Along with giallo and spaghetti western, poliziotteschi films comprise a prolific genre of popular and commercial filmmaking highly appreciated by audiences, less so by critics (with the usual, marginal exceptions). But the the polizziottesco has had less international exposure despite counting among its staunchest supporters the likes of Quentin Tarantino and others. But a new series focused on the genre at New York’s Anthology Film Archives provides us with a perfect excuse to correct that oversight.
What is the Poliziotteschi Genre?
The term was coined by critics who took the word “poliziesco” (Italian for noir, hardboiled, cop movie) and derogatorily distorted into “polizziottesco,” which alludes to a botched-up, rustic version of the form. That reductive decision did not prevent the genre from reaching mass audiences and capturing the less-flattering aspects of metropolitan life. In fact, poliziotteschi was a sort of continuation of the spaghetti westerns: the two genres shared actors and directors as well as narrative and aesthetic tropes.
However, they differed significantly in terms of setting: From a metaphorical past to the literal present, from neighing horses to howling police cars, poliziotteschi explored the nascent, criminal milieu in the aftermath of the economic boom.
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The sociological relevance of the genre is visible in the incipit of Carlo Lizzani’s “Bandits in Milan,” (1968) a cinema-verité-like, fictionalized news report on the activities of organized crime: gambling parlors, prostitutions and drugs. The film, made months after the real events that inspired it, tells the story of Pietro Cavallero, an ex-resistance fighter disillusioned with politics, who eventually turned to crime. Here’s the trailer from the U.S. release (which used the alternate title “The Violent Four”):
Adopting the same hit-and-run guerrilla techniques he learned when fighting the Germans in the mountains, Cavallero and his accomplices held banks up and then disappeared in the anonymity of their daily, apparently normal lives. The director himself declared at the time that the Cavallero gang represented “the first instance of modern gangsterism, which is a social phenomenon typical of affluent societies.” The movie has muscular quality that, through an elaborate and layered narrative structure, laid down the foundations of the genre. But what are those foundations? Read on.
1. Dark Themes
Inspired in equal measure by Don Siegel’s sturdy individualism and Jean-Pierre Melville’s criminal existentialism, Italian crime flicks borrowed stylistic elements from both sides of the Atlantic to forge a unique and homegrown cinematic identity. Often accused by high-brow critics of “fascism” (spaghetti westerns had been on the contrary blamed, by the same critics, for being too simplistically leftist), the genre simply did not match the idealized image middle class intellectuals had of the proletariat.
“Almost Human” (1974) by Umberto Lenzi, one of the highest peaks of the genre, depicts in mean details the violent degradation of downtown Milan, a simmering urban pot literally ready to explode. Haunted by an implacably menacing score by Ennio Morricone, the film revolves around a small-time, psychotic criminal, Giulio Bianchi, who gets in over his head when he decides to kidnap the daughter of a rich man. The film captures the ugly face of crime whose features have no room for the romanticism of outlaws. Tomas Milian’s leading performance is shocking — his character knows no ethical restraints, and expresses a ferocious determination to enjoy the wealth from which he’s been deprived.
2. Bad Cops
If crime and criminals were the immoral muses of the genre, cops were their austere, often impotent counterparts. In “High Crime” (1973), Enzo G. Castellari codifies the ultimate tropes of the polizziottesco in a film that is as robust as its American equivalents.
Inspired by Peter Yates’s “Bullitt,” Castellari (who also made “Inglorious Bastards,” which inspired the title of the Tarantino film) crafts Italy’s answer to Dirty Harry in the form of a fearless cop ready to defeat an army of criminals all by himself. The refined machinery of action filmmaking shines through the film’s different components, from soundtrack to editing in an organic cinematic experience of escalating momentum, almost on a par with Peckinpah.
The armed wing of the law is at the center of another interesting title featured in Anthology’s series, Damiano Damiani’s “Confessions of a Police Captains” (1971). Damiani’s is one of the very first film to expose the pervasive infiltration of mafia within the institutions to the point that the judicial authorities appointed to fight it are pretty much powerless. Here, action makes way to a more dialogue-based screenplay and adrenaline is replaced by the procedural intrigue.
3. Tense Showdowns
A landmark of Italian political filmmaking, Elio Petri’s “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970) can almost be considered an “auteur” of the poliziotteschi genre. Presciently anticipating what came to be known as “the strategy of tension,” a series of bombings carried out by rightwing extremists with the Italian secret services and then blamed on the revolutionary left in order to curb its escalating momentum, the film tells the story of a police chief who kills his mistress and leaves a trail of incriminating clues in his wake just to prove that he’s beyond the law.
Resting on the magisterial rendition of the unnamed protagonist by virtuoso actor Gian Maria Volonté, the film pairs the urgency of realism with the vividness of expressionism. A political tale halfway between Kafka and Dostoyevsky, “Investigation” is a parable on the repressive nature of institutional power and its ultimate unaccountability.
4. Influence on U.S. Cinema
Deemed “the greatest Italian noir of all times” by Quentin Tarantino, Fernando Di Leo’s “Milan Caliber 9” (1971) is definitely not only a gem within the genre but also outside of it. When Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin) is released from jail after serving a three years sentence, his old accomplices are waiting for him, convinced that he stole 300,000 dollars during the last hit that landed him in jail. Alone, Ugo has to navigate an inhospitable underworld caught in an epochal shift between the old guard and a new white collar crime wave wherein he no longer belongs. Milan, the economic capital of Italy, is rendered in all its wintry desolation through a savvy use of rundown suburbs and uptown modernist interiors (nightclubs, posh apartments and criminal headquarters), all caught up in a brooding fog. Here Di Leo distills his love for the American noir (John Houston and Nicholas Ray above all) and the French polar (Melville, José Giovanni) into a near-perfect combination.
In addition to launching new actors and directors, poliziotteschi also attracted filmmakers from other genres. Such is the case with Mario Bava, chiefly known for his chromatic horrors, who dabbled with the poliziotteschi on one unforgettable occasion: “Rabid Dogs” is a minimalist, unscrupulous flick where the faint ghost of hope is slain in front of an incredulous audience, who’s left alone with sheer evil. Shot under the scorching and unforgiving sun of August almost exclusively inside a car surrounded by countless others on the highway during peak hours, the film oozes with a feverish energy.
A trio of deranged low-lifes kidnap a man who is bringing a young boy to the hospital, taking the two seemingly innocent souls on a trip to the concrete hell of highway paranoia. Unlike the classical polizziottesco, where the criminal side is usually measured against the law, in this case all the characters inhabit a void of values with no redemption in sight. A work of profound nihilism, “Rabid Dogs” anticipates the minimalist, sinister atmospheres of Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” and Robert Harmon’s “The Hitcher.”
6. Anger with Society
Systematically overshadowed by the supposedly nobler and more important art films of the time, the polizziottesco lowered its cameras to street level to capture the restless violence traversing the mean streets of Italy’s metropolitan areas in the seventies. Compared to the average of on-screen violence of the time, poliziotteschi stood out for their cruelty — no macabre detail was spared. With little restraint, they captured the moral vacuum lurking beneath the surface of a society shaken by political upheavals and threatened by criminal conspiracies. Setting aside their inventive storytelling techniques, these movies prove that low-budget genre efforts don’t merely exist for entertainment purposes, but can also provide authentic chronicles of the “less respectable” aspects of life.