Sunday, 21 September 2008

Sbirro, la tua legge è lenta... la mia... no! / Hunted City

Merli, Merola and Massi

How can you go wrong?

You can't, though it's true that the way in which Merli and Merola's characters operate is perhaps not quite as fans would expect at times, whilst Massi's direction might also come across as somewhat lazy in its frequent reliance upon the zoom.

The truth, I would argue, is that Hunted City has a different approach to the poliziotto that, when considered in wider relation to the films of Umberto Lenzi and Massi's earlier filone entries such as the Marc the Narc series gives a tentative sense of an emergent auteur at work.

Massi's films are more complex in their characterisation, narrative and politics whilst Lenzi's tend to have the superior set-pieces. This is not, however, to diminish the action sequences here or elsewhere in Massi's oeuvre. They're perfectly satisfactory but just don't have the same jaw-dropping intensity as those of Lenzi at his best.

Hunted City begins in classic fashion with the gunning down of a mafia-connected financier, Mr Guidi, followed by the arrival of Merli's cop, Commissioner Paolo Ferro – a name suggestive of his iron nature and also recalling a previous Massi / Merli collaboration, Il Comissario di Ferro – in Milan, where he is met by sidekick Arrigo, on hand to provide comic relief and a sense of contrast with Merli's ubercop.

The first deviation from formula comes when we are introduced to Merola's restauranteur Raffaele Acampora, an ex-mafioso – or at least member of the Camorra; as with most subtitled Italian crime films the distinctions aren't always made clear – telling and showing some punks who try to shake him down for protection exactly where they can go.

He's the sort of character you wouldn't get in a Lenzi film where things tend to be that much more obvious. At this point in the Lenzi version, we'd no doubt have a scene in which we were told that Merola was only using his restaurants as a legitimate front to conceal his illegal activities; a scene which would also likely preclude the preceding shakedown attempt unless it has been staged for the benefit of Merli.

But here, in Massi's vision and version of Violent Milan, we go straight the arrival of Merli's cop as the men are ejecte, being comparatively warmly received by Merola and given the information he's after. It's not so much that Acompara has an alibi, which is as would be expected, as that he had already satisfactorily completed his business dealings with Guidi and, in any case, appears to be doing far better as a legitimate businessman than an illegitimate one. This said, as the film progresses another aspect of Massi's shades of grey approach that emerges is to repeatedly blur the boundaries around respectability and legitimacy anyway; while Lenzi's films also blur the boundaries as a means of criticising the society of the times his protagonists tended to stand apart and above such compromises.

Next, Ferro visits his sister and her family. It's here that one of the film's dramatic contrivances emerges as we recognise her son Stefano's friend as the hitman who killed Guidi. An improbable coincidence perhaps, but one that is excusable and explicable in relation to genre formula whilst also providing for much needed suspense and drama given the anti-climatic nature of the preceding sequence: is Stefano also mixed up in the syndicate? If so will Ferro realise in time and how will he react?

As the assassinations continue, the next victim being a lawyer who is gunned down by some masked, tennis-bag carrying hitmen, another party becomes involved in the form of Don Alfonso, played by Francisco Rabal – albeit almost unrecognisable with / without (not being certain of which is the case) his hairpiece.

Though Alfonso and Ferro have a shared past, the way this works again proves distinctive. Regarding one another as honourable and worthy opponents, a rare commodity in the film's milieux and arguably that of the wider society it represents, the two men agree to put past differences behind them in pursuit of their common enemies:

Ferro: “I once did you a favour”
Alfonso: “But that's how honoured family members speak”

Again, in our imagined Lenzi version of the film it's hard to see the lines being crossed in this way whilst even if they were there would surely be a double-cross from the mafioso sooner or later. Here, by contrast, Ferro is sufficiently trusting to eventually have the Don arrange a hit on him through his contacts – a desparate strategy that he hopes will bring the elusive murder syndicate into the open...

Returning to the subject of Massi's direction, I would argue that it encapsulates the kind of vernacular poetry discussed by Mikel Koven in his study of the giallo. Koven's ideas here are based on the theories of Pasolini, who argued for a distinction between a classical “cinema of prose,” which effaced the signs of its own construction, and a modernist “cinema of poetry,” which foregrounded them.

The key aspect of this theory in relation to Hunted City seems less the intersubjective nature of the poetic camera, as revealing the consciousness of the director behind his characters – although I suspect a case could be made for the use of the zooms in and out as conveying a sense of urgency and immediacy whereby no-one has much time to waste – as constantly making us aware of the camera's presence.

Essentially where the classical cinema would use cuts to break a scene up, going from the establishing shot to the medium shot or the close up and reframing whenever someone or something new enters into the set, Massi instead zooms in or out or, less frequently, racks focus instead, as when the camera picks out three gunmen who know one another from the tennis rackets they are carrying across a plaza.

The danger, of course, is that such an approach can easily be seen as lazy filmmaking, the kind of approach that was adopted by filone filmmakers for economic more than aesthetic reasons. Against this it can be noted that Massi also makes use of handheld; some comparatively elaborate mirror based set-ups; false POV shots from inside a vending machine, all in addition to finding some imaginative locations, most notably a church whose hall has been transformed into a firing range. (In this we also get a neat variant on the Dirty Harry “did he fire six bullets or only five” trope, as Ferro calmly blows away the bad guy who's holding a gun to Arrigo's head in the knowledge that the weapon, one of his, is empty.)

The performances are also pleasing, with Merli, Merola and Rabal each giving their characters greater depth than is often the case. Though they may still not be playing the full eight octaves range in a manner acceptable to art cinema snobs, they are considerably more than one note.

The way Massi handles Ferro's love interest is also noteworthy here. First, because he even gets one, as an apparent departure from single-minded duty. Second, because it gives Merli the opportunity to play – as distinct from be – vulnerable. Third, because the way the scenario ultimately plays out is in accord with the comparatively strong female characters present in some of his other films, most obviously the Baader-Meinhof gang styled terrorist played by Marcella Michelangeli in Mark Strikes Again.

Stelvio Cipriani delivers a solid score, with dynamic suspense and action cues incorporating slapped bass and wacka wacka guitar, further demonstrating his stylistic adaptability by substituting disco themes for the kind of organ-heavy shake cues that would have omnipresent earlier in the 70s in the film's obligatory nightclub scene.

[The film is available to download from Cinemageddon]

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