Matteo (Claudio Cassinelli) is an Italian cop muddling his way through the daily routine of chasing down drug smugglers and general scofflaws. However, his life takes a turn for the dramatic when a hotel lobby is bombed by scag fiend Franco (Bruno Zanin) and his cohorts, Rocco (Paolo Poiret) and Falena (Valeria D’Obici).
It is difficult to discuss Luciano Ercoli’s Killer Cop (aka La Polizia Ha Le Mani Legate) without talking a little bit about the political climate in Italy at the time of its production. I also feel it is necessary to state that I’m in no way an expert on the particulars of this point in the nation’s history except for extreme generalities, so I’ll paste together what I think is enough to give you an idea (from some admittedly hastily assembled internet research, so take it for what it is). This is because the film doesn’t deal with the usual nefarious criminal element we’re used to seeing in many Eurocrime films (which are still reflective of the time, just not quite like this). This one deals with domestic terrorism. Now, the Seventies in Italy are often referred to as the Years of Lead due to the massive amount of bombings and shootings perpetrated by activists on both the right and the left. No one was spared, be they factory workers, police officers, students, or politicians. The culprits were just as diverse as the victims with affiliations from communist to fascist and everything in between (and probably a few outside of all of them). Supposedly, this film’s plot was inspired by the 1969 bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura headquarters (known as the Piazza Fontana Bombing), but from what I gathered the explosion is the only actual link between truth and fiction.
In mid-Twentieth Century Italy, one almost needs a score card to keep track of the factions, their ideologies, and their activities, and one would still likely wind up with one hell of a tangle of threads to navigate. Though one really has to wonder at what point is the line crossed between politics and bloodshed, especially in one’s own backyard? What I mean is, when does a person go from being an activist to simply being a killer? While this question does intrigue me, it doesn’t seem to intrigue the filmmakers, because it is taken as given that this is the atmosphere in which these characters live. This is the Italy with which Matteo and company regularly deal. Ergo, it requires no explanation to an audience, and for people unfamiliar with this aspect of the country’s past, it can be a bit confusing. Even blame for the hotel bombing is nebulous, with characters on a tram blaming “the Reds,” “the fascists,” and “the anarchists,” by turns. Since no one can pin down who did the deed, their purpose goes out the window. It’s just another act of brutality to the common person, the actors inconsequential since there seems to be no overt discussion about the incidents after they occur (except in their narrative role). The incidents themselves are the sum total of the perpetrators’ statements. We assume that Franco, Rocco, and Falena are leftist militants, simply from their home. Rocco and Falena are shown briefly watching a news report about the bombing. Their apartment is small, their attitude casual, bohemian in some respects (as we’ve been taught to identify through film watching). Again, we are given no introduction to the characters, and the scene doesn’t linger long enough to fill in any details. It’s only after the very young Franco appears at this apartment that we understand that the three are in collaboration. Meanwhile, Papaya (Sara Sperati), Matteo’s confidential informant and casual lay, is a weed-smoking college student. She passes rumors and intelligence to him, but she is somewhat reluctant, considering herself on the side of the left-leaning students rather than the right-leaning police. It’s an indication of the obstacles a cop like Matteo has to overcome to seek justice, as well as being indicative of the society on a whole.
Despite their being the hands though, the bombers are not masterminds of any stripe. At the time, there was the notion in Italy of a “strategy of tension” being played on the country. This refers to the theory that there were nefarious forces at work behind the scenes, fomenting violence to their own ends. Since communism was growing in popularity in Italy, naturally Western forces (read: the United States) would want this tamped down. After all, this was at the height of the Cold War. It makes sense, then, that agencies like the CIA and so forth would use whatever methods they needed to in order to keep Italy capitalist. That said, while I know of no concrete evidence this was actually done in Italy, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it had been, but still… The puppet masters behind the bombing are not identified to the viewers. Their minions are, to be sure. But the actual power brokers pulling the strings are enigmatic. They are shown in single shot scenes, their faces never revealed (with the exception of their assassin played by Giovanni Cianfriglia), though they also make no real effort to remain in the shadows of the frame.
Two of the main characters wear eyeglasses, and for me this is a statement that the general populace (left and right) cannot see the truth (though one is also clearly more myopic than the other). And still the villains’ motivations remain ambiguous. They state that only a pylon was supposed to be blown up as a protest. Why? For the right? For the left? We’re never told, and therein lies the interesting bit. The bosses use the leftist students to do their dirty work. The fact that they claim no credit (even though it was a botched job to begin with) or speak at all in terms of their movement’s purpose implies that there is none outside of the anarchy created for their own ends (maybe they’re just anarchists?). This is further reinforced by how they deal with the fallout, and it’s hinted that this was the plan either way.
Yet in the midst of all these maneuverings, there are still honest men. Aside from the aforementioned Matteo and Luigi, there is Minty (Arthur Kennedy), the gruff but earnest judge in charge of the investigation. He is a no-bullshit, all-business type of guy, and he doesn’t play politics or suffer fools. Naturally, this irks those who do, and even despite Minty’s strict adherence to the law, it’s shown that he is still blocked and duped by these exterior/extraneous forces. This is not to say that he is gullible enough to be completely hornswoggled but certainly just enough to be frustrated by his partial failures. Still, we get the feeling that he has been here before, and he will be here again. In a way, this mirrors Matteo and his very on-the-nose love for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Nonetheless, the “white whale” he and Minty pursue is one worth chasing. This is not merely a quest for vengeance. This is a search for justice. That this is ultimately confounded to some degree echoes the vexation of the country and its people, subjected to forces beyond their control, unable to conquer them, but resigned to their roles alongside them.
MVT: The story is not what you would expect from this genre. It is not action-packed, but it is extremely compelling from the opening to the ending. That there are elisions of time and exposition in the narrative may cause confusion, but (at least for me) it makes sense by the end (mostly).
Make Or Break: The hotel bombing is the standout. It is clearly done on a small budget, but each of its cuts achieves a nice sense of verisimilitude and sustained horror. The wide shot at its culmination sums up all that needs saying as well as providing the through line that will touch the characters’ lives for the rest of the film.