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Categories: FeaturedFilm Essays

The Neorealist Connection: Italy’s Polizieschi

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For many critics and filmmakers alike, the Italian Neorealist movement began in 1943 with Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, an adaptation of the classic American crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain, which would itself spawn two stateside versions — a noir classic directed by Tay Garnett in 1946, and a neo-noir take in 1981, directed by Bob Rafelson. Made during fascist control of Italy, Ossessione signaled the trajectory that the country’s cinema would take in the aftermath of World War II, which produced films like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta; 1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette; 1948). These films, among others, exemplify Italian Neorealism in form, content and means of production — they are made mostly with available light and unobtrusive camera style, feature working class protagonists struggling to achieve economic dignity in a harsh postwar environment and are shot prominently in locations rather than in studios, using a number of non-professional actors in key roles; the films are united by their leftist viewpoint, unwavering sympathy for Italian society’s downtrodden and now-taken-for-granted technical innovations. The Italian Neorealist film would become a staple of film history courses, a sign of Italy’s most well-known and celebrated period of cinema. According to author Mira Liehm, in Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, “the first neorealists appeared on the historical and cultural scene precisely as a familiar and dedicated group — an already existing collective will — equipped with necessary production means and determined to emerge from insanity.” The war, the fall of the fascist state, the bitter partisan struggle for control in a listless, leaderless country, the economic calamity, the precarious state of the nation’s psychology — all shaped the Neorealist tradition. The 1970s — regarded by many critics as a decade of cinematic decline in Italy — produced very different films.

Though Italian horror films dominate the cultural imagination of 1970s Italian cinema (the gialli of Dario Argento and others; the zombie movies of Lucio Fulci and others; the cannibal films of Sergio Martino and others), the crime movies under the genre label polizieschi occupy a different stylistic space from the baroque, expressionistic horror directors’ most celebrated films. Many of Argento’s films, for instance, are bathed in unmotivated, nightmarish neon and scored by synthesizer-driven music, each highlighting artifice. The gialli’s ubiquitous zoom lens draws full attention to the camera as an intrusive force, frequently adopting the point of view of the genre’s black-gloved slashers, their voyeuristic peeping culminating in stabbings and stranglings of their often female victims. The zombie and cannibal movies likewise rely on the crafted, carefully designed special effects that bring monsters and their accompanying violence to bloody, gory life. The Italian horror film is prominently stylized to such a degree that the style is often the genre’s main selling point, sacrificing coherent narrative in favor of the sensational — the emotional responses engendered in the audience, either through visual and aural style or the confrontational use of intense gore, are the primary intended effect, rendering story and character secondary. On the other hand, the polizieschi, a worthy point of comparison thanks to its equally “low” genre status, carry the Neorealist tradition established by the movement’s titanic figures — Visconti, De Sica and Rossellini — into a tumultuous period in Italian culture. Some of the polizieschi’s most notable practitioners, Fernando Di Leo and Enzo G. Castellari, made a number of the genre’s strongest efforts, but Martino and Fulci also experimented with the story conventions and stylistic tendencies. In stark contrast to the hyper-stylized Italian horror film of the 1970s, the polizieschi draw more heavily on the Neorealist tradition, using real locations and cinematic signifiers meant to resemble the documentary approach, in their socially-minded condemnations of systemic corruption perpetrated by unholy alliances between the Mafia and the police. Though these films frequently bear the hallmarks of Italian exploitation cinema, with their extreme violence, casual approach to sexuality and flimsy production values, they represent a cynical extension of Neorealism’s sympathies with the victims of an unjust society.

Neorealism looms large for all Italian filmmakers — it was so influential that the second generation of Italian auteurs needed to react against it in order to develop their own voices. Michelangelo Antonioni turned inward, his psychological studies of emotionally stunted middle class Italians playing out in real locations. Like the Neorealists, Antonioni shot on the streets, but his city blocks were prisons; in the mythic studies of the Neorealist period, the streets always represent the freedom the best filmmakers built for themselves by leaving the studios (which were either shut down or ruined after the war), the ultimate symbol of liberation that influenced a number of future directors around the world to pick up their cameras and go out into the world. Federico Fellini, on the other hand, became a fantasist, preferring stories that privileged dreams and spectacle; his characters were circus performers and film directors, people who built imaginary worlds that they could not make real in their lives. Each filmmaker’s legacy shows the twin impulses of any artist working in the shadows of giants — the first, to imitate, risks the subordination of the individual voice, while the second, to defy, risks altogether discarding important works and their attendant innovations. Antonioni and Fellini demonstrate a deft balancing of the two impulses, their films wholly unique and representative of their own visions, but also profoundly engaged with the works of the Neorealists who preceded them.

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By the 1970s, genre filmmakers working in Italy had enough distance from the Neorealist movement that they could guiltlessly adopt its signifiers without losing their artistic identities. In addition, the directors who made Italian horror films and polizieschi were less concerned with originality — in fact, quite the opposite. Their titles, character types and genre premises were often obviously lifted from successful films, a trend begun by the Hercules film cycle of the middle 1950s and given full flourish by the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. In a dynamic that both the gialli and the polizieschi would follow, each genre produced its great works, which spawned imitators until it was totally bereft of value, eventually withering away to nothing. In the case of the polizieschi, the most important cinematic forebears come not from Italy, but from the United States, where police and Mafia figures were enjoying an on-screen renaissance, driven by New Hollywood filmmakers like William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. The popularity of Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) not only spawned renewed interest in the Mafia as a subject in America, but in Italy as well, no doubt aided by the significant portions of both films shot in Sicily. Coppola’s elevation of Mafia figures to near-mythic status itself represented a kind of hybrid narrative that married the “low” gangster genre with the operatic approach of Visconti’s The Leopard (Il gattopardo; 1963), an epic about the decline of an aristocratic Italian family in the face of historical change. The breadth of Coppola’s influence would extend to such polizieschi as The New Godfathers (I contrabbandieri di Santa Lucia; 1979), which opens with a montage of gangland mayhem obviously indebted to the climactic assassinations of the heads of the five families that concluded Coppola’s epic. The same year, Umberto Lenzi would direct From Corleone to Brooklyn (Da Corleone a Brooklyn; 1979), a title that not only echoed Don Vito’s original journey chronicled in The Godfather Part II, but reminded audiences of the famous mob family’s surname in an overt, opportunistic way. Polizieschi filmmakers would take Coppola’s subject matter and return the genre’s stock characters — psychotic gangsters, corrupt policemen on the take, stone-faced thieves, vengeance-seeking vigilantes, among many others — to the streets, with an obvious debt to the chaotic, run-and-gun shooting style that Friedkin used in 1971’s The French Connection. Friedkin’s near-documentary approach, which used the streets of New York City to its great advantage, signifies its authenticity in a similar manner as the Neorealist movement did some 30 years prior in Italy. The apotheosis of The French Connection comes midway through, as Gene Hackman’s loose-cannon police detective “Popeye” Doyle pursues an international assassin through the streets of New York City in a breakneck car chase that rewrote the rules for on-screen action. When Hackman crashes the car into a pile of trash cans, or when Friedkin captures the speeding vehicle from a block away, the entire sequence feels dangerously out-of-control, as if anything might happen. Though Doyle eventually catches up to the fleeing assassin, and, quite shockingly for a police officer, shoots him in the back as he runs up the stairs to a subway platform, the film ends on a bracingly cynical note — the main object of Doyle’s pursuit, the drug trafficker Charnier (Fernando Rey), escapes. The French Connection shares its downbeat outlook with a number of American films of the 1970s, its filmmakers embittered and pessimistic by the failure of the counterculture movement to produce real results; many of its most inspirational leaders were assassinated or became parodies of themselves, the war they hated raged on despite their protests and their nemesis, Richard Nixon, had not only been elected president in 1968, but had been reelected by an enormous margin in 1972. As the decade wore on, the darkness only seemed to get worse, a point-of-view best illustrated by the ending of another Hackman-starrer, 1975’s Night Moves. Hackman’s private detective character, having failed to solve the crime at the film’s center, is left bleeding in a fishing boat, which spins in a circle on the wide, empty ocean. As Penn’s camera floats away from the boat, its aimless rotation and Hackman’s impotence in the face of the crime he was tasked with solving coalesce into one of the most cynical, depressing endings in a film movement that more or less began with the pointless assassinations of the outlaw heroes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and ended with a brutal melee that claims the lives of nearly an entire frontier town in Heaven’s Gate (1980).

Cynicism dominates in the American films of the 1970s, and the polizieschi do more than simply adopt the formal aesthetic of films like The French Connection — their downbeat outlook was just as easy to import. Italian filmmakers had good reason. Their society was marked by cultural upheaval, as was the United States. In Peter Bondanella’s indispensable book A History of Italian Cinema, the author’s chapter on the polizieschi articulates the social motivations behind the proliferation of these crime films in the 1970s; according to Bondanella, the decade was characterized by “widely publicized and explosive mafia violence,” “widespread strikes and labor unrest,” “the spread of the use of narcotics,” “an explosion of petty burglaries, shoplifting, purse snatching, and minor violence” and “brutal assassinations and terrorist bombings.” Though Bondanella is describing the actual conditions on the ground in Italian society during the 1970s, he may just as well be describing the polizieschi themselves, which make heavy use of these plot devices to stage bitter battles over the soul of the country, personified by gangs and police officers struggling to control its moral landscape. In The Hired Gun, aka Go Gorilla Go (Vai Gorilla; 1975), a wealthy businessman whose daughter has been threatened with kidnapping sums up the mood: “What a country. To live in it, you have to get out of it,” he says while putting her on an airplane intended to spirit her to safety. In the polizieschi, criminal organizations have nearly unlimited reach. The Mafia muscles in on local business owners, demanding protection payments in exchange for sparing them physical violence; its bosses issue orders to threaten, kidnap or kill from luxurious offices, surrounded by armies of henchmen; on the streets, the chaos the Mafia’s foot soldiers create consumes the cities, sweeping up the innocent and the guilty alike. These films think little better of the official institutions meant to counterbalance the Mafia’s criminal power. Renegade cops often bemoan the inflexibility of the bureaucracy that prevents them from doling out true justice, chafing against their superiors or unseen politicians who have tied their hands with regulations and laws meant to protect citizens’ rights. The police are, at best, powerless to stem the tide of violence, always arriving late to a crime scene in the aftermath, forever playing catch-up to gangs whose influence and greed make them capable of anything. At worst, however, the police are co-conspirators, just as susceptible to the temptations of money and power as the Mafia dons, and often just as willing to use violence to keep their hold on both. Relationships between and within power structures are tenuous and rest only on the moment’s convenience, as alliances are discarded and forged within minutes. Everyone is using everyone else, and the only question is when, not if, the betrayal will come.

Such a chaotic environment breeds cynicism, which infects the films’ endings — many are downers, with heroes laid low by bullets in the back or the inevitable double crosses. In Di Leo’s Caliber 9 (Milano calibro 9; 1972), master thief Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin) manages to outwit an entire crime syndicate and the police, making off with a small fortune, only to be shot from behind by his wife’s lover, the pair having conspired to betray him. Enzo G. Castellari’s Street Law (Il cittadino si ribella; 1974), a vigilante variation on Death Wish (1974), stars Franco Nero as a lawyer humiliated by a gang of bank robbers in the film’s opening sequence; Carlo (Nero) is kidnapped and beaten, only to find the police unable to apprehend the perpetrators. He blackmails a thief, Tommy (Giancarlo Prete), into helping him find and kill the gang; they succeed, but not before the gang members nab and torture Tommy before shooting him to death in the open warehouse where the film’s final moments take place. Carlo holds his dead partner, howling in pain, their new friendship and bond now rendered tragic. In the final scene in the precinct, the police have agreed not to prosecute Carlo, so long as he renounce his vigilante ways; he cannot help but smirk on his way out of the station when he overhears another man railing against a desk sergeant, insisting that he will take the law into his own hands. In the polizieschi, vigilantism is the only rational response to a bloodthirsty criminal organization too powerful for the law, rendered absurd by the police’s inability to enforce it. However, the films’ predilection for vigilante justice has roots in Neorealism; De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, for many the paramount example of the movement, is itself built on a vigilante structure; the film’s fundamental humanism belies its narrative structure, which sends its working class protagonist Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) into the Roman underworld with his son to recover his stolen bicycle when the traditional authority structure proves indifferent to the crime. As in many vigilante films, Antonio becomes what he hates when his desperation pushes him to steal another man’s bicycle before he is stopped by the police.

Two of Castellari’s other polizieschi fuse Street Law’s vigilantism with the traditional police thriller narrative; The Big Racket (Il grande racket; 1976) and The Heroin Busters (La via della droga; 1977) both star Fabio Testi as a renegade police inspector who runs afoul of international drug smugglers. Testi does most of his own leaping, climbing and diving in these action spectaculars, shot through with Castellari’s signature predilection for blowing up cars and inventive strategies for shooting violence. Just as Street Law began with an act of ritualistic humiliation, which motivated its vigilante to take revenge against his tormentors, The Big Racket’s first action sequence occurs as a ruthless gang of extortionists surround the surveilling officer Nico Palmieri (Testi) in his car, and flip it over with him inside. Together, they roll it towards a rocky hillside and send it cascading down, which Castellari shoots from a variety of angles — most impressively, he places the camera inside the rolling car, with glass and rock flying around his star, who fights desperately to keep the shrapnel out of his eyes as the car tumbles to its resting place at the bottom of the hill. Palmieri plots his next moves from the hospital with several broken bones, a defeat he will spend the remainder of the film trying to avenge. His quest to bring the criminals to justice through official channels eventually runs into resistance, and he quits the force to form a band of vigilantes, each of whom has been wronged somehow by the racketeers. During one gunfight, a champion skeet shooter, Rossetti (Orso Maria Guerrini), comes to Palmieri’s aid and shoots several members of the gang; when his name makes it into the papers after his act of heroism, the gangsters break into his house, rape his wife and burn the apartment, turning the surviving marksman into a motivated assassin, eager to join Palmieri’s gang. Castellari opens the scene of the assault on Rossetti’s home with a long tracking shot that lingers over Rossetti’s medals and awards, all soon to be useless in defending his home from the attack he does not know is coming — Castellari, always quoting, matches the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), which tell the audience everything they need to know about the wheelchair bound photographer LB Jeffries (James Stewart) through a series of photographs, news clippings and pieces of busted equipment.

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Like many polizieschi, The Big Racket openly interrogates the moral contradictions inherent in a society plagued by violence; in order to stop the brutal gang, Palmieri must renounce the law and his legitimacy and form a gang of his own, armed to the hilt and shooting to kill. In Street Law, The Big Racket and The Heroin Busters, Castellari opens with a rapidly edited montage of anonymous crimes which play out against the films’ credits sequences; the result is the prevailing sense of the ubiquity of drugs, violence and mayhem, spreading out through Italy like an unstoppable oil spill. The still photo montage at the center of 1972’s Super Fly meticulously tracks the influx of heroin from New York City’s outer boroughs, populated by black and brown residents of the city, to midtown and lower Manhattan, where well-dressed and moneyed white elites get high on hustlers’ supply. Parks’s film makes a sophisticated visual argument about the process of the drug trade and its foundational inequalities, all through the use of still images set to Curtis Mayfield’s iconic “Pusherman.” Castellari achieves something similar, but the effect is the sense that all of Italy is about to be consumed in a conflagration. Di Leo’s Caliber 9 opens similarly, representing an Italy on the brink of total destruction; the polizieschi’s heroes (if they can be called that) move through this hostile environment, siege mentality shaping their every decision in an unceasing fight for survival. Throughout the polizieschi, those at the margins of society — the Mafia dons, the kidnappers, the drug traffickers, the thrill killers, the corrupt police, the double-crossers — threaten to consume its center. The films are set in Rome, Naples and Milan, sparing no region of Italy from the reach of its criminal enterprises. Empty warehouses, garbage dumps on the outskirts of town, rusted out fishing boats fallen into disuse and abandoned in drying riverbeds: all become magnets for criminal activity and the disgusting, morally bankrupt men who perpetrate it.

Though the genre is populated with low-rent thugs and corrupt cops, Di Leo’s characters are an especially vile rogue’s gallery of grotesques: sweaty, desperate gangsters with matted hair; thick henchmen with nasty scars lining their faces; gravel-voiced hitmen incapable of empathizing with their victims; Mafia chieftains who sit behind desks decorated ironically with the same bronzed cross, a reminder of their defiance of God’s laws and the predominance of the Catholic Church. One standout, Luca Canali (Mario Adorf) of The Italian Connection (La mala ordina; 1972), is a disgusting pimp who becomes the film’s hero by default, in contrast to the cold-blooded American assassins (Henry Silva and Woody Strode) hired to kill him. The film’s English title bears the obvious influence of Friedkin’s landmark crime caper, but so does its action centerpiece, an outrageous car chase through the streets of Milan. After a Mafia hitman runs down Canali’s wife and daughter in the streets with a van, Canali pursues him at first in a stolen car of his own and then on foot, a direct restaging of the iconic car chase sequence in The French Connection, which begins with an assassin firing shots from a rooftop at “Popeye” Doyle before the ensuing pursuit gets underway. Di Leo uses a handheld camera inside the passenger seats of the cars to capture the same energetic crackle as Friedkin’s film, and likewise mounts the camera on the cars’ bumpers to simulate the breakneck speed with which they travel through city streets, often filled with unsuspecting non-actors and non-professional drivers, infusing the sequence with chaotic madness. Car chases become de rigeur in the polizieschi, following Friedkin’s example. In these car chases, individual filmmakers find their way to artistic expression; a pair of films by Sergio Martino, The Violent Professionals (Milano trema: la polizia vuole giustizia; 1973) and Silent Action (La polizia accusa: il servizio segreto uccide; 1975), show the director’s interest in repeated shots of squealing tires, a refrain that guides his chase sequences and distinguish his action scenes from other directors working in the genre. Martino punctuates these sequences with absurd, stylized imagery — in The Violent Professionals, a chase careens past a mountain of flaming trash, and in Silent Action, a police car off-roads into an abandoned building that stretches the length of a tunnel, crashing through four evenly-spaced walls of glass primed for slow-motion shattering. In Violent Cops (Poliziotti violenti; 1976), Michele Massimo Tarantini favors placing the camera in the well beneath his drivers, so that the camera stares up at them as they furiously shift the car’s gear or yank the wheel to avoid impact with parked cars and retaining walls. The French Connection acts as a lodestar for the polizieschi, a car chase that recalls it seemingly the bar for entry into the genre — despite its ubiquity, the pleasure comes in seeing how each individual filmmaker folds this mandate into personal vision.

References to The French Connection abound elsewhere in the cycle — Ruggero Deodato’s Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (Uomini si nasce poliziotti si muore; 1976) opens with a bell-ringing Santa Claus standing on a city street; in Friedkin’s film, the Santa is Doyle, lying in wait for an opportunity to toss away the bell and pursue a hapless suspect through New York’s back alleys. Deodato’s main characters, rogue cops Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock), follow in the tradition of Doyle and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), but Deodato’s manic streak infuses them with the kind of borderline sociopathic edge more akin to the polizieschi. Fred and Tony’s goofball vigilantism delights (when they puckishly torch a lot full of fancy cars belonging to Italy’s corrupt elite) and terrifies (when they shoot suspects down in cold blood), anticipating the dividing line between humor and violence in films like Lethal Weapon (1987). Such contradictions fuel the entirety of the genre, as each film oscillates between sequences of deadly seriousness and outrageous comedy. The trio of teenage crooks in Young, Violent, and Dangerous (Liberi armati pericolosi; 1976) veer between sociopathy and Three Stooges routines, slapping each other silly one moment and gunning down rival gangs in a spray of machine gun fire the next. Umberto Lenzi’s ruthless Mafioso anti-hero Salvatore Cangemi (Antonio Sabato) in Gang War in Milan (Milano rovente; 1973) is a pimp who commands unwavering loyalty from his men while treating the women in his employ like a disposable commodity. Lenzi’s capacity for radical critique (often read by defenders of his cannibal films) leads to inventive use of montage that highlights the contradictions in his central character, as he intercuts Cangemi leading a group of his men in a song over dinner while his most loyal bodyguards garrote an apostate in the restaurant’s bathroom. The film’s ambivalence towards Cangemi produces simultaneous disgust and admiration — in order to reach the top in this terrible world, one has to be cruel. Lenzi indicts the entirety of the system by depicting the necessary brutality of one of its most successful players.

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The polizieschi explore the limits of anti-social behavior in characters whose moral compasses are always pointing in different directions. In some cases, the filmmakers working in this genre seem interested in providing cheap thrills, fulfilling what Stephen Thrower, in Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, calls “one of the guiltier pleasures of Italian exploitation.” Fulci’s poliziesco, Contraband (Luca il contrabbandiere; 1980), bears the unmistakable hand of its director, whose interest in gory special effects and characters’ capacity for human cruelty are on full display. Double-crossing gangsters end up on the business ends of others’ machine guns, their throats and heads exploding suddenly upon bullet impact. Abducted wives are raped and killed by ruthless henchmen. The film’s most cringeworthy moment comes when the film’s villainous trafficker The Marsigliese (Marcel Bozzuffi) — another of the genre’s references to the much-discussed Marseilles in The French Connection — holds a gas-burner’s flame against a woman’s face, which sizzles and scorches in a remarkably intense use of practical special effects that Fulci, as is his wont, holds on interminably. The ritualistic humiliation that inspired Castellari’s vigilantes to action has a similar effect on the other side of the law in Lenzi’s Almost Human (Milano odia: la polizia non può sparare; 1974). This time, a beating by accomplices turns a twitchy getaway driver, Giulio Sacchi (Tomas Milian), into a psychotic madman after he screws up on a bank job. Milian’s grinning, maniacal performance infuses the story with chaotic energy, as his violent outbursts become increasingly unpredictable. Inevitably, the man on his trail, Inspector Grandi (Henry Silva) must turn vigilante in order to stop the diabolical Sacchi. Polizieschi by Fulci and Lenzi, best known for their shock zombie movies and cannibal films, respectively, inevitably tilt towards the grotesque, turning their entries into a parade of violent horrors. On the other hand, filmmakers like Di Leo grew into the polizieschi, using the genre to explore ever-darker psychological terrain with increasing maturity and depth. In Shoot First, Die Later (Il poliziotto è marcio; 1974), police lieutenant Domenico (Luc Merenda) finds himself at a moral crossroads; having carried water for a local Mafia family in exchange for bribes, he suffers from an attack of conscience when his father, a police captain, tries to bring the organization down. The result is a bitterly ironic, hopeless film about the inevitability of damnation, solidified when Domenico is granted permission to kill the Mafia figure responsible for his father’s death, only to be double crossed by another police officer on the take immediately after carrying out his vengeance. Di Leo’s jaundiced view of contemporary Italian society carries into Kidnap Syndicate (La città sconvolta: caccia spietata ai rapitori; 1975), a seeming reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 landmark High and Low, in which a wealthy industrialist (Toshiro Mifune) in financial crisis must decide whether to pay the ransom for his servant’s young son, mistaken by kidnappers for the industrialist’s own boy. In Di Leo’s film, two kids, one rich and one poor, are kidnapped at the same time, setting up a class conflict between the wealthy boy’s father Filippini (James Mason) and the poor boy’s father, Mario (Luc Merenda again). Filippini’s initial promise to treat both boys the same quickly fades, as Mario becomes a vigilante to avenge the death of his boy; his rage manifests against the whole of Italian high society, struggling to make his son’s murder mean something in the face of such staggering legal and moral corruption.

Collectively, the Italian polizieschi depict an anarchic world that follows in the footsteps of American noir, but, owing to the concentrated decade of their production, feel more like a primal scream than a dull ache. Like much of Italian genre cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, the polizieschi are extreme in their depiction of violence and sexuality, and marked by their low budgets and run-and-gun aesthetics. And like many genres, especially in Italy, the polizieschi flamed out — eventually, there were no more cars to chase, no more criminals to gun down, no more gangsters to blow up. Though the giallo has found new life with the elevation of Mario Bava and Dario Argento to full-blown auteur status, and Fulci’s zombie films have become cult objects that speak to many cultures’ continued interest in the undead, the polizieschi are less primed for rediscovery. Horror audiences are good at advocating for the genre’s history; action cinema’s audiences are less so. In contrast to contemporary action films, where death-defying stunts are nearly always aided by wires, bullets hitting glass and blood splashes are almost certainly CGI, and car crashes frequently transcend the laws of physics, the defining author of action cinema in the 21st century is the computer. Spectacle reigns and plausibility drains. To watch the polizieschi, many of which depict reprehensible characters who do horrible things in service of disgusting ideological motivations, is to visit the world of the real. For all their faults — anyone who has ever seen an example of Italian genre cinema knows them well — they are bound by a set of useful limitations grounded firmly in reality. Though the polizieschi may seem far away from the quiet nobility of the Neorealist films, with all their sober-minded social critique, they are bound together by the privileging of the real world. They carry forward into genre cinema the techniques that mark Neorealism, though they apply them in service of cynicism, vigilantism and a bleak worldview that takes violent death and the dissolution of the social order for granted. In Neorealism, individual dignity is enough of a bulwark against the meanness of the world, but in the polizieschi, it cannot be overcome. In the polizieschi, the crime-ridden Italy of the 1970s earns an exaggerated, heightened treatment that distorts the truth on the ground; however, the filmmaking is firmly tethered to what can be done with a camera and a driver behind the wheel.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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