“Poliziotteschi is a sub-genre of crime and action film that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s and became popular in the 1970s. Poliziotteschi films are also known as poliziottesco, Italo-crime, Euro-crime or simply Italian crime films.” -Wikipedia
One genre of film that I recently discovered (and have become mildly obsessed with) is called Poliziotteschi. These were Italian action/crime films made in the late 60s through the early 80s that focused on organized crime and cops that took the law into their own hands. It’s certainly fair to say that these films were inspired by their American counterparts, like Dirty Harry and The Godfather, but Italian directors like Umberto Lenzi, Enzo G. Castellari, Sergio Sollima, and Fernando Di Leo created their own rules for the crime genre. “What did they do different, and why should I care?” you might ask. I shall do my best to answer…
Unfortunately, not many of these films are available in the US, but there are some greats that you should be able to track down. One in particular is Fernando Di Leo’s 1972 film Manhunt, aka The Italian Connection, aka Black Kingpin. The movie stars Mario Adorf as Luca Canali, a small time crook who is unknowingly being pursued by the mob and by two American hitmen played by Woody Strode and Henry Silva. The closer they get to catching Luca, the more powerful he becomes, and he ends up becoming much more of a problem than anyone expected.
The most interesting aspect of poliziotteschi films, and Di Leo’s in particular, is the view of the mafia that you get. In America at this time, movies like Coppola’s Godfather glorified the mob, making it look like an organization that’s above the law and one you’d be proud to be a part of. While the mafia in poliziotteschi films is certainly above the law, its members are often seen as petty. Here, the mob is something that’s always teetering on the edge of falling apart, and the only incentive anyone has to play by the rules is staying alive. Add to that the racial divide between North and South Italy, and you further complicate matters by giving a clear picture of who makes the rules and who follows them. In Manhunt, Luca is a petty criminal that doesn’t even know why he’s being pursued, and in fact you learn that he’s just a name given to the Americans after a botched heroin transfer. The Italian mob had to blame it on someone and they chose Luca because he’s so small-time that no one would miss him. No one except for the people he loves, who the mob also tries to take care of.
Luca slowly realizes how big of a mess he’s been put in, and fights back as much as he can. He quickly realizes he can’t trust anyone and, consequently, is doomed. The two hitmen (obviously the inspiration for Tarantino’s Jules and Vincent) treat the matter like any other job, don’t ask any questions, and just try to find Luca and send him to meet his maker. Dave Catania (Silva) is the hitman who parties too much, and Frank Webster (Strode) is the hitman that keeps Catania in line and makes sure they get the job done. The dynamic is great, and a lot of fun to watch as they keep almost getting their man. All of this leads to a final showdown that is pretty amazing.
Again, this is an action movie, and the action is very well done. The Italians were always great at taking concepts from American films and going bigger: bigger explosions, crazier stunts, more deaths, longer action sequences. But the most refreshing part is that the poliziotteschi films have good stories as well, particularly Fernando Di Leo’s movies. Manhunt is part of a trilogy of films Di Leo called his Mileau Trilogy, the other films being The Boss (Il Boss) and Caliber 9 (Milano Calibro 9). All three films are great and they each deal with different aspects of organized crime, specifically how fragile and trifling it can be.
From time to time I will definitely be revisiting this genre, as I was mainly only familiar with Italian horror from this period and had no idea how much better the crime films were. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the Italian horror, but there is so much more going on in just about any poliziotteschi film you come across.
I definitely recommend tracking this one down.