Tuesday, May 16, 2017

1970 Winner, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

Director:  Elio Petri

Distributed by:  Columbia Pictures

Released:  February 1970

Country:  Italy

We all know people who think they are the smartest person in the room.  They may try to hide it, but by the way they talk and act, you know they think they are smarter than you.  And yet, their defining characteristic is insecurity.  It’s important for them not only to know they are smarter than you, but to prove it by telling you something they think you don’t know or casually dropping some fact designed to make you raise an eyebrow in admiration.  Me?  I’m comfortable enough to not need to stoop to having to prove how smart I am.  If you’ve been reading my reviews, this has already become apparent to you. 

But such is not the case for the unnamed police inspector in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, the winner of 1970’s Best Foreign Film.  The Inspector is a brilliant man, recently promoted to his position.  He is certain that the combination of his smarts, his status, and the general incompetence of his underlings means that no matter what crime he committed—even murder—he would never be caught for.

Gian Maria Volonte as The Inspector
The film starts with the Inspector meeting his lady friend in her apartment.  She asks him a strange and intriguing question:  How are you going to kill me today?  The answer will soon be given to her—he will slash her throat and let her bleed out.  And having been made Inspector, he knows exactly what evidence to leave to throw the detectives he supervises off the trail. 

This movie is about hubris, a word many of you probably don’t know.  But I have quite an extensive vocabulary, so I will give you the definition:  it is the condition of unnaturally feeling superior to those around you, to the point of it being obnoxious.  The Inspector, in fact, becomes frustrated during the investigation that the force is so incompetent that they don’t even suspect him.  He begins leaving clues for them so that he will be a suspect, knowing that he is, well, a citizen above suspicion.  It isn’t enough to have committed the murder; it’s important to him that he prove how smart and important he is.  This may or may not lead to his downfall.
Inspector meeting his mistress

Given my encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, I instantly recognized the actor playing the Inspector as Gian Maria Volonte, who played the villains the first two “Man with No Name” spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone, A Fistful of Dollars from 1964 and For a Few Dollars More from 1965.  In those movies, he is pure evil; he plays it much more subtly in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.  In real life, Volontè was known for being leftist to the point of having Communist leanings.  As the Inspector, he vows to crush political protestors whom he sees as the enemy.  But even given his autocratic persona, the Inspector is a somewhat pitiable figure, and even though we know he is a murderer, it is difficult to watch him come unglued as he loses control over the situation.

There is an almost comedic tone to the story, helped along by a zippy score by the great Ennio Morricone, complete with mandolin and Jew’s harp.  Morricone wrote the music having only known the basic plot of the movie, and said he wanted the music to be “grotesque.”  The music fits the story like a glove.

Volonte in For a Few Dollars More
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion reminded me of a key scene in the latter seasons of the AMC series Breaking Bad.  At one point, it is clear anti-hero Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, will get off scot-free, never having been suspected of being drug kingpin "Heisenberg."  His brother-in-law Hank, a federal drug enforcement agent, believes Heisenberg was a second-rate chemist who had recently been found dead.  Walter cannot abide the false notion that his genius is unrecognized, and clues in Hank that the dead man is probably not his man.  Like Walter, the Inspector is equally arrogant, and oddly despicable and sympathetic at the same time.  And like Walter, his own insecurity may lead to his undoing.

The title:  Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, in Italian.  I don’t speak the language, but I do know some French.  Also, I have a master’s degree in History and have read Ulysses by James Joyce.

Bryan Cranston in the remake?
The Culture:  Italy, apparently, was not unlike America in the late 60’s, and the movie conveys a distrust of the polizia typical of a young person in that time and culture. 

Agenda danger:  The Inspector, who is corrupt and power-starved, wants to crush protest and civil unrest.  He is a protagonist who underscores the flawed morality of those in power, and in this way the movie conveys the leftist views of Volante and director Elio Petri.

Best Picture that year:  Patton.  Another film about a man in power who is both sympathetic and hard to like.  Of course, unlike the Inspector, Patton’s arrogance is offset by heroic qualities.

Rating:  I found the ending to be somewhat unsatisfying, but overall, the film is a treat.  Volante is superb as the Inspector, so sure of himself and yet so concerned with letting everyone know his is a genius.  Florinda Bolkan, playing his mistress is also a pleasure to watch, appearing frequently in flashbacks, unknowingly pushing the Inspector to commit the crime that will end her life.   

A couple of attempts at an American remake were shelved; my hope is if it is redone, the American version is able to capture the character of the Inspector properly.  Might I suggest Bryan Cranston?  And if this suggestion is taken, I would expect a casting credit, of course, so that everyone would know it was my brilliant idea.


  1. I just want to tell you that the surname of the actor is Volontè.