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Moustaches, Magnums, and Men

In 1971, audiences were delivered the message that the freewheelin’ sixties were over, and so were the innocent fifties for that matter, when long-legged Clint Eastwood stepped onto the screen as “cop on the edge” Harry Callahan in the groundbreaking crime thriller, Dirty Harry. Other tough-as-nails cops and private eyes followed in Harry’s cynical footsteps, including Shaft, Serpico, and a guy named Popeye Doyle. This new generation of cop film was a marked departure from past crime films, where guys like G-Man Jimmy Stewart would walk proudly through spotless backlots dispatching ne’r-do-wells with precision shots from six-shooters balanced on their wrist. They were a return to the hardboiled, world-weary detectives of the 1940s. Callahan and his compatriots were angry, disillusioned, and cynical.

Rather than existing on stylized sets and sound stages, they strode through films shot on location on the decaying and beat-up urban centers of America. Everything they encountered was grubby, seedy, and mean. Rather than going home to quaint suburban homes and beautiful, devoted wives, they went home to shabby apartments, empty rooms, or into the company of hookers, strippers, and hardened femme fatales. They were world-weary, tired, and as a result of filmmakers’ general distaste for authority as was honed during the late sixties, often as disgusted and at odds with their chief, the mayor, and city hall as they were with the criminal elements who were allowed to ride roughshod over a terrified public. Faced with a nightmare on both ends of the spectrum, these cops often chose to operate outside the legal constrains of their job, since they saw no way to uphold the law or deliver justice by working within a broken system. There’s an air of vigilantism in their actions, the proverbial taking of the law into one’s own hands. And the films often drew sharp criticism for what some saw as a glorification of abuse of power, the violation of civil rights, the pandering to paranoia, and the embracing of Wild West vigilante justice.

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But these films, often with shaggy-haired, morally ambiguous anti-heroes in bell bottoms and leather jackets, informed by Eastwood’s previous work in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, were anything but right-wing. In the end, bureaucrats and upstanding men of wealth and power are almost always revealed to be as vile and guilty as the common thugs on the street — usually more so, pulling strings and victimizing others in their quest for more money and more power.The heroes themselves are friendly with all sorts of shady underbelly characters that would drive a true blue right-winger nuts. They pal around with hustlers and pimps, hookers and heroin addicts, recognizing that these people are often decent people who simply made bad decisions or got dealt a bad hand by life. The Dirty Harry cops aren’t interested in busting some chump pot smoker outside a club or running some single mom in for prostitution. Their quest lies solely in bringing down the most vile criminals. The serial killers, or in many cases, the wretched scum who are protected by layers of money and power and social insulation. These were the villains the common man couldn’t fight back against, and who couldn’t be prosecuted within the system — because they were the system.

At best, these cops are morally gray, a reflection of the exhaustion and confusion America and the world felt after emerging from years of political and social turmoil to find the world torn asunder with no clear plan on how to put it back together. Crime went out of control in many cities, and the world became intimately familiar with phrases like terrorism and hijacking as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played itself out on the global theater during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The average citizen felt trapped in their own homes while thugs and criminals, terrorists and corrupt politicians looted the world and left it all ablaze. In such a setting, it’s no big mystery that people, even fairly liberal-minded people, could look at characters like these cops and identify with them. In other words, when you watch Harry Callahan grind his foot mercilessly on a serial sniper’s wounded leg, you know what he’s doing is wrong, but you still can’t help but like that it’s being done. Morally and politically, these films walk a line that is less liberal or conservative, less Republican or Democrat, and more a simple question of embracing a sort of self-reliance or “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” revolt against a bloated and ineffectual state.

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In Italy, the social and political conditions were no better than in America, and in some ways, were a good deal worse. Crime was rampant. Red Brigade terrorist attacks had the population panicked. The 1970s were a decade out of control in many ways, and perhaps even more so than New York City, Italy and Naples embodied the confusion, angst, and frustration of the world. Rome’s Fiumicino Airport was seen by most of the violent criminal and terrorist element of the world as a revolving door in and out of Europe. Traffic was so heavy and security so lax that you could all but waltz through customs while holding a rocket launcher. It wasn’t like Italy wasn’t already known for its homegrown brand of crime; now they were the nexus point for any crackpot brigade looking to kidnap a diplomat, assassinate a judge, or blow up a building.

High Crime

It was in the midst of this chaos that Italian screenwriter Vincenzo Mannino penned the movie High Crime — aka La Polizia incrimina la legge assolve — starring Franco Nero as tough-as-nails Vice-Commissioner Belli and directed by Italian genre film staple Enzo G. Castellari (who’s directed everything from Street Law to 1990 Bronx Warriors to a Sinbad movie starring Lou Ferrigno). Although not the first Italian cops ‘n’ criminals film, High Crime was a huge hit, and with the muzzle flash of a blazing Magnum, the poliziotteschi genre roared onto screens in its wake, boasting untold levels of brutal violence, flared slacks, and drooping seventies mustaches. High Crime (I’m going to refer to the movie here as High Crime for the scientific reason that it’s shorter to type than the original Italian title) centers around noble-but-frustrated vice cop Belli, who is on the verge of busting up one of the biggest drug smuggling rings in Genoa. Unfortunately, the ring includes several extremely powerful and prominent citizens, and Belli’s boss is unwilling to pull the trigger on the operation for fear that their evidence isn’t good enough. He’ll be satisfied with nothing less than absolute and ironclad proof that will dismantle the cartel permanently, but Belli knows that airtight and total proof is simply not realistic in any case.

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Pressure comes from all sides to either wrap up or drop the case, and Belli finds himself in the middle of an ultra-violent street war declared on him by the criminal men with the most to lose. He’s also struggling to take care of a young daughter and girlfriend who are supportive and proud of what he does, but at the same time are frustrated by the amount of time Belli devotes to his crusade. At the same time, Belli discovers that even though he can take care of himself in a firefight, the men against whom he’s up against are more than willing to strike where he’s vulnerable — specifically, family and loved ones.

High Crime is one of those rare action movie that does pretty much everything right. Franco Nero is mesmerizing as Belli. He’s pretty much at the height of both his popularity and masculine hotness here, and he uses his looks to convey smoldering intensity mixed with world-weariness. Although Nero commands the movie with undeniable charisma, it’s not left up to him to carry the weight of the film on his shoulders. The supporting cast is equally superb, a far cry from the assembly of cardboard throw-aways that often populate the background of an action film.

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As Commissioner Scavino, James Whitmore could have lapsed into what quickly became the all-too-common stock character of the overbearing commissioner, sitting behind a giant desk and gnawing on a giant cigar while screaming about how the hero had crossed the line. Instead of taking this route, Scavino emerges as a particularly sympathetic character. His heart is with Belli, and he wants to take these bastards down just as bad as his number one officer. But he also knows the bureaucratic game that has to be played and knows how easy it will be for the majority of big-time players to escape scot-free unless the evidence against them is so overwhelming that no amount of political connection or wealth will be able to buy their way out. Instead of being little more than a blustering foil for Nero’s more active protagonist, Scavino is a glimpse at Belli’s future, a man who once burned with passion but finds himself discouraged by red tape and political maneuvering at every turn.

As good as the cast may be, though, and as tight as the script is, the real star here is Enzo Castellari’s direction. If you only know Castellari as the slow-motion abusing director of goofball sci-fi actioners like New Barbarians and Escape from the Bronx, then you’re going to have to reassess your opinion of him when he works in the medium of the gritty cop film. Even his silliest outings during the eighties boasted a higher level of energy and insanity than the bulk of what surrounded them — just compare the crazy action of New Barbarians to a drearier post-apocalypse movie like Exterminators from the Year 3000. High Crime is an example of just how good Castellari could be when his heart was in the production. The film bristles with action and, even during the dramatic scenes and exposition, there is enough tension to ensure that violence remains a lurking character even when it’s not making its presence directly known.

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But when it is making itself known? That’s when the movie kicks into overdrive. High Crime basically operates under the presumption that Dirty Harry and Death Wish were good, but they just weren’t grim enough. People in them were just too happy. High Crime overloads on brutal street violence — not just overripe and juicy squibs, though they certainly represent themselves here, but Castellari’s big pre-occupation seems to be human-to-vehicle mayhem. The film’s opening scene is an extended chase sequence which culminates in a fiery car bomb sending the mutilated remains of a potential witness hurtling from a charred and twisted vehicle with surprisingly effective special effects. From there, Castellari bounces heads off of windshields and is more than willing to dwell in graphic detail on every shattered skull and crushed limb — even if it belongs to a child. He doesn’t delve into flat-out gore, but there is a bared-teeth, unflinching brutality to the violence that makes it far more effective than most gore effects.

Castellari keeps the pace frantic, but he understands that the key to making a movie like this exceptional is to be sure you squeeze emotion and character development into the mayhem. Exploration of character isn’t exactly deep, but Castellari and crew do take the time to make sure you care about the characters, which makes the action all the more exciting (something I wish modern action films understood — action for the sake of action, featuring players you care nothing about — is more tedious than it is thrilling). High Crime invests actual time and energy in the characters, and that’s what makes it an enduring film — and that’s why it was able to spark an entire genre. Although inspired by Dirty Harry, High Crime itself is the movie that became the template for the glut of tough Italian cop films that followed. Franco Nero defined both the attitude and appearance that would become commonplace among subsequent protagonists, and Castellari defined the take-no-prisoners approach to portraying gruesome acts of violence. The score by Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis would also become a benchmark for later films, and G&M themselves became one of the most prolific composers of scores for Italian cop movies.

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Blood in the Streets of Rome

Enzo Castellari and Franco Nero, working with Dirty Harry as their inspiration, established the template for both the look and attitude of the genre that would soon become known as poliziotteschi, or simply enough, tough Italian cop films. High Crime remains one of the best poliziotteschi films, and one of the best action films of the 1970s, but it was in the wake of High Crime that the genre would find its signature star and, eventually, its star director.

Maurizio Merli was a good-looking young actor who experienced a bit of a career boost based on the fact that he bore a decent resemblance to megastar Franco Nero. As such, whenever someone wanted to make a sequel to or a quick knock-off of a Franco Nero hit, Merli would get the call. This first happened when Nero departed the popular “White Fang” adventure series and producers decided to carry on without him. Merli inherited the part, with producers hoping that after he grew some ragged mountain man scruff and threw on a frosty parka hood, no one would notice it wasn’t Franco Nero until it was too late. When High Crime broke, it was only a matter of time before someone got the bright idea to port Maurizio Merli into the type of tough cop role that movie helped create.

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Despite, at the time, not enjoying the same level of success as Franco Nero, Maurizio Merli was more than just some cheap knock-off Bruce Le/Bruce Li — at least they didn’t change his name to Franko Nero or Franco Niro or something. Merli was a solid actor with the same sort of rugged, dashing good looks. His moustache was at least as good as — and quite possibly superior to — Franco Nero’s. But what really made him an excellent choice for the poliziotteschi genre was his eyes. Now bear with me for a moment as I wax philosophic about ass-kicking Italian cops from the 1970s.

Although the character is often summed up simply as “the tough cop” or alternately “a cop on the edge,” such simplistic descriptions conjure up, from our vantage point in the new millennium, a far shallower archetype that fails to embody or communicate the complexity that inhabited the character at its inception during the early 1970s. Keep in mind that in between the years of Dirty Harry and Inspector Belli, and where we stand now, we have a colossal period known as the 80s and 90s, which took the basic concept of the cop on the edge, drained it of any meaning, and transformed it into a bug-eyed, farcical lampoon; a stock character divorced from the vitality and meaning that it had when it was first created. After so many movies of that quality, we tend to think of them more than we think of the early progenitors of the character, when we mention the “cop on the edge,” and it’s easy as a result of our proximity to the low-end of the bell curve, to forget that the character wasn’t nearly so devoid of value, wasn’t nearly as goofy and cartoonish, during the 1970s.

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This purer, old-school “tough cop” is a far more difficult character to portray, and it takes a class actor to understand the role, then bring it successfully to the screen. It takes understanding that the character’s toughness doesn’t emanate entirely from his ability to box in the ears of young punks who deserve it; the toughness, rather, is rooted not just in the character’s sense of two-fisted machismo, but also in the character’s sadness. The poliziotteschi protagonist is the proverbial warrior with a broken heart. He has taken on the good fight, stood up for the world, and the world has broken his heart. It has shown him the ugliest of its many sides. It has ravaged and crushed him. And still, the warrior forges on, the sadness in his heart becoming a source of inspiration. He has seen the worst in people, but his compassion, buried under anger and gruffness and frustration, compels him forward. He is a cop on the edge because he must stand at the lip of the abyss and stare into it. He carries the weight of compassion on his shoulders, and no matter how often the world breaks his heart, he soldiers on, simply because he cares.

This is the mitigating factor for the poliziotteschi inspector and the poliziotteschi film in general. The cop on the edge is angry. He’s bitter, perhaps even cynical. But these things are not his motivation. They are not the fire that keeps him going. It’s his compassion, and his sadness, that keeps him on the street. It’s easy to look at the poliziotteschi film and see little more than a glorification of brutality, vigilante justice, and right-wing paranoia — aspects of the films that have always seemed difficult to square with the fact that many of the men writing and directing them were famously liberal in their views and presented us with cops with as much disdain for “the system” as the shaggiest of hippies. Sometimes, this dichotomy arose simply because the writer-director was goofing off, trying to make something so fantastically fascist that no one could possibly take it seriously. Other times, however, hints of fascism were disarmed to some degree by the fact that the poliziotteschi inspector wasn’t fueled by a desire for authority or violence. He was fueled by an honest sense of justice and compassion for the victims, and in his quest to right the wrong, he sometimes lost focus on the lines of civility that should not be crossed. Often times, the poliziotteschi cop is as frustrated by and marginalized by the legal and political system as the thugs and terrorists he pursues. It is the sense of compassion for the innocent that keeps the inspector from tumbling over into the abyss and becoming what he has sworn to oppose.

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Violent Rome attempts to tackle many of these concepts, though ultimately the end philosophical result is only partially developed and never fully sorted out. This was Maurizio Merli’s entry into the poliziotteschi, playing Commissario Betti, directed by seasoned pro Marino Girolami — who happens to be the father of Enzo Castellari. The action begins with a botched public bus robbery that results in chaos and, eventually, murder, alerting the viewer before the credits have even finished of the two things this film is going to deliver in spades: mean, nasty violence and ham-fisted melodrama. For example, the person murdered just happens to be a newlywed, and the other half of the union is waiting to meet them at the next bus stop (what sort of newlyweds take separate buses to their honeymoon?). Violent Rome, obviously, isn’t going to be a subtle film in how it presents on-screen action and violence or in how it shamelessly manipulates emotion and sentiment.

The crime introduces us to Merli’s Commissario Betti, the picture-perfect poliziotteschi cop in a thick turtleneck, flared slacks, and a wide-collared trenchcoat. Like Franco Nero, he sports a bushy mane of blond hair and a thick 70s cop moustache the likes of which would make Tom of Finland swoon. As with most poliziotteschi, Violent Rome consists mostly of Maurizio Merli driving around and kicking ass. He’ll box the ears of any hooligan with whom he crosses paths. Thieves? He’ll beat your ass! Drunken teenagers who turn to murder? He’ll beat your ass twice then kick your teeth in. Rapists? He’ll beat your ass three times, and then once more for good measure. Then he’ll shoot you. As is also always the case, his somewhat extreme methods bring him into conflict with lawyers and police superiors, allowing him to give the requisite “These are the only methods I know/Your system stinks and protects the guilty while letting the innocents die” speech that is de rigueur for all “cop on the edge” type films, but no one can deliver the speech like Maurizio Merli.

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The street-level violent criminals chafe his hide plenty, but it’s the decadent and corrupt officials sitting at the top, happy to let the world rot while they reap huge profits from the chaos with total disregard for how many innocent people are slaughtered in the process, that really steam Betti. Eventually, he encounters so much bureaucratic red tape and so many sleazy criminals protected by wealth and political connections that he simply hands in his badge and refuses to be an instrument of such a corrupt institution. In vowing to enforce the law, he thought he would be upholding justice. Instead, he was simply a cog in a machine that protected people with enough cash to buy protection while leaving everyone else hung out as food for the wolves.

He joins an organization of private citizens who are just as fed up with the lack of action by the officials. Merli and his vigilante group are pretty successful in kicking the ass of criminals the cops can’t or won’t go after. Of particular interest to the group is a circle of thugs protected by the politically and financially powerful families. But Merli cares not for social status. No amount of money can buy your way out of having him kick your ass. The actions of Merli’s group make them prey as well as predator. In a particularly nasty scene, the aging founder of the group is beaten mercilessly and forced to watch as a gang of thugs rape his daughter. Merli’s best friend is exposed as an undercover agent and crippled. Merli himself becomes the target of frequent assassination attempts. But then, no one figured it would be an easy fight. If it was, the police would have done it.

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Violent Rome is a brutal, cynical, often mean-spirited film populated by a wealth of despicable villains and set in a city where, apparently, every single street was the location of a shoot-out, mugging, or rape. It pushes the boundaries of on-screen violence and questionable taste even further than High Crime. The scene in which vigilante group Sartori (Richard Conte) is forced to watch his wife gang-raped is particularly evil, and this is the sort of movie that will let a crook gun down a group of singing school children simply because he hopes it will preoccupy the cops chasing him. Violent Rome is easily one of the meanest poliziotteschi, but the levels of naked violence it attains are so overwhelming as to propel the film into a comic book like state where the violence ceases to have much more than a “holy crap, I can’t believe they just showed that” impact. There’s not enough time put into most of the characters to illicit any sort of emotional response from the brutality, so it exists more as a Grand Guignol exercise in outrageous excess. Compared to High Crime, which managed to mix genuine sympathy for characters with highly effective cinematography and music to generate honest emotional involvement with the violence, Violent Rome comes across as a more over-the-top, but also clumsier, study of the same territory.

Part of the problem is that Violent Rome lacks a cohesive narrative. There is, somewhere, an actual case, but the movie is structured as a series of disconnected and independent episodes that have, binding them together, nothing more than the fact that they serve to make Betti madder and madder. The supporting cast is half-heartedly developed as well, with no single quality foil ever emerging to plague Merli, meaning that it lacks the tapestry of involving characters that make better poliziotteschi compelling. And, most bald-face, Girolami shamelessly rips off the ending of his son’s superior film almost shot-for-shot, but in a much more confusing manner.

Violent Rome’s weaknesses are evident primarily because the bar was set so incredibly high by High Crime. It was inevitable that most of the films rushing out of the gate wouldn’t attain the loftly level of artistry and meaning that Castellari infused in his film. Violent Rome, had High Crime not existed, would be a solidly enjoyable and gritty action film. The direction is workmanlike, the acting is, for the most part, acceptable, and the script, while episodic, is still entertaining. The violence is so crazy, so mean, and so offensive at times, that almost becomes parody. Still, it’s not a movie for those who are offended by a guy with a moustache and a gun beating the crap out of people.

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What elevates Violent Rome is Maurizio Merli. His performance as Inspector Betti is great, and it has a lot to do with why this film was a huge success — though gratuitous ultra-violence never hurts, unless, I suppose, you are the victim of gratuitous ultra-violence. Merli’s Betti is an outstanding character, and he walks the line expertly between compassionate and devastatingly grim. Although the final scene is a direct rip-off of High Crime, it manages never the less to be effective. High Crime sets the boundaries for what little success the poliziotteschi cop may enjoy. At the end of the movie, he has perhaps busted up the criminal ring he was pursuing, killed the chief villain, but other criminals wait in the wings to fill the void without pause. And the poliziotteschi hero stands on the street and realizes that, in achieving his goal, he has lost everything. Friends, family, hope — he has had it all taken away from him, or he has sacrificed it all. Whatever may be the case, the end result is that he is left with nothing but his broken heart. Realizing this, often while staring at the grave of a loved one, he will sigh, let his shoulders droop for a fraction of a moment, then straighten himself, tighten the belt on his overcoat, and head back to the precinct to continue the fight.

Merli would indeed continue the fight. Violent Rome, although a weaker film than High Crime, established Maurizio not just as a guy imitating Franco Nero, but as a megastar in his own right, who had taken a stock character and made it uniquely his own. Although what Betti does may be questionable, Merli’s conviction in the character and his charisma as an actor make you believe, and they engage you in a way that the rest of the film never manages to do. As such, Violent Rome is not the best poliziotteschi, but it remains essential for a proper understanding of the genre because it introduces Maurizio Merli into the mix, and because, while not perfect, it’s still a pretty good action film. So now we had the template, and we have the actor who would become the face of the poliziotteschi film. What he needed now was to hook up with the right director. Although common sense would have you assume that would mean Maurizio Merli working with Enzo Castellari, common sense would be wrong in this case. Because the genre’s best director would turn out to be a guy named Umberto Lenzi.

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The Man with a Moustache

Like Enzo Castellari, Umberto Lenzi is no stranger to followers of global cult and genre cinema. And like Enzo, it’s a shame that Lenzi is best known for his worst films. Invariably, mentioning Lenzi is going to cause a person — the type of person who wouldn’t just say, “Who the hell are you talking about” — to think of either Cannibal Ferox (better known to many as Make them Die Slowly or Nightmare City (also known to many as City of the Walking Dead). Though each film has its fans, and Nightmare City has zombies that wear sweater vests and can pilot huge military transport planes, neither is an especially high water mark in the history of cinema in general, or even Italian genre film in particular. Memorable? Sure. Entertaining? Well, Nightmare city sure is. But as examples of the notion that Umberto Lenzi might be anything other than a hack exploitation director whose skill level just barely managed to surpass Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, those two films aren’t going to give you a whole lot with which to work.

Which is kind of a shame, because Umberto Lenzi was, for a time, a director who showed a remarkable panache for directing gritty, action-packed cop films. Poliziotteschi ended up being Lenzi’s forte, but like most Italian directors, he could only settle into one genre for as long as that genre was wildly popular. As soon as box office returns and public interest waned, the entire Italian exploitation film industry would fold up camp like a bunch of Mongolian nomads in search of the greener pastures of whatever genre or subgenre caught movie-goers’ fancies. During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, that meant plying one’s trade in zombie and sleazy cannibal exploitation pictures. But just as zombie film auteur Lucio Fulci proved he couldn’t leave splashy horror film gore behind when he tried to make a gangster film (Contraband), Lenzi could never really divorce himself from the street crime and action with which he enjoyed so much success during the early 1970s. So you get an army of zombies that fire Uzis and develop invasion tactics in Nightmare City, and you get an excessively drawn-out big city Mafia subplot that seems like it was taken from an entirely different film and grafted onto the emerald-green gore of Make Them Die Slowly in more or less random spots.

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Prior to his entry into the poliziottechi genre, Lenzi was tinkering with the usual types of films, including giallo (some better than others) and the film that would serve as the kick-off for the Italian cannibal craze, Man from Deep River. In 1973, he made his first foray into the poliziottechi film, or rather, into a poliziottechi-style crime film since Milano Rovente (Gang War in Milan) is more about gangsters than cops — something that would become fairly common, though both cop and gangster films tend to get lumped into the same category. Milano Rovente is a pretty basic film: Italian pimps with moustaches battle French drug dealers who don’t have moustaches. From time to time Italian cops, also with moustaches, show up to survey the aftermath. But of course, most poliziottechi films take a very lean, basic premise and lump ten tons of convoluted insanity on top of it.

Milanese pimp Toto Cangemi (Antonio Sabato) and his partner Lino (Antonio Casagrande, whose last name is also a place many people want to live) are enjoying the sweet life as the top pimps in the fashion capitol of Italy. They also run a fruit and vegetable wholesale company on the side. The sweet life is rudely interrupted, however, when some of their ladies start turning up dead in pools and other inconvenient locations, thus cutting into their business and attracting the unwanted attention of the police. It turns out that French drug dealers led by the imaginatively named Frenchie (I’m sure his full name was Frenchie McFrench, The Frenchest Frenchman in Frenchtown) is trying to get Toto’s attention. He has a deal for the A Number One Pimp: let the French gang use Toto’s women to distribute drugs, and vastly increase both gang’s profits. If Frenchie wanted to enter into a business partnership, he probably should have picked a friendlier way than killing off Toto’s best prostitutes just to get an audience with the man. Obviously, Toto isn’t all that thrilled with the proposition.

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But Frenchie is adamant: cut them in on the action, or ignite a gang war. So Toto takes a look at himself and sees a lean, good-looking Italian guy with an impressive moustache and flared slacks that flap majestically in the wind every time he lifts his leg to kick someone’s ass, so he and Lino chose war. Which is why, I suppose, the title of this film translates to Gang War in Milan instead of Gang Cooperation in Milan, which would be more of an instructional video than an action film, something that clues in young up-and-comers in both the drug and prostitution rackets to the benefits of working together (step one: don’t kill your partner’s best hookers). Anyway, the French drug dealers don’t have moustaches, so what use does Toto have for them? Knowing that they are outgunned, however, Lino calls in the help of Milanese gangster Billy Barone to provide some serious firepower as the Italian pimps fight for nationalistic glory and their right to smack women around and feel their boobs.

On the surface, Milano Rovente isn’t much of a film. It lacks the immediate emotional impact of High Crime and the over-the-top violence of Violent Rome, though it is plenty violent. Where as Castellari got a kick out of grinding human bodies beneath the hard metal and rubber of motor vehicles, and Violent Rome spent its time watching Maurizio Merli strut around down and kick everyone’s ass, the violence in Milano Rovente centers largely on watching drug dealers or pimps smack women around, which is an uncomfortable obsession. When the French drug dealers want to strike a blow against Toto, they do it by roughing up or killing off some of Toto’s hookers (yes, Wizard of Oz fans…relish that last sentence). When Toto wants to get back at Frenchie, he usually seems to do it by smacking some woman around. Beating up defenseless prostitutes just isn’t cool, and that means despite his moustache and plaid ensembles, Toto just ins’t very cool either. It’s not like watching Maurizio Merli throw on his raincoat to walk down the block and box the ears of some punks on a cheap little motorbike.

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When the gangs finally go head to head, Umberto Lenzi showcases a steady hand in the direction. Everything is tightly plotted and paced, and there are plenty of the shoot-outs and chases in little Alfa Romeo type cars that Italian action films demand. Antonio Sabato is a convincing bad-ass with a great moustache, and he turns in a solid performance. The main problem is that his character is pretty rotten. He’s shallow, selfish, mean, and not at all heroic. He’s not even anti-heroic. He’s just kind of a scumbag, no better or worse than the drug dealers in the film; the protagonist only because the narrative has chosen to focus on him. He’s not one of those pimps with a heart of gold who cares for and really protects his ladies. He’d probably be throwing them into pools himself if the French guy hadn’t beat him to it. That seems to be his main beef: that there are his women to beat up and exploit and kill when they piss him off, and he’s taken umbrage at some outsider stepping in and getting rough in his stead.

When Toto falls for beautiful Jasmine (Marisa Mell, Danger: Diabolik!), he’s more than willing to stab Lino in the back and jet off to Switzerland, leaving the whole mess on the shoulders of his friend. When, in the end, he discovers the price of burning your bridges and being an asshole, you can’t really sympathize with him. He’s a dog, and he dies a dog’s death, only not one of those cute dogs or one of those dogs who travels across the Arctic tundra to save someone. So maybe not a dog. Let’s just say he gets what he deserves. It’s a very film noir ending. Still, Sabato’s performance is strong and engaging even if you come to hate his character. He’s not quite Stuart Whitman in Blazing Magnum despicable, but that’s only because he starts out as a pimp, rather than as a cop who does things like ram hot curling irons up the arse of kungfu-powered transvestites (yeah, Blazing Magnum is really something, even without any significant moustache action). Sabato is also surrounded by a solid cast of Italian genre film regulars. Marisa Mell turns in a good performance and looks dazzling with long black hair.

Lenzi’s direction is steady but not outstanding. This was his first foray into the genre, and he seems in many places to be feeling things his out. This is his Titus Andronicus as I like to call these types of films — the testing of the waters, raw and unpolished but packed with the themes and stylistic touches, albeit in cruder form, that would come to fruition in later works. The despicable protagonist seems to foreshadow Thomas Milian’s grotesque thug in Almost Human, for example. Whatever the case, even this ultimate footnote in the world of the Italian crime film is light years better than any of the gorier, more sensational films that Lenzi is best known for. It wasn’t completely obvious in Milano Rovente that the genre had found its signature director. It was as mean-spirited as Violent Rome without the redemption of a solid main character like Merli’s Inspector Betti. And it definitely lacks both the emotional engagement and mind-blowing action of High Crime. Still, it was still decently entertaining, and Lenzi had a nice touch. The test would be to see what would happen if you took Lenzi and paired him with Maurizio Merli. What happened was Violent Naples, a film that is consistently (along with High Crime and another Lenzi-Merli vehicle, From Corleone to Brooklyn) tagged as one of the absolute best action films of the seventies.

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A Man Before Your Time

It seems inevitable, at least looking back, that Umberto Lenzi would end up directing a poliziottechi film starring Maurizio Merli. The intersection of careers finally happened in Violent Naples, in my opinion the best of all the many poliziottechi that came out during the 1970s. This was the first poliziottechi I saw, and to say it blew me away would be a mild understatement. I ran out into the street and howled like a madman and immediately wrote a review. My initial review was so half-assed, however, that I vowed on the grave of my long-lost twin brother who was killed by Communist agents in Vietnam, to one day rectify the situation and rewrite the review. Also, to bring down Communism and avenge my brother’s death. On the second count, I can say, “Mission accomplished.” Now it is time to finally turn my attention to the first count.

Umberto Lenzi’s Violent Naples — also known as Napoli Violenta and Violent Protection (not to be confused with Violent Professionals) — is one of those films that altered my perception of cinema significantly. I’d never seen anything like it, or rather, I’d seen things like it, but never anything quite so dramatically over-the-top. Violent Naples opens with Maurizio Merli reprising his Violent Rome role as Inspector Betti (he would inhabit the character a third time as well, in Italia a mano armata, aka A Special Cop in Action or Italy, Armed to the Teeth — not to be confused with Merli’s unrelated, Rome, Armed to the Teeth), freshly transferred down to sunny, one assumes given the title, violent Naples. He isn’t in Naples five minutes before he stumbles upon a group of young punk car thieves just begging him to slam a car hood on them and bounce their skulls off a windshield a couple of times. After all, he wouldn’t want to show up for his first day at his new job empty-handed.

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The film establishes a savage tone from the opening scene and never relents in its grim study of cops and criminals gone mad. Merli’s main goal, and the main plot of the film, is to bust up the protection rackets. But that doesn’t stop him from beating the ass of pretty much every other type of criminal he crosses paths with. And the crime in Naples is rampant. Rapists, fencers, thieves — you name ‘em, he’s probably stomping on their head and yelling such memorable lines as “You make me want to box your ears in!” A dapper bank robber (Elio Zamuto) proves to be a particularly irksome thorn in Betti’s side, as every time a heist occurs, the thief walks in mere moments later to sign in with his parole officer, thus supposedly exonerating himself from any suspicion — well, from any suspicion except Betti’s, causing the grim inspector to run his own high-speed experiment through the streets of Naples to see just how quickly a man could flee the scene of a crime and make it to the police precinct.

In fact, in Violent Naples world, it would seem that roughly 90% of the population of Naples is actively involved in mugging, raping, murdering, roughing up, or stealing from the other 10%, who were apparently transplanted there expressly so they could be victimized by the rest of the population. Now, I’ve heard plenty of stories about how everyone in Naples in a con artist, thief, and all-around criminal, but Violent Naples goes to great lengths to take the complete insanity of crumbling urban centers in the 1970s and ratchet the madness up well past the breaking point.

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Amid the chaos, Betti befriends a streetwise young kid, the son of a mechanic who refuses to pay protection money to the local thugs. He’s even been rallying the people to stand up for themselves and not be bullied. Betti first encounters the kid when he sees him slowly crossing the street, holding up traffic, and pretending to be a cripple. When the kid gets to the other side, he laughs and flips everyone off before running merrily down the street. This delights Betti to no end. And in case you’re wondering, why yes, a film like Violent Naples pretty much does guarantee that at some point, sweet sweet irony will result in the kid becoming an actual cripple. I said the movie was good; I never said it was subtle.

Lenzi showcases a tight, relentless pace that I think remains unmatched by any film in the genre. Along with From Corleone to Brooklyn and The Cynic, The Rat, and the Fist (both also starring Maurizio Merli), this is the best film he’s ever made, and as I said in the review of Milano Rovente, it’s a shame Lenzi isn’t known for these films instead of the slapdash splatter stuff that came later in his career. His command of mood, and his ability to infuse every scene with both tension and pathos is amazing. It’s because the film takes the time to generate sympathy with the characters that the tension becomes so heightened. These aren’t character studies or anything, but the script by Vincenzo Mannino wastes no time in creating archetypal characters that quickly become easy to identify with. Mannino was one of the most reliable poliziottechi screen writers, having previously worked on scripts for both Violent Rome and High Crime. Violent Naples takes the strong points from each of those films and blends them into a truly enthralling mix of outrageous action and high melodrama. He’d go on to pen the scripts for Italia Mano a Armato, which is the second film in the Commissario Betti series that began with Violent Rome, and From Corleone to Brooklyn, not to mention writing the script for Ruggero Deodato’s completely loopy Raiders of Atlantis.

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Beyond Lenzi’s frantic direction and Mannino’s solid script, this movie belongs to Maurizio Merli. His portrayal of the hero with a broken heart, the cop on the edge, is as picture perfect a performance as you’re ever likely to see in an action film hero. Every expression, every line drips with seething rage that betrays a sorrowful belief in compassion and justice at its core. Merli gnashes his teeth, grimaces, and exudes world-weary grimness at a level that will never be matched. He always seems five seconds away from having steam shoot out his ears accompanied by the sound effect of a steam locomotive’s whistle. He’s over the top, but in a way that matches the material perfectly and makes you notice the many strengths while being crazy enough that you miss the weak points. It’s been said that Merli took the role very seriously, that he never approached it with anything but the utmost seriousness, and the acting job definitely benefits from the force of his conviction. So into his role was Merli that he often went (they say) a bit overboard in the fight scenes as well as the dramatic scenes, throwing extras and stuntmen around with such force that more than a few injuries resulted.

Another actor might have been tempted to wink at the camera from time to time, to engage in a little good-natured camping up of the material. But not Merli. From beginning to end, through all his teeth grinding and fist shaking, you have no doubt that this man believes fiercely in Commissario Betti, and that ferocity comes through in the role and propels the film. He’s also helped by a superb supporting cast which includes familiar workhorse John Saxon (who got to be a frustrated commissario himself in Cross Shot) as a seedy businessman who ends up, more or less against his will, helping Betti take down the protection rackets. Saxon is always a dependable performer, even if like most working actors he’s appeared in a colossal number of stinkers. Other dependable stalwarts include Barry Sullivan as a slimy mafioso behind the protection game, Luciano Rossi, and Pino Ferarra (who also starred in a movie with one of my all-time favorite titles: Ubalda, All Naked and Warm starring my undisputed all-time favorite cult film actress, Edwige Fenech). No one lets the film down, and even our child actor is tolerable (but just barely).

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But let’s not forget the action. Umberto Lenzi pours on the thrills thick as molasses in January, and he films and edits the action sequences with an expert hand. Violent Naples delivers an almost uninterrupted orgy of brutal violence. Fistfights, shoot-outs, car chases, tram chases, the shaking of young punks by determined police inspectors — there’s plenty of fist-shaking action to get the blood pumping. Some of the violence is, as is common for the genre, gratuitous, gruesome, and over-the-top, but none of it is of the splatter variety. Everything is possessed of that gritty 70s realism that makes even the most unbelievable moments seem perfectly acceptable and more intense than if they’d happened in a film with more vibrant colors or less grainy film stock. Free from the glitz and shiny sheen that would undermine action films in the 1980s, Violent Naples — like many of the action films that defined the “ultra-violence” trend that began with Dirty Harry — feels completely and believable and understated even when it’s being completely fantastical and over-the-top.

There’s very little in the way of subtlety on display in Violent Naples. This isn’t the film for understated nuance or hidden meaning. This is bloody melodrama played on the grand scale, holding nothing back. When a moment is symbolic, Violent Naples delivers it with a heavy-handed thud to make sure you get it. But everything is played with such earnestness that it remains compelling despite the blunt delivery. The final scene marks the best moment in Merli’s tragically short career (when the police film fell out of vogue in the 1980s, Merli devoted himself to physical fitness, but died at the age of 49 of a sudden heart attack during a game of tennis). Betti, disgusted with everything he has seen in Rome and Naples, decides to throw in the towel. Burned out and disillusioned, Betti turns in his badge and heads for the airport. He’s sick of trying to work inside a corrupt system, one that allows you to yell the required line, “This damn system is designed to protect the guilty and punish the victims!” He’s tired of the pain, the frustration, and the ultimate futility of the brutal war he wages every day. He’s heading for a new life in the sun and a chance to simply relax and forget it all.

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Until he sees that little kid again, once again limping slowly across an intersection and wincing with pain as he holds up traffic. Only this time, he’s not pretending to be maimed. Betti stares at the boy as he struggles through the crosswalk. When the light changes, Betti flashes a devastating look of battered, world-weary grimness (his signature expression) and turns the car around. Back to the precinct. Back to the fight. It’s not an especially unique or unexpected sort of ending, but Merli’s expression during this final moment amplifies its power considerably. Like the classical warrior with a broken heart, try as he might, he can’t turn his back on a world in need. Bloodied and saddened, he must continue.

And it is in this moment that the underlying compassion that fuels this and many of the best poliziottechi shines through. Because it’s not about power — Betti has had it made perfectly clear that a man like him has no power, will never have power, and will never ultimately beat those who do have the power. Betti can’t turn his back on the world because, although it has broken his heart, even though the struggle may be futile, it’s still worth fighting for. As he heads back into the maelstrom accompanied by the superb score from Franco Micalizzi, it’s hard not to get carried away by the raw emotion of the moment.

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