Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Napoli Violenta (1976)

Sometimes, extreme circumstances require extreme responses, and they do not come much more extreme than those used by the hero of Napoli Violenta, an action packed Italian crime flick, or “Poliziotteschi” from the 70s. What the film lacks in subtlety, characterisation or morality, it more than makes up for with outrageous violence, a protagonist who seems at times to be as unhinged as the villains, and some audacious directorial touches.

No nonsense cop Inspector Betti (played by genre favourite Maurizio Merli) is transferred to Naples, and immediately sets about confronting crime and corruption in his own two fisted manner. Soon his violent tactics are making as many enemies in the police as in the criminal underworld - will it be just a matter of time before one side puts him out of action?

The Italian exploitation film business in the 70s and 80s usually followed a standard approach, no matter what the genre. Enterprising producers would spot a Hollywood hit, appropriate some of the stylistic and thematic elements, (and often shift the action from America to Italy), hire a competent journeyman director, willing to turn his hand to anything, and make something cheap and quick to cash in. In this case, Umberto Lenzi was behind the camera, a man who had already made Westerns, Comic Book adaptations, Giallo, Sword-and-Sandal, and Spy films, and would later achieve a degree of notoriety when Cannibal Ferox turned up on the British Governments “Video Nasty” list in the 1980s.

Napoli Violenta clearly has its roots in the Dirty Harry series of films, with a violent, unflappable, borderline psychotic anti-hero (not five minutes in and he is beating up a car thief), as much at war with his superiors as with the criminals. The script juggles several plot strands, with protection rackets, thieves, a crafty bank robber and the mob all vying for attention, meaning there is rarely a dull moment. Betti is a man defined by his actions, the sort of guy who will shoot first, hit second, and maybe ask questions later, if the suspect is still alive. He is occasionally given to moments of regret - when one crook fatally impales himself on a spike, Betti certainly looks regretful - regretful that he did not do the job himself. The lurid violence is could perhaps be seen as a forerunner of Lenzi’s later efforts in the horror genre, but here it is more lively and “comic book” in tone, and certainly less grim and depressing than the likes of Cannibal Ferox.

With his big hair, big moustache and macho attitude, Betti is the epitome of 1970s masculinity, and while the character is a little one dimensional, Merli has more than enough charisma, even with the ropey dubbing, to hold your attention. The ever-reliable John Saxon makes the most of his small role, but the rest of the cast are competent without being memorable, meaning that apart from Merli and Saxon, it is the outrageous action and violence that gives the film life and energy. 

One aspect that sets Napoli Violenta apart from many others of the same era and genre is the occasionally inspired directorial flourishes, most notably during the chase sequences. I get the impression that rather than spend a lot of time and money on the correct paperwork, Lenzi, like Betti, just decided to take whatever action is necessary to achieve a result. So, as motorcycles race through the streets of Naples, we follow the action on the bikes via hand-held cameras, watching what looks like real people dive for cover, making for heart stopping viewing, and giving a feel of genuine guerrilla film making.

The picture painted of Naples is that of a dense, chaotic and vicious city, where the creed is kill or be killed, and anyone showing weakness is doomed. This is something that Inspector Betti understands, as do his superiors, and the police chief is happy to ignore what Betti gets up to, if it gets results. By making the champion of law and order a violent man with no regard for due process of law, a vigilante with badge, the director skirts close to almost celebrating an authoritarian outlook. This is not something that is really sustained throughout the film through any other references or symbolism however, and it should be remembered that this film came out during the height of a period known as The Years of Lead, a time where politically motivated violence, kidnappings and assassinations were rife. However, none of the crime in this film is political, so perhaps it is more a case of giving contemporary audiences clearly defined roles of hero and villain, and providing them with the escapism of seeing an incorruptible John Wayne style hero prevail.