God bless Italian filmmakers. They were consistently making great films in an astonishing array of genres for a good three decades – roughly the mid-1940s through the 1970s. You could argue that things began with the neorealism movement in the 1940s. Then directors like Frederico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were blowing up the arthouses in the 1950s and 1960s. Mario Bava and Dario Argento essentially invented the horror subgenre of giallo, and Sergio Leonne reinvented the western with Clint Eastwood. They didn’t exactly break new ground with the poliziotteschi genre, but like so many other Italian films of this era, they continually made good film after good film.
It is that last one we’ll be talking about today and more specifically two films from Enzo G. Castellari which recently received the royal treatment from Arrow Video.
I guess I should define the genre – in brief, it is an action-heavy crime film similar in style to American action films in the 1980s.
The Big Racket is often held up as the quintessential poliziotteschi. It has everything you’d want from this type of film. There are bad guys a-plenty, a rogue cop who will do anything to get the job done, police bosses who’ll try to stop him, car chases, and all the gun fighting a fan could ever hope for.
Fabio Testi stars as Inspector Nico Palmieri, a cop chasing after a pretty nasty gang of racketeers who have been shaking down local businesses for “protection” money. What they need protection from is the gang themselves. None of the businessmen are willing to go to the cops for help because the gang is not only extorting them but they’ve made it plenty clear they are willing to burn the business down or extol all sorts of violence if they don’t comply. Just to prove how nasty they really are at one point they rape the underage daughter of one of the businessmen (and in a weird, rather nasty twist the actress is played by Castellari’s own daughter).
It is that last bit that finally gets a bit of cooperation from the community. When the daughter commits suicide, her father has nothing left to lose and begins cooperating with Inspector Palmieri. An assortment of others, including a career criminal and a rival gang member join in as well which leads to an explosive final showdown.
There is absolutely no fat on this cinematic bone. Enzo G. Castellari’s screenplay contains no filler and his direction moves things along at a brisk pace. Testi is always fun to watch and he’s in his element here. The action sequences are well-staged and that final showdown is a killer. I’m not by any means an expert on the poliziotteschi genre, but this film’s tendency to get down and dirty with the sex and violence seems right at home within the greater context of this time period in Italian cinema.
With The Heroin Busters (1977), Testi stars a similar type of cop but with enough differences to not make him seem redundant. Call him a different side of the same coin. Here, he’s after a gang of international drug smugglers while working undercover. In fact, for the first 20 minutes or so we’re not even privy to the fact that he’s undercover. If it weren’t for the unlikeliness of an actor like Testi playing a bad guy, one might genuinely believe he’s a crook for the first little while. David Hemmings plays an INTERPOL officer and he’s the only person who knows that Fabio is actually an undercover policeman.
This one doubles down on the mature rating. It digs deep into the dark sides of heroin. There is plenty of scenes filled with the details of shooting up and junkies vomiting from withdrawal. One particularly nasty moment shows an addict licking a dirty public toilet seat because his junk was spilled all over the bathroom.
There are plenty of explosions, shoot-outs, and action. There’s even an incredibly out of left field lesbian sex scene if that sort of thing floats your boat. But where The Big Racket was trimmed of all its fat, The Heroin Busters is awfully flabby. Especially during its long final scene which is really nothing more than a big chase sequence. It ends in the longest, most dull airplane chase scene ever put on celluloid. The soundtrack is from the progressive rock act Goblin which gives it an extra boost of awesome.
Together, The Big Racket and The Heroin Busters make for a pretty excellent double feature of poliziotteschi. Fans of the genre should be excited to get The Big Racket with an upgraded and cleaned-up new scan from the original negatives (The Heroin Busters gets the same treatment, but The Big Racket is the big draw here). And anyone looking to dip their toes in to see what the genre is all about get an excellent opportunity with this set.
As per usual, Arrow Video has loaded these disks with plenty of extras. The cleaned-up scans look excellent and there is both an English language and Italian audio tracks (and subtitles for both languages.) There are multiple new interviews with cast members and some of the filmmakers, plus various critics. Both films have commentaries from critics Adrian J. Smith and David Flint. There are lots of lobby cards to add to your collection and a very nice booklet filled with photos from the films and a couple of critical essays.