Sunday, 1 June 2008

Una Magnum Special per Tony Saitta / A Special Magnum for Tony Saitta / Blazing Magnums / A Strange Shadow in an Empty Room

This 1976 Italian-Canadian-Panamanian (!) co-production, made in Montreal with a North American cast is, not surprisingly, a somewhat difficult film to place. At times it feels like a poliziotto, with plenty of sustained hard-hitting action scenes and an alternately cool jazz and driving funky soundtrack courtesy of Armando Trovajoli, at others like a giallo, with a labyrinthine murder-mystery plot and long list of individuals to be eliminated from the inquiries by the investigators – if, that is, the killer doesn't get to them first...

The basic giallo vs poliziotto structure, broadly corresponding to an alternation between plot, character and narrative focused material alternating with dialogue free action sequences, is neatly established from the outset.

On the university campus student Louise Saitta argues with her teacher and presumed lover Dr George Tracer (Martin Landau) while some other students play frisbee and catch football nearby, including Louise's ex-boyfriend, Fred (Jean LeClerc).

Clearly distressed at something, Louise tries to telephone her brother, indicating that it's imperative that she speak to him.

Like a number of gialli, we begin with a telephone call

Tony Saitta (Stuart Whitman) is an inspector in the Ottawa police who is currently occupied with intercepting some armed robbers, armed with machine guns and acting very much like their Roman or Milanese counterparts despite the unfamiliar location.

Rome or Ottawa – it's all the same?

But with some local colour as well...

After a chase, Saita forces their car off the road – through a shop window – then calmly shoots three of the four with his magnum before forcing the other to surrender.

This guy is tough, so tough that the the bad guy doesn't even think about chancing whether he'd fired six shots or only five...

Unfortunately he's also perhaps not the best suited to the case about to ensue, having a distinctly poliziotto tendency to act first and worry about asking questions later, in addition to also being more like an amateur than a professional investgator in the way his personal involvement in the case about to ensue repeatedly clouds his judgements.

Yet another photo of a lady above suspicion?

Later that night Louise and Fred play a practical joke on Dr Tracer at a party also attended by all the other suspects, red herrings and victims to be, with Louise pretending to have some sort of seizure.

Then, after Dr Tracer has attended to her and the joke has been revealed, Louise does have a seizure and drops dead, despite the doctor's desperate ministrations.

Tony arrives in Montreal for the funeral, where he meets the Tracer and Cohn families along with the other suspects, red herrings and victims to be; the only one whose role is clear being the blind Julie (Tisa Farrow).

A line (up) of some of the suspects

Learning of Louise's desperate and frightened state from Julie, Tony has his contact in the local police, Sergeant Matthews (John Saxon) arrange for an autopsy to be performed, which reveals traces of poison...

In the meantime, Tony follows up leads, learning that Louise was seeing Dr Tracer. Seeing motive in the respectable doctor's need to avoid a scandal and an opportunity, Tony puts things together and, after Margie Cohn refuses to corroborate that she could be certain what Tracer administered Louise, has him arrested on suspicion of murdering his sister. (To add to the suspicion and sleaze Tony finds Margie (Gayle Hunnicutt), whose name is apposite insofar 'she spreads easily' for just about everyone except her husband, in bed with Tracer's son, Robert.)

The question that eventually emerges is whether Tony has added two and two to come up with three or five.

A bottle of nail varnish found on the mangled remains of a transvestite found in a rock crushing machine leads Tony, via a sex shop (?!), to a transvestite club, one of those cross-dressing fight scenes that cropped up with surprising regularity in Italian films of this time, and the revelation that Margie's brother, Terry, was mixed up in the case and knew too much, specifically about a necklace Louise was wearing in one of the last photographs taken of her. Either Dr Tracer is innocent or has a co-conspirator...

The key to the mystery?

The quest leads Tony to a locker and a quest to track down three fences.

The first, whom he chases through the underground station and proceeds to interrogate via water torture in the men's room, proves to know nothing...

The second, whose car he pursues recklessly through the streets of downtown Montreal in one of those ridiculously over-the-top chases, choreographed by none other than Remy Julienne, at least knows something, thus dragging us back into the giallo plot for the third act after this second dominated by a succession of poliziotto action sequences...

Stunt cars!

Imagine a cross between The Bloodstained Butterfly and Violent Naples if you can and you have a fair idea of what you're in for here. A Special Magnum for Tony Saitta perhaps won't work as well as either of these films for the purist, having too many plot convolutions for the poliziotto fan and insufficient opportunity to engage with the mystery for oneself for their giallo counterpart, but which never lets up and delivers 100 per cent entertainment for those willing to ascribe to the simpler taxonomy of dividing films into the two camps of the good and the bad.

A giallo style blade in the dark, but not from a black-gloved hand

A poliziotto cop with his big, loud weapon

This said, while the film's greater emphasis on action inhibits the extent to which Alberto De Martino can engage in directorial sleights of hand, there are nevertheless enough subtleties to his direction to reward a second viewing.

The same can also be said of Gianfranco Clerici and Vincenzo Mannino's writing providing one is willing to overlook the question of exactly how Saitta, outwith his jurisdiction and pursuing what increasingly comes across as a personal vendetta, is allowed to get away with it all, with a number of telling exchanges and seemingly throwaway lines that gain renewed significance with the benefit of hindsight:

“I've just left Tracer's colleagues.”
“As far as they're concerned he's a good doctor, a straight shooter and a family man. Can you believe that? He's a guy that's been living a double life and all this time he's been getting away with it.”

Stuart Whitman's no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach to the role is appropriate, conveying his confidence and certitude that he is in the right, regardless, while Martin Landau's more nuanced portrayal of Dr Tracer works nicely as a counterpoint, conveying an apparent ambiguity and uncertainty that his erstwhile nemesis lacks.

John Saxon's role is a largely thankless one in that he doesn't really get involved with the action scenes and remains a largely peripheral figure in the investigations. Still, even walking onto the scene from time to time, his is always a welcome presence.

The overall message of the film might perhaps be summed up as there being “none so blind as those who would not see”. Even if its cross-filone compromises mean it perhaps fails to convey this as convincingly or consistently as the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Deep Red, A Special Magnum for Tony Saitta remains, like De Martino's work as a whole, well worth a look from any Italian popular cinema enthusiast willing to go beyond the more familiar names.

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