Violent Italy: A Poliziotteschi Primer

Stream into the weird, wild world of Italian crime thrillers.

We're incredibly excited to partner with Fandor, a streaming service with the biggest handpicked collection of the most-talked-about indie films from around the world. With a catalogue this diverse and provocative, it was both easy and very, very hard to choose a handful of titles to discuss here on BMD.

The Cliff's Notes version of Italian exploitation cinema goes something like this: a few low-budget Italian films copy a popular American trend, and one of those Italian films becomes so successful that it spawns dozens of knock-offs of its own. Money flows in; repeat as needed for the second half of the 20th Century. These trends blur and overlap, but they each have their own definite epicenters. In the '50s and early '60s, the success of American biblical epics like Quo Vadis breathed new life into Italy’s “sword & sandal” adventures, and though the “Peplum” genre (as it was also known) had been something of a staple of Italian cinema since the silent era, muscleman gladiator adventures from Italy became an absolute exploitation movement after 1958’s Hercules. Similarly, while European Westerns had been slowly percolating since the late 50s, 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars helped make the “spaghetti western” a cottage industry (and a legitimate sub-genre: historians cite over 600 Italian Westerns produced between 1960 and 1980).

In the '70s, as interest (and profits) tapered off for Italian Westerns (for my money, 1976’s Keoma is the last great one), just about every actor and director from that world moved into making cheap, shot-on-location urban crime thrillers, usually filmed in Naples, Rome, or Milan. Like the Westerns before them, these poliziotteschi started by mimicking massively popular American films (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, etc.). Like the Westerns before them, they ported over working stiff “name” actors in an attempt to give their films some marquee value; Jack Palance, Telly Savalas, and Henry Silva were frequent/familiar faces in these films. And like the Westerns before them, they almost immediately metastasized into their own, singular, bonkers genre. But it’s a genre that runs the gamut from silly fun, to debased exploitation, to thoughtful, often angry political screeds. Poliziottechi both exploited and commented on Italy's uneasy political climate of the decade, luring in audiences with promises of glorified action and violence, then quite often gut-punching them with brutal, unsubtle left-leaning attacks on the system.

Fandor has about a dozen poliziotteschi available to stream, and it’s a pretty great starter set for anyone interested in exploring the genre. Be warned, though, that this is not some “so bad it’s good” nonsense for you to riff over beer and pizza with your boyz. I mean, if you’re into giggling at dubbed dialogue and dated clothes for 90 minutes, I guess you’ll find it here, but why bother? These are deep cuts for real fans of exploitation. They’re violent, and sexist, and all sorts of inappropriate, very often too brutal for casual viewers. And they are, in the truest sense, foreign films: the way the characters behave is often at odds with 2015 America, the films are visually unconventional, and they are not crowd pleasers in any contemporary sense of the phrase. But if you’re able to recalibrate your brain to a certain frequency, and if you’re able to understand that neither depiction nor ingestion equals endorsement, there are ample rewards to be found in this genre. Below are links for and thoughts on a handful of the poliziotteschi available to stream on Fandor.

As explained in the documentary Eurocrime! (which you should maybe watch before diving into these films), Italian crime flicks had a heavy preoccupation with kidnapping. That’s because in the 1970s, kidnappings by the terrorist groups like the Brigate Rosse  made frequent headlines in Italy. Sometimes the “Red Brigades” kidnapped politicians to make a statement; sometimes they simply kidnapped wealthy citizens for ransom to fund their activities. The Italian audiences of the '70s definitely had kidnapping on the brain, and so it bled into many, many poliziotteschi plotlines. My single favorite film of the genre, Revolver, is centered around a kidnapping, and a kidnapping is the inciting act of another classic, Enzo Castellari’s Street Law. But 1974’s Kidnapped (aka Rabid Dogs) is still an outlier; it’s director Mario Bava’s lone entry in the Italian crime genre. As such, it’s set apart by very distinctive, almost elegant wide-angle camerawork, missing the run-and-gun, zoom-lens style so often associated with the genre. What it’s not missing is the ugly brutality of the poliziotteschi, from which no one - man, woman or child - is safe.

With its funky soundtrack, canned dubbing, and likely stolen shots of the streets of Milan, Umberto Lenzi’s Syndicate Sadists (1975) is a much more stereotypical example of the genre. Its hero is a shaggy, plays-by-his-own-rules lone wolf named Rambo (Tomás Milián). Milián is maybe THE face of poliziotteschi; Franco Nero, Fabio Testi and Maurizio Merli all made their marks in the genre, but Milián is the guy who rode it into the ground, staying on board when the whole thing morphed into slapstick in the '80s. Here he’s super cool, riding a motorcycle and dispensing justice as he hunts down the killers of his best friend, who are also (naturally) a gang of kidnappers. Syndicate Sadists is a big sloppy helping of all the genre’s hallmarks, including startling violence and practical motorcycle stunts that would give Tom Cruise himself pause.

If Syndicate Sadists is tasty, cheesy junk food, 1972’s Caliber 9 (aka Milano Calibro 9) is fine Italian dining. Based on the writings of crime novelist Giorgio Scerbanenco, Caliber 9 is thoughtful, colorful, and polished where its contemporaries are rushed, muted and ugly. Director Fernando di Leo didn’t think of his films as part of the poliziotteschi genre, and in fairness to him, the plot of this film doesn’t really feel of a piece with its earthy brethren. Caliber 9 has more in common with the hard-boiled crime fiction of Richard Stark, its bullheaded ex-con protagonist (Gastone Moschin) recalling the anti-heroes of Point Blank or The Outfit. The same goes for its noir-ish plot about a con released from prison, immediately hounded by criminals and cops alike, all of whom think he’s sitting on 300,000 stolen dollars he stashed before getting pinched. Caliber 9 is timeless in a way many of these other films aren't; you could remake it with Jason Statham tomorrow (please don't, though) and the plot would still feel quite modern. Fandor’s HD print of Caliber 9 is remarkable looking; just a few years ago this movie wasn’t even available stateside. It’s presented in Italian instead of dubbed English, but bear in mind that, really, all these films are dubbed. They often employed actors from different countries, all speaking different languages, and the crews filmed MOS to keep things moving. So in whatever language any of these films are presented, they're all dubbed.

Fernando DiLeo directed eight of Fandor’s twelve listed Italian crime thrillers. He merely scripted 1976’s Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man, leaving directing duties to Mr. Cannibal Holocaust himself, Ruggero Deodato. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s just about one of the most violent examples of the genre: in the opening scene, two purse-snatchers on a motorcycle inadvertently drag a woman to her death (apparently another real-life Italian epidemic that often turns up in these films). The crime leads to an insane (and permit-free) chase through the city streets, up giant stairways and onto the sidewalks. It’s the kind of chase where a seeing-eye dog is violently run over for comic relief. And when a criminal survives a violent crash, our cop protagonist toys with the bleeding man before snapping his neck. It’s different over there. But it’s not all glib yuks: somewhere under all the carnage and rampant misogyny, DiLeo and Deodato are very much questioning the behavior and the mindset of the kind of men who sign up to commit violence in the name of the state.

Again, make no mistake: these films are from a culture that is very different than yours, and its people don’t always behave in the ways to which you're accustomed. In fact, if there’s one single genre of film about which I’d say “DO NOT BOTHER trying to view this through a modern context,” it’d be poliziotteschi. But if it’s your thing, Fandor is currently hosting some of the best.

Fandor makes it easy for you to find the right film to watch. With the biggest handpicked collection of the most-talked-about indie films from around the world, there’s always something great to watch, whatever your mood, on almost any device.