Dirty Harry with an Italian Accent: The Italian Cop Movies of the ‘70s
The Italian film industry of the 1960s and ‘70s was the most robust and successful of any European country of that period. Italians were the most dedicated moviegoers in Europe—they spent, on average, four or five nights a week at the nation’s estimated 13,500 cinemas. This was a result of a combination of factors unique to the Italian culture of the period. The Italian people had a very active night life; their evenings were spent out walking, dining, and going to the movies. With only two television channels, and only two movies a week shown on those channels, there were few options for entertainment at home.
This created an enormous demand for a steady stream of new films from the domestic film industry. It was an industry totally devoted to the model Exploitation filmmakers had been using for years—find an original concept that was a winner, and copy it until you had wrung every last drop of profitability from that concept.
The original concept was frequently imported from America—in the 1950s, it had been movies such as Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, and Spartacus that inspired the Peplum, the Sword-and-Sandal films that defined Italian cinema through the mid-1960s. When that fad had burned itself out, the Spaghetti Westerns were there to take over, drawing on that most American of film genres for its inspiration. And as the 1960s transitioned to the 1970s, it was films such as Bullitt, The Detective, and The French Connection that fed the imaginations of Italian filmmakers, and led to the creation of the Poliziotteschi, the Cop and Gangster films that dominated Italian cinemas in the 1970s.
A corruption of the grammatically correct phrase Poliziesco, meaning “related to police,” and which refers to any police procedural drama, Poliziottescho (the singular form of Poliziotteschi) refers to the lone tough guy; either a cop who’s tired of playing by the rules and seeing the bad guys win time and again, or the rogue gangster, who has either decided to go straight, or is being hunted by both the cops and his former associates. A typical Poliziottescho was characterized by a strong protagonist, an equally strong antagonist, tremendous action sequences, over-the-top violence, misogynous attitudes, car chases, car crashes, and plots that were often thin to the brink of anorexia. And according to Mike Malloy’s excellent documentary on the genre, Eurocrime: The Italian Cop and Gangster Films that Ruled the ‘70s, the best of them had one theme in common: one man alone against the world.
Like the American Super-Cops that inspired them, there was frequently distrust, even outright animosity, towards authority. Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, however, the Italian version’s anti-authoritarianism had a deeply rooted political dimension, colored by the Leftist Radicalism that swept through Italy beginning in the late ‘60s. As film historian Roberto Curti describes, “Events of 1968 paved the way for extreme political tensions, which resulted in bomb blasts, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, and even an aborted attempt at a coup d’etat, in December 1970.” Even so famous a person as former Prime Minister Aldo Moro wasn’t safe from the violence—he was kidnapped, held for fifty-five days, then murdered. Just as the American crime films of the period were reflections of the wave of violent crime sweeping through the big cities of America at the time, so too were the Poliziotteschi indicative of the national anger at the inability of those in power to curb the near-endemic state of violence the Italian people were forced to deal with every day.
Another hallmark of the Italian style of filmmaking was the extreme faddishness of the industry. Once a trend was seized upon, it was consumed with all the vigor of a Mastiff with a porterhouse steak. As it was with the Peplum, then the Spaghettis, then the Poliziotteschi, producers dove into a trend headfirst, almost to the exclusion of other genres. The studios had an incredible production schedule to maintain, between 400-600 films, every year . Doing that required an extremely short shooting schedule for each film, as well as shooting multiple films simultaneously.
Where American directors might do three or four camera set-ups in a shooting day, Italian productions would average over a hundred a day . This was made possible by the Italian practice of never using sync sound—all filming was done without sound, and everything was dubbed in afterwards. While Italian actors were used to this style of filming, the adjustment was especially difficult for American actors working in Italy to make. Still, the demand for American actors in Italian productions, and the money they could earn there, outweighed the inconvenience for most.
Two Americans, among many, that found work in Italian movies profitable were Henry Silva and Woody Strode. Strode, who had played professional football in the 1940s, had begun acting when that career had ended. He had his first critical recognition as the cowardly soldier in Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959), and then two performances the following year marked him as an actor to watch— in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge, and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Silva, who began acting in 1952, had rapidly become typecast as villains, bad guys, and gangsters. By this point in their respective careers, both men had been working in Europe for several years.
The second (following Caliber 9 [Milano Calibro 9; Milan Caliber 9], released on 15 February 1972) of director Fernando Di Leo’s trilogy of Poliziotteschi films based in part on the crime novels of Giorgio Scerbanenco, The Italian Connection (La Mala Ordina; The Bad Orders; Manhunt in the City; Manhunt in Milan; Manhunt) is not as polished or as solidly written as the former movie; however, the crude savagery that is the hallmark of this film helped to make it more commercially successful. Starring Mario Adorf, Adolfo Celi, and Luciana Paluzzi, in addition to Strode and Silva, it’s considered by many to be the best of Di Leo’s Poliziotteschi cycle.
The film opens in a large, luxurious office in New York City. Mr. Corso (Cyril Cusack), the Boss of Bosses, is giving orders to two of his hitmen, Dave Catania and Frank Webster (Silva and Strode). They are to go to Milan, meet with Don Vito Tressoldi (Celi), and take delivery of one Luca Canali (Adorf), a bottom-level pimp who Tressoldi blames for a missing shipment of heroin. Their instructions are to leave no doubt in the minds of the locals who is running the show, and to make an example of Canali—a gruesome spectacle of an example.
For his part, Luca Canali is blissfully unaware of the gathering storm that’s about to be unleashed on his life. A big, good-natured man, Canali doesn’t see himself as a criminal—he’s just a businessman, providing a needed service. He knows nothing of missing drugs, New York bosses, or visiting hitmen. He’s as far removed from Don Vito as a car salesman is from the CEO of General Motors.
Meanwhile, Catania and Webster have arrived in Milan, and are being assisted in the hunt for Canali by a woman named Eva Lalli (Paluzzi), who’s associated with Don Vito, and familiar with the Milanese call girl scene. The Americans aren’t pleased; they were expecting the pimp to be gift-wrapped, waiting for them. Now they have to go from club to club, wearing out shoe leather to find their target. However, Luca’s not hiding; anything but. He’s going about his business, including visiting his estranged wife Lucia (Sylvia Koscina) and their little girl. Luca wants to take care of them; he tries to give his wife money. She hates his business however, and is reluctant to take his, “whore money.” Also, his mistress Nana (Femi Benussi) is giving him grief—she’s tired of working the streets, she wants a house of her own, where she’d be safe from being rousted by the police. Just a day in the life of Luca Canali—until he gets a call from a young female revolutionary, warning him that there are two Americans hunting for him.
Of course, he’s heard about the Americans; they’ve been making waves throughout Milan. But he has no idea why they’d be after him. Then, when two of Tressoldi’s thugs grab him off the street and take him to a deserted lumber yard, he finally understands that his name has been put on a contract. He doesn’t yet know the why, but he plans to find out. He overpowers Don Vito’s button men at the lumber yard, making good his escape. Catania takes the opportunity to berate Tressoldi in front of his men, calling him a shit, calling his people shits. He shoots the two bag men who lost Canali in the legs, as an object lesson. In response, Don Vito finishes the job, killing both men.
After this, Luca meets up with a friend, Nicolo (Gianni Macchia), looking for a place to hide out. He also needs a gun. Nicolo tells him where to go for the gun, and tells Luca to meet him at his cousin’s house afterward. No sooner does Luca arrive at the black market gun seller than two of Tressoldi’s men show up looking for him. He manages to kill both, then before he goes to meet Nicolo at his cousin’s, calls Don Vito. Tressoldi lays it out plain: not only is Canali’s head on the chopping block, but his resistance, his refusal to just lie down and die like he should’ve, has put his wife and daughter’s heads on that block as well. Terrified, Luca heads straight to his wife’s workplace, to tell her to take their daughter out of school immediately and get out of Milan. Luca follows her to the school, and watches from a distance as a van runs them over, killing his wife and child. This precipitates one of the greatest, most tension-filled chases, not just in Poliziotteschi films, but in movies in general.
The Italian Connection would be followed by the final installment of Di Leo’s Milieu Trilogy, The Boss (Il Boss), released in Italy on 1 February, 1973, and also starring Henry Silva. It was the weakest of the three films, and received only limited distribution in the US.
While the impact of the Poliziotteschi genre on American Cinemas, particularly the Drive-Ins, was minimal, it was, when factored into the overall presence of the European Exploitation film, part of a very important whole. Without the low-cost and ready availability of European films, many ozoners would have had a difficult time keeping new movies on their screens, and happy customers in their lots.
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