Home Video Hovel: Killer Cop, by Dayne Linford
Conceived in a culture of paranoia and Cold War conspiracy, Luciano Ercoli’s Killer Cop is an exercise in political and genre filmmaking. One of the many poliziottesco films of the period, police films in the standard Italian reworking of American genre, preceded by the famous spaghetti westerns, Killer Cop is all genre even as it involves and articulates the political reality of 1975 Italy. Made six years afterwards, the film directly references and takes as its inciting incident a bombing reminiscent of the 1969 Piazza Fontana Bombing, a rightwing terrorist attack that took the lives of 17 people and wounded 88 others. Killer Cop concerns the multiple investigations following such an incident and the web of conspiracy surrounding them.
The film follows three primary characters. Commissioner Matteo Rolandi (Claudio Cassinelli) investigates narcotics in Milan, an eccentric with a diverse network of contacts who carries a couple paperback copies of Melville’s Moby Dick, in English, mind you, everywhere he goes. Rolandi, investigating a drug ring, tails a suspect to a hotel of which, while Rolandi is snooping around his suspect’s hotel room, the lobby is blown out. Judge Armando Di Federico (Arthur Kennedy), nicknamed “Minty” for his mint chewing habit, takes sole responsibility for the investigation of the film bombing, determined to fend off attempts from ministers and the Secret Service to interfere. And lastly, Franco Ludovisi (Bruno Zanin), a young radical student with myopia and a dope problem who attempts to retrieve the bomb just prior to detonation and loses his glasses in escaping. Luigi Balsalmo (Franco Fabrizi), a luckless policeman and Rolandi’s close friend, happens upon Ludovisi as he tries to make his way home following the bombing, enmeshing both himself and Rolandi in the conspiracy and potentially, especially for Balsalmo, making themselves targets of the forces behind the bombing.
Bruno Zanin’s turn as Ludovisi is the true heart of what’s effectively an ensemble piece, the man everybody wants, lost and confused on Milan’s streets, basically blinded without his glasses. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film is that the central bombing was accidental, an almost comical instance of mistaken briefcases resulting, despite Ludovisi’s efforts, in a massacre. Disabled, hooked on narcotics, and tormented with guilt, Ludovisi is forced to navigate between a police agency attempting to detain him and a secret combine attempting to kill him to cover its tracks, all while spies and informers circle the lot. Even with his vulnerabilities and conscience, when backed into a corner, Ludovisi’s eyes narrow to pinpricks and his gun hand moves surely under his coat. Through characters like Ludovisi, vulnerable, human, and eminently capable of violence, Killer Cop explores the barrier between humanity and violence, warmth and coldness expertly, creating audience sympathy in surprising places even as it’s suffused with dread and paranoia.
While it achieves this atmosphere, Killer Cop does rely a little much on genre conventions. Rolandi in particular suffers from “eccentric cop” syndrome, Italian style, making him fairly hard to empathize with until the end, when his sardonic demeanor begins to crack. Federico also feels a little one note, and his mint chewing habit isn’t a deep enough well to sustain the consistent revisitations. On the other hand, both Cassinelli and Kennedy deliver solid performances and the film is muscular enough to carry their characters through an incredibly involved plot. All in all, they’re a little thinly drawn, but they remain compelling. Unfortunately, the film has almost no female characters to speak of, and the few it does have operate only as the pawns or relationships of the male characters.
It’s well shot and acted and the script gets by. One moment near the end combines action, intrigue, the main plot of the film, stunning photography, a sense of realism and a key development of character in a series of shots and one long take of the top of an escalator in an incredibly efficient, lyrical summation of Rolandi’s plotline and development. The film achieves more and similar moments as it progresses, all while maintaining a quick and engaging pace. Perhaps one of its chief pleasures is watching Rolandi and Federico work as they investigate the bombing, following a series of clues, informants and connections as they try to piece apparently unrelated incidents together and trap Ludovisi, even as they look to each other and everyone else involved with suspicion and fear. With the exception of one terrible Hollywood moment where Rolandi deliberately engages another cop unawares in a struggle to ascertain the way a struggling person would remove someone else’s glasses, being the only way to remove someone else’s glasses one handed, the investigation is carried out realistically and intelligently, given the viewer the unfortunately rare pleasure of watching intelligent people intelligently solve difficult problems.
As the investigation continues the audience gains a larger and deeper perception of the conspiracy behind the bombing and their attempts to cover their tracks. This is definitely rooted in the Cold War and probably originates from the continued contemporary controversy surrounding the actual Piazza Fontana Bombing and the subsequent series of trials attempting to establish culpability, in which various political radical organizations were implicated and there was, continuing to this day, a lot of talk of potential CIA involvement. Reflecting this, the organization is efficient, skilled and (minor spoilers) remains unknown even to the end of the film. Though undoubtedly a genre movie, interestingly Killer Cop refuses to deliver a satisfying resolution – lots of decisions are made, realizations had, characters changed, but no resolution is delivered, no conviction or arrest. In this way it perhaps best reflects the tenor of its times, especially in Italy, which felt like one of several “playing field” nations throughout Europe in which Russia and America secretly or not so secretly attempted to exert their power and influence. Killer Cop, even from the perspective of Judge Federico, the prosecutor looking into the bombing, is an everyman’s perspective on this world and its incomprehensibly massive politics. Finally, all that can be seen is the carnage.