The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

I don't remember which movie I saw first, A Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More, but I do remember this. I liked Gian Maria Volonte from the first movie I saw him in, a great villain in the first two flicks of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy. There's a problem of course, a lot of his movies simply aren't available to watch. Thankfully after sitting on my Netflix Unavailable queue for about three years, 1970's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion became available. Thanks, Criterion Collection!

Visiting his mistress, Augusta (Florinda Bolkan) at her apartment, a middle-aged, well-dressed man (Volonte) has sex with her and promptly murders her, slicing her throat with a thin razor blade. He takes his time leaving the apartment, showering, gathering his things and doing one last thing. He calls the police, reporting a murder and even providing the address. He leaves the apartment and drives to work....where he's the Chief of the Homicide Division. His detectives and officers are busy dealing with the recently reported murder of his mistress, the Chief going about it like nothing's wrong. He's been promoted as well, moving up to Chief of the Political Division, leaving Homicide with the best reputation it has had in years. How good is the reputation though? Can his own force find out he's the murderer?

From director and screenwriter Elio Petri (writing with Ugo Pirro), 'Investigation' is an Italian film that earned Oscars, numerous international awards and according to Wikipedia (and when are they ever wrong?) is widely regarded as one of the great international films of the entire 1970s. For years, it simply wasn't available to watch in the United States, only getting its release in the U.S. recently courtesy of a Criterion Collection DVD release. I don't feel comfortable enough with an entire decade to call it one of the best, but it's easy to see the appeal. The story, the message (sometimes a little heavy-handed), the style, and the location shooting in Italy go a long way. It certainly has a lot going for it, starting with....

None other than Gian Maria Volonte. I went into this movie with a preconceived notion of what this movie was going to be like, the Netflix sleeve backing me up. I assumed Volonte's main character was trying to cover up the fact that he murdered his mistress. Yeah, about that.....nope. He wants to be caught. He wants to test the system, hence the title. The premise is that certain people just couldn't commit crimes, just wouldn't do it, especially one as heinous as murder. He's a police chief, of the Homicide Division at that, so he couldn't be a prime suspect in the investigation, could he? That's what Volonte's Chief intends to do. This is an epic cat and mouse game he's playing here. Having murdered the mistress, he casually walks around the apartment leaving clues that he was there. He leaves his fingerprints on a variety of things, steals jewelry but leaves a large pile of cash, is even spotted by a tenant in the apartment building.

So everything is seemingly working against him, right? That's the beauty of this part, the ever-developing case against him. The Chief goes into his plan fully intending to test the system, to see if he can get away with it, if his Division will put the pieces together and actually figure out it's him. He's an idealist if possibly insane and unhinged for actually murdering someone to try and prove a point. Is it ego? Is it pride? What drives him? I would have loved with a little more explanation as to his reasoning. What we do see is a man who is both convinced he's right and also a man who is sure he's made the wrong decision, trying to trip the police up at different points instead of spelling it out. He's impeccably smooth, always wearing a perfectly tailored tie, his hair slicked back into position, a man oozing with confidence and ego just daring to be taken down a notch or two. It's a great part that straddles that fine line between villain and master of evil villain. As mentioned, I would have loved a little more explanation, but the gist of his reasoning is there.

This is Volonte's movie, plan and simple. The rest of the cast is a means of testing him and pushing him, seeing how far he can push back at times with his fellow detectives, his superiors, the people working the nuts and bolts aspect of the police force. Let's start with Bolkan as the mistress, Augusta, just plain old crazy and a bit of a put it lightly. It is her who first puts the thought of murder in the Chief's head, seeing how exactly he would murder someone and get away with it. Creepy performance, but a good one. Arturo Dominici is Mangani, the Chief's replacement in the Homicide Division, while Orazio Orlando is very good as Biglia, a younger officer but a smart one, someone who starts to see that the Chief should be a prime suspect. Gianni Santuccio is appropriately sleazy police commissioner, Volonte's Chief point-blank admitting the victim was his mistress. Also look for Sergio Tramonti as Antonio Pace, a revolutionary, an anarchist looking to cause some problems.  

The 1960s and 1970s were quite the turbulent, violent time in Italy, corruption wreaking havoc in the government and police force. The message here isn't subtle....basically don't trust anyone in a power position. ANYONE. It can be a little heavy-handed in its execution, but the story and premise are more than interesting enough to overcome that relative weakness. The ending is pretty good too, seemingly a twist throwing everything for a loop before revealing an open-ended finale that really isn't so open-ended when you think about it. A good movie with a great performance from Volonte that will hopefully pick up some more buzz in 2013 courtesy of a great-looking DVD from the Criterion Collection. Also worth mentioning, a playful musical score that builds up that tension from who else? Ennio Morricone of course.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970): ***/****

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