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Anyone studying Italian films will encounter that country's leftist cinema of the '60s and '70s, made in a climate in which many directors pronounced themselves to be 'committed' to the cause of socialism. The talented director Elio Petri tried out several different genres before settling into a steady diet of movies about political corruption and labor struggles. The biggest influx of leftist filmmaking in Italy occurred during and after the May demonstrations and strikes of 1968, but few of the pictures were widely popular. Francesco Maselli's Open Letter to the Evening News is an ideological talkathon, while Bernardo Bertolucci's Partner is so opaque that it's difficult to watch. Director Petri instead concluded that an exciting and efficient genre picture was the best way to convey a message. The top two leftist pictures of the time remain Costa-Gavras' "Z" and Petri's own Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto). Both are superb thrillers first and 'committed' films second.
Petri's Investigation makes sophisticated filmmaking look easy. The director never made a movie before or since in which all the elements came together so perfectly. At the center of an engrossing mystery is a riveting, frightening murderer -- who is also a respected public servant, the Chief of the local homicide squad. The role is a career high point for star Gian Maria Volonté, at the time was a tremendously popular actor in Italy. He was known in America only for his villains in Sergio Leone's first two Dollars films.
In the very first scene "The Chief" (Gian Maria Volonté) stops off at the apartment of his girlfriend Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan), engages in a kinky role-playing game of killer and victim, and then murders her. He purposely leaves an abundance of clues before exiting, and allows a neighbor to see him. As it turns out, The Chief has just been promoted to run the Security division, in charge of political crimes. He intimidates his subordinates and serves notice on his former confederates that he now expects them to treat him like a feudal lord. The Chief starts his new job with a frightening speech that outlines his department's new commitment to root out Red subversives and other political threats. He also visits the secret file room and wiretapping department in the basement of police headquarters. The Chief retains charge of the Terzi case, taking perverse pleasure in the fact that no matter what the evidence, nobody thinks to consider him a suspect. The man revels in his position of power, holding himself entirely above the law.
Everything clicks in Investigation beginning with the imposing presence of Gian Maria Volonté. The forceful actor comes off as the Italian equivalent of Britain's Stanley Baker, only more intense and less stable. Volonté's Chief embodies the Fascist spirit, all but foaming at the mouth during his big speech, like Benito Mussolini: "The foundation of civilization is repression." It makes sense that the new despot would take steps to eliminate a lover/prostitute in his past who might prove a political liability. The Chief may be mad to flaunt his culpability, but he's also conducting a cynical experiment. The police answer to power, not the truth: ignoring the facts, the department enthusiastically supports the notion that he's above the law. Petri's film makes the (dramatically) case that conservative power politics is by nature Fascistic, and that Fascism is related to sexual perversity.
Elio Petri's 1967 We Still Kill the Old Way (A ciascuno il suo) shows the power structures of the government, the church and organized crime conspiring to hide a political killing. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is to some degree a continuation of that film's theme of unyielding, entrenched authority. The Chief is free to brutalize uncooperative informants, in search of a longhaired youth by the name of Antonio Pace (Sergio Tramonti). In the meantime he uses the security files on his own men to make them feel insecure, and dependent on his good graces. A loyal inspector 'confesses' to having a left-wing relative, a sin that The Chief is quick to exploit.
Elio Petri directs for clarity and impact. The flashbacks to Augusta and The Chief's lovemaking sessions are never confusing; the perverse delight The Chief takes in his sex & murder bedroom games is chilling. The picture presented is of a police organization turned into a Fascist terror squad. A couple of the older officials even talk about "the old days" when subversive Reds were properly disposed of. Will any authority step in to put an end to The Chief's reign of terror? Just when he's feeling suddenly vulnerable, the department's executives insist on holding a private meeting with him.
Luigi Kuveiller's slick cinematography emphasizes the brick, glass and steel of the modern police building, with its Security Department housed in underground concrete bunkers. By contrast, Augusta Terzi's apartment is an exotic haven of soft cushions and relaxing fabrics. The movie was a smash success at Cannes, where Elio Petri won two awards. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and won the 1971 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Criterion's newly restored Blu-ray + DVD of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a dazzling HD rendition of Elio Petri's best film. The colors are bright and skin tones have a rich Technicolor look. The strong monaural soundtrack features one of Ennio Morricone's most effective scores. The eccentric main theme counterpoints the seriousness of the drama with a satirical take on 'detective snoop' music, complete with the composer's signature raspberry percussion and odd 'boing' sounds.
Disc producer Kim Hendrickson has tapped a wealth of older key resources as well as new interviews. Feature-length TV docus address the careers of both Elio Petri and Gian Maria Volonté, and Petri appears in a separate archived interview. New interviews catch the opinions of critic Camila Zamboni and record the memories of composer Morricone, who plays parts of the score on his piano, as well as the theme from The Sicilian Clan. Morricone says that Petri hired him with the understanding that he only worked with composers once -- but was so pleased that he engaged the composer for all of the rest of his films. The insert booklet contains an essay by Evan Calder Williams, and book excerpts from screenwriter Ugo Pirro.
In the extras we learn that director Elio Petri's associates feared that his film would be banned or destroyed by the Italian government. It's suggested that Petri's playful use of two alternate endings added just enough ambiguity to not directly threaten the powers that be. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion was immediately recognized as a superior film, and is remembered as one of the best Italian pictures of its time.
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