Years of Lead: Five Classic Italian Crime Thrillers (1973-1977) Blu-ray Review: A Great Overview of the Poliziotteschi Genre

The Italian Giallo is generally considered to be a subgenre of horror. This makes plenty of sense as they are typically filled with jump scares, plenty of tension, and buckets of blood and gore. But it could also be considered part of the crime thriller genre as well. Giallo gets its name after all from the color (the word literally means “yellow” in Italian) of the cheap crime paperbacks being sold in book shops all over the country. The stories typically involve some maniac slicing and dicing his way through the city while being pursued by someone hoping to put him in jail or the graveyard (be it an actual policeman, a private detective, or just as often as not, a private citizen).

At around the same time (roughly the late 1960s through the 1970s) a similar Italian genre was taking flight, the Poliziotteschi. But where the Giallo tended to focus on one psychotic killer murdering young women with a blade, the Poliziotteschi usually involved gangs of delinquents or other organized crime syndicates. Stylistically the Giallo is filled with bright colors, unique camera angles, modern funky, jazzy music, and plenty of stylized violence. The Poliziotteschi tend to be more prosaic in their filmmaking with a reliance on straight-ahead action sequences over unique stylizations.

I have become a very big fan of the Giallo genre, but I’m not particularly well versed in the Poliziotteschi. Much like they’ve done with Giallo, Arrow Video aims to correct that error by releasing some top-notch examples of the genre. On June 22, they will be releasing Years of Lead: Five Classic Italian Crime Thrillers 1973–1977, which I figure is as good a place as any to check out the genre. That title, by the way, is a socio-political term used to describe a turbulent period in Italy’s history (lastly roughly from 1969 through the late 1980s) which was marked by terrorism, political upheaval, violence and spent lead bullets).

The films included in this set run the gamut of straight-ahead crime dramas to no-plot Euro sleaze. They are filled to the brim with car chases, shoot-outs, rampant nudity, and sexual violence. There’s literally something for everyone. And by “everyone,” I mean those depraved minds who go looking for obscure, usually out-of-print films with enough nastiness to make your average filmgoer queasy in the belly.

The first film in the set and by far the best is No, The Case Is Happily Resolved. It begins with a bit of interesting audio. The images flip back and forth between a well-attended soccer match and a serene scene near a river. At the match, the sound is completely silent but when the video switches to the nature scene we hear all the noise, and chaos of the soccer match. Eventually, we find a man, Fabio (Enzo Cerusico) sitting next to the river fishing. A radio sits next to him with a long wire running up to his ear, where he is listening to the game.

His ears pick something else up. A girl screaming. He takes the earpiece out and looks around. Was it his imagination? No, there she is screaming again. A nearly nude woman is running for her life, being followed by a middle-aged man, who we’ll later learn is Professor Eduardo Ranieri (Riccardo Cucciolla). He chases her down then brutally beats her to death. Shocked, Fabio just stares as he does it. Once the woman is dead the Professor looks at his hands like he can’t believe what he’s just done. Then he looks up at Fabio, who runs for his life.

He jumps into his car and speeds away, constantly looking back for fear he is being followed by the killer. At an intersection in the city, he stops to tell a policeman, but he’s nervous about it. He is distrustful of the cops. Since he is blocking traffic, the cop tells him to move along. He does then spends the day debating what to do. He should call the police, but what if the killer finds out? Also, he’ll have to make a statement, and testify in court. Who wants all that hassle? In the end, he decides to not get involved.

The Professor, being wiser and more in the know about how things work goes to the police himself. He tells them he was but a witness to the murder and the killer looks quite a lot like Fabio. He gives them enough information to make himself believable. He describes the general looks of Fabio and the make of his car, but doesn’t give enough details that they’ll definitely be able to find him. He doesn’t need that confrontation.

When he hears the word on the news, Fabio gets frightened. He shaves his mustache and paints his car a different color. He’s now on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. He periodically tries to tell the police but the system is stacked against him. A working-class guy like him isn’t as believable as a well-to-do college professor.

It plays out like a reverse Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. It is an interesting story with an involving plot made by artists and craftspeople who know what they are doing. The social commentary is on point. I write that as praise because, as we’ll soon see, not all of these films can make such claims.

Colt 38 Special Squad (1976) is up next and it is my next favorite film. Actually, now that I think about it we’ll be talking about these films in exactly reverse order as to how much I enjoyed watching them. Directed by Massimo Dallamano (who also directed the pretty terrific Gialli films What Have They Done to Solange? and What Have They Done To Our Daughters?), Colt 38 Special Squad deals with an elite police squad (who, you guessed it, all carry Colt 38 pistols) led by Captain Vanni (Marcel Bozzuffi). The story is pretty basic – the squad is formed, then trained, then they go after a gang of thieves. But it’s got plenty of car chases and gunfights. Dallamano gives it a bit of style and always keeps things moving.

Less interesting, but still full of action is Highway Racer (1977). In fact, it is almost nothing but action. The plot is basically a cop who wants to drive really fast and chase bad guys and that’s pretty much what he does. Oh sure, there is a police captain in his way and there’s something like a romantic subplot and a bit of undercover work, but none of that is fleshed out or matters in the least little bit. This film is all about the cars. They drive fast, they drive on two wheels, they jump over ravines and they have spectacular crashes. Think of it like The Dukes of Hazzard without any of the cool characters and instead of driving around country lanes they are whizzing through the streets of Rome.

The car chases are pretty spectacular. At one point when I noticed the stunt driver sitting in a car that had just crashed and was upside down, I remembered that all of this was practical effects. There was no CGI in 1977, and they didn’t use model work. It was all done with real cars with real people driving them. I had almost forgotten what that was like.

The last two films are pretty nasty pieces of work. Savage Three (1975) and Like Rabid Dogs (1976) have essentially the same plot. A gang of youths go about the city assaulting, raping, and murdering anyone that gets in their way, is at all bothersome, or just happens to be there. They are pursued and eventually stopped by a cop who must use unusual methods to take them down.

In Savage Three, our no-goodniks are three young men living working-class lives. Their jobs are unsatisfying, their bosses cruel, the money is hardly worth getting out of bed for. They are listless and bored. They don’t intentionally start out as criminals, it just kind of happens. One day at a soccer match, they accidentally start a riot. The violence and chaos is fun. They like it. They want some more. So why not steal a Ferrari and take a joy ride? If they accidentally run over an old guy, well, it was his fault. Naturally, this leads to even worse crimes now that they have a taste. It is all society’s fault anyway for giving them crummy lives.

In Like Rabid Dogs the criminals aren’t working-class schlubs looking for some meaning in their lives, but rather bored rich kids looking for kicks. This time one of the gang members is a girl and she’s no less cruel than the boys. Their thrills involve robbery (of a soccer stadium, what else?) and raping/murdering prostitutes.

I watched these last two films first out of this collection and I gotta tell you, this old man reaches his saturation point on sexual violence pretty quickly these days. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through this set. Luckily, that gets toned down pretty quickly in the other three films. Like Rabid Dogs and Savage Three are well made and stylish in their way. There are at least some attempts at social commentary but mostly it’s just an excuse to show a little of the old ultra-violence and naked flesh.

I’m not at all a prude, and I’m not trying to damn these films for giving the audience what they want. I suspect quite a few folks interested in this set will find those last films to be the best in the bunch. I might have been one of the ten years ago. Funny how age and having children will change your perspective on these things. But I probably shouldn’t be too harsh that a European sleaze film from the 1970s film delivers exactly what it promises.

Earlier, I noted how I was not well versed in the Poliziotteschi genre. This Arrow Video set is a really great place to wet your beak. These films give a nice representation of what one can find in the genre – big action sequences, car chases, gunplay, plenty of 1970s style sex, and even a little social commentary.

The video for The Case Is Happily Resolved, Savage Three and Highway Racers is 1.85:1 anamorphic and for Colt 38 Special Squad and Like Rabid Dogs it is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The transfers look good all things considered. Colors are a bit muted by I think that’s more from the style of cinematography being used than a problem with the transfers. I didn’t notice any major scratches or debris. All the transfers are rather top notch for films from the ’70s. The audio is DTS-HD MA mono in Italian. Highway Racer and Colt 38 Special Squad contain English language dubs as well as the original Italian audio.

The films are loaded with extras including multiple interviews with some of the filmmakers, trailers, poster galleries and the like. Worth the price of admission is a long video essay by critic Will Webb who digs deep into the Poliziotteschi genre. Also included is a color booklet with several essays about the films.

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Mat Brewster

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