Saturday, July 4, 2009

ALMOST HUMAN (Milano Odia: La polizia non puo sparare, 1974)

Still in a mood for crime films, I turn to Umberto Lenzi's poliziotteschi that is more about a criminal than the cops. I've noticed less sympathy for the underworld in Italian films than I've found in American, French or Japanese genres. That may be because the Italians long ago hardened themselves against romanticizing gangsters, but it may just be that my experience with Italian crime films is limited to the Seventies, when most movies reflected the police point of view. Whatever the reason, Giulio Sacchi is no tragic antihero. As defined by Lenzi and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and portrayed by Tomas Milian, the villain of the piece is a despicable, irredeemable wretch, a coward and a bully whose mere existence stacks the deck in favor of the extreme action ultimately taken by lead cop Henry Silva.

Sacchi is a lookout and driver for Ugo Majone's robbery gang, but he has hair-trigger nerves. Unable to talk his way out of a confrontation with a cop outside the bank being robbed, Sacchi shoots him, forcing the gang to make an early exit. After an exciting escape that gives the film its requisite car chase, the gang kicks Sacchi's ass and Majone tells him he'll die if they see him again. They leave Giulio a whimpering, blubbering heap who can do no more than spit at them as they drive off.

With his girlfriend Iona, Sacchi tries to play the part of a badass criminal mastermind, but she tells him he gets a Napoleon complex when he's drunk. He takes this the wrong way, mistaking the Napoleon reference for some slur on his masculinity, or the size of it. "I'll make you see Napoleon, you bitch!" is his subtitled retort.

Poor Sacchi tends to overreact to cops. When one catches him trying to break into an outdoor cigarette machine (yes, children, such wonders once existed), he stabs the man to death. Thinking on his feet for once, he asserts a pre-emptive alibi when detective Walter Grandi (Silva) arrives at the scene. "Do you know where I can get cigarettes around here?" Sacchi asks the Commisario. But you can see the detective wondering why he asked.

Sacchi dreams big. Like some of the American country bandits of Dillinger's day, his idea of a big score is a kidnapping. Unlike them, Sacchi takes a no-witnesses approach to kidnapping; the best way to ensure a safe getaway, he believes, is to kill the hostage. His innovative legal theory is that killing the hostage is not murder. Since the hostage can identify you and put you in prison, killing her is justified self-defense.

Giulio has chosen a target: Mary Lou Porrino, an heiress who's an acquaintance of Iona's. He begs Iona to let him borrow her car, without specifying the purpose. Piling on the sweet talk, he says, "I can't promise you love, but I'll give you cock for your whole life." She relents, and Sacchi and two partners prepare for the snatch. They get guns from a smuggler, then kill him and his wife. For the kidnapping, Giulio needs some pharmaceutical courage, and urges it on his allies. One, Carmine "the tobacconist," wants to know what the pill is. "This was invented by people who went to university for us who didn't, so that we don't have to bother about it," Sacchi explains. The pill apparently is best taken with booze.

They try the snatch, killing Mary Lou's boyfriend in the process but letting her escape. They track her to the home of a bookkeeper, an ideal setting for a gratuitous round of torture. The drugged-up gang hangs the bookkeeper, his wife and a lady friend by their wrists from a ceiling fan, taking care to free the women's ample mammary endowment from their confinement as Sacchi plays some sort of roulette with his victims. This is after he insisted on "brotherly love," i.e. a blowjob, from the bookkeeper and his guests. Their reverie is interrupted by a sound from upstairs that draws fire from below. A teddy bear bounces down the stairs, signalling that Giulio has succeeded in bumping off a dangerous seven-year old girl. After that, shooting the adults is a little anticlimactic.

Now Sacchi is all cool and cunning, explaining to his pals that there's no hurry to demand ransom since "people in a hurry are scared." He takes his time about the process while dreaming of wealth and its privileges. "I'll have a champagne bidet every morning," he muses. Meanwhile, reflecting that Iona knows too much, he first admits everything to her, then sends her and her car off a cliff into a deep lake. But his plan begins to fall apart when, unexpectedly to him, the car is noticed and hauled out of the lake and the victim identified. Worse, Carmine is starting to go soft on Mary Lou. He's incapable of Giulio's pragmatic viewpoint. "When you stick a knife in a steak you don't worry about the poor cow, do you?" Giulio tells the captive, "But you've still got to live." She, to him, is steak, but not for eating.

Inspector Grandi doesn't want Mary Lou's dad to cooperate with the kidnappers, but he's overruled to the point that the investigation is suspended in order to prevent him from interfering with the ransom drop. That doesn't stop him from interfering, however, but by the time he makes his move the kidnappers have fallen out and Sacchi has killed both Mary Lou (for calling him "a pig full of drugs") and Carmine. Sacchi barely escapes the cops and goes for help to the same Majone who humiliated him earlier in the picture. He's figured out an angle, however: he can rat out Majone for the robbery, but he won't in return for Majone giving him an alibi. Grandi knows the alibi is fake, and after a previous encounter when Sacchi went to the cops looking for his "missing" girlfriend Grandi recognizes him as the guy who asked about cigarettes at the cop-killing scene. But there's nothing he can do about it according to the letter of the law. Grandi is one of those cops who gripe about the system all the time; he feels entitled to serve justice by any means necessary, and at the end, when it comes to a choice between the law and his own sense of justice, Grandi does the "just" thing with Sacchi and lets the law do theirs with him.

Almost Human (Babelfish translates the Italian title as "Milan hates: The police can't talk nonsense") is primarily a showcase for Tomas Milian. The sometime star of spaghetti westerns often played abject degenerates in cop movies, and this is his definitive performance in that mode. He slobbers, gibbers, leers, cackles and wears ghastly shirts. He's a villain out of a Steve Ditko comic: pure evil, if that isn't an oxymoron. You're supposed to applaud when Henry Silva finally deals with him, but while I applaud Silva as a rule, he came off too much like a malcontent to have my sympathy. These are films for a reactionary audience (in Italy, at least) and it wouldn't surprise me if someone has called Silva's cop a "fascist." I won't go that far, but I think he does want more of a "police state" than I would care for. Silva is cool and authoritative looking in the role, but he needed a greater share of screen time to make his showdown with Milian more meaningful.

Otherwise, Milano Odia is well made, a showcase for what Lenzi was capable of in what must have been his preferred genre. You really get a feel for Milan, and that appeals to the vicarious time-traveling tourist in me. The big car chase is very well done while the torture sequence at the bookkeeper's house is effectively squirmy in its mix of viciousness and titilation. The NoShame DVD spiffs the film up quite nicely to show off the scenery and cinematography. Good old Ennio Morricone's score uses some elements that recur in his crime movies, yet still succeeds at building mood and momentum. Overall, Almost Human would make a good introduction to the police genre for fans of Italian horror because of Lenzi's direction and the monstrous character at its center. Whether you find it fun or offensive, it's probably succeeded at its task.

jonnyredeyes has uploaded an English language R-rated trailer from the time when our film was introduced to the world as "The Executioner." Take a look if you dare.


The Great Tyrant said...

Excellent review for an excellent film. Lenzi rose drastically n my estimation when I saw this.

Keith said...

I saw this film a few months back. I really enjoyed it. Great cast. I liked your review of it.

Rev. Phantom said...

Man, I really dug this film. Not sure why I never wrote a review for it myself...I think it took me awhile to grasp how I felt about the film. After some long thought, I've decided that I really liked it and it cemented me as a fan of Lenzi. Milian is so awesome in this movie and his *spoiler alert* death scene is one of the all time best.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks, folks. The film is a harsh look at a particular case of human depravity, and it was interesting to watch Shohei Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine a few days later as a different approach to a similar subject. Expect a review of that later this week.