Monday, March 4, 2024

Years Of The Poliziotteschi: Italy’s Films Of Lead And Blood

Gangster crime dramas date back to the early years of sound and the obsession with the Italian Mafia came when it was first recognized as an existing organized crime unit. Italy’s post-war economic boom began to collapse in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, and so did the political structure. The rise of terrorist groups, namely between neo-fascists and communists, descended Italy into chaos, even going so far as the infamous kidnapping and murder of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. Birthing out of this madness was a new genre in Italian cinema that was influenced by American and French dramas and would later influence a future generation of directors including Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Paolo Sorrentino, and Matteo Garrone. 


The Decay Of Honor

The word poliziotteschi is a combination of “poliziotto” (policeman) and “esco” (related to). Common to the background of the Poliziotteschi genre are characters from both the police and organized crime. The system they worked in was full of corruption and no one can be really trusted, even those in the hierarchy of the police. All of the leading characters are cynical and have to fight for themselves to survive. Working outside the law and becoming vigilantes, they have to work to achieve justice in such films as Kidnap Syndicate and The Big Racket. While law enforcement condemned these movies for glorifying vigilantism, the general reaction to this was that someone, anyone, has to see justice done since the police can’t do anything.

These movies portray political activists and militant groups negatively, needing to destroy them as they are a nuisance in Italian society. Whether they are far-right or far-left is no different to the police and Mafia. This was all against the backdrop of the “Years of Lead,” this social upheaval full of violence and uncertainty across the country. The fear from conservatives of a Marxist upheaval and the fight from leftists from neo-fascist revivalism was exploited in these movies, presenting a complicated view of this period where there was total anarchy. It is reactionary and presents the audience with no heroes in a no-win situation. 



Establishment contemporary critics were appalled by this trend, but, in parallel to Hollywood’s new style with the MPAA system, Italian cinema found freedom in putting their blood in color. Carlo Lizzani’s Bandits In Milan, arguably the first film of the poliziotteschi genre, was based on a real bank heist that went awry, leading to deaths and destruction. Enzo G. Castellari’s High Crime was influenced by recent American crime dramas such as Bullitt and The French Connection and would help popularize cop thrillers. Shootouts, bombings, and strangulations involving women and children are depicted, shocking audiences while playing the real-life tragedies that no one is innocently spared. Cops, politicians, their wives, and their children were always targeted by these figures and so it was not too much of a reach to have these stories play out. Even the posters themselves, such as Shoot First, Die Later, Gang War In Milan, and Colt 38 Special Sqaud blasted out their violent content as a snippet of what to expect.


Bosses Of The Genre

Many directors got their start by making movies in this capacity after a period of being collaborators with other established directors. Fernando Di Leo was known as one of Sergio Leone’s writers for his Spaghetti Westerns. Ruggero Deodato learned how to direct from his mentor, Roberto Rossellini. Elio Petri got his start as an assistant under Giuseppe De Santis for his film, Bitter Rice. Others such as Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Sollima were already directing films and were transitioning from other genres. Petri’s Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion would go on to win the Oscar for Best International Feature. 

The actors who became noted for their roles in poliziotteschi films were not always Italian; in fact, major stars from abroad would star in several major films. Charles Bronson, Joseph Cotten, Alain Delon, Jack Palance, Leonard Mann, Eli Wallach, and James Mason are among many notable names that would be cast in at least one film. Henry Silva was one major American star who was recast in multiple films, playing the hitman. This includes The Italian Connection, Il Boss, and Cry Of A Prostitute. Antonio Sabato Sr., Adolfo Celi, Gian Maria Volonte, Angelo Infanti, Maurizio Merli, and Mario Adorf were among the main stars in several films.

The spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Cold War spy thrillers that boomed in the 1960s gave way to the grittiness and realism of the 1970s when many countries were changing. Europe was at its most heightened sense of vulnerability because political terrorism was becoming too commonplace and organized crime was only starting to be confronted head-on. By 1980, the genre began to fall out of favor as it became much of a parody and the subsequent decade saw this genre become an actual series of spoofs when the real-life violence started to subside. The legacy of this genre is a reflection of 1970s Italy and poignant moments from these blood-soaked crime stories that were later repeated in other major works of a crime drama like Sorrentino’s Il Divo and Garrone’s Gomorrah. Even today, the reality is that the fight between cops and powerful syndicates still exists and doesn’t go away.

Follow me on Twitter: @brian_cine (Cine-A-Man)


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