Monday, March 14, 2011

BANDITS IN MILAN (The Violent Four, 1968)

A young man walks past a bank. Through the window, he sees what looks like a robbery in progress. The first thing he asks the man standing in front is, "Is it a movie?" "Yeah," the other guy answers, "those guns are empty." We know better; the robbery is real and this guy is a lookout for the robbers. The kid asks him, "Can I stand here and watch?" The lookout shoos him away, and the kid sulks, "Oh, I had someplace to go, anyway."

Like I said, we knew better -- or did we? Our confusion isn't necessarily a credit to the tricky structure of Carlo Lizzani's docudrama, which comes on early more like a mockumentary, or a mock mondo, based on an actual September 1967 bank robbery and police chase that left several Milanese citizens wounded and two dead.

September 26, 1967.

The film opens at the end of a car chase, with a mob threatening to lynch a man pulled from a car and the police, led by Commissario Bassevi (a clean-cut Tomas Milian) intervening to save him. Inside a squad car, Bassevi interrogates his man, demanding to know the names of his accomplices. But from here the film digresses, following a rhetorical question asking how things had gotten so out of control in Milan that the events of September 1967 could have taken place. Bassevi becomes a narrator, and is shown directing or supervising scenes that our original narrator has identified as recreations of actual crimes for the purpose of illustration. We are reminded repeatedly that we are not watching real events, and I think Lizzani meant us to remember that when the kid shows up outside the Banco di Napoli.

The long, disorienting digression takes us into mondo or pop-art territory. The subject is mob infiltration and intimidation of nightclubs, and we're shown a protection racket horning in on a club owner who already pays off another gang. He's warned to play ball with the new people, and when he hesitates, Lizzani cuts to clippings from Batman comics, including their infamous onomatopoeia, before cutting back to show the owner's office wrecked. From there we segue to the story of an aspiring model exploited and eventually set on fire by the mob.

While all this is going on, we learn, Piero Cavallero (Gian Maria Volonte), an ex-leftist who's turned from Communism to crime after his expulsion from the party, is assembling a crack robbery gang. Thinking himself a kind of guerrilla general, Piero's strategy is to stretch police resources thin by hitting a series of banks in a single day in rapid succession. He envisions the Banco di Napoli robbery as his last big score in Milan, but it's one bank too many. Bystanders identify the license plate of the getaway car and the chase is on.

Gian Maria Volonte vs. Tomas Milian on the streets of Milan.

The chase is epic. Lizzani seems to have had the run of the city to film it. Piero turns mad dog, blasting away at cops and civilians alike, hoping to create distractions and obstacles by hitting the latter. Hoping to get out of town, he changes his mind once he realizes that Bassevi won't have his men fire within city limits. He exploits the cops' fear of hurting civilians, having no such scruple himself, and the chase continues. Even in the truncated fullscreen version available for streaming on Netflix, it's pretty stupendous. It isn't a collection of stunts but a sustained race against an insane man as Volonte (best remembered in the U.S. for his villainous roles in Sergio Leone's Dollars films) and his men hurtle down streets blasting away at all and sundry. In the prologue, Lizzani had shown us Piero's victims. During the chase, he reintroduces us to them as they get up in the morning and go about their daily routines, each appearance a milestone of irreversible doom. You're rooting for Bassevi to somehow ride down the bad guys, but you know (and the original Italian audience knew better) that it can't end until all the victims are accounted for. The chase is by far the highlight of an otherwise muddled movie.

History forces Lizzani into anticlimax. While future Italian cop films would have scripted an appropriately violent end to Piero's gang, Bandits sticks to the facts. All of the robbers are taken alive, Piero and his last accomplice readily surrendering when cornered in a small town barn. The film ends with Piero lording it over the media as he's booked, boasting of his generalship and cynically downplaying his killings compared to Vietnam, while the accomplice sullenly denounces Piero to anyone who'll listen. That's it. No moral, no catharsis, no closure. Just the facts -- if you can believe what you see on film.

Lizzani began his career and has apparently finished it (as of 2008) as a documentarian, so the docudrama approach, the mockumondo elements notwithstanding, may be a matter of personal style. The mondo influence (down to Riz Ortolani's score) shouldn't be underrated, since it probably explains why the film doesn't seem to have a dramatic point, and why such a film would have been made in 1968 Italy. Italian audiences were accustomed to the enhanced actuality approach of mondo movies, so Bandits probably didn't seem as strange to them as it must have seemed to most Americans when Paramount released it in the U.S. as The Violent Four. Lizzani also has roots in neorealism as an assistant to (and later biographer of) Roberto Rossellini, and his apparent commitment to urban verisimilitude serves him well in the crowd and chase scenes. But Bandits ends up an odd, unassimilated hybrid of styles without the real thematic payoff all the establishing stuff about recreating crime with cops in control seems to be pointing at. Despite that, Italian crime-film fans should definitely check out this precursor to the Seventies cop-film cycle for the big chase scene, Volonte's voluble villainy and Milian's understated authority as the commisario. But they should probably try to find it in a format that does Lizzani's vision real justice.


Sam Juliano said...

"But Bandits ends up an odd, unassimilated hybrid of styles without the real thematic payoff all the establishing stuff about recreating crime with cops in control seems to be pointing at.

I am not at all surprised, especially after the narrative confusion you have attested to right from the opening. Still, Samuel, as you subsequently admit, it's intriguing for the car chase and the historical aspects, not to mention a score from that prolific man Riz Ortolani, who wrote the music to MONDO CANE and a host of Italian giallos as you of all people know well. Interesting too that you assert it's a kind of mockumentary that was actually negotiated as a docudrama. I applaud your devotion to off teh radar cinema, and of the splendid reviews you develop from such entries.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed seeing this flick online, even without subtitles it was pretty good. And, yes, the car chases and crashes were frankly, incredible. The film itself when depicting the lengths the robbers would go to to keep from getting caught (even point-blank shooting someone while robbing a bank) was startlingly (and surprisingly) brutal even for a late '60s European film. It's not hard to see how it influenced the '70s polizioteschi genre, when I just got into, so I appreciate the reviews, and I really enjoyed this particular film,too.