Though I came of filmgoing age in the 1970s and spent most of that decade hanging out in cinemas or reading Monthly Film Bulletin or Time Out, I came late to poliziotteschi, an Italian subgenre of ultra-violent crime thrillers. My knowledge of Italian cinema in the 1970s was limited to arthouse fare such as Fellini, the Taviani brothers, Visconti et al. As for Italian genre, I saw Suspiria in The Odeon Leicester Square on the first week of its UK release in July 1977, and caught up with Argento’s giallo thrillers and other horror films a few years later (helped by the rapid proliferation of the film buff’s favourite new device: VHS), but it wasn’t until 2012 that I saw my first poliziottescho, Umberto Lenzi’s Rome: Armed to the Teeth, in the presence of the director at the Offscreen Film Festival in Brussels.
Despite my being an avid reader of Time Out‘s film section in the 1970s I don’t remember any poliziotteschi being released that decade in the UK. Then again, I was more interested in horror films and Brian De Palma thrillers than in Italian cop movies, and might not have noticed them, especially if they were being screened in their dubbed-into-American versions, slapped with interchangeable generic English titles, and slipped into regional cinemas without press shows or reviews. Poliziottescho, like giallo, had yet to coalesce into a recognisable subgenre in the hearts and minds of cinephiles.
On the other hand, if I had seen any of these films back then, I would almost certainly have hated them. Poliziotteschi is the most politically incorrect subgenre I can think of – invariably right-wing, vigilante violence, rife with appalling misogyny, racism & homophobia – very much the opposite of my tender 1970s feminism and Rock against Racism sensibilities. But seen at a safe temporal remove – forty years later, for example – they’re brilliant, full of amazing action and astonishing car chases, and viewers can reassure themselves (not entirely justifiably, because plus ça change) that they’re looking at primitive social and sexual mores through the lens of a more enlightened era.
(For anyone interested in the marques and models of that era, by the way, the excellent Internet Movie Cars Database has such comprehensive entries for the vehicles in these films it leads you to suspect there’s an entire subsection of filmgoers who watch these movies purely so they can spot the cars.)
Poliziotteschi hit their peak during Italy’s “Years of Lead”, a period of social and political turmoil lasting from the late 1960s until the late 1980s, and marked by a wave of far-right and far-left terrorist outrages and corruption. The critically-lauded poetic-genius filmmaker of this era and its politics was probably Francesco Rosi, but while many poliziotteschi not only condone but positively revel in police or state-sanctioned violence and reactionary vigilantism, the more sophisticated among them have surprisingly nuanced subtexts. Time has definitely lent the subgenre perspective.
While I am offering these titles as my Top Nine Favourite Poliziotteschi, you should bear in mind that I’ve seen, at most, only a couple of dozen, and am far from being an expert. But I think this selection is as good a starting place as any. (These texts are not coherent reviews, by the way, but arbitrarily cobbled together from my notes and tweets.)
MILANO CALIBRO 9 aka Caliber 9 (1972) directed by Fernando Di Leo and starring Gastone Moschin, Mario Adorf and Barbara Bouchet
Starting in the square outside Milan Cathedral, a parcel of laundered money is passed from hand to hand in a riveting piece of scene-setting which ends with three of the parcel-passers dynamited to death by gangsters. Gastone Moschin – like a chunkier, uglier, older Jason Statham – plays “Ugo Piazza” (essentially the Lino Ventura simpatico gangster role) who gets out of jail to find himself bugged by thugs (employees of Lionel Stander, whose HQ is in what has to be the world’s ugliest concrete building) and cops, all of them convinced Moschin knows the whereabouts of a missing 300 grand. He’s in big trouble.
This ultra-violent poliziottesco might have been Melvillesque (Jean-Pierre, not Herman) had it not been for some rabid overacting; chief offenders are Mario Adorf as an OTT henchman with greasy teddy-boy hair and a moustache (he reminded me of an older, uglier, hammier Pte Walker from Dad’s Army) and Frank Wolff as the Commissioner, who presides over some hilarious discussions about dialectical materialism with a left-wing colleague while all the other cops stand around and listen politely.
Moschinas hooks up again with his old girlfriend, nightclub dancer Barbara Bouchet, who confounded my expectations (happily) by not getting kidnapped. She does perform an incredibly sexy frug, though, during which the frame occasionally flips sideways so the vertical image is displayed horizontally (see screengrab above). Is there a technical name for this? As you’d expect from a 1970s poliziottesco, there’s a very groovy score, from Luis Bacalov and Osanna. The whole caboodle is as fun as anything this nasty and brutish can be, which is to say quite a lot, and the plot is actually pretty good. (The version I saw was dubbed into American.)
La polizia incrimine la legge assolve aka High Crime (1973) directed by Enzo G. Castellari and starring Franco Nero and Fernando Rey
Franco Nero stars as angry cop with moustache & small daughter (guess what happens to her); he likes to punch people. This was one of the films that helped popularise the poliziottesci subgenre; violence, car chases, corruption, unrest.
Nero’s first of seven films he made with Castellari. There’s some lovely footage of early 1970s Genoa. I saw an English version, but I think James Whitmore, Fernando Rey & perhaps Nero dubbed their own dialogue. Castellari’s own ten-year old daughter Stefania plays Nero’s daughter; there’s a lot of loving Apatow-style footage of her.
My favourite line is when Daniel Martin (born José Martínez Martínez) who plays “Rico”, snarls at Franco Nero: “Some day you’re gonna squirm like worms in a frying-pan!” WORMS IN A FRYING-PAN!!! WHO PUTS WORMS IN A FRIGGING FRYING-PAN?
Revolver aka Blood in the Streets (1973) directed by Sergio Sollima, and starring Oliver Reed and Fabio Testi
Reed plays a prison warden whose wife is kidnapped (the usual meaningful poliziottesci female role, in other words), as leverage to force him to release a convict (Testi) who was a witness to something he shouldn’t have seen. The two men are forced into an uneasy alliance as they uncover a vast conspiracy.
Unlike some of the other English-speaking stars who ended up in 1970s poliziottesci, Reed gives an unexpectedly committed and intense performance – this is definitely not “phoning it in” – and plays well against his more relaxed co-star. Reflecting the Italian political scene of the time, it’s all quite cynical and downbeat, though from a 21st century point of view, the tone is considerably lightened by the nifty 1970s threads.
Reed versus Testi, with an Ennio Morricone score. How can you resist?
Morte Sospetta di una Minorenne aka The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975) directed by Sergio Martino, and starring Claudio Cassinelli and Mel Ferrer
This is probably as proto-feminist as you’re likely to get in a poliziottesco in which the plot requires a great many women to be brutally murdered. It helps that the protagonist (Cassinelli) is sympathetic, very much on the side of the underdog, genuinely outraged by the brutal treatment meted out to the female characters and determined to get justice for them. Also keeps breaking his spectacles – it’s a running joke.
This is one of Sergio Martino’s best IMO, though it probably helped that I saw it in the original Italian. (I don’t mind too much when poliziotteschi are dubbed, on the whole, because the casts are often multilingual, and a lot of the acting is, shall we say, a bit wooden. But of course the Italian versions are better.)
Cassinelli is really excellent in this. I was keen to watch him in something else, so I looked him up on imdb & learnt he died in a helicopter accident while filming another Sergio Martino movie in 1985. His other credits include the Taviani brothers’ Allonsanfan (1974), Sergio Martino’s Slave of the Cannibal God (1978) and Avalanche Express (1979), and he played Jesus in Il Ladrone (1980).
La polizia accusa: Il servizio segreto uccide aka Chopper Squad (1975) directed by Sergio Martino, and starring Luc Merenda, Mel Ferrer and Tomas Milian
This is pretty much Sergio Martino’s Illustrious Corpses, but with more car chases and shoot-outs than Franceso Rosi’s masterpiece. The screenplay was inspired by the 1970 Golpe Borghese, a failed right-wing coup d’état.
Il grande racket aka The Big Racket (1976) directed by Enzo G Castellari, and starring Fabio Testi and Vincent Gardenia
The townsfolk of a small Italian burg are at the mercy of violent extortionists who plunder and rape at will. Local cop Fabio Testi tries in vain to bring them to justice, and ends up forming a vigilante group to take them down. Everything to do with the vigilante characters is more fun than it has a right to be.
Castellari said (and I paraphrase) that his poliziotteschi are westerns with Alfa Romeos instead of horses. The cars in II Grande Racket have a tendency to explode when hit by bullets. Also there’s a sensationally well shot car crash.
The film is surprisingly nuanced for a 1970s Italian vigilante movie – alongside all the mega-bloodletting and gang rapes, of course. The vigilantes range from vengeful to totally screwed up, and citizen violence gets out of hand. Meanwhile, some of the dialogue is genuinely witty.
This was the film where I started to recognise and enjoy Castellari’s supporting actors, especially Orso Maria Guerrini, who plays an Olympic sharpshooter-turned-vigilante, and Joshua Sinclair aka John Loffredo as a smarmy English crime boss. Sinclair has one of the most extraordinary CVs I have ever seen: according to imdb, he is a medical doctor specializing in tropical diseases, has worked in India with Mother Teresa & in Africa, is a professor in comparative theology & a best-selling novelist & a film and TV writer, actor, producer and director. He wrote Shaka Zulu, among other things, and once sued the apartheid government of South Africa.
Napoli violenta aka Violent Naples (1976) directed by Umberto Lenzi, and starring Maurizio Merli, John Saxon and Barry Sullivan
And oh boy, Napoli is REALLY violenta in this Lenzi scrunch-o-rama, with the director not stinting on the ultra-brutal violence and gore. Merli plays a hardnosed cop determined to bring law and order – by any means necessary – to the mean streets of Naples. He’s almost as vicious as the criminals, who are really vicious (there’s wince-making use of a bowling ball, and one poor woman gets her face scraped off when a miscreant holds her head out of the window of a speeding train). Our antihero also shows his softer side by befriending an orphan, Horatio Caine-style.
The stunts are next-level though. Here’s an extraordinary car vs motorbike chase.
Roma a mano armata aka Rome Armed to the Teeth (1976) directed by Umberto Lenzi, and starring Maurizio Merli, Tomas Milian and Arthur Kennedy
Another film starring Maurizio Merli and his Stealth Bomber shaped moustache! Merli looks a little like Will Ferell and, dubbed into American, sounds like Leslie Nielsen, but he behaves like Dirty Harry. He’ll beat you up at the drop of a hat! Tomas Milian hams it up as a sociopathic hunchback who guns down civilians just for the hell of it. Lenzi says the amazing car chases were shot on location without official clearance. So when you hear police sirens, they’re real ones.
Poliziotto sprint aka Highway Racer (1977) directed by Stelvio Massi, and starring Maurizio Merli (sans moustache)
Merli (this time sans his trademark moustache in a fruitless attempt to make the 37-year-old actor seem young and fresh-faced) plays a hotheaded cop – and possibly the worst driver ever. Even I know you shouldn’t brake going into a turn, for heaven’s sake. He’s so hopeless he almost immediately gets his partner killed before the poor guy can transfer to a safer posting. But his boss, instead of booting him off the force, gives our man driving lessons, enabling him to go up against a gang of bankrobbers whose daredevil getaway driving has been helping them dodge the cops on their tail. Merli forges one of those epic cop vs criminal mutual respect relationships with the gang leader.
Poliziotto Sprint is less hardcore brutal and more amiable than the other poliziotteschi on this list, but although there’s none of the misogynistic violence common to this subgenre, Merli’s girlfriend is still depicted as so dumb as a bag of bricks that she blows her man’s cover in a crucial scene (it’s basically his fault for not keeping her in the loop, but even so…).
If you like 1970s cars and car chases this is a must-see; there’s a non-stop parade of Ferraris, Citroëns, Fiats and Alfa-Romeos. There’s even a chase down the Spanish Steps. Stunt coordinator was veteran stuntman Rémy Julienne, who worked on six James Bond movies but in 1999 was given a suspended jail sentence when a botched stunt on the set of Taxi 2 caused the death of a cameraman. (The ruling was later reversed; Julienne and the production company, Luc Besson’s EuropaCorps, have made conflicting claims about the incident.)
This clip gives you some idea of Poliziotto sprint’s insane stunt driving. Watch to the end to see the bad guy swerving to avoid a woman with a pram, followed by a stuntman getting knocked over by a speeding car.
Enzo G. Castellari did love his explosions.
There’s a documentary called Eurocrime! that goes into forensic detail on these movies, and interviews a lot of the surviving players, which I’d recommend if you haven’t seen it. Gave me lots of ideas what to watch in this genre, and worth it for the crazy anecdotes alone.
I’ve seen Eurocrime, which was clearly a labour of love but not as great as it should have been. I guess the filmmakers were very reliant on who they could get hold of for their talking head interviews, but not all of the people or interviews they included were vital IMO.
It was a two-and-a-quarter hour doc with a ninety minute one struggling to get out, but I liked hearing from people like John Saxon and Henry Silva, though Franco Nero could have spilled a few more beans.