WHEN YOU’RE A BIG MAN IN THE BIG CITY, CAN YOU GET AWAY WITH MURDER?
Not that you would actually commit murder. But I’m sure there have been times when you’ve fantasized about doing away with your worst enemy. How would you go about it? What would you do with the body and how would you avoid being caught? Alfred Hitchcock had fun with that idea in Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951), and there have been many other examples. Director Elio Petri’s most famous film follows in the same path, but takes the audacity to another level.
The former head of the homicide squad (Gian Maria Volonté) has just been promoted and is now a top police official. This is when he decides the time has come to slash the throat of his longtime mistress, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan). After killing her in her apartment just as they were about to make love, he carefully arranges the murder scene, placing a thread from his blue tie under one of her fingernails, as if to suggest a struggle. He then places an anonymous call to the police and leaves the apartment. He is seen by a young man who lives in the building. At work, he is cheered by his colleagues who congratulate him on his promotion.
He then joins his friends at the homicide squad as they arrive at his mistress’s apartment and find the body. Sweating profusely, he stands there in his blue tie observing his colleagues as they search the crime scene, looking for clues. Will they catch on to him?
This film is sometimes regarded as the first in a series of highly political stories commenting on Italian society; it was immediately followed by The Working Class Goes to Heaven that reunited Petri with writer Ugo Pirro and star Volonté. Previously a member of a Communist party, Petri never had much sympathy for the powerful ruling classes, which is obvious also in this film. It’s a riveting opening, typical of a thriller, as we see the police inspector kill Augusta and then dash off to work where people are too impressed by his hands-on management to question him.
There have been some critics over the years who lost interest in the talky proceedings after that opening, but it is in fact Petri’s unabashed attack on the key figures in Italian society that lifts this thriller out of the ordinary. The last half hour becomes boldly satirical; a gutsy choice since that kind of gamble makes it so easy for a filmmaker to fall on his ass. But Petri pulls it off and makes his point about how the powers that be will do anything to protect its own. What comes before that is a very entertaining odyssey of how Volonté’s cop keeps weaving from either covering his tracks or providing enough clues to make an arrest inevitable. His behavior is not entirely clear, neither to us nor him, it would seem. Volonté is simply brilliant, playing the character as a man on the edge, often the barking authoritarian who looks down on everyone (including the camera that often catches him in close-ups), but sometimes just pleading to end the charade.
Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller follows him around with great interest and from different angles, making this a lively and highly cinematic experience, in spite of the amount of dialogue. Ennio Morricone has written a theme that is impossible to get out of one’s head, a playful tune that increases tension but also lends the satire a lighter touch.
Delusions of grandeur and self-loathing – Petri illustrates this battle inside Volonté’s cop to great effect. The movie may start out as reminiscent of a dark Hitchcockian fantasy… but its conclusions concern every citizen, and unfortunately Petri has no consolation to offer.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion 1970-Italy. 115 min. Color. Produced by Marina Cicogna, Daniele Senatore. Directed by Elio Petri. Screenplay: Elio Petri, Ugo Pirro. Cinematography: Luigi Kuveiller. Music: Ennio Morricone. Cast: Gian Maria Volonté (The Police Inspector), Florinda Bolkan (Augusta Terzi), Gianni Santuccio (Police Commissioner), Salvo Randone, Arturo Dominici.
Trivia: Original title: Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Cannes: Grand Prize of the Jury.