Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sergio Martino's Silent Action (1975)

There is something nostalgic and almost ancient about relatively recent cinema involving police work, or in the case of Sergio Martino's Silent Action (1975), polizia work. Technology has grown rapidly in the thirty-four years since Silent Action, and cinema, especially television, has been quick to seize upon it in its depiction of "modern" police work: sophisticated evidence-gathering gadgets, cutting-edge medical and autopsy techniques, and the use (and often overuse) of large, internet-fuelled databanks. While culturally this depiction of police work might seem more credible and hence, more intriguing, I personally find it so cinematically unsatisfying. Perhaps I'm in the minority but I enjoy watching police officers use intuition as their primary tool; hit the street and gather clues in their polyester suits and turtlenecks; and make mistakes to get led astray and then get a break for a breakthrough in the case. Luc Merenda is from that class of police officers and he is on the case as Inspector Solmi in one of Sergio Martino's lesser-seen films.
The film opens with title cards, introducing the viewer to Milan, June 1974, where a driver is on the freeway. He pumps the brakes a few times and realizes that they are not working and soon crashes. The media reports that the driver is an army major, who had an unfortunate accident. Rome, August, 1974: two thugs break into an office and assault an old man. They shoot him in the head and place the gun in the dead man's hand. The media reports that the old man was a colonel and the death was by suicide. Florence-Bologna Railway lines, September, 1974 shows unknown men place an incapacitated man on the railway tracks. In a brutal sequence, the train speeds by and decapitates him. The newspapers reveal the identity of the victim as an army general and a police inquiry is begun. Salvatore Quirotie is the fourth homicide of the film, found in his wealthy villa, from a blunt attack to the skull with an iron poker. Inspector Solmi (Merenda) and District Attorney Nanino (Mel Ferrer) are assigned to the case. The crime scene yields little in the way of clues: long brown hair is found on a brush in the bathroom (obviously, says Solmi, a woman was here), and the police take Quirotie's personal book of phone numbers. The caretaker of the villa reveals that a woman was seen leaving the home on the night that Quirotie was murdered. Quirotie was a bachelor, who worked in "gadgets, like a master electrician." Solmi finds the number for a high-class madame in Quirotie's book, and he visits her at her bordello. Going from room to room, Solmi threatens to shut her operation down, unless she gives the name of the prostitute who visited Quirotie. The madame confesses and names the prostitute: La Polisina. Solmi and his partner arrive at the prostitute's apartment and ring the doorbell. The door explodes (!), as toxic gas flies out of the room. La Polisina, ne Juliana, lies on the floor of the kitchen, unconscious with her wrists slit.Ferrer's Nanino is ready to indict Juliana, as her suicide attempt is a clear admission of guilt. Solmi thinks otherwise, as he believes a woman is incapable of generating enough power to bash a man's skull in. Solmi tests this theory with his quick-witted, sharp, and beautiful journalist girlfriend, Maria (Delia Boccardo) on a pile of melons, Gallagher-style. Solmi cannot discern Juliana having a clear motive for Quirotie's murder and believes that this case is about something much deeper. Merenda's Solmi is quite correct as one of the most intricate and well-structured plots plays out. I scribbled nearly eight pages of notes while viewing Silent Action, keeping tabs on all the characters who are introduced and the various twists and turns that take place. By the time Sergio Martino directed Silent Action, he had already filmed all of his gialli (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971); Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971); All the Colors of the Dark (1972); Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972); and Torso (1973)), for which he is much admired and loved by genre fans. Although Dario Argento would release Deep Red (1975) in the same year, the giallo was pretty much dead as a genre. Argento would become really a genre unto himself, and Martino would move into other genres, especially two of the more popular: sex comedies and crime flicks. Martino previously filmed Violent Professionals (1973), also with Luc Merenda, which is really more representative of the period's crime cinema: its subject is organized crime, where the criminals are machine-gun toting badasses and the police officers prefer to instigate interrogation with the back of their right hand. Car and motorcycle chases are obligatory and expected. Silent Action doesn't fit neatly into that category, as it takes as its premise a homicide investigation, which is a subject suited better for amateur sleuths in the giallo. As such, Silent Action plays like a hybrid of the crime and giallo genre to excellent effect. Perhaps the background of Silent Action's talented screenwriters, Massimo Felisatti, Fabio Pittorru, Gianfranco Couyoumdjian, and Martino contributed to the mix of crime and giallo. Felisatti had previously penned Emilio Miraglia's The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1972) and the spectacular and nasty, young thugs crime flick Violence for Kicks (1975), which he also co-directed with Sergio Grieco. Felisatti would also contribute to the script for Andrea Bianchi's Strip Nude for Your Killer and another excellent crime/giallo hybrid, Mario Caiano's The Maniac Responsible, both released in 1975. Fabio Pittorru collaborated with Felisatti on The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and The Maniac Responsible. Prior to Silent Action, Pittorru contributed to the screenplay of Emilio Miraglia's The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (1972) and Ruggero Deodato's Wave of Lust (1975). Silent Action was Gianfranco Couydoumdjian's first screenplay. He would later become notable as a producer. As each screenwriter had his hand in often both, or multiple genres, it was inevitable that there would be a conscious or subconscious crossover. Italian genre cinema was going through a transitional period, and in some ways, Silent Action is representative of the transition.

In a break-in sequence during Silent Action, Martino films it from the intruder's subjective P.O.V., reminiscent of his previous gialli films, especially Torso. A fairly intense car chase also occurs, where a cop on a motorcycle stops Solmi and his suspect and fires his gun, killing the suspect and setting off the chase. The pacing of Silent Action is fantastic: the script has little filler. The film moves with Solmi and his police cohorts as they move through the investigation towards the end. Merenda's not one of the greatest actors, but he's occasionally animated and quite often focused in Silent Action with his stoic presence. Tomas Milian gives a typical, yet very good, brooding and quiet performance in a small but integral role. Ferrer and Boccardo give good performances, also, in their supporting roles. Overall, Silent Action is a tight mystery, occasionally punctuated by some intense action sequences, and very much well worth seeing for genre fans.

Other notable giallo/crime hybrids are Massimo Dallamano's What Have They Done To Your Daughters (1974), The Maniac Responsible, Martino's The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975), and Alberto de Martino's Blazing Magnum (1976). While Silent Action probably won't satisfy pure fans of polizia films nor pure giallo fans, it will be intriguing and interesting for fans, like me, who absolutely love genre cinema made in Italy during the 70s.


Aaron said...

Hans, great review. I'm a rookie when it comes to a lot of Eurocrime stuff and Italian genre films in general (with the exception of Argento's work) but Martino is a director who I've been researching lately as far as what films of his are available w/o having to pay an arm and a leg. I'm waiting for the Blue Underground re-relase of Torso in July and plan on exploring Martino's filmography around that time. Good stuff.

Mr.LargePackage said...

After I read this review, my mind exploded (!) and poison gas leaked out of my skull, and that is large and in charge.

Aaron said...

Oh by the way, check out Giallo fever. It's a great blog that might be up your alley.