“The killer must be an idiot,” shrugs a Roman homicide detective to his Chief Inspector (Gian Maria Volonté) in the midst of a murder-scene probe early in Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. “Yes, an idiot,” comes the reply, though the cop can’t know that his cocksure superior, literally on his last case before his promotion to the anti-subversive division, is that killer. The inspector is no idiot, but a vain sociopath who’s looking to test his status as an untouchable authority by offing Augusta, his high-spirited mistress (Florinda Bolkan), with a disposable razor during sex, and then implicating himself by leaving as much physical evidence as possible: fingerprints everywhere, tramping his shoes across the bloody floor, planting a thread of his lavender silk tie.
Is it also a crime of passion, rationalized into a game by a fascist bully? Petri and his co-writer, Ugo Pirro, vent their satirical anger by making their domineering protagonist’s behavior plausibly in tune with the authoritarian response of law enforcement to the era’s leftist rebellions. Given life in the magnetic performance of Volonté, whose knit brow and piercing brown eyes are employed with more flamboyance than through his cool gunslingers in Sergio Leone westerns, the ascendant lawman embraces his corrupt and venal tactics with a fundamentalist’s zeal, most memorably in a rant worthy of Mussolini against “the exercise of freedom” as he addresses his new underlings: “Our duty is to repress them! Repression is civilization!” Petri’s camera glides through the offices and bowels of headquarters with him, glad-handing, cajoling, and browbeating colleagues like a politician, and wheedling data keepers for files on fellow police and a convenient anarchist (Sergio Tramonti) who saw him leaving his mistress’s flat. (Tableaus of scores of headphone-wearing cops in the midst of eavesdropping duties, immense banks of paper files, and a wall-length computer whirring to life as it searches for subversive suspects all manifest the CI’s lust for control as effectively pornographic—and aspirational, as he gleefully cries when watching electronic data mining in action, “America has arrived!”) Recreating crime scenes in fetish photos taken with the kinky Augusta, he soon reveals his abusive God complex, and when the woman strikes back, snorting, “You’re an average Italian,” and mocking his profession, he clinically disposes of her with hubris camouflaging his wounded ego.
The film, in its caustic damning of official vice over the intimate variety, sometimes uses a sledgehammer where a scalpel is needed; Volonté’s antihero even says that police and criminals aren’t that different, a lazily explicit redundancy. Emblematic of the movie’s more original instincts is a scene where the Political Division personnel tote up the trends in names dropped by radical graffiti—Mao up, Stalin down—or when the inspector feeds info on his lover’s killing to a tabloid journalist (“Here’s one for your lefty readers: No undergarments in the apartment”). Investigation of a Citizen met with sufficient success abroad to win the foreign-film Oscar, the year after Costa-Gavras’s equally strident muckraker Z did the same. Official Hollywood preferred awarding imported cries against the abuse of power rather than an Easy Rider or Medium Cool, but when Volonté’s upper lip drips with sweat as he screams, “I’ve got dirt on everyone!” over the phone, the effect is serendipitously Nixonian.
The cool, muted colors of Criterion’s 4K restoration from the original camera negative look splendid throughout, with top-level detail and a clean but newsreely texture in the Roman location shooting in particular. The mono sound is more than adequate, given the post-synched soundtrack, and Ennio Morricone’s eccentric score pops nicely down to each boing of the Jew’s harp.
Quite a cornucopia. In a brief 1970 interview for French TV, Elio Petri tells critic Alexandre Astruc that his film is an expression of "normality as illness," particularly in the theatrical bearing and conflicted inner selves of authority figures like his inspector antihero. A new analysis by cinema scholar Camilla Zamboni describes Petri’s roots as a film critic for a socialist newspaper; his belief that neorealism could not properly address Italian problems of the ’60s; Investigation of a Citizen’s use of zooms, handheld, and overhead shots to create an aura of scopophilia; and how it mirrored (and anticipated) protests and bombings at the time of its production.
Documentaries produced in the last decade profile two of the film’s key creators. "Notes About a Filmmaker" traces Petri’s life from working-class young communist (who formally quit the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary) to writer-director battling numerous high-profile producers while making movies that both won festival prizes and fell short of achieving full expression of his desired themes. That changed with Investigation of a Citizen, and in subsequent socially charged films also made with star Gian Maria Volonté and screenwriter Ugo Pirro, who once chased each other with knives during an on-location argument. Pirro and other associates and friends, including Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Giancarlo Giannini, and Ursula Andress, describe a man increasingly disappointed by the decline of ideologically engaged cinema before his death in 1982. The briefer "Investigation of a Citizen Named Volonté" rambles a bit more on the actor’s life; its most gripping passages are on his involvement with younger theatre radicals and their confrontations with police, once landing him in a jail where a cop who baitingly called Volonté "inspector" was treated to the prisoner reprising his role at length, in the same pidgin Sicilian dialect he used as Petri’s fascist martinet.
A short, recent interview with Ennio Morricone has the composer declaring that he "got" the movie merely from reading the detailed script, and knew that "music of the grotesque" featuring simple folkish instrumentation was called for. (Petri pranked him by showing the first reel with an entirely different score, implying that he’d junked Morricone’s, before fessing up.) A booklet essay by Evan Calder Williams examines Petri’s quest to work in a "politico-popular" genre of cinema, and an excerpt from Pirro’s memoirs tells how domestic unrest preceding Investigation of a Citizen’s release necessitated a retooled, though not seriously compromised, ending. Two 1970 trailers, one Italian and one for the U.S. release, complete a thoroughly comprehensive set.
Criterion issues this nakedly political satire-thriller with scrupulous attention to its makers’ intentions and the film’s place in European film history.