May 21, 2013

SIFF 2013: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

(d: Elio Petri c: Gian Maria Volonté, Florinda Bolkan, Gianni Santuccio, Italy 1970, 112 min)

Here is the soundtrack for the following three paragraphs. (This is actually a good rule of thumb: whenever possible, try to imagine things with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack):

A man stalks the outside of an apartment building. He's a hybrid of John Hamm and Tommy Lee Jones, scowly, shifty-eyed and super hero-square-jawed. His hair is neat and his suit is luxurious.

A sensually beautiful woman watches expectantly from her window. He climbs the stairs to her apartment, and lets himself in with a key. She asks him in a seductive voice, "how are you going to kill me today?" He tells her he is going to slit her throat, and for the first time, he means it.

The man is a powerful Roman police inspector. The woman, his mistress. He slits her throat. Then he carefully leaves several clues throughout the apartment implicating himself in the crime. Fingerprints on a bottle and in the shower, bloody footprints, a fiber from his blue silk necktie under her fingernail. He calls the police to report the crime, before going to that very station to celebrate his promotion from chief of homicide to top police inspector.

At a recent screening for Seattle International Film Festival 2013, this Italian classic looked sharp and clean in a new print from Sony Pictures. And what a good candidate for restoration it is. One of the most celebrated films of the seventies, Investigation won an Academy Award for best foreign film and the grand prize at Cannes.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion begins like a genre flick, and so you anticipate a mystery plot, with the police closing in on our psychopathic inspector. Instead, it is a black-hearted satire of the whole darn system and the corrupt leaders who mold it.

Rather than trying to elude capture, Volonté stomps through Investigation in angry disbelief that he can't convince a soul to consider him for his crime. He wants credit for getting away with murder, and the impossibility of that reward infuriates him as much as the incompetence of his own police force.

The inspector confesses multiple times, always to dismissive laughter. He takes away a clue, only to replace it with another, playing an angry game with his men. He is told over and over that he is far too respectable to kill. Even the one angry revolutionary who believes him won't implicate him, laughing off the idea that it would make a difference.

In a moment of irritation Volonté barks "we all become like children when faced with law and order," and it's true, everyone trusts him to steer the ship, he is their patriarch. You sense that the people around him know he is guilty. They fear him, but also want desperately for him to be right, because if he turns out to be a villain, they fear the whole system will collapse. So they cower, obey and turn a blind eye to evil.

Gian Maria Volonté is never referred to by name in Investigation. He is the all-purpose corrupt official, moving through life with arrogance, cruelty and so much confidence that he can make the people beneath him mistrust the facts before their eyes. His performance is a great feat of barely repressed frustration, frightening, but also funny. He lets out these little puffs of air whenever another member of his force makes a blunder, giving him the uptight comic anxiety of Oliver Hardy enduring another pratfall.

Volonté is perhaps most famous to international audiences for his villainous roles in the Sergio Leone westerns A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Handsome as he is, the poor man does have an evil face. You can see why he played so many bad guys in his long career.

Florinda Bolkan is both seductive and unsettling as the mistress who seems to court danger as a last defense against boredom. She is the catalyst for the entire plot, including her own murder, as she pushes Volonté to prove the enormity of his power. Really, the movie is a duel between these two, and it is difficult to say who comes out on top. Everyone else is a game piece, from the revolutionaries to the bureaucrats.

This was an exciting start to the archival screenings at SIFF 2013. I can't wait to share the other movies with you all.

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