Sunday, May 4, 2014

CONVOY BUSTERS (Un poliziotto scomodo, 1978)

On the verge of making his first movie, Maurizio Merli was arrested for a crime he didn't commit. Ruggero Deodato was the director, and as he tells the story, young Merli had gotten his first significant TV gig shortly before, and when an old woman saw the program, she thought she'd recognized the actor as a man who had attacked her. According to Deodato, Merli was ultimately proven innocent, but not until he had spent a year in jail. Believe it or not. The story has an obvious irony if you know Maurizio Merli as Italy's answer to Dirty Harry, that country's iconic rules-be-damned tough cop of the 1970s. If true, the story would make you wonder how Merli felt playing a character -- the name changed but the personality was consistent -- so self-righteously indifferent to the rights of the accused and so forth. It may not have troubled him at all. Merli's contemporaries agree that success went to his head, for one thing. Also, the master premise of the police genre in Italy was that we all know who the really guilty people are -- we all know who the mafiosi are in our midst and what should be done with them. The villains in Merli's films are in a different category than the unlucky Merli of Deodato's anecdote, and the target audience would have rejected any analogy with mistakenly railroaded wretches like young Maurizio.

Un poliziotto scomodo ("An uncomfortable cop") is relatively late in Merli's starring run, which was short lived due to the actor's poor health and other factors. You could believe that Stelvio Massi's picture was meant as a pilot for a Merli TV show, since it breaks into unrelated halves. This time the star plays Commisario Olmi of the Rome homicide division, investigating the murder of a young woman. Given a car's license plate by an eyewitness, Olmi soon learns that the car has been torched and its driver killed. He goes after the son of a powerful criminal in his usual no-holds-barred fashion -- his partners conceded that he really does go too far sometimes while Olmi slaps the snot out of the guy. The inspector is no respecter of gender, either. Questioning a young woman, he slaps her in the face despite her warning that her lawyer's on the way. He won't get here for an hour, Olmi explains, and in that time Olmi will have beaten the crap out of her. She talks. How you feel about scenes like this depends on your feeling about crime. In Seventies Italy, you obviously had a lot of people who took a by-any-means-necessary attitude toward crime fighting, what with not only the Mafia but its regional rivals and terrorist gangs like the Red Brigades running amok. Merli's aren't mystery movies; you know who's guilty (the way many know O.J. is guilty no matter what a jury says) and you know they have to be stopped, or made to confess, at all costs. Their guilt is so self-evident that they have no rights a virtuous cop should respect. Merli's Italy is a noir-free, nuance-free zone. But these films' great concession to realism is their recognition that the Merli cop can't accomplish much in any one spot for long. The bad people have too many connections, too much influence.

One Olmi realizes that he won't be able to take down his main target, he basically gives up. He asks to be transferred to a quiet locale, and ends up in a coastal tourist town, where he falls in love with a schoolteacher (Olga Karlatos). At his new desk he actually unloads his revolver, marking a peaceful turn in in his life. But he learns, as if he couldn't guess, that crime is everywhere. His new town is the headquarters of a smuggling racket; ships receive contraband at sea and send them by truck throughout Italy. The trucks, by the way, explain the title change for the film's American release during the C.B. radio craze sparked by the song "Convoy." These smugglers have a gimmick to avoid detection that's the stuff of comic books or pulp fiction. They control the local TV station, which broadcasts a soft-core dance show at the time of the off-shore deliveries. If they get tipped off that the cops are watching, they have the program interrupted and replaced with a movie. The locals assume that some old killjoy has called in to complain, but Olmi figures out the trick the first time he sees it and turns the tables on the smugglers. His men force the station to broadcast the dance show at an odd hour, and the smugglers assume that there must be an off-schedule delivery.

The ensuing mayhem climaxes when gang members run into town and take the local school, along with Olmi's girlfriend and several students, hostage. The gang leaders has trouble keeping his men in line when one gets rapey thoughts about the teacher, while Olmi arranges to be inconspicuously raised to just the right window by a stealthy construction crane. The film ends on an abrupt and oddly downbeat note as Olmi rescues the teacher and her kids, only for the teacher to see Olmi's true, violent nature. Massi leaves the impression that something dies there after all as Olmi walks away alone.

Massi's muscular direction is nearly all you could ask for for this kind of picture, though it's not up to the standard set by Umberto Lenzi's Violent Naples. Merli is Merli, though his character is arguably more introspective here than usual. The real problem is the plot. It's bound to disappoint if you expect the two halves of the film to tie together at some point, e.g. if Olmi learned that his Roman antagonist was the ultimate boss of the coastal smugglers. But that never happens, and it leaves the feeling that the writers had either too much or not enough material for a single feature film. Un poliziotto scomodo seems to be saying something about the Merli archetype, whether something as simple as he'll always have crime to fight or something darker about his essential violence. But in the absence of dramatic unity some of the point, and definitely much of the force, is lost. It should not be anyone's introduction to Maurizio Merli, though the NoShame DVD has a lot of interesting supplemental material about the actor, including the Dedoato interview. That material should have been attached to a more definitive Merli film.

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