The Savage Stack: STREET LAW (1974)

Franco Nero picks up his shotgun and takes it to Genoa street thugs in this Italocrime action masterwork.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The eleventh entry into this unbroken backlog is Italian exploitation workman Enzo Castellari’s poliziotteschi shotgun blast to the face, Street Law…

Enzo G. Castellari is one of the most notoriously prolific directors you’ve probably never heard of. A genre-jumping Italian workman (weren’t they all?), Castellari dipped a toe into nearly every exploitation pool one could name during the '70s and '80s. Whether it was Spaghetti Westerns (Keoma), post-apocalyptic biker pictures (1990: The Bronx Warriors) or simply ripping off the biggest blockbuster of all time (The Last Shark), Castellari was a shameless showman whose knack for a well-staged set piece separated him from a national industry of schlocky peers. Street Law is probably the director’s best work, pairing him with another Italo icon— Django himself, Franco Nero. Only instead of playing a mythic, Old West gunfighter, here Nero is a meek everyman pushed toward taking justice into his own hands. Part visceral action film, part hard-nosed revenge romp, Street Law packs a primitive punch simply by never fully committing to being just one type of grindhouse gem.

Opening in media res, Italy is being overtaken by a violent criminal rebellion. Houses are burglarized, store fronts are smashed, and pedestrians are either mugged, shot, kidnapped or run down in the streets. Castellari captures the violence via a series of stylistic tics; mounted cameras, slow motion, freeze frames. It’s an arresting intro to existence on the brink of extinction. Undoubtedly the cinematic extension of middle class fear run amok, Street Law is tapping into the same primal malaise as Michael Winner’s Death Wish. There is no safe haven for the prototypical “good citizen”. Their law-abiding ways are merely met with hostility by those who think chaos should reign. Floating through this apocalypse is Nero’s Carlo Antonelli, a Genoa engineer just trying to make an honest living in peace.

Having an icon of '70s Italian cinema play the audience identification character is a stroke of genius, as Antonelli becomes both the peaceful, idealized version of every male in the audience while also carrying a built-in sympathy due to his instantly recognizable mug. Nero’s giant blue eyes convey sheer terror as he is taken hostage in the middle of a hectic bank robbery, his captors speeding off and abusing him in the backseat. Similar to how Winner would subvert the image of another famous Spaghetti Western gunfighter (in the very same year, no less), Castellari is stripping Nero of his tough guy sensibilities. It adds to the film’s unremitting tension, as anybody acquainted with the actor at all knows that once he resorts to violence, holy hellfire is going to be unleashed upon his tormentors.

In a way, Street Law plays like a male-centered variation on the rape/revenge picture. Only instead of sexual violation, Antonelli has his masculine dignity stripped away from him by these petty thugs. When he goes to report the crime to authorities, he’s scoffed at and denied any sort of justice, as the other men blame his lack of “backbone” for allowing the kidnapping to transpire. It’s no different than a rape survivor’s cries falling on deaf ears, the police informing the victim that they are in some way responsible for their own heinous violation. Castellari (along with screenwriter Arduino Maiuri) are taking Italian culture’s obsession with masculinity to task, as Antonelli has to become a “real man” and take up arms in the name of righteousness. Prideful Italo alphas only beget violence, and the submissive male cannot exist in such a fascist state.

Though his casting is cheeky, Castellari is still very much aware of the sandbox he’s playing in. Every law officer is either corrupt or completely inept. The organized criminals are portrayed with the same amount of contempt subgenre master Fernando Di Leo shows to small time La Cosa Nostra in his own poliziotteschi output like The Italian Connection or Caliber 9. Genoa becomes a character unto itself. The streets are soaked in Old World grime, and the pool alleys and bars are all hazy and smoke-filled, populated with hoods ready to engage in a bit of the old ultra-violence at the drop of a hat. Few genres felt like they existed in a mutually shared universe like '70s Italocrime, and Street Law is no different.

There are actually dual revolts converging over the course of Street Law’s brisk one-hundred minute runtime. The gun thugs who have overtaken the city are revolting against the idea of societal order. They steal whatever they can because, time and again, the police fail to stop them (or are also on the take). The second revolt is that of the everyday citizen — tired of being too afraid to walk the streets even during the day (sun-splashed Italian crime stands in stark contrast to the nighttime grittiness of its American brethren), Antonelli struggles to find a contact through which he can infiltrate the underworld. Hiding in phone booths and warehouses, he amasses a small arsenal in secret as he tracks down the men who took his money and put good citizens’ lives in harm’s way. One revolution is inspired by the other, and both end in bullet-riddled apocalypse for nearly all involved.

If it weren’t for a somewhat saggy second act, Street Law might be the very best poliziotteschi ever made. Castellari’s hand is steady and sure behind the camera, and longtime editor Gianfrano Amicucci’s cutting finds a distinct rhythm that keeps the picture moving, even when the narrative lags. Carlo Carlini’s 1.85 photography feels especially sumptuous; capturing Genoa with an eye for blue-collar beauty (an early scene where Antonelli navigates an open air flea market is just stunning). Special mention also has to be made of the film’s fearless stunt crew, crashing cars and flying through windows with reckless abandon. There’s an old-school, practical approach to Street Law’s action set pieces that cannot be replicated today; because instead of a real-live human being throwing himself through a plate glass, it would all be rendered via computer in post. Every car chase sequence in Street Law carries with it a sense of palpable danger, as these were acts that could actually kill its performers.

Sporting a funky, De Angelis Brothers score, a brutal, wrenching climax, and an all-time great final shot, Castellari’s film is probably one of the most entertaining entries in the Italian Crime genre. The director would come close to topping Street Law twice; once without Nero heading the cast (1977’s The Heroin Busters) and another where he brought back his frosty leading man (1980’s The Cobra). But neither contain the same blend of angry showmanship, as Street Law is fun derived from righteous fury. It’s a primal scream turned breakneck action picture, as revolution carries with it the same consequences as revenge: nobody who engages is the same, even if victory is achieved.

Street Law is available now on DVD from Blue Underground and to stream.

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