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High Crime

a.k.a. LA POLIZIA INCRIMINA LA LEGGE ASSOLVE
Capitolina Produzioni Cinematografiche [1973] 100′
country: Italy
director: Enzo G. Castellari
cast: Franco Nero, James Whitmore,
Delia Boccardo, Fernando Rey

Genuan Commissioner Belli (Franco Nero) is one of those highly irascible cops movie Italy is full of, always screaming and raging about the terrors of corruption etc and etc.

Belli’s unwillingness to play politics and his nearly comical impatience lead to frequent clashes between him and the chief of detectives, Commissioner Scavoni (James Whitmore), but the older cop obviously respects Belli’s passion for justice a lot and treats the younger man with the patience one has for talented if absolutely mad little children.

Scavoni himself has a secret file full of information that he wishes to use to bring the whole network of corruption and crime that dominates his city to fall, yet he does not dare to use what he has too early out of fear that all his efforts might go to waste.

Life in Genua isn’t going to get easier for the two. A new organisation tries to bust in on the turf of the city’s aging crime lord Caffiero (Fernando Ray), and the new guys are even more brutal and reckless than the Mafia the police knows. A bunch of car chases and shoot-outs later, all tracks lead Belli to the highly respected industrialist clan of the Grivas, but witnesses have the sad habit of dying.

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Belli is finally able to shout Scavoni into using the material he has on the Grivas, but the old cop is murdered and his files lost before he has even begun to make a ruckus. Scavoni’s death just intensifies Belli’s crusade, a crusade that will in the end be very costly for everyone involved, especially Belli’s loved ones.

Enzo G. Castellari’s High Crime is one of the core films of the Italian police film genre of the 70s and to me, it is one of the best parts of it.

That the film is highly kinetic and racing from one brilliantly filmed action sequence to the next is par for the course in the genre, yet Castellari’s action – always given a rhythm of its own by a hypnotic score by the de Angelis brothers -  feels somehow more driven and desperate than the action scenes in the films of his contemporaries. There’s a special feeling of recklessness and wildness at High Crime’s heart you won’t too often find in European films, even other Italian cop movies, and that connects Castellari’s work in my mind with the sheer madness of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and early 90s.

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But even here, the action is not all there is to the film. I remember more than one film of the genre I had difficulties to stomach on account of their unpleasant politics which usually just start with the supposedly heroic cops getting mightily pissed off by the fact that they have to keep to the laws they are sworn to protect. The longing for a police state is often quite strong in these films and makes me in cases like the films of Umberto Lenzi nearly physically uncomfortable. Now, I wouldn’t call High Crime’s politics pleasant, but they are a lot more complex than in some of the lesser films of the genre. It is very helpful that Belli may be overtly irascible and not exactly a stickler for human rights, but at least we never see him torture gay people or fake evidence. Basically, Belli comes across as a decent man in a society teetering on the edge of chaos, much more interested in getting the big fish than in kicking in the teeth of some junkie. Actually, one of the things the film seems to say the loudest is “look at the big picture to end corruption”.

It does of course help quite a bit that Franco Nero plays Belli as highly sympathetic in his desperation for change, an impression that is strengthened further by the scenes he has with his girlfriend (Delia Boccardo) and his daughter. That a pleasant family life won’t be in the card for Belli is obvious from the beginning, but the way Castellari handles the things that were bound to happen to the two is at once so ruthless and so right (in the context of the film, mind you) that I couldn’t help but be impressed.

One of my pet theories about directors of action films is that the great ones can’t be judged by the quality of their action sequences alone, but by the quality of the melodrama in their films and the way they use this melodrama to heighten the tension and meaning of their action. That’s the reason why the American action cinema of the 80s does so little for me – they just didn’t know what to do with their heroes’ emotions, if they admitted to the existence of them at all.

Castellari knew.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

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