File Under Fire: A brief history of Italian crime films

by Roberto Curti Volume 11, Issue 11 / November 2007 13 minutes (3109 words)

The history of Italian crime films is deeply connected to that of their nation, even since the very first examples of the genre. After the restrictions and escapist dreams of the Fascist period, the immediate post-war scenario is that of a country in ruins. Neorealism makes no discounts: bandits, pimps, black market dealers make their appearance in films which recount what was happening in the country, without sweetening the pill. That’s the case with Tombolo paradiso nero (Tombolo, 1947, Giorgio Ferroni), Manù il contrabbandiere (1947, Lucio De Caro) or Alberto Lattuada’s Il bandito (The Bandit, 1946) and Senza pietà (Without Pity, 1948), which can be all considered part of the so-called “Black Neorealism.” Even in Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949, Giuseppe De Santis), where neorealist elements combine with others taken from various sources, such as popular magazines, several sequences –such as the final shootout in the butcher-shop, with quarters of veal and lifestock hanging from the ceiling, lit in an Expressionist manner– are the stuff of pure film noir.

Italy’s most interesting early crime films are Pietro Germi’s Gioventù perduta (Lost Youth, 1947) and La città si difende (Four Ways Out, 1951) and Fernando Cerchio’s marvellous but little-known Il bivio (1951). Gioventù perduta tells the exploits of a band of robbers headed by an unsuspected wealthy young man (Jacques Sernas), and is notable for the sympathetic commissioner (Massimo Girotti) who feels inadequate in his job and bitterly regrets having left university because of the war. Stylistically, Germi moves away from Neorealism: Hollywood products were flooding Italian cinemas in that period, as a result of post-war law regulations, and the influence of American film noir is evident in the way Gioventù perduta is shot and lit, as well as in the portrayal of a town which at night becomes a magical, mysterious double of itself. The way characters dress, move and talk definitely shows how the American filmic imaginary colonized Italian cinema: Sernas refers to Alan Ladd and Robert Mitchum, and buys expensive gifts for the night club dancer he’s in love with, just as his movie heroes. La città si difende is the story of a holdup at a stadium and its tragic aftermath. Germi follows the stories of the four desperate delinquents and their tragic attempts at escape throughout the city. The opening holdup –a silent, masterfully edited sequence– shows Germi’s perfect control of the medium, and the use of real locations and several semi-documentary sequences once again hint at the director’s love for American film noir (namely, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City and Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Street). Germi resorts to the crime genre, even more so than in the previous film, as a way to make poignant social commentary. In Il bivio, Raf Vallone is a gang boss who manages to infiltrate the police, becoming vice-commissioner and exploiting his position to commit robberies, but his ambition to control and steer other people’s actions is illusory. At the heart of the film (whose title means “crossroads”) is the protagonist’s growing moral dilemma: the need to face the consequences of his behaviour (innocents arrested, ruined families, colleagues killed in the line of duty). This division between self-interest and desire to atone eventually leads to his death. Both La città si difende and Il bivio show a portrait of a country trying to rise after years of disarray following World War 2, but whose deep lacerations are still visible; many ideals have already collapsed –in Il bivio Vallone is a disillusioned war hero– and the slow economic recovery already has its victims: the mirage of easy money has corrupted consciences and ruined lives.

Germi once again returned to the genre by the end of the 1950s, with a film that he labelled as “the first italian crime film.” Actually, Un maledetto imbroglio (The Facts of Murder, 1959) is more of a whodunit, loosely based on one of the most significative Italian novels of the 20th century, Carlo Emilio Gadda’s experiment in language, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (published in 1957). The director mixes two apparently opposite genres –police drama and comedy– but his intent is not to make a hybrid. On the contrary, funny or naturalistic moments at times clash with detection and action scenes. The result is a deeply moral film that is desperate and sarcastic at the same time. And Germi himself, playing the role of inspector Ingravallo, is an ideal lead, with his stern features and peculiar accent: the director would portray a similar character in Damiano Damiani’s debut Il rossetto (Lipstick, 1960).

In the 1960s, filmmakers who were deeply involved with social and political issues, such as Francesco Rosi, Florestano Vancini and Carlo Lizzani, once again used the crime genre in order to analyze Italy’s past and present: films like Lizzani’s Il gobbo (The Hunchback of Rome, 1960), Il re di Poggioreale (Black City, 1961, Duilio Coletti, co-scripted by John Fante), La banda Casaroli (1962, Florestano Vancini), examine well-known real-life episodes and characters, the most successful of the lot being La banda Casaroli, possibly one of the best Italian films of the decade. Paolo Casaroli and his acolytes, improvised bandits in immediate post-war Italy, are emblematic figures of the period: Vancini cast against type with the titular lead Renato Salvatori, an actor who often played the love interest in comedies such as Poveri ma belli (Poor But Handsome, 1957). The film as a whole can be seen as a rejection of the unpretentious, often politically unchallenging cinema made in the previous decade. The historical context is portrayed with elegance and extreme precision: old Fascist mottos painted on decaying popular houses, rural strikes, empty streets with the occasional automobile passing by, a symbol of wealth that everyone desires. Casaroli and his gang use cars in order to make easy escapes after their robberies, but in the end, ironically, it is a car that becomes a death trap for them, when it is revealed that Casaroli can’t drive.

Vancini does not absolve the characters, but understands their reasons: the postwar confusion, the anti-bourgeois grievances, the mirage of an easy life. He portrays a generation of misfits in search of strong emotions, unable to submit to the logic of sacrifice and work needed to rebuild the country. Stylistically, La banda Casaroli is an extremely accomplished work, built around an elaborate flashback structure and featuring several outstanding set pieces, such as the long central chase scene in the streets of Bologna. Interestingly, the latter half-hour focuses on one of Casaroli’s men, played by a young Tomas Milian, who desperately wanders around town after his boss has been captured, and finally ends up in a cinema where he commits suicide, while a newsreel announces the re-election of Democratic Christian premier Alcide De Gasperi.


Tomas Milian in Almost Human

Meanwhile, the underworld was changing. Carlo Lizzani examined two exemplary figures within the new generation of criminals spawned by the illusory economical “boom” of early Sixties. Svegliati e uccidi (Wake Up and Kill, 1966) and Banditi a Milano (Bandits in Milan, a.k.a. The Violent Four, 1968) are basically action movies with a strong sociological component, where the minutious historical recreation prevails over spectacular hyperbole, which describe a metropolitan crime scene characterized by an individual and consumeurist revenge, sometimes hidden under an ostensible social rebellion.

Svegliati e uccidi tells the story of Luciano Lutring, the so-called “machine gun soloist,” who became a sort of public enemy in early Sixties with his criminal exploits. Lizzani depicts former pastry chef Lutring (Robert Hoffmann) as a poor devil, a violent but scarcely intelligent small-time crook who becomes a celebrity thanks to the media (whose recounts of Lutring’s holdups are spiced with exaggerate emphasis), as well as the police (who use Lutring as a bait to lure the big shots of organized crime). Lutring is a son of consumer urgency, who starts robbing jewelries to impress a woman, and keeps living above his economic means. On Banditi a Milano Lizzani’s ambitions are more articulate: to show the first examples of modern gangsterism in Italy, such as the prostitution and gambling racket, the escalation of robberies and a growing, more violent criminality. Banditi a Milano was based on a bank robbery gone wrong that took place on September 25, 1967 in Milan. The bandits were led by Pietro Cavallero, played in the film by Gian Maria Volonté. Unlike Lutring, Cavallero and his gang learned the rules of the game and hid their criminal activity behind the respectable cover of a ghostly agency, complete with a long-legged secretary. Lizzani mixes documentary style with grotesque touches, and achieves memorable results in depicting a cultured bandit who reads Camus, uses a language similar to that of a Communist politician and in the end, while he’s hiding from the police with his sidekick, traces a balance sheet of his criminal activity as if he was a normal businessman (“Five years work, that makes 17 hits, 75 millions liras. 14 millions a year divided by three, it’s about 4 millions each… let’s say 300,000 liras a month. Then there are expenses, the office, cars, motorway tickets, dinners… my friend, being a bandit is an expensive job!”). Banditi a Milano was a huge success, leading to imitations such as Roma come Chicago (Bandits in Rome 1968, Alberto De Martino), starring John Cassavetes. But distributors were not convinced that crime stories set in Italy would work, therefore a number of films were shot in the US, such as Giuliano Montaldo’s Gli intoccabili (Machine Gun McCain, 1968), once again with Cassavetes in the lead.

But the Seventies were the decade that saw the real renaissance of the crime film, predated by such hybrids as Elio Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970) and Damiano Damiani’s Confessione di un Commissario di Polizia al Procuratore della Repubblica (Confessions of a Police Captain, 1971), which mixed social commitment and genre cinema, and became huge box office success. Damiani’s film, in particular, can be seen as the true antedecessor of the so-called “poliziottesco,” which according to many critics began in 1972 when Stefano Vanzina’s La polizia ringrazia (Execution Squad) became a surprise hit, launching what would be one of the most popular threads of the decade, before the crisis that led to the death of the Italian popular movie industry in the 1980s.

The term “poliziottesco” derives from “poliziotto” (cop), and was at first used as a negative connotation, in order to distinguish Italian cop flicks from their US counterparts. Yet, even though the influence of, say, Dirty Harry or The French Connection is evident, Italian tough cops have a much more significative and immediate reference. They all owe to a real-life figure, commissioner Luigi Calabresi, a notorious and much-discussed figure because of his violent methods: Calabresi was considered responsible for the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist arrested after the massacre at Piazza Fontana, in Milan –on December 12, 1969, a bomb blast in a bank resulted in 16 people being killed and 88 injured– who allegedly fell off a window during police interrogation. The massacre at Piazza Fontana was later uncovered to be part of a strategy on behalf of the Right in order to keep control of the country (the so-called “strategy of tension”); meanwhile, after Pinelli’s death, Calabresi became Italy’s most hated man, especially in left-wing circles, until he was eventually shot to death by an unknown man on May 17, 1972. After his death, Calabresi somehow became the symbol of a country’s guilty conscience. And his murder was set to be reenacted again and again: the tough cops in Italian “poliziotteschi” usually die in the end, often shot in the back in the middle of the street, at the point where everyone is ready for the end credits to start. It is as if the film industry had caught a common sense of guilt, and wanted to balance the accounts. That’s why the cops played by Maurizio Merli (the genre’s real icon), Luc Merenda, Franco Nero and others are tough guys yet deeply honest, incorruptible, often penniless and unlucky in love, with just one thing in mind: justice. And they always complain that their hands are tied by unjust (read: too liberal) laws: their enemies are not just crooks and corrupt politicians, but also magistrates and lawyers who permit criminals to stay out of jail. This is one of the reasons why this filone was labelled as fascist by many critics, who were unable to understand that one of the keys to its success was precisely the way it cunningly exploited the viewer’s unsatisfaction and demand for justice, just like spaghetti westerns captured their audience by exploiting violence and sadism, without any true political colour. In the same film one could find a cop deliver an almost fascist speech and later on speak of tolerance like a left-wing activist. What’s more, the hero was almost always characterized as proletarian, whereas the baddies were wealthy, powerful, and right-wing. The results were more likely apolitical, if not anarchist: not an uncommon trait in genre cinema.

“Poliziotteschi” are the true descendants of spaghetti westerns, set in contemporary Italy –the violent, tormented Italy of the ‘70s. Even the iconography is the same, mutatis mutandis; the opening sequence of Stelvio Massi’s Squadra volante (Emergency Squad, 1974) could belong to a Sergio Leone film, as it shows the cop (Tomas Milian) meticulously dressing with the same fetishistic attention to details as shown in, say, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What’s more, Massi’s Il conto è chiuso ( The Last Round, 1976) is a faithful remake of For a Fistful of Dollars, while one of the genre’s most popular characters, “Monnezza,” the proletarian thief played by Tomas Milian in a number of films, starting with Il trucido e lo sbirro (Free Hand for a Tough Cop, 1976, Umberto Lenzi), is an obvious descendant of the unforgettable Cuchillo played by Milian in La resa dei conti (The Big Gundown, 1967) and Corri uomo, corri (Run, Man, Run, 1968) by Sergio Sollima.


Luc Merenda (backseat) and Carlos Monzón in The Last Round

Since La polizia ringrazia, dozens of similar flicks invaded the screens during the following years. They were reasonably budgeted genre films, with popular actors –some of them came from the western season, such as Franco Nero or Tomas Milian, others were relative newcomers, such as Maurizio Merli or Luc Merenda– and shot by capable filmmakers, including Enzo G. Castellari (La polizia incrimina, la legge assolve/??High Crime??; Il grande racket/??The Big Racket??), Umberto Lenzi (Milano odia: la polizia non può sparare/??Almost Human??; Roma a mano armata/??Assault with a Deadly Weapon??), Stelvio Massi (Mark il poliziotto/??Blood, Sweat and Fear??, plus a number of Merli films). But there was also room for obscure stuff, shot on a shoestring, sometimes even recycling action scenes from other films. What’s more, the main genre dissipated in a myriad of subgenres, often inspired by daily chronicle: some films echoed the paranoid atmosphere of a country plagued with terrorism and deviated secret services (Sergio Martino’s La polizia accusa: il servizio segreto uccide/ Silent Action), others portrayed infamous events such as the rape and subsequent killing of two girls by a trio of vicious rich Roman youngsters (the so-called Circeo massacre, which inspired at least three films). And so on.


The Big Racket

But most of all, the “poliziotteschi” gave audiences the heroes they were in desperate need of by capturing and representing the anxiety and anger of the viewer; a “Where will we end up?” spirit, that is, the most frequent questions staring out from the black abyss of urban violence, decaying institutions, and armed struggle. These films depicted exemplary characters and stories, and told parables of life and death; they offered a ninety minute trip to hell and back, a cathartic path that allowed the audience to make sense of the horror they had to face daily, and the opportinuty to walk out of the theatres with their heads held high, ignoring fears and anxieties in the hope that somewhere, somehow, someone would restore justice. Perhaps someone with the same pale blue eyes and reassuring smile of Maurizio Merli, the commissioner par excellence of our cinema.

In the rise and fall of the crime genre one can read the path of a whole industry: in the early 1980s it resurfaced on the small screen, with TV movies such as Damiano Damiani’s enormously successful La piovra (The Octopus, 1984), which spawned a series of TV crime shows. Nowadays Italian television literally overflows with products related to the crime genre. It’s paradoxical that in a country where the meaning of the law is at a minimum, TV series’ starring policemen, special agents, and scientific experts are among the most popular with the public. However, these are not the tough cops of the 1970s crime films. The current model of “good cop” is a sign of the times: more good guy that “iron commissioner” (to quote the title of a Maurizio Merli movie); the ideal son of all housewives. Most of these shows are technically elementary products (shootings schedules are short and strictly set) which feature repetitive narrative patterns and roughly drawn characters, plus a didactic use of music. There are exceptions, like Michele Soavi’s return to directing Uno Bianca, a two-part made for TV feature crime thriller from 2001. In the majority of cases these TV crime shows have a reassuring function: the world is not such a bad and scary place, justice is invincible; no emotional challenge is asked to the viewer. To quote renowned writer Giancarlo De Cataldo (whose novel Romanzo criminale was made into a fairly successful film in directed by Michele Placido in 2005): “They cover a gap, the inability to communicate and report History (with a capitalized “H”) on the part of those who would be responsible to do so: universities, newspapers, school… What instruments are left now in Italy for those who want to understand our country’s history? Novels, the so-called ‘civil theatre and tv fiction’. Which is a despairing state of things.”

The changed skin of the crime genre reflects the mutated relationship between cinema and television in the last quarter of a century. But it is also a reflection of how in recent years the relationship between public and private, between the individual and the surrounding reality has changed. A reality that today arrives to us filtered through a media frenzy, and which we no longer try to decipher: we simply absorb it as if it were part of another in the long line of fiction. And maybe now it is.

File Under Fire: A brief history of Italian crime films

Roberto Curti (Parma, Italy) is a free lance writer for several Italian and foreign magazines. He’s a regular contributor to Nocturno and has collaborated, among others, to the Spanish mag Quatermass. In 2003 he co-wrote (with Tommaso La Selva) Sex and Violence, a volume on extreme cinema, which is in its second edition, 2007, and in 2004 a Spanish-published monography on James Coburn, El samurai del oeste (The Samurai of the West). He is also the author of Italia odia (Italy Hates, 2006), an in-depth history of Italian crime and noir films, and Stanley Kubrick: Rapina a mano armata (Stanley Kubrick: The Killing, 2007), an in-depth analysis of Kubrick’s The Killing, Demoni e dei, a book on the devil and god in American horror cinema, and Fantasmi D’Amore, a book on the Italian gothic across cinema, literature and television.

Volume 11, Issue 11 / November 2007 Essays gangsteritalian cinema