Director: Elio Petri
Writers: Elio Petri and Ugo Pirro
Stars: Gian Maria Volonte, Florinda Bolkan, Gianni Santuccio, Orazio Orlanda
The Story: As Italy’s postwar government slowly devolves back towards becoming a police state, an unhinged chief of detectives decides to test the limits of his power by murdering his lover, then leaving a series of clues pointing towards his own guilt, desperately hoping to be caught, but knowing full well how unlikely that is.
How it Came to be Underrated: This is a special case, it was not underrated at the time: in fact it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar…But, for some reason (which I’ve never been able to determine), it has never been available on video or disc in America. Until recent advances in piracy, it could be seen only at revival houses. Inevitably, it has been forgotten here, which is a shame, since it’s a masterpiece.
Why It’s Great:
- Also forgotten in this country is the great Gian Maria Volonte, though you’ve probably seen him more that you realize: as the bad guys in Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More and co-star of Melville’s heist epic The Red Circle, for instance. His coiled fury is utterly hypnotic, hiding a sublimated maelstrom of clashing emotions: guilt for his murder, hatred and lust for his dead mistress, anger at his colleagues, and utter despair at the state of the world.
- Volonte’s character has no confidant, so how do we know what he’s doing as he manipulates the system, much less what he’s thinking? Luckily his victim was a kinky murder-groupie and he used to explain the wickedness of the system to her during their assignations. Those flashbacks now echo through his head as a bizarre greek chorus, commenting and explaining on his actions. It’s a clever and entertaining conceit.
- Though no cop would admit it in court, they know all too well that most witnesses cannot accurately describe a face they’ve just seen. Volonte’s detective has had that working against him so long that he can’t resist using it to his advantage now, delighting in the act of prolonging eye contact with witnesses to his crime and cover-up, daring them to finally get it right for once, but knowing that the system only sees what it wants to see.
- This world isn’t so far away from ours: Steve Jobs refused to put license plates on his car, knowing that no cop in Cupertino dared ticket him, but all that power never made him happy. As terrible as it is to be in a situation where you know you’re being discriminated against, it’s also sickening in its own way to realize that you’re getting unfair advantages. This movie shows how you cannot have contempt for others without also having growing contempt for yourself.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another brilliant Italian movie from the same year, also about a kinky conscience-stricken fascist, was Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Rewatching this, I also saw connections to the recent German stunner The Lives of Others.
How Available Is It?: I don’t usually feature movies that are only available on bit torrent, but I was dying to see this again so I made an exception. Since it doesn’t seem likely to ever be released here, you may have to take drastic measures. For what it’s worth, there are great prints floating around out there in the ether.