A paranoid police procedural, a perverse parable about the corrupting elements of power, and a candidate for the greatest predated Patriot Act movie ever, Elio Petri’s stunning thriller makes no attempt to hide the culprit behind the film’s grisly murder: It wants you to know that Gian Maria Volonté’s dapper killer is responsible for the beautiful corpse splayed out on those black silk bedsheets. The shocks here are (a) that the spaghetti-Western stalwart isn’t wearing a cowboy hat for once, and (b) that Volonté is not just the criminal, he’s also the homicide detective heading up the investigation. Deliberately hiding some clues while planting others in plain sight—bloody footprints, a strand of his tie purposefully inserted under her fingernails—the rising-up-the-precinct-ladder cop plays a game of cat-versus-other-dumber-cats, all while ordering copious wiretaps and amassing blackmail fodder against radical agitators. Is he toying with his fellow officers to demonstrate his sociopathic superiority? Or is he trying to take down a rotten system from the inside, debunking the notion that any citizen is above suspicion?
By the time this early ’70s Academy Award winner answers that question, the nameless “Chief” has given a speech straight out of Mussolini’s playbook (“Repression is civilization!”) and dropped the phrase law and order more times than the then-current APOTUS. (Any similarity is purely coincidental, etc., etc.) Though Petri had always been a political filmmaker, he’d become better known for employing a mondo-mod-mind-fuck style in movies like The 10th Victim (1965) and the recent highlight of Anthology's "Giallo Fever" series, A Quiet Place in the Country (1968); he’s tamped down the futurist set design here, instead portraying a fascistic society that attacks any virus in the system with a host of suit-and-tie-wearing antibodies. That this indictment ends with a quote from Kafka’s The Trial is the rancid icing on the cake: The ultimate victim is not a citizen caught in the cogs of power, but the person who most represents the hand holding people down. The only democratic signifier here is the inalienable right to be dehumanized.
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