Schlock Corridor: REVOLVER (1973)

Beneath the B-movie sleaze of this Italian thriller is a powerful, angry film containing one of Oliver Reed's best performances.

My dad introduced me to Clint Eastwood as a kid; Clint Eastwood introduced me to the Italian Western in my teens and 20s; recently the Italian Western led me to the “Polizieschi," the Italian crime thriller. There's a lot of crossover, as the stars and directors of those great spaghetti westerns moved into crime films in the 70s, and as a result it's a lot of fun to see guys like Franco Nero and Charles Bronson trade in their horses and saloons for the little cars and cafes of Rome. It’s a genre into which I’ve only recently waded, and like any genre, there is going to be some mixed results, but at the moment I think I’m going to have trouble topping Revolver (1973).

The wife of a prison warden (Oliver Reed) is kidnapped. The ransom: release one of the prisoners under his watch - a petty thief named Ruiz (Fabio Testi) - or she dies. It's a straightforward potboiler of a plot, and delivers solidly on all its action beats. But the last third of the movie sucker-punches the viewer by becoming this intensely angry, oddly political meditation on society and those tasked with keeping its order, and the results are surprisingly effective and emotional.

Oliver Reed gives what’s almost certainly the best performance I have ever seen by a visibly intoxicated actor. I’m not joking, neither about his drunkenness (director Sergio Sollima notes in the DVD's extras, “Oliver Reed was a lovely person until about 2 in the afternoon…Until the 25th or 26th bottle of wine, he could hold his liquor, no problem.”), nor about his performance. Reed, seemingly drunk in just about every scene, is angry and on the verge of violence and/or tears for the length of the narrative, and the restored picture by Blue Underground rescues an honestly great performance out of a bad transfer wasteland. He should have won something for this; it was no doubt dismissed as slumming at the time.

Fabio Testi, as the criminal who may or may not have more information than he lets on, also delivers, but you can tell he’s just trying to keep his head above water next to Reed. The relationship between the two recalls the 80s protagonists of Walter Hill and John Woo, and the film teeters on the edge of becoming a cop buddy flick, but this constant dread hanging over everything sets it apart: if Reed fails, his wife dies. Unlike a lot of action flicks, the film never forgets those stakes, and never delves into comic relief (or any kind of relief at all, really). It’s tense and angry and tragic from the opening sequence on, and the ending - surprising, gut-wrenching, and with more on its mind than I ever expected- left me genuinely rattled.

Ennio Morrcione’s score is built around two main themes, which alternately recall his own score for The Untouchables and Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. (Quentin Tarantino appropriated the latter for the great projection booth scene in Inglourious Basterds.) I don’t know enough of Morricone’s work to make the claim that it’s one of his best, but it’s certainly one of his best I've ever heard. I bought the soundtrack immediately after watching the movie.

There are easy, creaky trappings to pick on in the movie - giggle at all the 70s aesthetics if you need to (yes, you WILL see a post-coital conversation on a giant fur rug), roll your eyes at the seemingly pointless excursion into a snowy mountain landscape (maybe I’m an apologist, but I’m often able to forgive the uniquely Italian penchant for needless tangents as "cinematic excess"- it's part of the fun). And if you can’t get past dubbed voices (curious note - Reed dubs his own voice as an American, having made a conscious decision to match the other dubbed voices), it’s probably not for you. But holy cow, it was definitely for me.