Friday, July 2, 2021

YEARS OF LEAD: FIVE CLASSIC ITALIAN CRIME THRILLERS (1973-1977)

Even as Italian crime thrillers (or polizieschi, if you prefer the Italian moniker) continue to reach a wider audience outside of Europe, most fans on this side of the Atlantic still associate the genre with the collected works of Umberto Lenzi, Enzo G. Castellari and/or Fernando Di Leo. While there’s no denying the impact of those directors’ works, a number of excellent Eurocrime pictures still remain largely unknown outside the borders of a certain sunny peninsula over on the Continent. Encompassing a wide array of subgenres, including troubled youths, terrorism, high-octane action and even a giallo-styled thriller, Arrow Video have released YEARS OF LEAD: FIVE CLASSIC ITALIAN CRIME THRILLERS (1973-1977), a staggering, beautifully-packaged 3-disc Blu-ray box set, which should definitely whet the appetite of anyone looking to branch-out into unfamiliar—but highly-rewarding—territory. 

A well-made, thought-provoking social drama, Vittorio Salerno’s SAVAGE THREE (1975) is usually regarded as a poliziesco, simply by virtue of its urban “street” setting and the inclusion of Vittorio’s big brother Enrico Maria Salerno, a distinguished actor—originally known as a leading man in sophisticated comedies—who became inseparable from the genre after his defining performance in Stefano “Steno” Vanzina’s ground-breaking THE EXECUTION SQUAD (a.k.a. FROM THE POLICE... WITH THANKS, 1971). In the city of Torino (“Turin”), Ovidio Mainardi (former Warhol stud-muffin Joe Dallesandro) and his co-workers Giacomo (Gianfranco De Grassi) and Peppe (Guido De Carli) suffer from the drudgery of the everyday rat-race. While working as a computer technician at a government-run statistics bureau, after Ovidio, curious to see what would happen, purposely overcrowds their shit-strewn cage, he observes a bunch of lab-mice as they tear each other apart (a scene censored by the BBFC for the UK BD release). Pondering whether humans would respond in the same way under similar overcrowded conditions, the presiding scientist responds confidently, “There’s always one who starts biting the others.”  After Ovidio and his pals incite a riot at a soccer match later that day, their crime-spree continues unabated, and, in one of the film’s defining moments—shot in super slow-motion—Ovidio sticks a truck driver with a screwdriver during a motoring altercation.

 

Meanwhile, inspector and ex-Flying Squad member Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno) is assigned to the ongoing case, and he firmly believes these ‘incidents’ are not politically motivated, as his superiors would have him believe, but merely a result of ordinary people cracking under the strain and stresses of living in modern society (“We’re always under pressure. It might be the stress, the mistreatment,” he surmises). A succession of murder and sexual assault continues for much of the film’s running time, culminating with the abduction and rape of a pair of ‘upper class’ women (Carmen Scarpitta and Ada Pometti). It turns out that one of these victims was the wife of a highly-influential government official, so, at the behest of the deputy minister, the apprehensive police commissioner (Luigi Casellato), offers Santagà a deal: clean things up as quickly and quietly as possible!

 

Punctuated by a terrific progressive rock score by Franco Campanino (who also scored Dallesandro’s first foray into Italian crimeslime, Pasquale Squitieri’s superb THE CLIMBER [1975]), Vittorio Salerno’s SAVAGE THREE appears to be—on the surface, at least—yet another entry in a short-lived subgenre of mid-’70s Italo ‘youths-run-wild’ films. In spite of their boyish looks, these are not the usual spoiled rich kids with negligent parents unaware what their offspring are up too. Ovidio, Giacomo and Peppe all have regular jobs and ‘normal’ unassuming lives, but are simply bored by the drudgery of it all and looking for some ‘kicks.’ Never fully-explained or expounded upon, the jaded trio’s collective boredom may have been the primary instigator of their initial crime-spree but, in an interesting turn of events, their underlying sadistic streaks are antagonized by the aggressive environment in which they live… just like (symbolism alert!) those desperate lab-mice seen at the start of the film. 

 

Originally released in Italy as FANGO BOLLENTE (trans: “Seething Swamp”), SAVAGE THREE was barely released outside of Italy in the pre-DVD days (an English dubbed VHS tape was released on the Greek NK Video label), but it did finally garner a superb Region B Blu-ray in 2017 thanks to Camera Obscura. Arrow’s new disc features the same superior transfer, with optimally-balanced colours, strong contrasts, excellent black levels and a nice, consistent amount of natural film grain; in fact, it looks just about perfect! The DTS-HD MA mono Italian audio also sounds perfectly-balanced and clear throughout. 

 

In Rat Eat Rat (39m08s), the first featurette, ported-over from CO’s earlier release, director Vittorio Salerno and actress Martine Brochard discuss how the film came about, as well as discussing the formation of the independent production company Comma 9, which unfortunately only ever produced just this one film. Further topics of discussion includes Goffredo Lombardo’s Titanus distribution company; some of the film’s locations in and around Turin; and the casting of Joe Dallesandro (“I like his somewhat weird face!”). In The Savage One (40m56s), yet another doc ported-over from the CO BD, Severin’s David Gregory interviews Dallesandro in what is essentially a career overview, beginning with his early years working on Andy Warhol pictures, and also covering just about every other facet of Joe’s time working in Europe, including all of his polizieschi(precisely five in total). Unafraid to tell it like it is, Dallesandro even refers to his SEASON FOR ASSASSINS (Marcello Andrei, 1975) co-star Martin Balsam as a “knucklehead!” 

 

On the same disc, Mario Imperoli’s rarely-seen LIKE RABID DOGS (1977) is, like SAVAGE THREE, yet another variation of the ‘troubled youth’ (a.k.a. JD / “juvenile delinquent”) film. Following an armed robbery by a pair of hooded men at a soccer match, commissario Paolo Muzi (Jean-Pierre Sabagh) is soon on the case, but this latest robbery turns out to be connected to an ongoing spate of rampant criminality that is plaguing the city. Paolo suspects Tony (Cesare Barro) and his accomplices Rico (Luis de la Torre) and Silvia (Anna Rita Grapputo), but due to Tony’s influential father, Arrigo (Paolo Carlini), he can’t prove anything.  Despite having his hands tied, Paolo and Germana (Paola Senatore), his girlfriend and fellow poliziotta, team up in hopes of busting these sociopathic miscreants.

 

Despite the generic synopsis given above, this proves to be quite a departure from the usual Eurocrime films of the period. Director Imperoli (who also helmed the unusually nasty provincial vendetta flick CANNE MOZZE [1978], starring Antonio Sabato), chooses to explore many of the genre’s darker aspects, placing a particular emphasis on the politically-motivated upper classes, who, rather than play fair on a level playing field, simply use their financial and political clout to subvert the system to their benefit. When Arrigo, Tony’s equally-unbalanced pops, attempts to give him some much-needed advice (“The ultimate goal in life, as in a game, is victory!”), he essentially allows his son to do as he pleases so long as he gets away with it. Much like Aldo Lado’s brutally-effective thriller NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS (1975), Imperoli flips the dynamic on its head by instead having the affluent so-called ‘elites’ viciously tormenting their perceived social inferiors (i.e., those from the so-called ‘lower classes’) simply because they can, which culminates in a particularly nasty scene that looks like it stumbled in from another film altogether. LIKE RABID DOGS’ gut-punch conclusion is also particularly effective.

 

Impressively lensed in Technoscope by Romano Albani (Imperoli’s usual DP of choice), he makes great use of the format with some interesting compositions and moody lighting, which look terrific on Arrow’s new Blu-ray. Utilizing the same restoration as Camera Obscura’s 2014 Region B Blu-ray, this is another top-notch transfer, that still holds up very well after all these years. The DTS-HD MA mono Italian audio also sounds excellent, with Mario Molino’s funky Nico Fidenco-styled soundtrack sounding especially robust and full-bodied. 

 

A couple of highly worthwhile extras are included (also taken from CO’s disc), beginning with When a Murderer Dies (51m57s), an in-depth interview with the late Albani and film historian Fabio Melelli, who discuss at some length the (quote) “beloved” Imperoli and his short-but-impressive career. In It’s Not a Time for Tears (32m55s), assistant director Claudio Bernabei (a frequent collaborator of Joe D’Amato) discusses both details about the film in question and also his career in general. LIKE RABID DOGS’ no-holds-barred trailer and a much-appreciated two-track music sample from the film’s rare Italian 45rpm vinyl single are also included. 

 

The second disc starts things off with the HD debut of Massimo Dallamano’s final film, COLT 38 SPECIAL SQUAD (1976)—he died later that year as the result of a car crash at age 59—an impressive action programmer that provided the template for subsequent imitative ‘Special Squad’ actioners, such as Domenico Paolella’s STUNT SQUAD (1977), which also shared cast members Marcel Bozzuffi and Riccardo Salvino. After so memorably playing Pierre Nicoli, the relentless, cold-hearted hitman in William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONENCTION (1971), Bozzuffi made a string of Eurocrime appearances wherein he switched to the ‘right’—make that extreme Right!—side of the law (he eventually slipped back into criminality to play another vicious killer in Lucio Fulci’s ultraviolent CONTRABAND [1980]).

 

The city of Turin is once again the setting for COLT 38 SPECIAL SQUAD. After Inspector Vanni (Bozzuffi) kills his brother during a shootout, a criminal leader known as “The Black Angel” (Ivan Rassimov) swears revenge. In retaliation, Vanni’s wife is subsequently shot dead in full view of their juvenile son. With the District Attorney’s (Armando Brancia) permission, Vanni forms the Special Squad: four crack policemen, under his leadership, given autonomous power by their superiors. Their trademarks are driving motorcycles and—hence the title—powerful .38 Police Special handguns. Meanwhile, The Black Angel and his right-hand man Guido (Antonio Marsina) steal a shipment of dynamite and proceed to plant bombs throughout the city. Demanding a $10-million ransom in uncut diamonds, The Black Angel organizes an exchange enabling Vanni and his ‘SS’ to finally make a move.

 

Several well-choreographed, fast-paced action sequences are some of the film’s many highlights (including a car driving atop a moving train!), which proves the Special Squad are a force to be reckoned with. However, they soon begin abusing their new-found power (and the tenets of the Geneva Convention) when they employ deadly ‘dum-dum’ bullets that cause maximum internal damage to their unlucky human targets; it’s shoot first, ask questions later. As the Black Angel, Rassimov’s ice-cold character is also not without a sense of humour, albeit as dark as the wings of his celestial namesake. Using a TNT charge detonated via remote control, he disposes of a stool pigeon (Bernardino Emanueli) while the man takes a piss behind a tree. Elsewhere, one of the Angel’s underlings (Franco Garofalo) gets his fingers chopped-off by the slamming door of an accelerating getaway car. 

 

One of the many notable DVD titles from No Shame’s relatively short tenure on the market, Arrow Video’s new 2K restoration is a markedly-improved upgrade in every way; altogether sharper and more finely-detailed, with colours that truly pop, especially during the various nightclub scenes. The LPCM mono audio (included in both Italian andEnglish) really emphasizes all the screeching tires and gunshots, with Stelvio Cipriani’s propulsive score sounding especially spectacular. New wave / disco diva Grace Jones contributes two songs to the film, but no matter which language option you choose, both are—not unexpectedly!—poorly lip-synched.

 

Several worthwhile extra features are once again re-included from No Shame’s 2006 DVD, including A Special Groove for a Very Special Friend (here retitled as Always the Same Ol’ 7 Notes in the menu [25m48s]), a delightful career-spanning interview wherein late, great maestro Cipriani discusses his time working on Eurocrime films, collaborating with Grace Jones, and how he went about scoring the present title under discussion. In A Tough Guy (9m31s), editor Antonio Siciliano talks about getting his start in the industry and collaborating with much-revered director Dallamano. A video intro with Cipriani which precedes the film, its Italian theatrical trailer and a meagre image gallery round out the extras.

 

Having by then honed his directorial skills on a number of high-profile Italocrimers, director Stelvio Massi embarked on what was to be the second ‘phase’ of his prolific association with polizieschi when he helmed HIGHWAY RACER (1977), the second film on disc two. The first of no less than six actioners he made in conjunction with mighty genre icon Maurizio Merli, Massi substitutes much of the usual nastiness associated with such films, as he and scribe Aldo Capone instead channel most of the film’s energy into a wide range of increasingly risky, over-the-top autobatics, which rarely—if ever!—let up! And yes, signor Merli also appears without his trademark ’stache, which may catch some first time viewers a little off-guard.

 

Merli stars as Marco Palma, a wannabe ace wheelman with the Squadra Volonte / “Flying Squad”, a highly-trained unit of the Italian State Police whose main specialty—in this film, at least—is driving real fast. His superior officer, the legendary ex-squad car driver maresciallo Tagliaferri (Giancarlo Sbragia), is understandably growing weary of Palma’s excuses after he totals car after car. Sure enough, in yet another high-speed auto pursuit—this time involving a gang of crash-helmeted armed robbers in customized Citroëns led by the highly-respected French getaway driver Jean-Paul Dossenà (alias “il Nizzardo” / Angelo Infanti)—Palma wrecks his ‘new-and-improved’ car too, same as all the others. Taking the hot-headed Palma under his wing, he personally trains and equips him with his old hopped-up 1960 Ferrari 250 GTO and a fake ID in a ploy to infiltrate Dossenà’s seemingly uncatchable gang…

 

Human performances all-round are solid enough, but not surprisingly of superficial depth and placed strictly secondary behind their non-human (i.e., mechanical) protagonists: the cars! This really is a showcase for the talents of veteran stunt arranger extraordinaire Rémy Julienne (who passed away early into 2021 at the age of 90). At the height of his career as a stunt arranger, Julienne had provided plenty of breakneck metallic mechanized mayhem for such top Eurocrime flicks as Henri Verneuil’s THE BURGLARS (1971), Alberto de Martino’s Canadian-shot-and-set STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM (a.k.a. BLAZING MAGNUMS [1976]) and Maurizio Lucidi’s STREET PEOPLE (1976). In HIGHWAY RACER, frenetic and at times sloppily-executed stunts endow action with a realistic tone, including a logistically-impressive sequence that has Julienne driving (or rather tumbling end over end!) down the Spanish steps outside of Rome’s Trinità dei Monti church.

 

While far from his grittiest or best poliziesco (that honour would be reserved for EMERGENCY SQUAD [1974]), the present film’s lighter tone and almost playful approach to the material clearly demonstrated that lowest-common-denominator smash’n’crash action was undeniably its prime selling point, but it also proved Massi’s versatility as a director. HIGHWAY RACER is technically most accomplished, with enough inventive camerawork (it took two cinematographers to capture Julienne’s chaotic stunts) to keep things fresh and exciting for each and every elaborate chase sequence. Given the enormous impact of Merli’s previous successes in such prime Eurocrimers as Umberto Lenzi’s THE TOUGH ONES (1976), his appearance herein is also a bit of an anomaly, as the atypically clean-shaven, youthful-looking upstart whose only interest is to become the most skilled driver in the entire police force and then nab—or perhaps just outdrive—that gentleman bandit, il Nizzardo

 

Outside Italy, Massi’s film probably got its biggest exposure in Japan, where it was released onto Japanese Betamax/VHS videocassette by Pony Canyon as “FERRARI FALCON” (the Anglo translation of its Japanese title). Released in 2020 as part of their long-running Italian Genre Cinema Collection, Camera Obscura’s all-region Blu-ray was yet another absolutely gorgeous release, which is thankfully preserved on Arrow’s new disc. Boasting a beautifully-detailed and colourful image, with no digital enhancement of any sort, Arrow have, unlike the earlier CO disc, seen fit to include both Italian and English LPCM Italian mono audio options. A nice added touch, indeed!

 

The featurette Faster Than a Bullet (19m43s), a superb interview with Roberto Curti, author of the indispensable Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 (McFarland, 2013) has also been carried over from CO’s disc. He talks about the filmmakers’ attempts to make a film as a (quote) “detachment from the news stories”; the film’s original aborted ending when one of Julienne’s stunts didn’t quite work out; Brigadiere Armando Spatafora, the real poliziotto sprint on which Merli’s character was based; Massi’s (quote) “exciting use of the camera”; as well as a number of the film’s many cast members, including Sbarigia’s (quote) “fatherly role” and Lilli Carati’s rather nondescript part as Merli’s girlfriend, Francesca. Another brief image gallery is also included.

 

Treading much the same territory as Elio Petri’sOscar-winning INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970)—including such themes as the abuse of power and the divisive socio-economical strata of society—disc three begins with Vittorio Salerno’s remarkably tense and entertaining thriller NO, THE CASE IS HAPPILY RESOLVED (1973), which focuses primarily on the powerless: a ‘lower-class’ citizen, who, through no fault of his own, gets caught up in a murder investigation. 

 

While out fishing at Lake Bracciano just north of Rome, Fabio Santamaria (Enzo Cerusico) happens to witness the brutal murder of a woman and, in an incredibly nerve-wracking moment, merely stands there, frozen into immobility like a deer caught in the headlights, as he and the murderer make eye-contact for what seems like an eternity. Following an equally-intense drive back to Rome, the murderer in question turns out to be Eduardo Ranieri (Riccardo Cucciolla), a well-respected schoolteacher. Understandably anxious and disturbed by what he has seen, unwitting eyewitness Santamaria chooses not to go directly to the police. Instead however, unfortunately for him, Ranieri the actual culprit beats him to it, implicating Santamaria as the murderer. This fabricated accusation reduces the innocent man to a state of utter panic as he tries to cover up his tracks and stay out of reach of the long arm of the law…   

 

Right from the get-go, this is an absolutely riveting thriller, which not only takes elements from many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films (i.e., THE WRONG MAN [1956] or NORTH BY NORTHWEST [1959]), but also incorporates fundamental aspects of both the giallo and polizieschi.  Even though it does feature a hair-raising car chase from Rome’s Termini Station as Santamaria tries in vain to catch a bus through the windy streets of Rome, director Salerno is more concerned with exploring the flawed and equally-corrupt so-called ‘justice’ system with its societal profiling and the authorities’ unwavering commitment to simply have the case, as per the title, “happily resolved” by checking all the proper boxes and balancing the stats. During this time, a seasoned and highly-influential reporter, informally referred to as “don Peppino” (Enrico Maria Salerno), is also conducting his own investigation after a few questionable meetings with Ranieri, and he is convinced that everything isn’t as it might appear to be.

 

Despite the star-status of Riccardo Cucciolla, who won numerous accolades and awards for his role as anarcho-commie accused murderer Nicola Sacco in Giuliano Montaldo’s SACCO & VANZETTI (1971), it is popular actor Enzo Cerusico who carries the entire present film squarely on his shoulders, delivering an affecting performance of a depth and believability that just about outshines his fellow highly-regarded cast members. Usually relegated to playing ‘good guy’ roles, Cucciolla is also topnotch in his portrayal as the morally-conflicted and guilt-ridden murderer, who not only knows full-well that he has the upper hand, but is also continuously tempted by his affliction to murder again; it’s a wonderfully-nuanced performance filled with regret, sorrow and even all-out malevolence. Aside from the two central performances, which dominate the bulk of the film, Vittorio’s older bro Enrico Maria also adds immeasurably to the film as the “seen-it-all” ornery newshound, who, after all his years of experience at ferreting-out the truth, knows when something’s amiss. In what would typically be a stereotypical throwaway part, even French-born female lead Martine Brochard as Santamaria’s distraught wife contributes a great deal of pathos, further accentuating her husband’s ever-escalating torment, confusion and frustration.

 

Expertly-lensed by veteran DP Marcello Masciocchi, NO, THE CASE IS HAPPILY RESOLVED looks absolutely stunning on Arrow’s new disc, which is once again taken from CO’s immaculate 2016 restoration. Not only is this the long-unseen director’s cut of the film with its original—far more effective—ending (which continues to resonate long after the end-credits roll), but this transfer features excellent detail and bold, naturalistic colours, whereas the DTS-HD MA Italian mono audio likewise offers nothing to complain about. The biggest extra is a 40-minute featurette entitled Mother Justice (40m36s), which contains interviews with director Salerno and actress Martine Brochard, who talk candidly about all sorts of terrific facts related to the film’s origins and production. The Italian theatrical trailer and a brief image gallery are also included. 

 

Arrow Video’s exhaustive set finishes off in fine style beginning with Will Webb’s Poliziotteschi: Violence and Justice in the Years of Lead (20m17s), a superb video essay about the differing Eurocrime subgenres, with a particular emphasis on the films included herein, plus a thick 60-page book featuring detailed essays from the likes of Kat Ellinger, Troy Howarth, Michael Mackenzie, Rachael Nisbet and James Oliver. This is a stunning, must-own collection, which comes highly recommended!

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