Bombast: Poliziotteschi and Screening History
There is a long-standing tendency on the part of the critical caste, when providing historical context, to assume the voice of a firsthand witness. This allows you to fall back on the accepted version of what a time was with an unassailable air of comprehensive knowledge, and so to discuss how a film might be said to be representative of its own time, or at odds with it. If we are talking about a film made in Britain in the Eighties, for one example, we might spare a word for the miners’ strike, or “Thatcherism,” and let things stand at that. Such an approach gratifies the writer’s ego, because his subject now is no longer merely a film, but world history—even though this dutiful name-check brings us no closer to the reality of what it meant to have a policeman’s truncheon ricocheted off one’s skull in the streets of South Yorkshire, nor any closer to receiving the film as it was first received.
The Big Racket
I have been thinking about such matters over the previous week, because I was at Anthology Film Archives, dutifully attending screenings of a program called “The Italian Connection: Poliziotteschi and Other Italo-Crime Films of the 1960s and 70s.” It’s a series that seemed, in a sense, inevitable, as New York in recent years has hosted retrospectives dedicated to the spaghetti Western and the giallo, with sprinklings of Italian horror-fantasy in between. It was only a matter of time, then, until the other great genre group from the most bustling years of Italian pop cinema, the poliziotteschi (literally, “police-related”), got its moment in the spotlight. Thanks to the efforts of home-video companies like Minneapolis-based Raro Video USA or the dearly departed NoShame, the poliziotteschi has enjoyed a raised profile in recent years, and now it has had its own retro. (Can a full-scale revival of the peplum be far behind? Two weeks of Maciste at the Film Society of Lincoln Center?)
Inevitable or no, a great deal of work went into actually making “The Italian Connection” happen. The series was the work of Alessio Giorgetti, Alessio Grana, and Yunsun Chae, collaborating under the auspices of the “Malastrana Film Series,” a non-profit whose announced intention is “to bring to the screen under-seen, under-appreciated genre films from Europe to audiences everywhere.” This is no small undertaking—quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein attested that his three-week program of spaghettis was “the most difficult series [he’d] ever put together,” and many of the same hurdles he faced, including a “maze of ownership copyrights” and dearth of quality prints, would be a factor in putting together any program based around Italian genre films. The Malastrana gang have gotten good results thus far, however, having previously herded together enough titles for Anthology’s fine 2012 “Giallo Fever!” series. With “The Italian Connection,” they had the help of La Cineteca Nazionale, Italy’s national film archive; the Blue Underground DVD label and its head, William Lustig; and Harry Guerro, presumably the “collector in New Jersey” cited in the WSJ article.
Bandits in Milan
The demarcation lines separating the spaghetti Western, the giallo, and the poliziotteschi are by no means hard-and-fast boundaries. The heyday of the spaghetti came first chronologically, and it was singular in that it transposed one national saga (Italian) onto another (American), with dark, southern Italian-looking actors frequently playing Mexican proles, and fair northern-looking actors playing gringo exploiters. A sterling example of the former phenomenon is Gian Maria Volonté’s work in Sergio Leone’s first two Dollars films—and Volonté is in three of the strongest films in “The Italian Connection” lineup, 1967’s We Still Kill the Old Way, 1970’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (both by Elio Petri), and 1968’s Bandits in Milan (aka The Violent Four, by Carlo Lizzani).
I have some unresolved spaghetti Western issues which, I am wholly willing to confess, are founded in Yankee chauvinism: while I can accept the Paramount backlot as Paris, I can’t accept the Dolemites as Monument Valley. (If a film is going to sweepingly indict a way of life, one should expect some basic fidelity to the facts of what that way of life looked and felt like. It’s hard to trust generalities when the particulars are fudged.) The giallo and poliziotteschi, however, returned Italian genre filmmaking to specifically Italian settings—for the most part, at least. (“Giallo Fever!” entry Perversion Story was shot in San Francisco, while “Italian Connection” had Giuliano Montaldo’s Rio de Janeiro-set Grand Slam.) It is tempting to say that the giallo and poliziotteschi were both, in their way, reflective of repression in contemporary Italian society—the giallo dealing with violence rooted in sexual confusion, the poliziotteschi creating a space that allowed for the expression of political frustration. At times, the two overlap in such a manner as to be practically indistinguishable, as in Massimo Dallamano’s 1974 What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, which not only has a hanging-question giallo title, but a black-leather-clad, dirt-bike-riding assassin who uses a butcher’s cleaver to silence anyone inclined to squeal about a schoolgirl prostitution ring. (It’s also rife with the narrative confusion typical of giallo—after the big reveal of the murderer, myself and three other theoretically intelligent adults couldn’t come to any conclusive opinion as to who the revealed killer actually was.)
What Have They Done to Your Daughters?
While roughly analogous to the American/Anglo/French police procedural tradition, the defining attributes of the poliziotteschi may be boiled down to two words: disorientation and rage. These also happened to be prevalent emotions, at least among a certain segment of the populace, in the years during which the poliziotteschi were at peak popularity. These were, perhaps not coincidentally, also the years when the prolonged postwar reign of the Christian Democrat party was at the height of its venality and flagrant corruption, and when the activity of the Red Brigades and other left-wing terrorist/freedom-fighter organizations was at its most fearless and ruthless.
When we try to contextualize these movies, it’s invariably in terms of the Anni di piombo (“Years of Lead”), as surely as “film noir” goes with “postwar” and “Fellini” goes with “Il Boom.” Anni di piombo is an easy term to copy-and-paste into a paragraph and, in so doing, lend yourself an air of learned credibility, but the fact of the matter is that if you were, like myself, born into a relatively affluent and placid society, if the worst thing that has ever happened to you is having to wriggle out of a light jacket while in the driver’s seat of a car at a red light, you don’t have any idea what it all means, and all the dates and figures in the world will only get you so much closer.
Dates and figures being all that we have on hand, let’s roll them out all the same. There was already a healthy running body count on December 12, 1969 when what everyone seems to agree was the big event happened. A bomb went off at the headquarters of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Milan, killing 17 people and injuring nearly 90 more. Responsibility was at first attributed to left-wing anarchists, although in time suspicion fell on the far-right organization Ordine Nuovo, and in decades to come, politically advantageous accusations would be directed towards CIA operatives and the U.S.-NATO intelligence network, all proceedings carried out with the supreme efficacy and competence that has made Italy’s justice system the envy of the free world. (L’affaire Amanda Knox, incidentally, is ready-made for a giallo.) The Piazza Fontana bombing was Italy’s own Haymarket affair—and more than once in poliziotteschi you can find someone bemoaning the fact that Italy has become “like Chicago.” (There’s even a 1968 film called Roma come Chicago (Bandits in Rome), starring one John Cassavetes.)
The following decade was soundtracked to the beat of daily explosions, bombs in trains and at public demonstrations, firefights between the Red Brigades and the carabinieri, activists being hauled in for questioning before taking suspicious swan dives out of police station windows, planned coups, and kidnappings in broad daylight. The most noteworthy of these occurred on March 16, 1978, when Aldo Moro, former prime minister and head of the Christian Democrat Party, was snatched by the Brigado Rosso on Via Mario Fani. Fifty-five days later, after the process of negotiation had become hopelessly stymied, Moro was finally recovered, ventilated with bullets from a 9mm Walther PPK and stuffed into the boot of a parked Renault 4. All of this, it should be added, only covers the overtly politicized violence—dates and figures can’t hope to contain the rest.
The Moro Affair
The killing didn’t stop with Moro—not by a long shot—but this was a tough act to follow. The circumstances of Moro’s seizure and death were put under scrutiny in a posthumous literary deconstruction, 1978’s The Moro Affair, by Leonardo Sciascia. Born in an impoverished hill town in Sicily, Sciascia became a parliamentarian in Rome and Strasbourg, although he was best known during his lifetime, as today, for his efforts as a litterateur, particularly critical of the Christian Democrat power block. Petri’s We Still Kill the Old Way was based on Sciascia’s 1966 novel To Each His Own (A ciascuno il suo), the first of many cinematic adaptations of his work. In the film, a professor investigating a double homicide discovers that the threatening letters received by one of the victims were composed with headlines cut out from L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. Similarly, The Moro Affair is a work of epistolary deduction: beginning by evoking the still-recent death of his friend, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sciascia reviews and reads between the lines of the “between 50 and 60” letters written by the kidnapped Moro before and after he was tried and condemned to death by his captors, and the official responses that his communiques elicited from his so-called friends in government. The conclusion is that Moro’s execution by the Brigado Rosso was made to suit the political purposes of the Christian Democrat establishment, and that in a system in which control was so total, political violence could only serve to reinforce rather than undermine the status quo. In this, Moro’s ideas are in line with those of two films about leftist terrorism made by preeminent filmmakers of the decade, Claude Chabrol’s Nada (74) and, particularly, R.W. Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (79). This political disillusion also fed into the pessimism of the poliziotteschi, which begin with the assumption that the game is rigged, and the house always wins.
The totally amoral lower-class banditti of the poliziotteschi, born and bred in subhuman circumstances, are politically motivated only insomuch as hunger is political. They are more beasts than men—a fact reflected in titles like 1974’s Rabid Dogs and Almost Human. The first-named is the penultimate film by Mario Bava, the dean of Italian horror, who had helped to codify the giallo in baroque, high-gloss thrillers like The Girl Who Knew Too Much (63) and Blood and Black Lace (64). A cinematographer’s son and himself a cinematographer, Bava seems to have approached the story of three seemingly solid citizens hauled off on the lam by three vile desperados as a game—how to create a visually dynamic film almost entirely within the confines of a moving automobile, all short lenses and cramped compositions. Almost Human is the work of the sporadically brilliant Umberto Lenzi, a famously contentious and abusive director who here goads a career-high performance from Tomas Milian, playing a small-time slum footpad with Godfather ambitions named Giulio Sacchi. (Lenzi’s next poliziotteschi outing, 1976’s Violent Naples, merits mention as almost certainly the best movie to include someone having their face shredded by a funicular car.)
Sacchi is inspired to go into business for himself after he botches his part in a professional job and takes a savage beating from his bosses. An excerpt from the Wikipedia plot synopsis captures something of the tenor of the film that follows: “Following a castration threat, the kidnapper/thief goes home to rape his girlfriend.” That girlfriend works for a multimillionaire whom Sacchi decides to relieve of some of his assets by way of absconding with his daughter. Before he’s even put in his ransom request, Sacchi has knifed a policeman for a few lira and forced a young gentryman to fellate him after crashing a party at a country home with a grease gun. This is as good a time as any to mention that, with his shag haircut and aviator glasses, Milan’s Sacchi is a dead ringer for Liam Gallagher.
Henry Silva’s Commissario Walter Grandi follows the trail of corpses left by Sacchi, but the justice system interferes with Grandi’s ability to punish the guilty, and so he is finally forced to exact vigilante justice on his hated nemesis. The poliziotteschi film wasn’t only a reflection of or reaction to the pervasive sense of political despair, but also to contemporary currents in pop cinema, with Don Siegel’s 1971 Dirty Harry—starring no less an Italian-American icon than Leone’s Man with No Name—a particularly important reference point. While Harry Callahan San Francisco PD inspector is hamstrung by plea-bargaining judges who teach constitutional law at Berkeley, in the poliziotteschi the enemy is an endemic, systematic corruption that has spread to the very highest levels of government, implicating capitalists, clergy, and their allies in the mafia. The totality of this conspiracy is most articulately laid out in We Still Kill the Old Way—and if you think it’s mere paranoia, you might do yourself a favor by reading up on the Mani pulite affair. In such circumstances, the only justice that can be done must necessarily be done outside of the system. Like Commissario Grandi, Martin Balsam’s exasperated title character in Damiano Damiani’s Confessions of a Police Captain (71) finds the only law at the point of a gun, deciding that the best way to deal with Luciano Catenacci’s construction magnate-mobster, who’s survived multiple arrests with no conviction, is to shoot him down in cold blood. (Silva and Balsam are both Americans; as with other Italian genre films, the poliziotteschi was a home for actors who, either because of age, alcoholism, or general career stalling, sought their fortunes in Hollywood on the Tiber.)
Confessions of a Police Captain
Damiani was a friend of Pasolini’s and, like him, a Friulian. He directed one of the most overtly political of the spaghettis, 1966’s A Bullet for the General, as well as, with 1968’s Mafia, a screen adaptation of Sciascia’s most famous novel, The Day of the Owl. (I’ve also long been intrigued by the title of a 1972 crime film that Damiani made with Confessions co-star Franco Nero, which might’ve make a good subtitle for this series: The Case Is Closed, Forget It.) Beginning in the immediate postwar period, Damiani cut his teeth in documentaries, and the integration of pseudo-documentary elements is one of the defining elements of the ripped-from-the-Corriere della Sera headlines style of the poliziotteschi. This might be attributed to the legacy of neorealism, unavoidable in postwar Italian cinema—Bandits in Milan director Lizzani, for example, was a former assistant to Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis, and Alberto Lattuada. Another just-as-likely source, however, are the newsreel overtures frequently seen in American crime films of the 1940s, à la T-Men.
Whatever the case, it is quite typical for a poliziotteschi to open like a case file. Here, for example, is the text that begins What Have They Done to Your Daughters?:
Every day we read or hear about brutal things that happen which appear to have no logical explanation. Only a faithful reconstruction of such incidents can bring to light the dramatic and disturbing truth behind them.
Similarly, after Milian’s Sacchi dies squirming on a heap of garbage in Almost Human, an end-credit title informs us that Commissario Grandi was jailed for taking the law into his own hands. Bandits in Milan—in which Milian appears as the police commissioner, and a volcanic Volonté as the ruthless ringleader of a band of bank robbers—does this one better, beginning with verité-style you-are-there views of a lynch mob riot, then incorporating a barrage of headlines, archival photographs, cheeky on-screen reenactments-within-reenactments, and talking head-style “interviews” with the personnel, in which Milian direct-addresses the camera. The film recounts the events surrounding a messy bank job in which three innocent bystanders were killed; the details are those of an actual case which occurred in September 1967, with Volonté playing Piero Cavallero, the real-life leader of the infamous Cavallero gang. Unlike Giulio Sacchi, Cavallero is sufficiently educated to put a polish of politics on his own murder and extortion. Shrugging off the collateral damage of his raids, Cavallero says: “More people get killed in Vietnam all the time.” (If you’ve ever heard that old phony Wes Craven talk about The Last House on the Left, this may sound familiar.) In its rapid-fire accumulation of damning evidence, its scenes leaping among a slew of different locations which together outline the operations of a society-wide criminal iniquity, Bandits in Milan reminds me of nothing so much as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity films. Nearer to home, however, it may be said to build a bridge between the film-inchiesta (film investigation) genre—the best-known example of which is probably Francesco Rosi’s 1962 Salvatore Giuliano, though Lizzani made several films in the mold himself—and the poliziotteschi.
Even poliziotteschi that don’t overtly incorporate documentary and newsreel techniques crib from the documentary aesthetic: Rabid Dogs contains a handful of identifiable setpieces of the sort that one associates with Bava, though for the most part the film finds the director exploring a new, immediate, sensorial style. If, in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Bava began his own reinterpretation of Hitchcock, Rabid Dogs is his The Wrong Man. Its almost subjective savagery prophesizes the you-are-there thriller of the future—though what for Bava is a cinematographic exercise would become a lazy fall-back routine for less inquisitive minds. The film’s style has been absorbed, though its frothing disgust remains piquant. We can certainly feel the heat of its hate—even if we can only make a gesture towards understanding its roots.