Years of Lead: Five Classic Italian Crime Films
directed by Stelvio Massi, Vittorio Salerno, Massimo Dallamano, Mario Imperoli
starring Joe Dallesandro, Ivan Rassimov, Angelo Infanti
I have a confession to make. For years I avoided poliziotteschi movies like work. I was convinced that I didn’t like them. I conflated the genre with the EuroSpy movies of the ’60s and despite my generaI love for Eurocult movies I was bafflingly steadfast in my opinion that poliziotteschi were not my bag. I started to rethink my opinions after watching Mike Malloy’s documentary Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s. I decided that the genre deserved another look,, but the films weren’t readily accessible so more time passed until Arrow Video unleashed their Years of Lead Blu-ray set and it proved me to be a fool as the five films on the set proved a potent gateway drug to the hard boiled cop thrillers.
The Italian film industry starting with their reinterpretations of the American western mythos developed an uncanny ability to take American film genres, strip them down to their essence and repackage them as a new, uniquely Italian, genre. The Poliziotteschi films mined the success of contemporary cop thrillers like Dirty Harry, The French Connection and Serpico. Drawn to the maverick lead characters who worked outside normal channels to combat crime resonated in a countrty besiged by organized crime, political terrorism, and ineffective and corrupt government systems. They leaned heavily on the tropes and styles of the American films even to the point that the lead cops in Colt 38 Special Squad and Highway Racer were deliberately cast and styled to be Robert Duvall and James Caan clones.
The films themselves are hyper-violent and just dripping with machismo and the casual, misogyny on display is a bit jarring. A big benefit of the macho vibe is the truly insane stunt work in these films. The human body and endless tonnage of steel is endangered and smashed in the pursuit of thrills (and the bad guys). There’s no minature work on display; just Fiats, Ferraris, Citreons, and Fords swapping paint and crumpling sheet metal as they chase through the crowded streets of Turin and Rome. The steel on steel carnage is exuberant as the directors, actors, and drivers were all afraid of being outdone by another production.
The common thread that connects these films is that the police are forced to use special tactics to combat extraordinary crimes and exceedingly dangerous criminals. Colt 38 Special Squad sees the formation of revolver-toting motorcycle cops trying to stop a gang detonating suitcase bombs around the city, which is further complicated by their leader having a personal vendetta. Highway Racer requires a man to go deep undercover with a vintage Ferrari to infiltrate an international ring of bank robbers, and Like Rabid Dogs sees the investigator using his girlfriend to pose as a prostitute to lure out a thrill kill trio of rich kids with daddy issues. The other strand of connective tissue is politics. The early to mid ’70s Italy was suffering through years of political corruption, terrorism, runaway crime, and labor strife that was to become known as the years of lead, and the anger and unrest of the country drives the narratives of these films. It’s no surprise that movies about cops bucking the system to take down psychotic criminals would strike a chord with audiences, and also no surprise that the decidedly local bent would not play as well to the wider international audience. I think context really matters for poliziotteschi and they don’t work as well without an understanding of the world they were created in.
Arrow Video’s Years of Lead: Five Classic Italian Crime Films gives their five Poliziotteschi action films gorgeous presentations in a box set full of interviews, essays and other material to frame the films in their proper historical and artistic contexts. All of the films are available in Italian with a few titles also offering the English dubs. The whole package makes for a great upgrade for fans of the genre or a perfect entry point for those who want to discover the ultra macho, hard driving, tough as nails world of the 1970’s Italian cop movies.