Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

This movie opens with plain white-on-black opening credits without music, which finish with this full-screen card:

We then see a man lurking outside of an apartment building in Rome in full daylight. He looks smug and confident, and is looking up at a window where, behind billowing curtains, a woman is smiling down at him. He goes through the gate, ascends the stairs, and enters her apartment. They embrace, and she says to him, "How will you kill me this time?"

"I will cut your throat," he replies.

She gets into bed and reads a yellow paperback book while she waits for him to undress. This is a giallo, a kind of Italian mystery novel that has become synonymous with convoluted, stylised and sexualised murder stories, mostly because of movies that were made around the same time as this one.

The man then gets into bed and pulls the covers over the two of them. After a few seconds the woman rears up and then collapses, and the man sits up, covered in blood. He wipes himself off on the sheets then goes to take a shower. Once he has washed the blood off himself he goes around the apartment and methodically leaves his fingerprints and footprints on as many surfaces as possible. He takes jewelry from her drawer, but pointedly leaves a large roll of cash behind. He steals a blue tie, plants a shred of it under the dead woman's fingernail, then wears it. He calls the police and reports the murder, being very careful to make sure that they have the address right. Then he takes two bottles of champagne from the fridge and leaves, making sure to be noticed by a young man who is arriving at the same time.

The man then takes the two bottles of champagne to his work and shares them with his colleagues to celebrate his last day as the head of the Police's Homicide Unit, before starting his new position as head of the Political Crimes Unit.

As opening scenes of movies go, this is a really good one. Ennio Morricone's score certainly helps, with its striking mixture of goofy sound effects and sinister strings. The mixture of suspense, black comedy and political satire combine to make Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion a striking and unusual movie that Franz Kafka would have loved.

Gian Maria Volonté (Le Cercle Rouge, A Fistful of Dollars) is outstanding as the unnamed policeman, only referred to as "Il Dottore". He makes for a thoroughly unpleasant and strangely compelling character, who at first seems to have committed murder just to see if he can get away with it, but who is revealed in a series of flashbacks and surreal set-pieces to have much more complex motives. He gives a remarkable monologue at the press conference covering his new appointment where he says that every criminal is politically subversive, every subversive is a criminal, and all of them are motivated by sexual deviancy. He receives thunderous applause for this fascistic speech - which, of course, is mostly describing himself.

As he goes through his day, bullying and intimidating his subordinates and members of the public while toadying to his superiors, every piece of evidence he has planted comes back and is then routinely dismissed. The more this happens, the more reckless he becomes, until at a certain point the movie loses all touch with conventional reality and enters fully into surrealism. Those looking for a realistic thriller will be disappointed, but as a black comedy, a political satire, and an analogy for the corruption and abuses of power and authority, the movie is watertight.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1970, as well as a raft of other awards including the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and an Edgar for Best Film from the Mystery Writers of America. It was a smash hit in Italy and helped to pave the way for a number of other subversive thrillers. Unfortunately it seems to be largely forgotten today, and is very hard to get hold of in an English-friendly version.

Although it's obviously a product of its time, from the fashions to the awesome interior decorating to the topical political references (co-writer/director Elio Petri was a Marxist and fills the movie with references to pro-Communist protests; it's probably a lot harder to sympathise with Stalinism and Maoism knowing what we do now) the essence of the movie remains topical. It's hard not to associate Il Dottore with a certain Italian Prime Minister.

See this movie, if you can.

Part of Todd Mason's Tuesday's Forgotten Films lineup. Thanks Todd!


  1. I certainly have meant to see this. "Giallo" novels were not all intentionally lurid, any more than all the novels published in the Serie Noir were about doomed folks trapped in the web of fate...but certainly that was eventually the way to bet it...

  2. Todd: yep, in both cases the reputation of the synonymous movies affected the reputation of the books. Many giallo paperbacks were ordinary murder mysteries; I have read that some translated Agatha Christie books were published under yellow covers.

  3. I did not understand why he eventually destroys the tie. This seems to go against his efforts to leave clues behind that will lead to him. Thoughts?