Sunday, January 22, 2012

Underrated Movie #146: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

Title: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
Year: 1970
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
 
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4 comments:

j.s. said...

Funny because I just saw Fritz Lang's BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT which has a very similar premise but which I found rather thin precisely because the self-framing protagonist had such (seemingly) poor motivation for doing it in the first place. This one sounds way better.

j.s. said...

Just heard that there's a new 4K restoration out on Italian region B Blu-ray with English subtitles. The best part is that Janus/Criterion was involved and will likely be releasing this in region A Blu-ray sometime in the next year or so.

j.s. said...

Criterion has confirmed this title as a Dec. 2013 release.

j.s. said...

Okay, I suppose I'm a little disappointed in this film, having finally caught up with it on the new Criterion Blu-ray. I guess I wish it had been a bit more boldly existential. As it stands, the chief is somewhat ambivalent about being caught -- at one point disposing of evidence he'd previously meticulously planted. And the murder he commits turns out to be very much about petty sexual jealousy and perceived insults to his manhood -- tawdry common motivations -- to which he freely confesses. I imagined it would be little more hardcore inscrutable, like the totally senseless and arbitrary crime in Camus' THE STRANGER or something Michael Haneke would make. And that the protagonist himself would be both more clear on why he was doing it all (the crime and the frame up/cover up) and less on-the-nose articulate about all the political and thematic stuff that it supposedly meant.

I also think the flashbacks don't do much for our understanding of the chief, his affair with his lover or his growing distaste for the misuse of the state power he embodies. I mean, we see him run one red light and get away with it. Really? He goes from that to murder? But only because she's also getting some with a revolutionary neighbor on the side?