Slaughter Commissions: Crime Films and the Italian Crisis

Mario Imperoli’s 1976 film Like Rabid Dogs opens with a brutal armed robbery that takes place in the bowels of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico in the middle of a football match. The footage used to frame this scene is taken from a real game — the ‘76 play-off between Lazio and Sampdoria, a relegation fixture that ended in a 1-1 draw. This was the first Italian match to be patrolled by police with German shepherd dogs, largely due to the fear of hostile pitch invasions by rival fans. Playing for Lazio that day was Luciano Re Cecconi, the star centre who would be shot dead one year later by the owner of a jewellery store in Rome, a victim of “the same violence we see in the movie” (in the words of film historian Fabio Melelli). Re Cecconi’s blonde mop is briefly captured on film, as are the police dogs circling the perimeter of the stadium, and these details convey the immediacy of the moment, disrupting the boundary that normally separates reality from fiction. In addition to this, Imperoli’s story of three middle class students who get their kicks from robbery, rape and murder echoes a case that shocked Italy the year before, and the lurid nature of those crimes is reflected in the gratuitous violence and sleazy atmosphere of the film itself. Like Rabid Dogs is the product of an imploding society — it shows it, but is also part of it. 

The Italian poliziotteschi movies of the 1970s have a closer proximity to period reality than most genre films made before or since. The recent Arrow box set, Years of Lead — which includes a pristine restoration of Like Rabid Dogs — makes this explicit by linking five disparate crime movies to the crisis of the First Republic. This linkage is completely appropriate and it is also smart marketing. These films, like those of the neorealists before them, are direct products of the national dislocation, anxiety and violence of the time, which is a large part of their energy and appeal. In an essay commissioned by Arrow, Troy Howarth roots the poliziotteschi in the 1960s crime films of Carlo Lizzani, a former assistant to Roberto Rossellini, thereby suggesting a loose overlap with neorealism that can be seen in certain techniques and sensibilities that the genres share. Imperoli’s appropriation of real football footage is one example of this, and the habit of filming car chases without permission in the middle of live traffic in large Italian cities is another. Like Rabid Dogs is filled with spectacular and completely illegal chases, partly because Imperoli was able to hire one of the top specialist stunt drivers working in Italy at the time, Sergio Mioni. In the same year, Ruggero Deodato shot an infamous chase sequence in the middle of the Roman rush hour for his own poliziotteschiLive Like a Cop, Die Like a Man. To do this he had to film quickly before the traffic cops could mobilise, so the result was visceral and unhinged, crackling with real danger and adrenaline. Like Lizzani, Deodato cut his teeth working as an assistant to Rossellini and he would later combine the tricks of neorealism with the excesses of the mondo documentary to explosive effect in Cannibal Holocaust. There is a real sense in which the chaos and lawlessness that Imperoli and Deodato put on screen was also part of the process of actually making these movies. This was key to their success and impact and as a result you can still learn a lot about the death spiral of the First Republic by watching them. 

So, for example, Vittorio Salerno’s 1975 Savage Three takes some basic cues from A Clockwork Orange, as Imperoli does in Like Rabid Dogs, but both films strip away the literary pretensions and replace them with parochial concerns and pathologies. The location of Salerno’s movie is key: set in Turin, the city symbolises Italy’s industrial salvation and decline, from the Economic Miracle of the 1950s to the crisis of the 1970s. Turin always had this role, and all the major exhibitions held to commemorate the centenary of Italian unification in 1961 took place in the city of Fiat, an icon of the nation’s consumer and export boom. For the same reason, Fiat factories saw the most important strikes of 1969, and Fiat’s middle managers became prime targets for terrorist kneecappings and assassinations through the 1970s. So the city also provided a symbol for Italian disunity — or, as Emilio Gentile described it, the fragility of the myth of the nation. Turin had been the first capital of Italy and unification had been led by the Piedmontese: their King became the King of Italy and their army imposed the laws and institutions of Piedmont on the rest of the country. The south, in particular, rebelled against ‘Piedmontization’ from the very beginning and this historic resentment was exacerbated by mass immigration to the industrial north during the postwar boom. Southern immigrants felt out of place and openly despised here: human cattle filling the factories of a northern oligarchy. Turin, the historic capital of Italian unification and home of the largest company in Italy, was packed tight with highly combustible human material. 

In Savage Three, the city’s fading streets, piazzas and parks provide the stage for an outburst of nihilistic violence perpetrated by a gang of three friends who work in technical jobs at a computer processing plant. Ovidio Mainardi (Joe Dallesandro) is their unofficial leader and a slowly unravelling psychopath who instigates an escalating cycle of destruction. Pepe (Guido de Carle) is from the south and lives with his extended family in a cramped apartment. Like the protagonists in Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, he is dangerously alienated and adrift in this new urban environment. Like the Sicilians and Calabresi who joined the assembly lines of Fiat’s Mirafiori plant, he is treated as a foreign imposter by bosses, colleagues and even friends. In fact, in Salerno’s movie, Turin is awash with anti-southern prejudice and racism: the brutal crimes the gang commit are immediately blamed on southern immigrants without any evidence. Southerners are considered an inferior and ethnically polluted race prone to irrational violence, an attitude hardwired into the city by one hundred years of codified racism. When the gang murder a pimp and prostitute, they leave their bodies prostrate and hanging from the scaffolding surrounding the Monumento al Conte Verde. The corpses are discovered by Inspector Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno), a southern migrant who describes the gruesome tableaux ironically to his northern colleague as “a defamation and offence to the sacred legacy of the nation.” Santagà is alert to the racism of his colleagues and their determination to ascribe ideological motivations to the offenses: the crime wave is, for them, the result of an influx of violent aliens and the political disintegration of the nation. Santagà is shrewder than this and quickly sees the crimes for what they are: not the result of genetics or beliefs, but blank expressions of boredom, disaffection and alienation, common reactions to modern urban conditions taken to an extreme point. 

In Savage Three, Turin looks like a city that has been defeated: the football stadium, the streets and the buildings are visibly broken, exhausted, unclean, crumbling. This is not the Turin celebrated for its elegance and ceremony, but a 1970s urban sprawl which Salerno depicts as a human trap: citizens crowded into constricted living and working spaces that create the conditions for intolerance, conflict and murder. And this is not just the city: everything looks depressed and drained, in line with the common visual tone of the poliziotteschi. In these films, the sky is invariably blank and grey, a featureless ceiling of drab cloud that creates a simultaneously flat and oppressive atmosphere; the saturated colours of the gialli and the seductive monochrome of neorealism are replaced by an ugly, washed-out tonal range. The poliziotteschi city is a bleak, malignant place, where all human relations are negative and most human interactions are violent. Turin has unique divisions caused by southern immigration and its racist reaction, but the general malaise is shared across the country. Fernando di Leo’s Milan is not defined by beautiful arcades or the Duomo di Milano, but by rotting ghettos that run alongside the canals, grey rain-drenched piazza tiles and warehouses where corpses wait a long time to be discovered. Umberto Lenzi’s Rome is not the Rome of romantic weekends and ancient ruins, but a dirty and congested labyrinth of squalid flats, dank alleys, damp staircases, bleak wasteland and scrappy tenement rooftops, settings for various acts of torture, rape and murder. Enzo G. Castellari’s Genoa is perhaps the most desperate of them all: a terrifying, feral, decadent city, rotten with vice and corruption, festering on the edge of the Ligurian sea. The fate of Italy’s cities in the 1970s is encapsulated by some of its most famous crime titles: Fernando di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (1972), Marino Girolami’s Violent Rome (1975), Lenzi’s Gang War in Milan (1973), Rome Armed to the Teeth (1976) and Violent Naples (1976). The cities are the focal point of Italy’s crisis: the piazzas and train stations are bombed and the banks are robbed, while criminal gangs and rogue policemen rule the streets and citizens are terrorised by random acts of slaughter. Perhaps the definitive Italian crime title is the one that Sergio Sollima gave his 1970 hit man melodrama, Città violenta, even though that film is set in New Orleans. The cities are violent places that condition their inhabitants to commit more violence: an endless, animalistic cycle that Salerno depicts so well in Savage Three.

Lucio Fulci once claimed that “violence is Italian art” and the art of the poliziotteschi is a very Italian aestheticization of violence. Even the ugliness has style. This is why these films always tread a fine line between exploitation and art, nihilism and responsibility. The films of Imperoli and Salerno are perfect examples of this: they can be hard to watch, but they are impossible to dismiss. The violence is extreme, but makes its point for this reason. The question of motive is always present, but remains a question without an answer, and this is what makes these films products of the Italian crisis. In Savage Three, Santagà is the only one who realises that there is no reason behind the brutal acts instigated by Mainardi, that they are simply a result of the unnatural and damaging conditions of contemporary Turin. In Massimo Dallamano’s Colt 38 Special Squad (1976) the motivation for the crime is key, but also ambiguous. At first the operation planned by the Marseillaise (Ivan Rassimov) seems like a simple case of common theft, albeit conducted on a grand scale, but as Rachael Nisbet shrewdly points out in her accompanying essay to the Years of Lead set, there is something more sinister at work:

While the motivations of the common criminal are clear, the Marseillaise is a more complex individual; a man driven by a certain sense of madness and anarchic glee…his perverse sadism and disregard for life suggest that his actions are motivated by something far darker than the driving factors of vengeance and retribution…

Mainardi and the Marseillaise are similar in their psychopathic nihilism, but the scale of the Marseillaise’s plan is more ambitious than the small and terminal spasm of violence unleashed by Mainardi. He wants to inflict a grievous wound on Turin and live to see it; the motivation of wealth does not adequately explain this instinct. This is more than simply a plot point, or an absence of one: it taps into the atmosphere of uncertainty that defined the atrocities of this period, and was never adequately resolved.

Italian political culture is so convoluted and secretive that when Henry Kissinger claimed that he did not understand Italian politics in the 1970s nobody thought he was joking. In 1988, the Italian state set up the Commissione Stragi (‘The Slaughter Commission’) tasked with uncovering the truth behind the bombings that occurred between 1969-88 and had been variously attributed to the Red Brigades, anarchists, neofascists and the CIA; predictably, it failed to remove the opacity of the period or provide any real psychological closure. The scenes of carnage that follow the bombings of Turin railway station and market in Colt 38 Special Squad stand out for their graphic brutality and emotional poignancy. Dallamano shot the film only four years after the Piazza Fontana bomb, so these scenes pierce his movie like unmediated expressions of national post-traumatic stress: they were not shot for thrills, but carry a lot of psychological weight and evoke still raw memories. What can’t be answered in the film, and what could never be effectively answered in real life, is the reason for all of this destruction and cruelty: the Slaughter Commission could not solve it and Dallamano refuses to provide a neat conclusion in the character of the Marseillaise. The ambiguity of the violence and the veil that fell over the most extreme events that ripped through Italy in the 1970s are a central part of the poliziotteschi world view: if nobody can fully account for this violence, then perhaps it is simply endemic to the fragile and conflicted Italian nation, something that can never be solved. 

But Colt 38 Special Squad also fulfills another function common to these films: it provides a psychological outlet, a form of mass catharsis. The volatility and opacity of Italian society was increased by the growth of organised crime, black markets and corruption in a free falling economy. The Italian crime films give voice to the pervasive feeling that the Italian authorities had fallen behind the criminal gangs, even if they were not already hopelessly compromised by them. Fear and helplessness combined with anger; the films responded with bleak cynicism and tales of rough justice. Quite often the stories revolve around detectives or special units within the police force going rogue, using unorthodox and even illegal methods in order to catch or destroy criminal antagonists. The Special Squad in Dallamano’s film is put together to crush the crime wave that has tipped Turin into near anarchy; they are given licence to use Colt 38 revolvers and pursue their targets with freedom that stops short of murder, or is supposed to. It is only by going beyond the bounds of their authority that the Marseillaise is finally stopped. Deodato’s Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man depicts a two man ‘special unit’ who act outside the law in order to enforce the law, in this case with a cavalier brutality that outdoes some of the criminals, gleefully crossing numerous moral and ethical lines. Stelvio Massi’s 1977 Highway Racer (another film in the Arrow box) pays homage to Armando Spatafora, a member of Rome’s Squadra Mobile whose 1960s exploits were legendary. In the film the young Squadra Mobile driver Marco Palma (Maurizio Merli) soups up a boxy Alfa Romeo and demands a Ferrari from his boss, the Spatafora doppelganger Tagliaferri (Giancarlo Sbragia), because “I don’t want to lose before I begin”: retaking the advantage is key, and requires special measures. Merli excelled at playing rogue cops like Inspector Tanzi in Umberto Lenzi’s frantic and stylish films Rome Armed to the Teeth and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977), characters that pushed their job description beyond law enforcement into the realms of vigilantism. These were cops who had not been given any special license, but had simply gone off the rails, driven to rage and despair by inability to deliver justice. By the 1970s, many Italians had lost all faith in the police as an effective force: they were seen as corrupt and incompetent, outspent and outgunned by gangs, syndicates and even lone psychopaths. The poliziotteschi, with their special squads and vigilantes, gave Italians an alternative reality in which this imbalance was finally redressed and Italian society redeemed, however morally questionable that redemption was.

But they also provided a troubling critique and quite often without any release or redemption. Italy in the 1970s was paralysed by corruption and this was more insidious than terrorism and crime because it undermined any sense of security in state and local authority and, even, any trust in the reality of appearances. Vittorio Salerno’s 1973 film No, the Case is Happily Resolved is the one entry in the Arrow set that focuses on this total breakdown in trust, with a narrative so pure in its inexorable and dire logic that it almost presents a parable for the Italian crisis. The corruption in this case is psychological and sexual: at the opening of the film Professor Eduardo Ranieri (Riccardo Cucciolla), a quiet and respectable maths and physics teacher, brutally beats a Roman prostitute to death in a reed bed outside of the city. Fabio Santamaria (Enzo Cerusico), a young working class man who witnesses the murder, eventually finds himself framed, arrested and jailed for the crime after a relentless series of misjudgments that recall the fate of Richard Blaney in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972). Santamaria makes the fatal decision not to report this crime and to try to cover up his presence at the scene, largely because he distrusts and even fears the police. This instinct proves correct: the police believe Ranieri because of his position and his appearance, while jailing Santamaria with only a cursory investigation. Murderous and possibly perverse impulses are veiled by the professor’s exterior presentation and this is compounded by an official corruption that renders the police ineffective and even dangerous to defenceless citizens. All the authority figures in this film either conceal their true identity or cannot be trusted to do their jobs safely: all certainty is therefore undermined and Italian society is shown to be based on deception and illusion, a place where reality is inverted and nobody is secure.

The Italian crime films of the 1970s did not just reflect their own society, then, but made an active contribution to the atmosphere and dynamics of the Italian crisis. The poliziotteschi cycle played out in the shadow of real and relentless atrocities committed by political and criminal groups and state actors. The films did not always or necessarily comment on any of this, but political violence and social degeneration were part of their visual and thematic fabric. The Italian peninsula was tense, fragile and paranoid, its traditions and moral base challenged by the rise of industrial cities, mass consumerism and the cultural influence of America. As Emilio Gentile noted, all of this occurred in the ruins of the myth of the nation, at a time when “Italians were experiencing a mass anthropological revolution in their attitudes and behaviours” and the state was being contested by the existential conflict between Catholicism and Communism. In this context, popular culture had a crucial role to play in shaping narratives, ideas and emotions on a large scale and Italian artists seemed to instinctively grasp this. This is not to assign responsibility for any specific events to these films, but to accord them their due social and cultural power, even at the low level of the regional cinema circuit. It so happened that the Italian crime films of the 1970s had a more profound and immediate relationship with their world than any of the more fêted artistic products of the time. The importance of Arrow’s Years of Lead set is that it recognises this and therefore values the films at their true worth.

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