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Making The Italian Connection: The Poliziesco
An overview of The Italian Connection, a film series at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC.
Published on June 19, 2014 | Filed under The Italian Connection 2014

Beginning on June 19th, the Malastrana Film Series—in partnership with the Anthology Film Archives—will be showing a selection of ‘60s and ‘70s Italian crime films known as polizieschi. A popular subgenre of crime films inspired by Dirty Harry and Death Wish, many of the actors and production talent involved in polizieschi would move between the Spaghetti Western and the giallo (or murder mystery), with Italy staking its claim as a hot spot for explicit B-movies and genre films. These films also serve as a window into the socio-political fears of the time and provide parallels for contemporary audiences dealing with similar societal fears of violence and terrorism. In the days leading up to the festival, Paracinema will be discussing the historical context of these films, as well as looking at a few select titles not showing at the festival.

Malastrana

On a very basic level, the poliziesco was a natural evolution of Italian genre cinema. Italian filmmakers had proven themselves capable of appealing to international audiences with the stylized violence of the Spaghetti Western; as film scholar Alex Marlow-Mann writes, the poliziesco can be considered the direct heir to the western due to its similar narrative and stylistic conventions and the familiar faces on both sides of the camera. As in westerns, polizieschi feature isolated heroes who bring order to a corrupt world through the use of violence; the films’ structure sets the archetypal hero between a group of unstoppable criminals and helpless citizens, often building around themes of revenge or vigilantism. These films would also include the excessive violence of the Italian western, treating audiences to regular car chases and gun battles between their protagonists and scores of organized crime members. Tomas Milian, a regular of Italian genre films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, offered his insight into the evolution of the genre when he noted that “transferring the Spaghetti Western antihero from his horse to a squad car” as well as exchanging his Colt 45 for an Italian Beretta is what create the genre (via Bondanella).

While the poliziesco was the natural aesthetic evolution of the Spaghetti Western, Italian filmmakers would need a push from their American counterparts to bring genre film into a contemporary setting. The popularity of American crime films of the 1970s—in particular, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, William Friedkin’s The French Connection, and Michael Winner’s Death Wish—would help set the template for Italian crime cinema. Italy during the ‘60s and ‘70s was a hotbed of violence and political unrest. A combination of student protests, labor disputes, and organized crime led to a string of public bombings and high-profile assassinations. In The History of Italian Cinema, Gian Piero Brunetta writes about how Italian directors were quick to use these headlines as the basis for the poliziesco: “They told the story of the disintegration of the urban fabric, the citizen’s lack of security at home, the growing scourge of drugs and delinquency, the escalation of violence, and the birth of new criminal powers.” However, while many of these films would use familiar locations and events in their narratives, the poliziesco would remain primarily concerned with the action set pieces and the themes of revenge and mob justice.

Genre favorite, Henry Silva

While the subgenre thrived—several scholars estimate that over a hundred polizieschi were made between the ‘60s and ‘70s—it has only begun to find its critical footing within the last decade. It was this ripped-from-the-headlines approach and dependence on contemporary issues that may have caused the polizieschi to be misplaced in the annals of Italian film history. At the time, polizieschi were perceived as being sympathetic to the fascist movement in post-war Italy. Timothy Campbell writes that these films had “served to justify extremist police methods ever since, conflating civic discourses with those produced by Hollywood.” As such, left-leaning members of the press were quick to condemn these titles as aiding the strategia della tensione perpetuated by the right-leaning factions of the government. Many of these films were believed to contain thinly-veiled political messages meant frighten the public into supporting more heavy-handed efforts by bureaucrats. Campbell addresses this whole dismissal of the polizieschi when he writes that the result of this ideological conflict was “a twenty-year delay in making available many of these films, as well as popular amnesia about their cultural importance.”

Contemporary film critics are more forgiving in their discussion of the poliziesco’s ideological statements. In his book on Italian film history, Peter Bondanella writes that “the fascist regime preferred to envision Italy as a land without crime” rather than see it be depicted as violent and lawless; Bondanella later asserts that “very few directors of B crime films had any other goal but to entertain the audiences that had previously filled movie theaters to see Italian westerns.” Alex Marlow-Mann also argues against the effectiveness of a pro-fascist interpretation, noting that the poliziesco’s “obviously fictional status” would be likely to result “not in the spectator stepping back onto the streets and voting for the far right, as traditional ideological critics imply, but rather stepping back into the cinema demanding an escalation of retributive violence in future cinematic spectacles.” Marlow-Mann points to the “shifting and unbalanced variable” of the poliziesco’s ideology, causing the film’s political statements to be uncertain, “even to the filmmakers themselves.”

Umberto Lenzi's Almost Human

For contemporary audiences, the polizieschi remain a fascinating mixture of exciting genre aesthetics and political ideology. Fans of auteurs such as Quentin Tarantino will recognize the influence that the polizieschi have had on the current generation of genre filmmakers; conversely, those interested in exploring the link between terrorism and mass media will find plenty of opportunities for scholarship surrounding the era in Italian filmmaking. Here at Paracinema, you can expect reviews of most of the titles included in the festival, as well as additional content throughout the festival. Please check back regularly for festival coverage and be sure to follow @paracinema, @labsplice, and festival organizers @giallofeverNYC on Twitter.

Here is the full list of screenings and times:

Upcoming Screenings

Carlo Lizzani
The Violent Four aka Bandits in Milan
June 19 at 7:00 PM
June 25 at 7:00 PM

Enzo G. Castellari
High Crime
June 19 at 9:15 PM
June 29 at 4:30 PM

Elio Petri
We Still Kill the Old Way
June 20 at 7:00 PM
June 24 at 9:00 PM

Fernando Di Leo
Caliber 9
June 20 at 9:15 PM
June 26 at 7:00 PM
June 29 at 9:00 PM

Damiano Damiani
Confessions of a Police Captain
June 21 at 4:30 PM
June 28 at 6:45 PM

Giuliano Montaldo
Grand Slam
June 21 at 6:45 PM
June 27 at 7:00 PM

Mario Bava
Rabid Dogs
June 21 at 9:15 PM
June 28 at 4:30 PM

Elio Petri
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
June 22 at 4:15 PM
June 26 at 9:00 PM

Umberto Lenzi
Almost Human
June 22 at 6:45 PM
June 25 at 9:15 PM

Massimo Dallamano
What Have They Done to Your Daughters
June 22 at 9:00 PM
June 27 at 9:30 PM

Sergio Sollima
Blood in the Streets / Revolver
June 23 at 6:45 PM
June 28 at 9:00 PM

Aldo Lado
Born Winner
June 23 at 9:00 PM
June 29 at 6:45 PM

Mario Bava
Kidnapped (aka Rabid Dogs)
June 24 at 7:00 PM

Paracinema's New York correspondent. Follow me on Twitter at @labsplice, or reach me by email at labsplice (at) paracinema.net.

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