Monday, February 22, 2010


Leonardo Tanzi is one of the interchangeable tough-cop characters that Maurizio Merli played for Umberto Lenzi and other directors during the heyday of the Italian police genre in the 1970s. In this follow-up to Lenzi's Rome Armed to the Teeth, however, Tanzi's no longer a cop. He's retired to become an editor of mystery novels for some publishing house. One of his old enemies, "the Chinaman" (Tomas Milian, back after playing a different character in Rome) doesn't make such fine distinctions. Fresh out of prison, he's determined to have revenge on Tanzi, who put him there. He leaves pre-printed death notices as his calling card. Tanzi finds one but manages to escape a deathtrap with only a shoulder wound. The cops knew that "China" would come for him, but they were detailed to a Communist demonstration and didn't have the manpower to protect their old pal. That's one of those bits of local color I appreciate in foreign films.

If you've seen a Maurizio Merli movie, you know that Tanzi isn't going to run off and hide in Switzerland like the cops advise him to. Instead, Il Cinico, L'Infame, Il Violento raises the ethical stakes of the Merli persona's tough-cop tactics by turning him into an outright vigilante, acting without any authorization whatsoever to take out the Chinaman and possibly China's new employer, the American Frank DiMaggio (John Saxon) in the bargain. Cop or civilian, Merli's position always seems to be the same: draconian measures are needed to destroy organized crime; criminals like China and DiMaggio are better off dead than in revolving-door prisons. In this film Tanzi gets to make a teeth-baring speech to that effect, which tells me that Lenzi and writer Ernesto Gastaldi knew that this was red meat for the target audience. Merli's fans must have wanted to hear someone say stuff like that, the sort of rhetoric you hear in some American crime films from the 1930s.

I don't know who's the cynic and who's the rat between John Saxon and Tomas Milian (above), but I'm pretty sure that Maurizio Merli's the fist.

On the other hand, Il Cinico lacks the intensity of other Lenzi-Merli collaborations. It may be just a quirk of the American dub I heard, but the script almost seems to send up the Merli persona a bit. In one scene, one of Tanzi's victims describes him to China as a bleached blond with a big moustache, and China, now suspecting that his arch-enemy isn't dead, summarizes the description as that of a "fag-looking cop." Other criminals call Tanzi a "faggot" later on. That may be how Gastaldi or the dubbers imagined criminals would speak to cops, or they may have recognized something about the way Merli looks. In any event, it doesn't surprise me that Merli shaved off the moustache eventually, though I feel he took most of his personality with it. This issue aside, The Cynic has more of a slapstick quality and a lot less of Lenzi's trademark brutality. Some of the fight scenes are clearly played for laughs, and there isn't really a good chase scene to match the motorcycle racing in Violent Naples.

The overall story doesn't grow as complex as it should have been. Tanzi's strategy is to drive a wedge between China and DiMaggio and drive them to destroy each other. This culminates in a robbery of DiMaggio by China's men, secretly facilitated by Tanzi to set up a final showdown between the two gangsters. But China knows that Tanzi is up to mischief and says at one point that his strategy will be to play Tanzi and DiMaggio off each other -- yet we never see this happen. DiMaggio, for all we know, doesn't know Tanzi from Adam, and this is typical of a role that gives the mighty John Saxon relatively little to do but gripe at China. Acting honors this time go to Tomas Milian, who goes against type, as far as Lenzi is concerned, and plays the Chinaman as a calm, cool customer who apparently earned his nickname for demonstrating an "oriental" patience and dispassion. Milian's one concession to the grotesque is the bandage China sports on his head through the whole picture, suggesting a wound that won't heal and thus symbolizing some inherent corruption in the character. Compared to his other work for Lenzi, which is more like Lon Chaney's for Tod Browning, this is an effectively subdued performance that actually makes China a more serious villain.

Maurizio Merli on the run.

While this isn't as good as the other Lenzi cop films I've seen, Il Cinico is still a fairly energetic and entertaining film. Lenzi displays his mastery of urban landscape yet again and most of the fight scenes are reasonably well done, apart from some overdone, out-of-sync sound effects. At the end, the English-language script finally hits the note of ambiguity it's been aiming for throughout when a detective tells Tanzi that he doesn't know whether to thank him or throw him in jail -- and when he tells Tanzi to "come on," we don't really know what he'll do. The Italian audience of the time may have assumed or insisted that Tanzi would go free, but from our cultural, historical and critical distance we can wonder what really would have been the right thing to do.

There's no English-language trailer available online, so here's an Italian one uploaded to YouTube by trailersdaculto.


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Paul Cooke aka Buckaroobanzai said...

Always good to have some Maurizio Merli Action views. Loving the Universal monster mash too Uncle Sam. Great stuff. Paul

Nigel M said...

now this has pissed on my chips a bit as it down as my next review- and I will never be able to follow up with the depth you put into your writing. Still, nevermind, I am looking forward to revisiting this film as lenzi is up there with my fave directors in the crime genre alongside dileo and damiani.

Rev. Phantom said...

Lenzi really seems at home with the Eurocrime flicks. I've yet to see one of his crime movies that I can say I didn't like--or at least wasn't entertained by. I found this one enjoyable as well--more because of my love for Milian than anything.