Monday, July 26, 2010

Umberto Lenzi's Il trucido e lo sbirro (Free Hand for a Tough Cop) (1976)

Umberto Lenzi's Il trucido e lo sbirro (Free Hand for a Tough Cop) (1976) begins as a Western. Literally. From a tight close-up shot of a movie screen, the camera pulls out to reveal a darkened movie theatre, full of patrons obviously not entertained by the film's action. Sitting in the back is Sergio Marazzi, aka "Monnezza" (Tomas Milian), who sleekly pulls a pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket of the gentleman sitting next to him. Monnezza draws a cigarette from the pack for himself and then offers the gentleman sitting next to him a cigarette from his own pack. "Watch my seat, would you?" asks Monnezza. "I got to take a shit." Waiting in the hallway outside is Antonio Sarti (Claudio Cassinelli). "Are you Monnezza?" asks Sarti. Monnezza gives a smart-aleck answer, and Sarti coldcocks him. Sarti wants Monnezza, because Sarti is a commissario after Brescianelli (Henry Silva), a notorious and ruthless gangster who has kidnapped a young girl. Sarti believes Monnezza knows where he can find Brescianelli; and the clock is ticking, as the young kidnapping victim suffers from a kidney disorder which requires regular hospital visits. If she doesn't get to the hospital in a week, then she is going to die.
Il trucido e lo sbirro is a damn entertaining poliziesco, perhaps one of the decade's best: swiftly-paced, exciting and excessively violent, and well-written (by Lenzi and Dardano Sacchetti). By all means a soundly commercial, successful, and almost perfect poliziesco. Outside of its commercial genre and within its action, Il trucido e lo sbirro calls for questions. Here's an example: Monnezza is a street criminal; and pick-pocketing and small cons are his trade. Sarti coerces Monnezza into helping him by threatening to lock him up. However, whatever methods that Monnezza chooses to find Brescianelli and the young child, Sarti does not question them. Aboard a moving train, three armed criminals attempt to rob it. The police stop the train, surround it, and make an attempt to raid it. The three criminals escape on foot and take shelter in a moored boat. Enter Monnezza and Sarti who board the boat with an offer to help: Monnezza tells the gang that Brescianelli is the one who tipped off the police about their robbery. Would they be interested in teaming up to take down Brescianelli, as Monnezza also reveals that he and Sarti were double-crossed by Brescianelli? They agree. Now Sarti has three additional criminals to help him locate Brescianelli, but these criminals are not like Monnezza. These cats are seriously dangerous and violent criminals. Can Sarti keep these criminals in line, maintain his cover, or find Brescianelli and his young hostage?By the numbers, Il trucido e lo sbirro plays out like a Pyrrhic victory but it ain't. The entire premise of Il trucido e lo sbirro is predicated on the presumption that the state of law enforcement and its methods are wholly ineffectual in stopping crime. The kidnapping case becomes the police department's top priority when it occurs. Cassinelli's Sarti was brought into Rome to head the case. Sarti was demoted to a post in Sardinia away from his position in Rome because of his hard-lined intensity and unorthodox methods against criminals. The once-exiled policeman returns home, now embraced by those who put him exile: his methods are now necessary. In a particularly nasty and fascinating scene, Sarti and one of his violent criminal crew infiltrate the home of a promising suspect. A maid answers the door and Sarti pushes through. Sarti is going to raid the suspect's documents in his study, and would his criminal cohort mind watching the maid? No problem, he says. As soon as Cassinelli's character is out of the room, his cohort grabs the woman and rips her blouse. His intentions are clear and unequivocal. Sarti returns to his cohort when he has heard a gunshot. The suspect that Sarti needs to interrogate lays dead on the floor, a victim of Cassinelli's criminal associate. What the hell did you do that for? yells Sarti. He could have led us right to the little girl. Sarti knocks the shit out of the criminal and points his pistol directly at his head. Cassinelli (who gives another fantastic and emotional performance) has generated enough anger to appear that he is going to shoot the man directly in the head but he checks himself: as much as he wants to kill him, he realizes that he needs him.So what are Lenzi and Sacchetti saying about current culture and crime in Il trucido e lo sbirro? Here's a scene which may hide their intentions: outside of a movie theatre, two very young men enter its lobby. One is holding a box of tissues while the other appears to suffer from nasal congestion. After a toss of the tissue box, one of the young men wipes his nose with a tissue. "Has anyone ever told you that your face is lovely?" asks the young man to the woman behind the ticket counter. "Why no," she says. "No one is going to say so in the future," says the thug and Whack! He hits her directly in the face with the box of tissues (it's hiding something to charge it up). The two young men rob the box office and run out of the cinema. Sarti witnesses the fleeing criminals and begins to give chase. One of his criminal associates stops him: "Where are you going? What do you care? It's just kids having fun." Sarti again checks himself and maintains cover. The scene within the movie theatre is quite kinetic and exciting. It would appear that Lenzi had a bit of fun filming it and maybe wants to share some of that energy with his viewer.

Virtually all of the scenes with the young kidnapping victim truly tug at the heart strings. It is rather difficult to envision a viewer who is not touched by a child victim, suffering from a debilitating condition, held hostage by a truly nasty human being (it is truly amazing how Henry Silva can appear almost like the Devil himself in his villain roles). Despite the numerous victims of criminal carnage in Il trucido e lo sbirro, the viewer is still behind Sarti and his pursuit. The little girl character more than anything is a symbol for Sarti, Lenzi and Sacchetti, and the viewer: she represents an ideal of justice. While it is intimated that Sarti is as violent as the criminals who he is pursuing, Sarti differs only in the fact that his goals are different. A noble and just cause? or perhaps Sarti has not yet lost his faith in humanity. The viewer of Il trucido e lo sbirro can pick either. What is clear is Lenzi portrays his culture in a state of chaos, and the characters left standing are not only its survivors but its winners.
For all of my pontificating, Il trucido e lo sbirro is most famous for Milian's performance as Monnezza (the name roughly translates as "Trash" and he is called "Garbage Can" in the English dub). Not only is the character the most richly-drawn (and not incidentally making everyone around him look more like an archetype or a stereotype), but Milian's performance as Monnezza is the most richly-detailed. Antonio Bruschini and Antonio Tentori, authors of Citta' Violente: Il Cinema Poliziesco Italiano Volume Primo, see Milian's character having its origins in Milian's "Cuchillo" character from Sergio Sollima's masterful The Big Gundown (1966) (p.90, Mondo Ignoto, S.R.L., Rome, 2004). The authors write, "Nel 1976 Lenzi da vita al primo, mitico, personaggio quasi totalmente farsesco interpretato da Tomas Milian, il vero precursore del successivo marresciallo Nico Giraldi." (p.89) Milian's Nico Giraldi character is phenomenally popular, beginning with Bruno Corbucci's Squadra antiscippo (1976) and spanning almost a decade with numerous films. It is difficult to describe how excellent and intricate Milian's performance is: from his facial expressions, to his body language, to his character's charming vulgarity, Monnezza floats through this violent world with a smile on his face, little money in his pocket, and behind all appearances, has a very good heart. Milian is so good that he instantly becomes focal in any scene. Milian drives the narrative of Il trucido e lo sbirro and its investigation. Monnezza is a survivor of this world and his energy is perhaps borne of its chaos. Regardless, Il trucido e lo sbirro is very much worth seeing for Milian's brilliant and landmark performance. Two other interesting facts: the Western playing at the beginning is Tutto per tutto (1968) (Citta Violente, p. 90), directed by Lenzi; and Henry Silva's character, Brescianelli was "the real name of a gangster who otherwise operated in the Milan area within the Marseilles clan." (p. 56, Tomas Milian Il Bandito, Lo Sbirro, e Er Monnezza, Mediane S.R.L., Milan, 2007, text by Pierpaolo Duranti and Erminio Mucciacito with English translation by Pat Scalabrino.)

See it.


Samuel Wilson said...

I'm prepared to take a Lenzi polizio film on faith after the ones I've seen. He and Milian are Italy's answer, in a way, to Tod Browning and Lon Chaney in their presentation of charismatic grotesques. Thanks to you, I'm adding this to my see-it-someday list.

Hans A. said...

Cool. I hope you check it out. Thanks, Samuel, for taking the time to read and share a comment.