In the late 1960s, into the early 1970s, Oliver Reed was on a roll – assuming, that is, you consider there to have ever been a period during which the burly Brit wasn’t on his game. Reed may have been in some bad movies, but he rarely gave a bad performance, regardless of – perhaps because of – whatever personal complications he was having behind the scenes. In 1973, Reed appeared in two Italian productions beside two Italian cinema icons, although they were icons of a very different sort from one another. In Mordi e fuggi (AKA Dirty Weekend), Reed played opposite Marcello Mastroianni, the paragon of Italian playboy cool in the 1960s thanks to his work in films like La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and La Notte. In Revolver (AKA Blood in the Streets), he starred alongside Fabio Testi, a staple of the Eurocrime genre throughout the 1970s.
Testi might not be the acting measure of Mastroianni, but his face was everywhere during the heyday of the Eurocrime genre. “Handsome and wooden” is the description most often attributed to Testi, and while he certainly had more than his fair share of stilted performances, in the hands of the right director or with the right co-star Testi could be charming, charismatic, even dramatic. Revolver is one of his best performances, with one of the genre’s best directors, in one of the genre’s best films. And the fact that Testi manages to, if not quite match the boiling intensity of Oliver Reed, at least acquit himself professionally alongside Reed, says a lot about Testi’s commitment to this particular role. What says even more about Testi’s acting in this film is that one feels a genuine bond of friendship grow between Testi’s smirking criminal and Reed’s determined policeman despite the fact that, according to both Testi and director Sergio Sollima, they and most of the crew despised Oliver Reed, who spent most of the production drunk and antagonistic, as was sometimes his way.
Testi plays Milo, a small-time hood who, when the film opens is lugging his wounded buddy through a field after a heist that has apparently gone rather poorly. His friend dies, and Testi buries him in the field before getting arrested and ending up in a jail run by Oliver Reed’s Vito Cipriani. Vito’s life is subsequently turned upside down when his wife Anna (Agostina Belli, who appeared in 1968’s The Violent Four, one of the first modern Eurocrime films) is kidnapped. The unidentified kidnappers demand that Vito spring Milo in exchange for getting Anna back. Milo has no idea why anyone would want to blackmail the warden into facilitating his egress from prison. Milo is a small timer with no connections and very few friends; and those friends he does have are even lower on the totem pole than he is. Vito is certain Milo is hiding something but, growing increasingly desperate, does indeed bow to the kidnapper’s demands, hoping he can string them along long enough to figure out what’s going on, get his wife back, and not let Milo escape (or get arrested himself) in the process.
The subsequent plot that emerges is both very simple and a little needlessly convoluted. Revolver is cut from the cloth of old noir movies, and those often had hopelessly labyrinthine plots that, boiled down to the core, were surprisingly straight-forward. In the case of Revolver, everyone seems committed to following the most difficult and demanding course of action to achieve the simplest of goals. In fact, when the reason for the kidnappers wanting Milo freed from prison are eventually revealed, it seems the villains have gone to laughably extreme lengths to accomplish something that didn’t even need accomplishing in the first place. None of that matters though, because this film is built on the performances of Reed and Testi and the strained friendship that develops between the two men as they are dragged from Italy to France.
“Mismatched characters who hate each other but eventually become friends” was no new concept even in 1973, but Revolver executes the formula with perfection, taking just enough time to develop each man and each situation so that the eventual bond that forms between them doesn’t feel forced simply for the sake of plotting. Testi is all goofball charm and occasionally awkward fumbling as an essentially non-violent man in a very violent profession. He seems genuinely appalled and confused that he has been used as a pawn in a kidnapping and blackmail case, a small fish who finds himself in way over his head through no fault of his own. The language barrier of the production results in a few instances during which Testi seems to be patiently waiting for Reed to finish speaking so that he knows when to start, but that’s not Testi’s fault really. Aside from a couple of those and a few times during which he goes a little over the top, Testi is a sympathetic, likable rogue.
Oliver Reed’s Vito Cipriani isn’t the typical “cop on the edge.” He’s a man who believes in the system, is relatively mild-mannered, and in what appears to be a perfectly healthy, loving relationship. Watching him grow increasingly frazzled as he is yanked around by the kidnappers is distressing, as is watching him grow increasingly disillusioned and cynical about the things in which he previously believed. Few actors were masters of intensity the way Reed was, and few knew how to so effectively deliver a reserved performance that is never the less brimming with rage and frustration. That Vito is so obviously a man struggling to maintain control makes the moments in which he finally loses his shit that much more shocking.
If there’s any misstep in this film, it’s that it was shot without sound and had everything dubbed in later. This was common for Italian films of the time, when conditions often didn’t favor shooting sync sound and so many of the performers were speaking so many different languages (it was normal to have actors delivering lines in German, Italian, English, and Spanish all in the same scene, as the co-production nature of many films meant you actors from all over Europe in them). When the film went through the dubbing process, Reed’s lines were recorded by a perfectly competent but flat voice actor. Reed’s gravitas manages to come through despite the indifferent dubbing, which makes it all the more a shame that his original dialogue wasn’t recorded. If he’s that good with someone else’s voice, one can only imagine how much better he would have been with the voice of “the whispering giant.”
Everything else about this film is top-notch. The supporting cast is good, including two women who, in a rare twist for Eurocrime films, aren’t raped. Ennio Morricone’s score, built around two central themes, is fantastic (I put it on all the time and walk down the street, pretending I’m wearing one of those fantastic jackets). The plot is at time almost ludicrously meandering, but it doesn’t matter. Sollima extracts stellar performances from his two leads. Just watching the two of them swagger across screen is enough to keep one from worrying too much about deciphering the plot. And once Fabio Testi’s Milo finds that fur coat in the back of a stolen car – forget it. The coat game in this movie is through the roof. If the charisma of Reed and Testi isn’t enough, and the coats aren’t enough (to say nothing of Testi’s suede shirt…that’s suede, right?), there’s always the action. Revolver isn’t a thrill a minute roller coaster ride, but Sergio Sollima knows exactly when the movie needs to be punctuated by scenes of violence. When they come, the chases and shoot-outs are exceptionally well done.
The final layer to Revolver is the political angle that emerges once Vito and Milo arrive in Paris and begin the finally make headway in unraveling what is going on. Sollima was no stranger to injecting politics into his films, and poliziotteschi in general were not films that shied away from political content. Often times, that political content could be distilled down to messages about police corruption, justice versus the law, and how the system grinds down law-abiding citizens who don’t have enough money to insulate themselves from predators on both sides of the system. Revolver is a little more complex than the usual, and a lot bleaker than is usual.
Oliver Reed’s Vito is, again, a man who believes in the system. It might not be perfect, but it helps more times than it hinders. Or so he thinks until he turns to it for help and finds himself brushed off or betrayed at every turn. There is no moment of catharsis for Vito, no point at which he achieves the “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” sense of freedom that can come from “taking the law into your own hands.” As his faith is scoured away and he is left with fewer and fewer options, the final solution – the only solution, as far as he can see – doesn’t involve rebelling against the corruption of the system. It involves becoming a part of it. Once again, Reed is spectacular. He might have been a nightmare behind the camera, but he channeled those demons into one hell of a performance in front of it.
Just as Vito is becoming more cynical and hopeless, Milo is becoming more idealistic. He strikes up a romance with a young activist (Paola Pitagora) who helps him and Vito cross the French border, and she begins to awaken Milo’s social conscience. He begins to think maybe there is a way to fight a thoroughly corrupt system just as Vito is realizing just how thoroughly corrupt the system is. Again, Sergio Sollima’s script, written in collaboration with Massimo De Rita (who wrote many of the best Eurocrime screenplays, including Enzo Castellari’s Street Law and The Big Racket, as well as Sergio Corbucci’s overtly political spaghetti western Companeros) and his frequent partner Arduino Maiuri, doesn’t overplay things. Just as the friendship that emerges between Vito and Milo isn’t rushed or overdone, neither is Milo’s political awakening. It comes in small doses and grows organically from the character. In fact, he’s comparable to Tomas Milian’s Mexican bandit in Companeros, a criminal who grows socially aware as he witnesses the seemingly insurmountable corruption of the government, the crimes of which make his own crimes seem paltry by comparison.
The crusading cops of poliziotteschi frequently pay a price for their idealism. But in the end, they at least get the satisfaction of taking down the villain, even if another steps in to fill the void. When Vito Cipriani pulls the trigger for the last time, however, it’s heartbreaking. The pain on Oliver Reed’s face is almost enough to drive a viewer to tears. There is no victory. There is no “final boss” he can take down, no moment of triumph, however bittersweet. He is sent through the meat grinder and doesn’t emerge whole. Perhaps he doesn’t emerge at all. Revolver‘s final few minutes are not the bloodiest or most violent the genre has ever served up, but because the film has convinced us to become emotionally invested, they just might be among the genre’s most brutal.