Although the term
“Eurocrime” can be applied to films from any European country, it’s most
closely associated with 1970s Italian crime films, aka poliziotteschi, poliziottesco
or poliziesco. The last term is (in
Italian) the grammatically correct moniker for a politically incorrect genre
that was hugely popular in its day, thanks to a sensory overload of stylish
ultra-violence, insane car chases, buckets of sleaze, almost-human bad guys and
renegade cops with big guns, bad attitudes and badder mustaches.
Controversial during its
heyday and critically marginalized in ensuing decades, the Eurocrime flame has
been kept alive by a sizeable and devoted fan base, periodic DVD releases, various
websites and online forums. Another shot in the arm was provided by Roberto
Curti’s invaluable book, Italian Crime
Filmography 1968-1980 (McFarland & Co Inc), an in-depth listing and
analysis of more than 200 films.
Now, poliziesco junkies have even more reason to celebrate with the
recent DVD release of Eurocrime! The
Italian Cop and Gangster Films that Ruled the ’70s, writer/director Mike
Malloy’s documentary homage to the genre that illustrates why these
testosterone-fueled thrillers deserve their place in the cinematic pantheon.
To that end, he rounded up
the appropriate subjects to tell the Eurocrime story—the surviving actors,
writers and directors who created these gonzo films from the ground up. It’s a
cast list that would do any current action film proud: Franco Nero, John Saxon,
Henry Silva, Antonio Sabata, Richard Harrison, Fred Williamson, Luc Merenda,
Tomas Milian, Leonard Mann, Michael Forest, John Steiner, Joe Dallesandro and
Chris Mitchum. Not to mention directors Enzo G. Castellari, Claudio Fragasso
and Mario Caiano.
All of these iconic
figures obviously retain deep-seated affection respect for the Eurocrime genre.
There’s zero condescension and little posturing, and all seem grateful for the
exposure these films brought them. In separate interviews, each relates his
particular history with Eurocrime films; Malloy edits their individual stories
into a collective portrait of the genre that’s as enlightening as it is
Malloy gets them to talk
about Eurocrime’s antecedent genres (peplums, giallos, spaghetti westerns); the
influence of Hollywood’s Dirty Harry
and The French Connection (both from
1971), which introduced a grittier ethos and more conflicted protagonists to
crime cinema; and the social and political turmoil in Italy during the 1970s,
which helped the poliziesco chart its
thematic identity through a critical focus on the country’s political
corruption, pervasive crime (organized and otherwise) and terrorist activity. While Eurocrime films were initially
derivative of the American version, Italian filmmakers quickly stamped them
with a unique identity, one that in turn influenced crime and action films the
In addition to such broad-outline
topics, the Eurocrime veterans expound on what it was like to work in a new
genre that was literally being invented on the fly. Low budgets and short
shooting schedules necessitated a guerilla approach to filmmaking. Directors
often shot without permission on the streets, especially when staging chase
scenes, which sometimes led to policemen pursuing stuntmen on motorcycles in
the belief they were actual criminals. The emphasis on speed and economy led to
an insane number of daily setups. Richard Harrison still laughs at the memory
of doing 120 setups in a day.
Like virtually all Italian
films of that era, the films were shot without direct sound. This allowed for
smaller crews, less equipment and less need for retakes, but initially proved
disconcerting for American actors used to quieter, more-ordered sets. Henry
Silva and John Saxon recall their bemused reactions to the on-set noise and
tumult during takes, countered by the Italian film crews’ bewilderment at their
pleas for quiet.
Live ammunition was sometimes
used during filming (Saxon still seems a little freaked out recalling it
decades later), and most of the leading actors did their own stunts. Leonard
Mann recalls: “We’d do them so fast, you know. We’d be out there just running
around and doing our own stunts. I did almost all of them…The things we did, I’m
surprised we didn’t get killed.”
Speaking of stuntmen, one
of that noble breed is represented in this documentary. Ottaviano Dell’Acqua,
who worked on Enzo G. Castellari’s The
Big Racket (1976) and Heroin Busters
(1977), wryly contrasts the approach of Italian and Hollywood stuntmen: “We
were a little more adventurous. We made things a little more ‘homemade.’” That
DIY ethos contributed to the rough-edged spontaneity that gave the films a
sense of gritty realism, no matter how outlandish the scenarios, action or
Performance, of course, was one of the defining hallmarks of Eurocrime cinema, and receives its full due in this documentary. Nero became the genre’s first (and perhaps greatest) icon by creating the template for the rule-bending police commissioner in High Crime (1973), the film that did more than any other to popularize the poliziesco. Nero’s character doles out rough justice with white-hot ferocity and scant regard for the law, which naturally gets him in trouble with his superiors. Unlike today’s bland and soulless action heroes, Nero’s intensity and charisma really take the viewer into the character and the narrative, as he powerfully conveys the emotional fallout resulting from his uncompromising approach. Oh, and no one looked cooler holding a gun.
Except perhaps Maurizio Merli, who began his career as a Nero clone but quickly developed his own vigilante cop persona and cranked it up to insanely entertaining proportions, aided by an indestructible mustache and eyes so merciless they could seemingly bore holes in any criminal foolish enough to cross his avenging path. Silva, Saxon, Merenda and the other features actors also get their share of the spotlight, courtesy of well-chosen clips from some of their most indelible moments.
Much less attention, unfortunately, is paid to the different approaches of the major directors—Castellari, Stelvio Massi, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi, Fernando Di Leo. One of Eurocrime’s strengths was its visual and thematic diversity. Castellari was a balls-out action specialist. Lenzi’s films foregrounded sleaze, brutality and some of the genre’s more mind-bending misogyny. Di Leo at his best brought a highly refined noir aesthetic comparable to the great Jean-Pierre Melville.
That aside, Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films that Ruled the ’70s is an essential and long-overdue documentary on the Italian police thriller and the incredible historical context in which it thrived. Without being boring or didactic, it convincingly establishes the genre’s validity and makes an unimpeachable argument that Eurocrime diamonds like High Crime, Milan Caliber 9 (1972), The Boss (1973) and others were the equal of the Hollywood films that inspired them. With its grindhouse graphics, thumping retro soundtrack and priceless interviews with acting legends, it’s slam-bang entertainment for Eurocrime fans as well as a great introduction for those new to the genre. Like the raw and ready films it pays tribute to, it’s all killer, no filler.