Tuesday, December 22, 2009

VIOLENT NAPLES (Napoli Violenta, 1976)

Is it strange that I tend to prefer crime movies that take the criminal's point of view over those that sympathize with the cops? It seems strange to me sometimes. I don't exactly sympathize with criminals in the real world, nor do I aspire to be one. My preference is aesthetic rather than ethical, though I suppose there's a little bit of ethics to it. What bugs me about some cop movies is the attitude that criminals are just scum to be wiped out by any means necessary. Something in my mind rebels against that attitude. I don't consider myself soft on crime or an advocate of leniency. But something gets lost, I think, when writers and directors portray criminals as "just scum," or nothing but evil. Maybe I've seen too many films noirs. From them I get the attitude that nearly every criminal is a human tragedy. They can richly earn whatever bad fate they get in a movie, but if a film uses criminal characters just to show the bad fate it does seem a little like exploitation in the bad sense of the word.

With this setup, you might expect me to slam Umberto Lenzi's poliziotteschi film, one of a series featuring genre god Maurizio Merli as hard-charging Inspector Betti. Actually, I found it wildly entertaining.

Commissario Betti has bounced from one Italian city to another, his tactics apparently proving too tough for the higher-ups or the politicians. In Naples, he has a number of problems to solve. These include the kidnapping and rape of a woman whose husband refuses to cooperate with investigators even after she's recovered; a rash of bank robberies for which a leading suspect seems to have an airtight alibi; and a feud between two mobsters, the Commandante (Barry Sullivan) and upstart Francesco Capuano (John Saxon). For Betti, there's no problem that a grant of special powers to the police can't solve. Crime is getting ever more organized, so Betti thinks the police should also. His superiors never seem to agree with him, usually for political reasons. But Betti's tactics, sanctioned or not, seem to work, but by the time they do he's outworn his welcome in another city.

John Saxon is pursued by cops and crooks alike in Violent Naples.

Poliziotteschi is basically Italian for "tough cop," and the genre was supposedly inspired by American films like Dirty Harry and The French Connection. The concept obviously struck a nerve in Italy, which was beset not only with criminal violence but political terrorism throughout the Seventies, and where there was a historical constituency for a strong government that would deal ruthlessly with its enemies. There's an obvious temptation to view the genre as "right-wing" or even "fascist," but we should probably steer away from putting political labels on sensationalistic exploitation films. Betti's occasional hankering after more power is just crowd-pleasing window dressing for the real matter of Lenzi's cop movies: fast-paced, violent action.

American cult movie fans probably know Lenzi best as the director of gorefests like Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive!, but his poliziotteschi films are slowly winning more of a following. That's because they combine some of the gore he's better known for here with more thrilling action sequences. Napoli Violenta, for instance, has one of the most exciting race-against-time sequences I've ever seen. Those bank robberies I mentioned earlier are the work of a paroled gangster. He has to sign in at precinct headquarters at the same time every day as part of his parole. His racket is carefully plotted and timed across the map of Naples. Masked, he leads his gang into a bank and takes the money. He joins them in a getaway car and rides a few blocks. Then he hops onto the passenger seat of a waiting motorcycle. Each job is timed so the bike can deliver him at the police station just in time to sign in. Given the "impossibility" of getting from the bank to the station, his signing in gives him an alibi. As Lenzi films it, you can understand why. Filming from between the handlebars and almost at street level, with no faking whatsoever, the stunt biker goes on a nearly suicidal, nearly homicidal tear through Naples, barely missing pedestrians who may not be in on the stunt and squeezing past two tight lanes of traffic at many points. I shudder to imagine outtakes of these scenes.

Eventually, this guy gets too cocky about his alibi, leading Betti to suspect that he has a system. This leads to a chase scene made up entirely of editing as the crook rides hellbent from the latest bank to the station while Betti, who's been tricked into staking out the wrong location, races through the streets in his cop car to intercept the suspect outside the station. They end up colliding in a side street, but that just sets up a foot chase that leads to a hostage crisis on board a tram. As Betti, riding the roof, dodges bullets fired through the ceiling, the bandit threatens to kill passengers. This being a Lenzi film, the man is true to his word. As another train passes on the opposite track, he holds a woman's head outside a door and smashes it repeatedly against the windows of the other train before Betti finally confronts and kills him.

The brutality in Violent Naples points toward Lenzi's gore films. The violence both establishes the criminals as monsters and serves as fitting punishments for them. It's meant to justify Betti's ruthless tactics, though he never commits atrocities on the scale of what the criminals do to each other or to innocents. He usually beats them up or at worst shoots them. The most ethically questionable thing he does is to frame one character (who deserves to go to jail) for shooting another criminal whom Betti himself has killed.

Above, the perp did it to himself, honest. Below, another loser faces death by bowling ball in another obvious precursor to the finale of There Will Be Blood.

While the movie exists to gratify the audience's lust for violence, Violent Naples aims for pathos in a peculiarly bleak ending. Earlier in the film we were introduced to a spunky punk of a kid who likes to annoy drivers by playing the cripple and limping slowly across the street, only to razz them once he reaches the sidewalk. The kid's dad is an honest garage owner who won't pay protection money. The garage gets torched, the dad dies, but the kid barely escapes -- and ends up crippled for real. The film closes with Betti about to leave town after resigning. His driver stops at a light and he sees the kid, whom he'd sort of befriended earlier, limping all too painfully and slowly across the street. The sight changes his mind, and he turns back to reclaim his job, but the camera sticks with the boy limping along as the credits roll.

"I'm walking here!" But this kid will soon learn better than to mock the handicapped.

To an extent, Betti has felt guilty about putting his own men at grave risk, especially when it costs some of them their lives. He blames the establishment for forcing him to use risky tactics instead of declaring all-out war on crime, but his resignation is partly a way of blaming himself for his friends' deaths. Seeing the limping kid reminds Betti that the risks cops take don't count as much as the danger everyone must endure while crime flourishes. But that's about as much depth as you'll get out of Commissario Betti. Maurizio Merli's performance is a matter more of attitude than characterization, and you could argue that he acts as much with his mighty manly moustache as with anything else. But he has an indisputable charisma as an icon of righteous indignation that made him the defining star of the poliziotteschi genre. Unfortunately, he was typecast as a tough cop and couldn't transcend the short-lived genre. His movie career was pretty much finished before he died at age 49, and that adds another layer of pathos to his performance in this or any movie in the genre.

Anyone who appreciates authentic action should give Violent Naples a look just for the amazing motorcycle scenes, and fans of John Saxon should enjoy his relatively small role here. I liked the movie but I see its limitations. It's like reading a pulp novel in all its simplicity compared to the noirish novels by Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, etc. Sometimes there's something fresh, bracing or exuberant to the pulps, especially when done in hard-boiled style. But there's a richness to the other writers even when they deal with lousy people that exposes the pulps for the caricatures that they often are. For the same reason I prefer the crime films of Fernando di Leo, which are nearly as violent as Lenzi's films but take up the challenge that Lenzi avoids of rendering criminals as nearly three-dimensional characters instead of cartoonish ogres. Napoli Violenta is a terrific film of its kind, and worth seeing for any genre student as a representative poliziotteschi, but there are certain kinds of Italian crime films that I like better.

The screen caps you're looking at come from the 5-film Mafia Kingpin collection, part of Allegro Corporation's new cheapo Pop Flix line. This two-disc set includes two more Lenzi-Merli movies (The Cynic, The Rat and The Fist and Rome Armed to the Teeth, both letterboxed) along with Di Leo's Mr. Scarface and Bruno Corbucci's Cop in Blue Jeans (both fullscreen). I found it in a Borders checkout line for $5.99, and since it was meant as an impulse purchase I was glad to oblige. These are English-only editions and presumably not definitive, but it's an inexpensive introduction to Italian crime and the Lenzis make it worth the price.

In lieu of a trailer, here are the opening credits with some nice music by Franco Micalizzi, uploaded to YouTube by poliziotteschi.

1 comment:

Rev. Phantom said...

One of my favorites of the genre. Your review is spot on--it's a very entertaining flick.