in Rome. They are truly spectacular. Merli, perhaps the most prolific poliziotteschi actor, transforms his feathered hair and mustache for a short buzz and a close shave. It’s a good stretch for him, and the movie is just a blast.
No, the case is fortunately resolved (1973)
The final entry into the cabinet is an outlier, both in approach and in time. This is another film by Vittorio Salerno, but it is the first of the group. 1973’s awkwardly titled No, the case is fortunately resolved shows the real darkness behind the police during the lead years. While many films focus on the police, whether corrupt or righteous (albeit generally corrupt), here we have the police more as the clueless cronies of a deeply corrupt system and the machinations of the rich.
In the countryside, a young father (Enzo Cerusico) on a fishing trip comes across a macabre scene: a middle-aged man (Riccardo Cucciolla) beats a woman to death with a pipe. The two men meet their eyes and the witness rushes forward. Although he tries to go back to town – any town – to talk to the police, they don’t seem interested in listening to him and therefore ignore him. Eventually, he decides it’s none of his business and goes home with his wife and daughter.
Unfortunately, the murderer, a wealthy university professor, is luckier and surrenders to the police. He presents himself as the eyewitness and his counterpart as the murderer. The father, now terrified that the police will find him, wonders whether to give up everything, as the professor suggests to him once they finally meet, or whether to do what ‘it is necessary. But is it too late?
It’s a bit of a devastating movie for a number of reasons, but not least because it feels like our poor witness is doomed from the start. The system itself is so against him when all he has done is testify to a murder. The police lose interest in the truth once they have a suspect they can prosecute and persecute. Namely, this is the only film in the set without some kind of “sympathetic” police presence. Instead, our investigative character is a flamboyant veteran journalist (again the director’s brother) who believes our hero is innocent and tries to prove it.
Give them a watch!
The leaden years were a truly volatile time for a nation only a few decades away from fascist rule. It was during this period that Italy made some of its most interesting popular cinemas. Arrow’s set of lead years does an incredible job of reflecting all the many facets of what a “criminal” movie is. They are very rarely glamorous and often a bit difficult to watch. As with the spaghetti western earlier, the poliziotteschi would end up becoming ridiculous and exaggerated parodies of themselves. However, when working seriously, as most of these films do, they are the most interesting and the most representative of a country on the brink.
Years of Lead: Five Italian Crime Thrillers 1973-1977 est available now of Video Arrow.
Kyle Anderson is the editor of Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!