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Blu-ray Review: Years of Lead: Five Classic Italian Crime Thrillers on Arrow Video

Arrow’s box set conducts a gratifying investigation into a lesser-known Italian genre that’s still underrepresented on Blu-ray.

4.5

Years of Lead: Five Classic Italian Crime Thrillers

Abounding in insanely reckless car chases, vicious gunfights, and rough-and-tumble vigilante justice, the poliziotteschi genre of Italian crime films reflected a tumultuous period in Italian political and social life. The so-called anni di piombo, or “years of lead,” saw the streets of Italian cities running red with blood, whether from contentious student demonstrations, striking workers picketing inhumane conditions, or political terrorism on the left and right, not to mention the depredations of organized crime syndicates. Arrow Video’s excellent three-disc box set Years of Lead: Five Classic Italian Crime Films gives viewers a cross-sectional sampling of the poliziotteschi genre. Eschewing a strict chronological presentation, Arrow places thematically related pairs of films on the first two discs, with the last one containing the earliest film available here as a sort of spiritual prequel.

The first disc focuses on seemingly senseless crime sprees, though both films go out of their way to at least hint at underlying sociopolitical motivations. Vittorio Salerno’s Savage Three, from 1975, opens with a perfect visual metaphor: lab mice shunted into ever smaller living spaces swiftly turn violent and rip each other apart. Witnessing this event seems to provoke computer programmer Ovidio Mainardi (Joe Dallesandro) into his own vicious response, recruiting pals Giacomo (Gianfranco Di Grassi) and Pepe (Guido De Carli) for some extracurricular fun that soon escalates murderously (including a wicked death by forklift that has to be seen to be believed). That Ovidio occupies his own cage is suggested by the ubiquitous sheet-glass walls of his workspace. And while Ovidio clearly holds himself superior to the lower-class “riffraff” who he victimizes, Inspector Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno) views the crimes as an almost inevitable response to modern urban living. This is nowhere more evident than in the soccer riot the trio instigate; though they may ignite the spark, their fellow spectators seem more than happy to run roughshod over each other.

Mario Imperoli’s Like Rabid Dogs, from 1976, introduces an intriguing psychosexual element into its proceedings. Here one of the central trio of wayward youths is a girl, Silvia (Anna Rita Grupputo), and she’s given a disturbing amount of agency in perpetrating the various criminal schemes suggested by ringleader Tony (Cesare Barro), including kidnapping, rape, and murder. Tony himself seems motivated by a decidedly Oedipal urge against his wealthy businessman father, Arrigo Ardenghi (Paolo Carlini), going so far as to target the sex workers favored by his old man. It doesn’t help the investigation led by Inspector Muzi (Jean-Pierre Sebagh) that Tony’s wealth and privilege largely insulate him against prosecution. Instead, Imperoli’s film ends with Tony falling into the hands of an angry mob of protesting factory workers, while Muzi fecklessly pleads for them to cease “in the name of the law.”

The films on the second disc wallow in vigilante justice, albeit without the righteous triumphalism that justifies the actions of Dirty Harry—even if parts of Massimo Dallamano’s Colt 38 Special Squad, with its almost fetishistic emphasis on the titular handgun, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Clint Eastwood vehicle Magnum Force. Dallamano’s 1976 film focuses on the running feud between Inspector Vanni (Marcel Bozzuffi) and a master criminal known only as the Marseillaise (Ivan Rasimov). After his police-issue weapon jams during a gunfight, Vanni puts in a requisition for a brace of newfangled revolvers, then trains an elite squad operating with official sanction slightly outside the law on how to use them. Initially effective, the squad’s efforts only prompt the Marseillaise to raise the stakes, initiating a series of horrific bombings around Turin that must’ve seemed torn right out of the headlines by contemporary viewers. Dallamano’s camera dwells on the shocking aftermath of these bombings, working to undermine superficial generic pleasures with a cold shower of almost documentary realism. Vanni’s ultimate victory seems assured, but the film’s final moments call into question the lasting importance of the squad’s efforts.

Stelvio Massi’s Highway Racer, from 1977, largely avoids the violence of the other films in this set, not to mention their often copious nudity, all the better to spotlight some truly astonishing car chases and stunts. In fact, the film often feels like a feature-length highlights of the car chases from Peter Yates’s Bullitt and William Friedkin’s The French Connection. The comparative chasteness of the film is reflected in the almost chivalric rivalry between flying squad driver Marco Palma (Maurizio Merli) and criminal mastermind Jean-Paul Dossena (Angelo Infanti). Instead of the state-of-the-art firearms necessary to the previous film, Palma requires a souped-up Ferrari to properly combat Dossena, another example of modernity’s reliance on the technical and the mechanized. (Interestingly, the Big Bad in both of these films is codified as French.) In the end, Palma can only defeat Dossena by using a bit of instruction the latter gave him earlier in the film, so that Dossena effectively chooses his own downfall.

A second Vittorio Salerno film, 1973’s No, the Case Is Happily Resolved, appears on disc three. In this distinctly Hitchcockian riff on Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, middleclass everyman Fabio Santamaria (Enzo Cerusico) witnesses a murder committed by privileged Professor Ranieri (Riccardo Cucciolla) but, distrustful of the system and not wanting to get involved, rashly proceeds to destroy or alter anything that can link him to the deed. This backfires on him when Ranieri goes to the authorities instead, claiming to be an eyewitness, and fingers Fabio for the crime. Despite Fabio’s protestations of innocence, things do not go well for him as the criminal justice system chews him up and spits him out. A last-minute note of grace turns out to have been a tack-on mandated by the film’s producers, while the original, more ambiguous ending is available as a supplement on the disc.

Image/Sound

Image quality across the five films included in Years of Lead is quite impressive, with satisfying levels of depth and clarity, bold colors and deep blacks, and only a smidgen of print damage on display. Sound is crisp and clear on the Italian-language tracks, whether Master Audio for Savage Three and Like Rabid Dogs or LPCM for the rest, while both Colt 38 Special Squad and Highway Racer come with a bonus English dub that sounds consistent with contemporary Italian standards. Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation is the perfect vehicle to sample a handful of funky, raucous scores from the likes of Stelvio Cipriani and Riz Ortolani.

Extras

Although there are no commentary tracks to be found in Years of Lead, there are a number of extensive (40- to 50-minute) interviews with cast and crew that provide ample behind-the-scenes anecdotes and career reminiscences. Of particular interest are a pair of featurettes with writer-director Vittorio Salerno and actress Martine Brochard discussing their collaborations on Savage Three and No, the Case is Happily Resolved. The interview with Savage Three star Joe Dallesandro doesn’t touch on the film very much; nevertheless, he has a lot of fascinating things to say, and in his characteristically gruff delivery, about his work on underground films by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, moving to Europe, working across the language barrier with foreign directors, and acting alongside “knucklehead” Martin Balsam.

The requisite historical and generic context comes from a visual essay from film critic Will Webb as well as interviews with Italian film historians Fabio Melelli and Roberto Curti. Also included are a two-track music sampler from the score for Like Rabid Dogs and the original ending to No, the Case is Happily Resolved. The illustrated 60-page booklet included in the slipcase contains incisive and informative essays on the films from critics Troy Howarth, Michael Mackenzie, Rachael Nisbet, Kat Ellinger, and James Oliver.

Overall

Arrow Video’s new box set conducts a gratifying investigation into a lesser-known Italian genre, the poliziotteschi, that’s still underrepresented on Blu-ray.

Cast: Joe Dallesandro, Enrico Maria Salerno, Martine Brochard, Nestore Cavaricci, Salvatore Borghese, Ivan Rassimov, Enzo Cerusico, Maurizio Merli Director: Vittorio Salerno, Massimo Dallamano, Mario Imperoli, Stelvio Massi Screenwriter: Vittorio Salerno, Ernesto Gastaldi, Mario Imperoli, Piero Regnoli, Massimo Dallamano, Franco Bottari, Marco Guglielmi, Ettore Sanzo, Gino Capone, Augusto Finocchi Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 479 min Rating: NR Year: 1973 - 1977 Release Date: June 22, 2021 Buy: Video

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