Reviewed by Steve Fenton, with Dennis Capicik
From Fanfare’s U.S. pressbook synopsis: ‘A continuous succession of misdeeds holds the city in the grip of an infernal vice.’
Enrico Maria Salerno, as Inspector Bertone: “I’m at the point of losing all conviction, all motivation. Ordinary police routine has become a farce. We’re practically powerless. The underworld buggers us, and the press rams it in deeper!”
Mario Adorf, as Assistant DA Ricciutti: “Are you nostalgic for the death penalty, Bertone?”
Vengeful cop, heard over squad-car radio: “We’ll see the murdering little bastard gets what he deserves: ‘An eye for an eye; a life for a life’...!”
At some point early in its genesis announced under the shooting title “REQUIEM FOR A CHIEF OF THE HOMICIDE SQUAD,” this film was also variously announced in the contemporaneous American trade-papers as “THE POLICE SEND THANKS” and “THE POLICE SAY THANK YOU,” both of which are simple translations of EXECUTION SQUAD’s original Italian title (i.e., La polizia ringrazia).
Several years after the fact, Variety (May 1975) reported that producer Roberto Infascelli was a “trend setter” and that this film had “opened a chapter full of law-on-the-skids pix.” Yes indeed, the Italian/West German co-production EXECUTION SQUAD ( released as THE ENFORCERS in the U.K.) was largely instrumental in inspiring a whole crimewave of more exploitative, B-grade cops-’n’-robbers actioners on the Continent (in Italy especially), as well as any number of more ‘upscale’ genre entries by the likes of Damiano Damiani and Pasquale Squitieri. One of the earliest Italian ‘vigilante cop’ entries of the ’70s, ES officially marked the first time that its director—who is ironically better-known for helming sophisticated comedies under his usual pseudonym of “Steno”—signed a film, and a dead-seriously dramatic one at that, with his real name, Stefano Vanzina (1917-1988). It became a box-office smash on the Continent, and as a result was highly influential on the Italocrime movie front, prompting numerous imitations/emulations of variable quality. Dialogue-driven with unusually literate Anglo dubbing (some of the best ever heard in a foreign import, it should be said, despite the occasional ‘surreal’-sounding translated phrase), ES makes the ideal starting point for those interested in unearthing the more domestic roots of ’70s Italocrime cinema. If native filmmakers frequently took their cues from such outside influences as Popeye Doyle, “Dirty” Harry Callaghan and Frank Serpico, they found an equal kindred spirit in ES’ staunch and stoic Inspector Bertone, whose most lethal weapon is not a big gun but his own big mouth, which he shoots-off with unerring accuracy straight from the hip, seldom failing to hit the bull’s-eye (“I just find it hard to keep my mouth shut when punks like that go free!”).
An unprecedented nationwide crimewave grips Italy, but despite this ongoing societal crisis, Rome has been placed under a general criminal amnesty. Wealthy retired former Police Chief Ernesto Stolfi (Cyril Cusack) is most vocal about his solution to end the crimewave, and airs his ‘extremist’ views freely during a controversial TV interview. Since middle-aged Inspector Mario Bertone (the great Enrico Maria Salerno [1926-1994], dubbed into English hereon by voice specialist Edward Mannix), a 25-year veteran of law enforcement, assumed command of the Homicide Squad, there has been a marked increase in murders (“I feel that we’re on the edge of a wave of violence in this country that has no precedence”). Insp. Bertone had recently arrested a known gangster named Francesco “Bruno” Bettarini (Franco Fabrizi), who is suspected of involvement in an armed robbery that left an innocent watchman dead. Due to his sleazy lawyers exploiting a legal technicality—so what else is new?!—Bettarini is subsequently acquitted on all charges due to insufficient evidence, and released from police custody. Bertone officially protested the decision in the courts, only to incur the resentment of powerful magistrates within the judiciary for his outspokenness. Reporters flock to the controversial case like vultures, resulting in much unwanted publicity from the scandal-hungry media.
Later, in the Piazza dei Fornari, (quote) “two pricks” on a big 750cc Moto Guzzi V7 rob a store, killing a man and woman in the process, only to then make their two-wheeled getaway with no loot to show for it. A largescale police manhunt is mobilized. Citizens complain that the police don’t protect them enough; cops complain that politicians forever keep their hands tied with red tape. Newspapers bleat on about the ineffecuality of the Law, then protest when police must out of necessity resort to using excess force to prevent crime. When the newly-acquitted Bruno Bettarini is apprehended at the airport carrying a gun of the same calibre as that used in the Piazza dei Fornari shootings, he is re-arrested as a prime suspect. He later claims the gun was planted on his possession and that he has been a victim of police brutality. Meanwhile, the two fugitive punks who were the actual perps remain at large. One of them, Michele Settecammini (shaggy-haired German Schlager singer/musician-actor and teenybopper heartthrob Jürgen Drews), a habitual repeat offender with a rap-sheet longer than the overreaching arm of the law despite his youth, makes a hostage of a nubile eighteen-year-old hairdresser named Anna Maria Sprovieri (Laura Belli, who does a purely gratuitous ‘top-and-bottom’ nude scene, albeit without revealing any pubic hair. The actress subsequently appeared as one of Tomas Milian’s victims in Lenzi’s ALMOST HUMAN ).
(Attn: ***SPOILER ALERT!***) It eventually comes to light that a group of disgruntled ex-carabinieri, going about their unofficial business stealthily in big death-black unmarked cars with phony licence plates, have been taking the law into their own hands by arbitrarily acting as collective judges, jurors and executioners. First interrogating suspects ‘off the record,’ they function as what is basically a vigilante execution squad (as per the US release title). Killings are committed in an old fascist style, via makeshift firing squads of .38 Police Specials. In this fashion, the executioners make an example of Mario Staddarini (Piero Tiberi), Settecammini’s accomplice in the recent Piazza dei Fornari robbery. After the slippery Bettarini’s latest rerelease for lack of evidence, he is unofficially picked-up by the hit squad (“But, youain’t the fuzz!”). In retribution for the night watchman’s murder, Bettarini is methodically electrocuted against a hydro pylon (in certain other cases, strangulation and bludgeoning are the methods used). Following executions, victims are left dangling in handcuffs in plain sight so as to serve as a warning/deterrent to the general public at large. Bertone succeeds in linking the hit squad to an influential politician who has recently spoken-out in favour of restoring capital punishment to the land.
As a public relations ploy, Insp. Bertone treats key members of the press to a special guided bus tour of the Eternal City’s seamier side; for which he provides running commentary illustrated with authentic specimens of Roman ‘night life.’ Bertone describes prostitution as “the Swiss bank of the underworld,” raking-in an estimated 350-billion lire per annum (at early ’70s prices). The industry is protected by the so-called “Merlin Law,” which points out the bitter irony of a hooker’s lot: while she may well be entirely free to walk her beat in the eyes of the law, because of control by brutal pimps, she is far from at liberty to quit it. Easily exploitable if contradictory legal loopholes protect both the prostitute and her pimp from prosecution. Bertone winds-down his ‘in-the-field’ lecture by explaining that the prison system is overcrowded to bursting point with suspects; most of whom will wind up being released due to systemic impotence, procrastination and apathy within the judicial system. (Indicating that the general public at large are equally at fault, during opening armed robbery, Joe Blow bystander cautions his buddy, “Hey, man, don’t get involved!” A reporter subsequently gives his own cynical take on the situation [“In this city, the citizens are terrorized, and they don’t think the police are doing anything about it!”]).
Bertone leaks a strong suspicion to the press that a prominent city official with political ambitions has condoned the executions of two notorious criminals in order to win citizens’ support by currying their favour. For going public with this belief, Bertone is severely reprimanded by his superiors. Now affectionately christened the “Clean-Up Squad” by the media, the rogue cops step-up their busy execution schedule to include even minor offenders from the lowest rungs of the underworld ladder. Paranoia among the malavita (“lowlifes”) rises to such a pitch that criminals begin voluntarily delivering themselves over into protective police custody rather than risk a vigilante bullet. When Raf Valenti, “Public Enemy #1,” surrenders to escape execution, the Clean-Up Squad nevertheless succeeds in slipping him a hit of cyanide right inside the Questura.
Of the opinion that the ends justify the means—not to mention lighten their workload—other officers on the force speak out in open support of the Clean-Up Squad, and are reticent to see them arrested. Insp. Bertone reads his unruly-verging-on-mutinous subordinates the riot act, comparing the rogue cops—who had all been fired from active duty for using excessive force—to (quote) “common hitmen.” Meanwhile, Michele Settecammini and his teenage hostage are surrounded at their hideout by police. Assistant District Attorney Ricciutti (Mario Adorf) negotiates with the fugitive, arranging a getaway car, much to Bertone’s chagrin (“We can’t start making deals with these punks: they’ll walk all over us!”). With strict stipulations, Settecammini—fearing reprisal from the Clean-Up Squad—agrees to surrender himself into Bertone’s custody. While he is being transported to jail by Bertone, the Squad makes an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Settecammini, who is delivered alive—if not entirely unharmed—into Ricciutti’s care. (Attn: ***SPOILER ALERT!***) Grown jaded and disgusted with the status quo to the point of tendering his resignation from the force, Bertone realizes that the ‘deep state’ organization which financially sponsors the Clean-Up Squad possesses powerful sympathizers/supporters within the upper echelons of government… and even in the very Vatican itself; their mutual ultimate goal being complete inversion of the political order and a return to a Mussolini-styled totalitarian dictatorship!
|Courtesy of the Fentonian Institute.|
Bertone, who wryly refers to prisons as “State-run schools for criminals,” must constantly juggle all his conflicting loyalties and weigh them against his personal convictions, which don’t always balance themselves with the scales of Justice, which are constantly teetering at the tipping point. With his back pinned to the wall between a rock and a hard place, Bertone decries the flawed existing legal system yet still idealistically champions the concept of democratic law (“Whether we like it or not, one of our jobs is to protect swine like that from being lynched!”); case in point when he risks his own skin to defend a no-good dirtbag who has already murdered at least three people. If in his view the Clean-Up Squad operates at the extreme fringe of the Right Wing, Bertone himself still remains uncomfortably just left of centre, tightrope-walking precariously along the dividing line. For instance, during his epic speech about the prostitution industry, Bertone can barely contain his contempt for homosexual hookers; whom he unflatteringly describes as the type of individual who “earns his living with the sweat of his ass” (“a most unnatural act,” adds the confidently hetero Inspector regarding sodomy). Bertone’s ‘homophobia’ resurfaces on at least one more occasion (as a rent boy is heard to exclaim disgustedly to a jilted john at one point, “You faggots gimme a pain in the ass!” [pun intended!]). As if heeding some unspoken vicarious desire of the Inspector’s, the Clean-Up Squad eventually takes to killing the johns of gay hustlers (“pederasts”). EXECUTION SQUAD’s sympathies seem to shakily straddle the fence somewhere between dead centre and extreme right, leaving audiences to root for either Bertone or the Clean-Up Squad. While the script does play both sides, the film’s real heroes—without mentioning any names!—were obvious to probably the vast majority of viewers of the day… dare I say, perhaps even more so today, in these times of rebellious populist upheaval within the EU? (Thank you, Matteo Salvini!)
Closest that EXECUTION SQUAD ever strays to the Left is via Sandra (the big-eyed Mariangela Melato, sporting an unflatteringly tomboyish ’70s-style ‘scruffy-cut’ hairdo), a politically active—read: SJW—newspaper reporter whose more lenient views (“Criminals are human too. Criminals aren’t created ... it’s the fault of society”) sometimes come at odds with the justice-or-bust Bertone’s inflexible Quixotic quest (“tilting at windmills,” as an incognito interested party calls it). Even Bertone feels pangs of sympathy for the two misguided bike punks, who, without even a lone lira to show for their botched armed robbery, face complete contemptuous ostracism by the underworld. Indicating how much he flirts with her ideas, while off-duty Bertone dates the politically more liberal (dare I say ‘progressive’?) Sandra. Due to her ‘insider’ knowledge, he is not averse to manipulating Sandra—who functions as both his muse and foil to equal degrees—into playing police informant upon occasion, which might well explain his main interest in keeping her around at all. Because she is his most vocal critic in the press (“You are the typical professional cop!”), this might almost seem like a conflict of interest on both sides, and if nothing else it illustrates how opposites sometimes do indeed attract for the simple reason that they both have ulterior motives on one another, so conveniently rationalize the arrangement to suit themselves as well as each other.
Playing another man of unshakable integrity, the distinguished Assistant DA, powerhouse German co-star Mario Adorf—who unfortunately didn’t stick around to dub his own English lines in this instance—serves as the better angel of Bertone’s nature (i.e., his guilty conscience). Salerno commands authority in the Bertone role, but as Ricciutti Adorf is frankly rather wasted in a one-dimensional order-barking authoritarian part (he might have been far better cast in a meatier role, such as the smug, sneery slimeball Bettarini, perhaps?). Representing his worst devil on the other—make that Extreme Right—hand is Bertone’s intermittent unofficial advisor in the form of Cusack’s outwardly soft-spoken and benignant Stolfi character, who talks softly but carries a big secret chip on his shoulder. Early into the film, Stolfi facetiously compares crime to Pinocchio’s nose (i.e., always growing).
The Clean-Up Squad’s choice of victims is symbolic: so-called “degenerates” (such as hookers and homosexuals [YIKES!]) and subversive leftist extremists, all regarded as archetypal representatives of societal malaise and decay, and thus entirely disposable in the myopic gunsight eyes of the dirty arm of the Law’s itchy trigger finger. The Clean-Up Squad derives much wry propaganda from a public service poster distributed by the city council, which reads: Roma è anche tua aiutaci a tenerla pulita / “Rome is your city, and it’s your duty to keep it clean.” Ironically twisting its meaning to suit their own objectives, for extra symbolic effect the clique of grim-faced rogue ex-cops dispose of victims’ bodies in plain sight beneath copies of this poster pasted-up in various parts of Rome (“Looks like the ‘Clean-Up Squad’ has chalked-up another one, Inspector,” notes an observer). Seen elsewhere for added irony is a more familiar propaganda poster (‘La Polizia: troverai la specializzazione che desideri’, which roughly translates to “You will find the career you want in the Police Force”); a real-life recruitment poster seen on Questura walls in countless other ’70s Italocrime films… if not seen quite so often as J&B Scotch bottles were! (Just for the record, none of those latter ‘incidental props’ appear in the present film for the purposes of product placement.)
Interestingly enough for Italo cinema buffs, Settecammini’s late accomplice Staddarini had been temping as an extra on spaghetti westerns (many of which were still being produced in Rome at the time), but because of a recent work shortage in that area switched careers to eke-out a more dishonest living as a scippatore from the avails of purse-snatching. Bettarini meanwhile openly flouts his disrespect for the law. No sooner has he assaulted several cops than he is justifiably beaten-up by them in return, only to have his hotshot criminal lawyer Avellano (the portly, gap-toothed Corrado Gaipa, a near-future alumnus of Coppola’s THE GODFATHER ) bear aural witness to this so-called ‘unprovoked’ police brutality over the phone. In Vanzina’s apparent attempt to illustrate that lawyers are often as bad as—if not worse than—their clients, Avellano (not “Armani,” as the IMDb claims!) also provides legal counsel for the Settecammini character, an incorrigible repeat offender who, due to technicalities in wishy-washy existing laws, has continually slipped through the much-too-coarse mesh of the legal net to commit new offences with great regularity. (Attn: ***SPOILER ALERT!***) During his latest and greatest crime, while being chased along the Via del Mare, Settecammini cruelly dumps his female hostage from the back of a speeding motorbike directly under the wheels of an oncoming police Giulia. This tragic incident once again forces Insp. Bertone to re-examine his troubled conscience to make a fateful personal decision...
Variety (May 1972) gave a positive progress report on this film’s “polemical treatment of a semi-official death squad assault on crime.” A prototypical effort for sure, ES launched a whole crimewave of ‘socially aware’ antiestablishment ‘police-are-powerless’ dramas. Interestingly enough, even Clint Eastwood/Ted Post’s later MAGNUM FORCE, released the following year in 1973, bears some rudimentary—if key—plot similarities (simple coinkydink, or…?). Following ES’ Roman premiere (in June 1972), Variety (“Werb.”) wrote: “Almost all of the ingredients in this ruthless and implacable film fall into place so neatly that foreign prospects are positive, including the U.S.” Sadly, this engrossing, superior entry (truncated from 98m to just 85m as EXECUTION SQUAD, although the most-recent BD releases thankfully contain full-length prints) evidently received only a spotty stateside theatrical distribution deal, it caused nary a ripple on this side of the Atlantic. It later (circa the ’80s) also turned up in English-dubbed, full-length, albeit only full-frame form on Dutch videotape from Video Star (under the Anglo export title FROM THE POLICE ...WITH THANKS), as well as being released widescreen in Japan by Pack-In Video (titled KUROI KEISATSU / “Black Police”), in Italian with Japanese hard-subs.
Even though, as mentioned above, EXECUTION SQUAD did garner a belated U.S. theatrical release courtesy of The Fanfare Corporation in 1975, in a hacked-down 85-minute version no less (it also played certain Canadian cinemas in 1976 thanks to Astral Films), this film, which is highly-regarded in its countries of origin, unfortunately never made it onto legit home video in either the U.S.A. or Canada. In the pre-DVD days, most people who saw it caught up with ES via bootleg dupes taken from the Netherlands’ Video Star VHS videocassette, which was an English-dubbed (with Dutch subtitles, ’natch) edition under its aforementioned original Anglo export release title, FROM THE POLICE …WITH THANKS. Of course, the English dubbing was most helpful, but the tape’s drastically-cropped image (from its original 2.35:1 Techniscope framing to something approximating 1.66:1) definitely made things far too cramped, seriously compromising much of Riccardo Pallottini’s carefully-composed camerawork. As mentioned above, during the ’80s, the film also came out on Japanese VHS videocassette in a highly presentable fully-letterboxed release from Pack-In Video, but alas that tape came only in Italian with burned-in Japanese subtitles. In 2003, the film’s first official DVD release also emanated from Japan courtesy of King Records, and although their disc was non-anamorphic, it did contain an English audio track and was properly framed at 2.35:1, even retaining the film’s exploitable Anglo export title. Later that same year, the Italian-based zine Nocturno released the film in Italy, but once again the DVD did not contain any English audio.
In 2011, the German label Al!ve AG, in conjunction with Colosseo Film, tackled the film with an impressive 2-DVD set (encoded for Region 2) containing a superb 16x9 edition of the 2.35:1 film. Unlike previous transfers, which had a tendency to be dull and murky, detail this time around was far sharper, not only showcasing the appropriately dark black levels (especially evident during a few of the film’s nighttime scenes) but its properly-rendered colours as well, which really popped off the screen in scenes showing the film’s early-’70s interior décor. Of course, the gritty urban setting also comes through just fine, with plenty of suitably bleak and oppressive browns and greys (the firing squad-type execution of the Staddarini character on the banks of the Tiber most readily springs to mind). Audio choices for Al!ve’s edition included German, Italian and English, all of which were in Dolby Digital mono and sounded fine, without any discernible issues. Optional German subtitles were also included, while the only extra to be found on this first DVD release was the film’s original Italian trailer (3m36s). All of the extras were included with the second DVD but, it being a German release, none of them were English-friendly. The most substantial extra was The Way We Were (67m51s), which included interviews with the film’s producer Dieter Geissler, German writer / actor Peter Berling and two of the film’s principal actors: Mario Adorf and Jürgen Drews. Much of TWWW’s running time documents their careers and how they became involved in the film, and in the case of Berling, the general film scene at the time; their time spent in Rome; working with director “Steno” / Stefano Vanzina; and the many challenges of communicating in so many different languages on set (a commonplace state of affairs for a continental co-production). While much of the doc comprises talking heads, it also includes a generous amount of visual material and film clips from the film itself, as well as from some of Geissler’s acting roles, such as Pim de la Parra’s OBSESSION (1969); Mario Adorf’s other Italocrime film, Fernando di Leo’s MANHUNT (a.k.a. THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, 1972); and Peter Berling’s numerous stints in front of the camera, including on Werner Herzog’s Amazonian adventure epic AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972). Next up was yet another lengthy on-camera interview with co-star Jürgen Drews (55m36s), which, once again, isn’t English-friendly. Rounding-out the extras is a photo and poster gallery depicting many of the film’s press materials, including German plakats (posters), Italian fotobuste (XL lobby cards) and plenty of black-and-white stills. The 2-disc set came housed in a standard Amaray case with reversible artwork and a 12-page (in-German-only) booklet, all enclosed in a nice slipcover.
|Courtesy of the Fentonian Institute.|
Even if EXECUTION SQUAD doesn’t have the fast-paced, action-packed thrills of later Italocrime films along the lines of, say, an Umberto Lenzi or Fernando di Leo street-crimer, Stefano Vanzina’s film is nonetheless an engaging, sharply-written film that remains essential viewing, not only for the fact that it also helped instigate and mold an entire genre of Italian moviemaking. Order the Blu-ray from DiabolikDVD or Amazon Germany.
Trivial Footnote: As an intentional pun on the original Italo title of Vanzina’s famous and influential ’71 film, LA POLIZIA RINGRAZIA also became the title of a XXX hardcore Italian porn movie (ca. 2000) directed by “Frank Simon” and starring Ursula Cavalcanti.