Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

I’m not quite sure why, but I didn’t realize that Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion was a satire until nearly the end of the film.  Perhaps it was just that I had no real knowledge of it heading into viewing it other than the basic plot, that it was a Criterion-worthy film, and that it had won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1971.  The plot description that I had read around its Criterion Collection blu-ray release a few years ago had interested me and I was very excited to find it available for streaming on Amazon Prime recently.

The film opens with a man entering a woman’s apartment in the middle of the day for an afternoon tryst.  He suddenly murders her in her own bed and then meticulously goes about staging the crime scene to his liking, adding in some extra clues while removing some items from the apartment before leaving.  We follow him in his car from the scene of the crime to police headquarters where it is revealed that he a police inspector.  Not only is he a detective, he is the former head of the homicide squad, having just received a promotion to lead a department tasked with cracking down on political activists.  In short order, he is back at the scene of his crime investigating the very crime he committed.  And we realize that he has set up the clues to point to him specifically, testing whether the police will arrest him for this crime or turn a blind eye to the obvious clues he has left.  And the main thrust of the movie is the simple question: Can he get away with it just because of who he is?

Our main character is merely called “Il Dottore” according to IMDB.  He is portrayed by Gian Moria Volante.  Volante’s performance is given a wide range to play with.  Most of the time he displays a calm, cool demeanor and always appears in charge of the situation; he comes across like Don Draper with a more outgoing personality who speaks in more charged rhetoric than Don Draper.  He schmoozes his co-workers, demands more resources from his superiors, and demands results from the men working to solve the crime he committed.  At times he flies off the handle and other times deliberately says things that should raise suspicions in others.  In fact, he keeps dropping clues after the fact and anonymously mailing evidence to the police that further incriminates him.  He does all of this because he believes the police will refuse to look at him as a suspect, regardless of what the evidence suggests.  There is some great cat and mouse stuff going on throughout the film as he plays both sides of the investigation.

Throughout the film we are shown flashbacks of the man and his mistress, filling in their relationship and the moments and events that led to her murder.  They are shown re-enacting through photography famous crime scenes; he holds the camera and she poses as the victims.  It hints at something dark, especially for the standards of when the film was made back in 1970, as this is a turn on for the two of them.

One of the real surprises here was to discover that the film is scored by the legendary Ennio Morricone.  It is very different from his classic spaghetti western scores that he is so famous for, but it does have that unique Morricone sound.  Two distinct characteristics of the score are a deliberate, almost sinister beat, the kind of musical pattern you could envision accompanying a scene from a movie where someone is being pursued down a sidewalk or alley.  The second is a repeating “boing” rubber band sound.  At first I thought it was an odd score for the film’s content, but looking back on it, I see how the sinister and farcical elements combine to help clue the audience into the film’s themes of satire and authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism/fascism is one of the big themes of the film, as our main character is put in charge of the department that is cracking down on Communists, protestors, political activists, rebellious youth, and others that could potentially undermine the state’s authority.  He gives several speeches to his police force, his superior, and the media about what needs to be done and how to enact a kind of police state.  The film also shows the police interrogating people using questionable methods to get confessions out of suspects.  While it is mostly effective, it also feels a little dated, and there was a level of the film’s critique that I felt I was missing out on because I was not familiar with the political atmosphere of Italy in the late 1960s, though there is plenty that the film is saying here that can be applied generally when it comes to the abuse of power and authority.

The film concludes with a fever dream and then a closing scene that begins to mimic the fever dream, but ultimately leaves us hanging.  It is an effective close to the film that hammers home the political points that the writer/director, Elio Petri, is making as the protagonists worst fears about the corruption of the police seem to be coming true.  Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a film that wears its political agenda on it sleeves, at times to its detriment, but mostly to great effect.  My general impression is that it is a film that has largely been lost to time, something I hope that a Criterion Collection release helps change.  It is a very engaging, highly charged film with a great lead performance at the center of it and a sharp, satirical critique of a particular time and place that still has some resonance today.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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