A couple of months ago, Arrow released a Blu-ray entitled ‘Years of Lead, Five Classic Italian Crime Thrillers 1973-77’. The box set also includes extensive extra material including introductions, substantial interviews and a printed booklet. In doing so they pleased a significant group of fans of poliziotteschi, the term generally used by anglophone audiences to cover this mode of Italian popular cinema. They also provided film teachers and scholars with some useful study texts raising a whole set of questions about popular cinema more generally. In this post I want to explore some of the issues these kinds of films raise, using just one of the titles that I’ll discuss in some detail.
Italian popular cinema developed rapidly from the late 1950s onwards fuelling a growth in audiences that saw Italy move up the league table of European film productions and cinema admissions. In addition, the films produced were exported to other countries to a much greater extent than previously, sometimes because the films themselves were co-productions, especially with France, but also with West Germany and Spain – the Italian crime films are sometimes discussed as part of a group of ‘Eurocrime films’. Further, the stylistic and thematic innovations of these films began to influence productions elsewhere. The best-known example of this in anglophone cinema was the popularity of so-called ‘spaghetti Westerns’ and the impact some of these films had on Hollywood. The American connection was very important since it was the ‘runaway productions’ set up by independent Hollywood producers in Italy from the 1950s that was one of the factors in the growth of Italian popular film production. Italian Westerns often used American actors and developed ideas that challenged the Hollywood conception of the Western genre. But the cycle of European Westerns began to run down from the late 1960s and producers shifted to crime thrillers.
Crime films have long been popular in all cinemas and production contexts. The films that emerged in Italy from the late 1960s had three elements that made them distinctive. First, possibly as part of the development of the co-production trend, they can be seen as linked to the French crime film, the polar. Second, they were influenced by changes in the Hollywood crime film in the same period with the drive towards greater realism and the decline of the ‘production code’ which loosened restraints on the depiction of violence, sex and drug use etc. Third, they engaged with the chaos and confusion in Italian public life and particularly in political violence. This was the period which became known as the ‘Years of Lead’ with high profile acts of political violence committed by both left-wing and right-wing groups as well as an upsurge in Mafia activity and a general breakdown in other aspects of social life. The period lasted from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.
Savage Three is an interesting example of a poliziottesco, partly because it questions the suggestion that ‘political violence’ might be the cause of problems with policing during the 1970s – or rather what that relationship might be about. The plot concerns a group of three young men who commit a series of crimes with escalating amounts of violence. The police authorities assume that the crimes must be committed for political reasons. Because we see the actions from the criminals’ perspective this seems ludicrous, but the clues the police find are open to interpretation. The inciting incident for the narrative is literally ‘inciting’ because the three men at a football game in Turin are involved in starting a riot in the stands and during the mêlée that ensues one man is killed and many others injured. Leaving the stadium early without getting further involved, the trio steal a car (even though they have one parked outside the stadium) and two further acts follow soon after, one leading to shocking violence.
The three men work in a new glass-walled building housing a computer facility. 1975 is very early in the use of computers in business, administration and industry and this is a large office building filled with tape, disc and punched card machines. These are educated young men and the dominant character Oviedo is played by Joe Dallesandro, the star of the Andy Warhol-produced films, Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970), both directed by Paul Morrissey. Dallesandro spent most of the 1970s appearing in Italian and French productions. In Savage Three, Oviedo is married to Alba (Martine Brochard) a junior doctor obsessed with her career and with little time for her husband. The youngest member of the trio, Pepe (Guido De Carli) is a Southern migrant and the whole North-South divide is an issue in the film. I was reminded of the Luchino Visconti film Rocco and His Brothers (Italy 1960). The migration from the South was a real social issue in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy but the prejudices are still there to some extent in Italian narratives today. The third member of the trio is Giacomo (Gianfranco De Grassi ) who says little – which may make him the most dangerous of the three. The narrative of Savage Three hurtles along in its relatively short 85 minutes but what structures it in the end is the relationship between Oviedo and Commissario Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno), a disgraced older detective who has been taken off the the major crime squad. He is the one who doesn’t believe the political connection and in his own investigation begins to explore what he calls ‘ecological crime’. By this he means crimes that arise from everyday incidents and general frustrations with everyday life rather than the traditional motives of greed, sex, revenge etc. Such crimes are much more difficult to investigate, but here we see the influence of the polar in which it is often important that the police detective and the criminal know each other and develop a relationship. Commissario Santagà meets Oviedo when the police teams visit the computer facility to learn what computers might offer to police investigations. The Commissario persuades Oviedo to help him in what seems an innocent experiment to predict winning lottery numbers and through this process he learns a little about Oviedo’s behaviour.
Savage Three is classified as an ’18’ certificate package on Blu-ray. The film was not released in the UK in the 1970s. There is some censorship of ‘animal cruelty’ images involving mice in a laboratory at the computer facility, but otherwise the film is uncut. There are violent murders and one involves rape. Perhaps the violence is made even more shocking because much of it is seemingly random, carried out opportunistically and almost playfully. The film also includes squealing tyres and cars being driven recklessly. On the other hand, apart from the rape and other violence towards women, there is less overt sexual activity than might be expected in this kind of exploitation film. The Blu-ray (I rented two films on one disc) includes a long interview with writer-director Vittorio Salerno, the younger brother of Enrico, and Martine Brochard. Salerno explains that after the 1973-4 oil crisis, budgets for Italian films were much lower and he helped to set up a filmmakers’ co-op venture which eventually linked up with the big distributor Titanus in an attempt to secure future work for filmmakers. Unfortunately Titanus didn’t like any of the story ideas the co-op put to them until Salerno turned to an unproduced script by Ernesto Gastaldi. Everyone liked this and Salerno then adapted it, drawing on his own archive research that unearthed the real-life crimes which appear so outrageous in the finished film.
Although in the UK we saw relatively few of these ‘Eurocrime films’, they were widely released elsewhere and there is considerable fan interest in the films, resulting in lists of titles compiled and presented on YouTube and Letterboxd. Another ‘way in’ to the films is to look for specific actors, directors and producers. For Savage Three the key may be Enrico Maria Salerno who was clearly a major star of the period. He also played a Commissario investigating a serial killer in Dario Argento’s first film The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (Italy 1970). This film is usually classified as a giallo, a ‘mystery horror’, but the links to Eurocrime are evident. Argento is perhaps the director who provided me with a way into these films via Profundo Rosso (1975) and Suspiria (1977) which I actually watched in the 1990s. I was struck by the music score of Suspiria featuring the band Goblin and I note that Savage Three features some heavy rock music as part of the score by Franco Campanino. The ‘theme song’ at the beginning and end of the film appears to be a track titled ‘Boiling Mud’ which translates into Italian as the film’s title Fango bollente. Perhaps this refers to the state of society that can throw up this seemingly random violence?
A further aspect of Italian popular cinema is discussed in my posting on Piero Vivarelli, Life as a B Movie (Italy 2019) and there has been a limited but important amount of academic work on Italian popular films in Anglo-American film studies. I think it could be argued that in the 1960s and 1970s these films were of considerable importance. They provided employment for a large number of filmmakers and a constant stream of popular films for audiences within Italy as well as across many other film territories in Europe and further afield. Their influence on Anglo-American cinema was profound and this period saw dubbed films showing in cinemas in the UK and the US to a much greater extent than before or since. They reversed a trend in which European actors always travelled to the UK or US to get work and for a brief period, a significant number of anglophone actors worked consistently in Europe. In terms of the genres involved, these Italian-led productions introduced innovations in both the themes and the presentations of familiar narrative forms. They challenged previous censorship regimes and they also challenged ideas about ‘exploitation pictures’. Amongst the hundreds of titles, significant numbers of films stood out as worthy of more detailed study by fans and scholars. Christopher Frayling’s magisterial work on Italian Westerns is just one example of the kinds of possible scholarly work (Spaghetti Westerns, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1981). It also became apparent that the dividing line between ‘popular’ and ‘arthouse’ Italian cinema was increasingly blurred in this period, allowing several Italian directors to emerge as international figures such as the horror/giallo directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento and others like Sergio Leone who worked across several genres. In industrial terms, the openings created by the popularity of Italian films also benefited established directors such as Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci who were able to find bigger budgets and more access to markets. In short, Italian popular films in the 1960s and 1970s helped to make cinema more ‘international’.
I welcome the opportunity to see Savage Three in its original Italian presentation. I found it was well-made and intelligent. The central idea of a narrative in which a general shift in society values and working practices can be explored through a familiar genre structure is intriguing and, for me, successful. I have seen a few more related productions which I hope to write about in future. I hesitate to comment on the representation issues in these films because I haven’t yet seen enough. The sexism of the films and of Italian society more generally is one possible line of enquiry. I do find that the presentation of stunningly beautiful/sexually attractive women is a feature of Italian cinema from the 1930s up until the present (e.g. in the Inspector Montalbano films shown on UK TV). Whether the female characters in these popular genre films have more or less agency than their sisters in Anglo-American productions is open to question. Ovidio’s wife Alba is a career woman whose job and her aspiration to succeed entails her involvement in the corruption rife in Italian public life. This is another aspect of the ‘political’ in the film. The sexual violence portrayed in this film would have been controversial in 1975 and is perhaps even more so now. Nevertheless, on the basis of Savage Three, I would recommend the Arrow box set as a useful introduction to a significant genre within Italian popular cinema. Here’s the Arrow Trailer for the box set: