Monday Movie: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, by Scott Nye
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This article originally ran as a Home Video Hovel review.
Aggressively politicized fiction will always be somewhat controversial, I suppose, or, more often the case these days, ignored entirely. Much easier to write off a bit of vitriolic polemic as “too on-the-nose” than it is to actively engage with it, I suppose, but thankfully, The Criterion Collection is compelled to rub our noses in the inevitable ugliness of a civilized society. The role of the government in the lives of its citizens is, I suppose, an evergreen one, but it has certainly come to greater prominence over the past four years as entire political factions have formed out of the desire for the government, in my dad’s words, to just leave us the hell alone, and director Elio Petri certainly presents a damning portrait of the insular corruption, vis-à-vis the one branch that most agree is absolutely necessary in spite of our collective frustration with their methods – the police.
An unnamed police inspector (Gian Maria Volonté) murders his lover, with little attempt – and a few attempts to the contrary – to cover it up. His subsequent actions are a parallel investigation into whether his force can solve even the simplest of crimes and, if so, will they prosecute? The answer…may not surprise you. The Inspector’s corruption runs deep. On one hand, he’s run an exceedingly tight ship, solving 90% of the cases that have come under his purview, and is on his way to promotion when he kills the woman he met through a mutual interest in death. See, the Inspector isn’t the type to leave his work at the office, so to speak, and with Augusta (Florinda Bolkan), he recreates crime scene photos as an extended form of perverse foreplay, all leading (in flashback, mind) to the opening scene of the film, in which he tells her exactly how he will kill her. Presumably he says this without her knowledge of the promise’s veracity, but, again, they were into some pretty wild stuff.
Volonté dives full-bore into the Inspector’s loathsome qualities, yet for all the crazy eyes, yelling matches, and complicity in some extremely questionable interrogation techniques, he’s not a simple inhuman creature. We see him go through moments of doubt, self-preservation, selfishness, and jealousy through the course of his experiment, one born entirely, it seems, out of narcissism, a sort of “well, let’s see how well you get along without me.” All the while, he and everyone he works with remain as distanced as possible from the actual humanity of the case, or any case – Augusta is merely a victim, the people they near-torture are just suspects. The Inspector’s track record is a statistic he can wield, not a public service. On one hand, you could say that this is necessary to retain one’s sanity, but we see what the Inspector has lost in so doing. By not allowing himself to be diminished by the horror of his job, he has also shielded himself from the very possibility of a moral compass. And this is the guy rising up the ranks of the government, on his way not just to investigate street-level crime, but now political corruption.
It’s a hell of a thrilling motion picture, both as a sort of plotty procedural and as an expression of disgusted moral outrage. It’s not the most visually disarming film you’re likely to see, but nevertheless, looks very good on Criterion’s new Dual-Format release (the one package includes both the DVD and Blu-ray, for the standard Criterion Blu-ray price). Colors are limited by the nature of washed-out 1970s film stock, but are appropriately robust, and they’ve left all the wonderful texture of 35mm intact, with only some light print damage to show for it. On the special features side of things, there’s an archival interview with Petri, a ninety-minute documentary about his life and career, a new interview with film scholar Camilla Zamboni, a fifty-minute documentary on Volonté, a 2010 interview with composer Ennio Morricone (whose score is delightfully wacked-out), and a booklet featuring an essay by scholar Evan Calder Williams. All in all, I’m grateful that Criterion has gone the extra mile for a package that, for many (including myself), will serve as an introduction to the film and filmmaker. As much as I love their definitive editions of established classics, it’s these sort of films that benefit the most from added context and content.