Tuesday, June 28, 2011

STREET LAW (Il cittadino si rebella, 1974)

Vigilante movies are a peculiarly American genre but it comes as no surprise to see Italians making them as well during the 1970s. It may surprise some to learn that Enzo G. Castellari didn't make Il cittadino si rebella ("The city rebelled") not in response to Michael Winner's Death Wish but just about simultaneously, and that the Italian film is in many ways a more realistic portrait of vigilantism. One major difference off the bat is that Franco Nero's protagonist Carlo Antonelli is not an avenger, except of his own wounded pride. He loses money, not a loved one, to criminals, having picked the wrong time to make a bank transaction. The robbers having made their entrance just as he was at the teller window, Carlo's money sits tauntingly at the counter. I don't know if Italians had deposit insurance at the time, but Carlo clearly isn't taking any chances. He reaches out to grab his money and gets into a scuffle with one of the robbers that results in his being beaten up and taken hostage. Fortunately for him the vicious but stupid criminals leave him alive and largely intact in the countryside despite having taken their masks off in front of him. They presumably hope that Carlo will be too scared ever to identify them.

Getting robbed and beaten is all Franco Nero can stands -- he can't stands no more!

Predictably, the Italian criminal justice system only enrages Carlo more. Just as the cop heroes of the polizio genre complain about bureaucratic restraints on their ability to wipe out criminals, Carlo complains that the system seems to care more for criminals than for their victims, who are treated with condescension at best. Defying his girlfriend's skepticism, and invoking his dead father's involvement in the resistance to Fascism, Carlo acquires a gun and attempts to track down the robbery gang on his own. He proves an incompetent investigator, strolling into a seedy pool hall like a character in some other, more gratifying movie and asking with pseudo-subtlety for "information." He manages to flee without getting the beating his idiocy probably deserved, but the scene makes clear that vigilantism won't be as easy as Carlo may have thought.

Somehow, Carlo finally figures a way into the underworld. He manages to take photographs of two small-timers robbing a jewelry store and uses the pictures to blackmail one of the culprits. Carlo's notion is to arrange an illegal firearms purchase through this hapless perpetrator, and then tip off the cops so they'll raid the scene of the sale. When the cops prove too slow and the crooks seem to have been tipped off, the furious Carlo attempts riskier transactions and only endangers himself. He finally meets the three robbers again, but only gets beat up again. He only survives this time because his own victim, the petty crook Tommy (Giancarlo Prete), decides to help him escape. Tommy's no killer and can't stand the thought of someone getting killed. The great irony of the picture is that only with a criminal's help does our vigilante have a chance in the underworld. Some viewers may find it more ironic that Carlo actually befriends Tommy and encourages him with promises of a partnership in a garage -- the social reform approach to crime -- while relentlessly pursuing his original tormentors.

Castellari can be depended on for effective action scenes, and Nero does some heroic stuntwork as his character takes a picture-long beating. By Castellari standards Street Law is almost a chamber piece that concentrates on suspense rather than escalation in its cat-and-mouse climax in a vast warehouse. The suspense is well-earned since Nero and Prete's vulnerability has been well established already; whether either will survive their final showdown with the three robbers is entirely open to question. Castellari and his writers, along with Nero and Prete, not to mention a distinctively moody rock-inflected score by the De Angelis brothers, put together a very different movie than what I originally expected -- and a much better one.

Here's an English-language trailer, uploaded to YouTube by YOcke:


venoms5 said...

I enjoyed this one, but Nero is an actor whom I can take or leave. His westerns stood out more for me than his crime pictures. He was good in things like HIGH CRIME, HOW TO KILL A JUDGE and CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN, but here I couldn't buy into his role. Another one I need to see again.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, I share your feeling about Nero, never having been much of a fan of Django, for instance. Street Law may disturb anyone expecting a "straight" vigilante movie, and part of the reason, I think, is that Nero is supposed to come off as something of a jerk. The film goes a little overboard with Lenny-George type sentiment at the end but I liked its attitude overall. I saw Confessions some time ago in a crap edition but will look at a better copy soon, and How to Kill has been on my shelf for a while now.