Tuesday, April 20, 2010

FLATFOOT (Piedone lo sbirro, 1973)

Bud Spencer is getting a lifetime achievement award from the Italian film industry at this year's Donatello ceremony, Italy's equivalent of the Oscars. The man born Carlo Pedersoli will be sharing the honor with his frequent screen partner, Mario "Terence Hill" Girotti. In the U.S. Spencer is probably best known, to the few who know him at all today, as Bambino, the hulking sidekick of Hill's Trinity in the series of cowboy comedies that for many sounded the death knell of the spaghetti western. Spencer teamed with Hill in a wider range of films, including contemporary stories after westerns finally went under. He also earned opportunities to star in movies without Hill, which is where things get interesting for me. Terence Hill has the sort of face you want to slug, and his shtick gets old really fast by my clock. Spencer, by contrast, is just a big oaf, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. So why should he suffer by association with Hill? With that generosity of spirit I recently acquired the latest Spaghetti Western Bible collection from our old friends at Videoasia. This fourth volume is the second devoted to Hill and Spencer, and while it's dubiously labeled in that only two of the ten films included are spaghetti westerns (Damiano Damiani's A Genius and the infamous spaghetti musical Rita of the West) it does include all four films in the Piedone series of police comedies Spencer made between 1973 and 1980.

A closer translation of the first film's title would be "Bigfoot the Cop," but you can imagine the confusion that'd create in the U.S., however sasquatch-like Spencer may seem at times. "Flatfoot," meanwhile, is good old American slang for a cop and signals the somewhat comical nature of this series. All four Piedone films are directed by the mononymous "Steno" (Stefano Vanzina), who directed many films for the popular comedian Toto. He launches the series with a dynamic action scene that sets the tone for the first episode.

A black American sailor has gone crazy in the middle of Naples. He's made his way to the top of a tall building and has started taking potshots at the crowds below while raving about hating white people and being free. Steno films this on a massive scale with extras fleeing the sailor's gunshots as snipers move into position atop nearby buildings. He films from below, with the sailor a speck high above, and from the roof as the gunman commands a vast expanse of cityscape. Nobody wants to shoot the sailor, but there's no reasoning with him, and an American officer leaves his fate to the police. At that moment, as a cop on street level raises his rifle, a big foot comes down on top of it, and from a low angle we see the full bulk of Bud Spencer as he finishes a cigarette. Who's this guy? the American officer asks. "That would take a long time to explain," a cop replies.

As the credits roll over a jaunty theme by the the de Angelis brothers, Inspector Rizzo -- Piedone -- makes his way patiently up to the roof. He spies the sailor reloading, then waits for him to empty his gun again before charging. A brief battle follows, with the American putting up more of a fight than Spencer's fans might expect and nearly throwing Rizzo off the roof. Eventually Rizzo doesn't so much knock the man out as he knocks him back to his senses. After he surrenders, the inspector finds a telltale white packet on him. Cocaine has come to Naples.

Rizzo is a policeman who refuses to use a gun. He appears to despise all weapons, later dismissing a knife as a child's toy unfit for men. He's confident in his ability to settle matters with his fists, but he's not just a primitive brute, appearances notwithstanding. One reason he avoids guns is that he strives to keep situations from escalating into violence as much as possible. He's developed a rapport, a modus vivendi even, with the Sicilian Mafia, which this film presents as a conservative force in a society that finds itself under siege by the drug menace. Piedone lo sbirro is a reactionary, populist film, the sort that probably isn't meant for viewers outside Italy. It reminds me of Japanese movies with its ambivalent emphasis on the presence of Americans, and it teases briefly that they might be the source of the new drugs. The truth is a little closer to home: gangsters from Marseilles (i.e. "the French connection") are moving the drugs with help from a sleazy, flashy pimp called "the Baron." His men are handing out free samples outside schools to get kids hooked, including the son of Rizzo's landlady. "Flatfoot" takes a paternal interest in the boy (and a potentially matrimonial interest in the mother) that extends to slapping the brat when he catches the kid stealing to pay for more dope.

Tough love from Flatfoot. "So, I'm not your father, eh!" Actually, he's not, but he feels entitled to slap anyone, anyway. I'd say, "Bad cop; no donut," except I don't think he eats donuts. Can you imagine if he did???

Rizzo thinks he can crack down on the drug trade by getting tough on the Baron -- he may have a code against killing but he's not above using his ham fists to torture folks -- but he's held back by a by-the-book new police commissioner who frowns on our hero's unorthodox tactics and his semi-cordial relations with the Mafia. Rizzo gets suspended after the commissioner catches him in the middle of an unauthorized beatdown of the Baron, but he carries on the fight with still more help from the Mafia and some crucial assistance from his new friend Jho, the cleaned-up American sailor, and some of his fellow gobs. Things get further complicated when one of his favorite informants and the Baron are killed, leaving Rizzo to wonder who the real villain is. Could it be one of his quasi-allies in the Mafia? Could it be the commissioner who seems to do everything possible to impede the investigation? It all gets very confusing, and as Rizzo tells the commissioner, "You know what Flatfoot does when he's confused." If you don't, he punches people, and if he punches enough of them, he may find out the truth in time....

The stakes can be high in Flatfoot, as a dwarf informant learns, but the film maintains a lighthearted tone throughout.

Flatfoot seems designed as a family-friendly poliziotteschi movie, free from extreme gun violence, nudity and other distinguishing traits of the adult version of the genre. At the same time, its emphasis on choreographed unarmed combat makes it look like an attempted Italian answer to Asian martial-arts films. In this respect, the film is pretty good. Spencer is a convincing brawler and he's supported by a game stable of stuntmen who sell well for him. Steno keeps the different fight scenes lively, particularly one in which Rizzo routs an entire motorcycle gang with just a borrowed chain for a weapon.

Steno can pull off the kind of car and cycle chases you expect from the Italian cop genre, but Flatfoot's unarmed combats are its highlights.

The regrettable exception is the major comic set piece, a melee set on a fishing boat pitting Rizzo and the three Americans against drug smugglers. The problem isn't that the scene is shot for laughs, but that it goes on too long after it runs out of invention. It's amusing to see Spencer swatting people with fish, but Steno clearly runs out of ideas at some point. Worse, one of the Americans is an acrobat. Does it strike any of you that Italians have some odd obsession with acrobats? They seem to like to see guys turning backflips and somersaults without appreciating that stunts like that only make their fight scenes look more fake. I can't suspend disbelief with some idiot tumbling all over the place, but for an Italian audience all that matters is that it looks funny. But that aside, I found Flatfoot fairly amusing just for its peculiar approach to material I'm used to seeing handled in a far more brutal fashion. I'd recommend it to any fan of Italian police movies just for the sake of variety.

Inspector Rizzo becomes a globe-trotter in the three later films, which take him to Hong Kong, South Africa and Egypt. I assume that someone in Europe released the Piedone series on DVD, since Videoasia probably wouldn't have them otherwise. Piedone lo sbirro looks a little battered in spots but comes, as do all the sequels, in nicely letterboxed format. The new collection, deceptively titled Trinity:Hands Up! Eyes Down! Pockets Out! teams Spencer with Terence Hill in two Africa-set adventures, All the Way Boys and I'm For the Hippopotamus, while Hill stars in the two westerns as well as Renegade (which first appeared in Grindhouse Experience Vol. 2) and Virtual Weapon. I'm looking forward to the other Flatfoots and to the two spaghettis, so expect to read more about them in the near future.

Here's an English-language trailer for Flatfoot aimed at the American market, uploaded to YouTube by spencherhilltrailer.


dave said...

Wow! I had no idea! I love Bud Spencer in the Trinity movies, I can't wait to check these others out! Nice to hear he's so well-regarded and recognized in Italy if not in the States.

If you're into Spaghetti Westerns, you should check out my Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." It's basically an epic Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by Morricone. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at sunsetparkriders.com

Samuel Wilson said...

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