Friday, 16 January 2009

La Polizia ha le mani legate / Killer Cop / The Police Can't Move / Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man

Having made a number of entertaining and effective gialli earlier in the 1970s Luciano Ercoli responded to the rise in popularity of the poliziotto in the middle of the decade and the political situation of the "Years of Lead" by turning his hand to the filone with the giallo-poliziotto crossover Troppo rischio per un uomo solo, this film and the once-believed-lost kidnap drama La Bidonata.

The story is straightforward, the narrative somewhat convoluted: A terrorist gang plant a bomb at an international conference in a hotel, killing and wounding various innocents. One of the investigating officers, the accident-prone but ambitious Balsamo, then happens upon one of the terrorists as he is leaving an apology for the atrocity, but is prevented from pursuing further when the man pulls a pistol. Balsamo is then put into police protection by Armando di Federico, played with typical gusto by the no-nonsense Arthur Kennedy, who has been assigned to head the investigation, until the time comes to give his testimone oculare. Unfortunately Balsamo then contrives to get himself assassinated, the assassin being played by the always welcome Gianfranco Cianfriglia. It's then up to Balsamo's friend and colleague Commissario Matteo Rolani, essayed by the invariably committed and convincing Claudio Cassinelli, to work out what is going on, bring everything together and generally save the day...

Though somewhat light in the flesh department, with the director's wife and muse Nieves Navarro / Susan Scott conspicious in her absence, Killer Cop - a retitling which gives a different slant on the proceedings than the original with its translation of The Police Have Their Hands Tied, or the alternative of Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man - otherwise delivers the goods, with strong characterisations and performances, as with Kennedy's character being known for his tendency to suck on mints when tense; necessary and sufficient levels of action, suspense and intrigue; and a soupcon of politics.

Ercoli and his screenwriters raise the subject of false flag terrorism and the apparent inability of the state in finding a solution, with a particularly interesting discussion amongst the passengers on a bus over whether the bombing was the work of reds or anarchists; whether they were acting on their own initiative or not, and the issue of strong versus weak government in relation to the Fascist past.

While probably purely co-incidental it all came across as a vernacular version of a similar public transport conversation in Slatan Dudow and Berthold Brecht's 1931 Kuhle Wampe - a film made in a similar crisis situation.

Issues of seeing correctly are also expressed by the fact that one of the terrorists, the one whom Balsamo could have identified, has actually lost his glasses and suffers from extremely poor vision. In addition to coincidentally or otherwise prefiguring a similar motif in Sergio Martino's Suspicious Death of a Minor, in which Cassinelli's investigator is continually breaking his glasses, this also seems to foreground a distinction between different types of poliziotto films.

To explain, by way of a bit of theory: In Cinema 1 Gilles Deleuze talks about two distinct forms of Hollywood genre cinema, those of the the large and the small form. Within the large form, within which Deleuze includes the gangster film, the basic structure is SAS'. Reading the situation, S, the protagonist acts, A, resulting in a new, usually improved situation, S'; the classical gangster film is actually different here, in that its trajectory is invariably a downwards one for the gangster protagonist, if thereby an upwards one for non-criminal society. Within the small form, within which Deleuze includes the mystery film, the basic structure is ASA'. Here the situation is initially unclear, only being revealed through the character's actions.

Transposing these ideas to the Italian filone cinema, I would argue that the more ostensibly apolitical poliziotto of the Umberto Lenzi sort, which characteristically takes the form of a succession of "binominal" duels between the cop and the criminals, is usually of the SAS' form. The protagonist knows who his antagonists are and that something is afoot. By contrast the more overtly political poliziotto of the Sergio Martino sort is usually of the ASA' form. The protagonist does not initially know who his antagonists are and thus proceeds blindly at first, acting to see what the situational consequences are and what "indices" are revealed.

Much like Ercoli's gialli, Killer Cop has a somewhat uneven tone. This is something that some may object to, that innocent people getting blown up should not be juxtaposed with slapstick comedy. In Ercoli's defence I would argue that the dose of comic relief supplied by Balsamo in particular was necessary to make the film palatable to its target audience within Italy.

Who would want to brave the mean streets of the time in going to the cinema to then see a film which dwelt on the aftermath of a terrorist bombing and offered only the scant relief that certain mavericks within the system might be capable of finding and dealing with those behind such crimes, albeit only after the (f)act?

It would have been too much, too depressing and despairing a conclusion. In such a popular / vernacular context, Ercoli's gallows humour has its reassuring function, that the good guys will prevail and the ordinary citizens be (mostly) saved.

He also has a knack for switching the tone from comic to tragic in an instant, as with the assassination of Balsamo when he foolishly goes shopping. One moment Balsamo is arguing with the stall-holder over his right to test the merchandise and accidentally disturbing the displays of fruit, the next he is knocking them over wholesale as a result of being shot.

The stall-holder's response is also telling and reassuring as he then concentrates his attention on the dying Balsamo rather than his spilled merchandise. An automatic response, perhaps, but one which also tells the viewer that there is a shared community of values that still prevail, even amongst the petty bourgeoisie.

Stelvio Cipriani provides another one of those same-sounding yet undeniably effective driving soundtracks.

In sum, another film that delivers everything required of it and a bit more...

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