‘High Crime’ or — A Very Nice Pan plus Some Seriously Ridiculous Action?
I knew I was watching an Enzo G. Castellari movie last night when in the space of the opening ten minutes I’d been treated to a stake-out, a foot pursuit, a surprisingly fantastic car chase, deaths, explosions, ambushes and all this with the feeling that Castellari was only just revving up his engine.
Vice-Commissioner Belli (Franco Nero) has been trailing a drug dealer known as the Lebanese. The arrest is made but any satisfaction is instantly destroyed when the drug dealer, along with several policemen, is blown up. With his leads all gone Belli visits Cafiero (Fernando Rey), a retired gang lord, who informs Belli that there appears to be a new outfit now operating in Genoa and who are stirring up trouble. Cafiero assures Belli that he’ll look into it himself and see what he can do for the cop, although when Cafiero’s men are double-crossed Belli confronts his boss, Commissioner Aldo Scavino (James Whitmore), demanding access to the mafia dossier Scavino keeps in his safe.
Scavino urges patience as he’s been carefully building this dossier for years in order to bring down these gangs from the very top and as the tendrils of power seem to reach to the very top of political and business world then they’ll need to tread very carefully.
However, when the bodies start piling up the perma-angry, scarf-wearing Belli decides that treading lightly is no longer an option. Well, this is a 70’s Italian cop film after all so what the hell were we expecting?
Castellari had a reputation for being one of the most furiously entertaining directors who ever existed and it was for a bloody good reason I can tell you that because whilst Belli might have been on a one-man mission to clean the streets of Genoa of crime Castellari seemed to be on a one-man mission to rid Italian cinema of any vestiges of boredom and tedium. Christ, his films are absolutely relentless in their energy and ‘High Crime’ is no different with not a minute passing by without some form of chase, explosion, gun fight or someone being horribly killed by meat hooks. Needless to say, I adored it.
Not that it’s all mindless and morally dubious action as Castellari always manages to demonstrate real skill and verve when it comes to composition, cinematography, editing and invention. There’s a really nice little moment when a character, who we suspect might be about to meet a moment of reckoning, climbs into bed at night with his wife and falls asleep. The camera then pans away from the snoozing couple, past a darken window followed by the curtains before, and without any sign of a visible cut or edit, coming to rest on the same guy except he’s now on the phone in his kitchen with the bright daylight streaming in whilst surrounded by loads of squawking birds in cages and his son battering away off-screen on the piano.
It’s an exceptionally easy trick. In daytime dress a set to look like a bedroom at night by artificially darkening it all and with the guy already fully dressed in bed so that when the camera pans away from him and he’s out of our view he can simply leap out of bed, run behind the camera (which has now panned round to a kitchen where the windows are letting in the natural light), pick up the phone and pretend he’s in the middle of a conversation. And presto! You’ve got a scene transition from night to day that’s entirely in camera and that helps create a sense of uncanny, but unidentifiable, unease. It’s a great moment that perks up the attention, not that any part of you will be flagging during any of this, though.
The acting’s enjoyable too with Nero’s Belli and Whitmore’s Scavino firing off each other nicely. Nero’s nearly always fun to watch and here he really gets to let loose whilst Whitmore’s Scavino was based on the real life police officer, Luigi Calabresi, whose murder helped trigger Italy’s violent Years of Lead.
‘High Crime’, like all the Castellari films I’ve seen, is a deliriously fast-paced poliziotteschi and it’s easy to see why it was a big hit at the time. Its obvious influences are ‘Bullitt’ (1968) and ‘The French Connection’ (1971), something especially apparent with the casting of Fernando Ray, so if a crazy, out of control, excessively violent, borderline idiotic, politically and socially all of the place, irresponsible, highly entertaining, nicely shot Italian version of those films appeals to you in any way whatsoever then you’ll have a blast with ‘High Crime’. I know I did.