Watching Abuso di potere – i.e. literally Abuse of Power, but released under the more enigmatic Shadows Unseen – in the same week as Berlusconi was jailed gives the 1972 film a certain continuing relevance.
The more things change the more they stay the same...
On a more personal level, it was also interesting to compare with my viewing of a few days ago, Colpo rovente, it being another police film exploring the same theme, high-reaching corruption, but a contrasting narrative structure.
For whereas Colpo rovente begins with a death at the hands of persons unknown, here we begin with a death where the identities of at least some of those involved, if not their exact roles, are presented.
Investigative journalist Gagliari goes to a club; talks briefly with Simona (Marilu Tolo); visits money lender Rosenthal (Corrado Gaipa), from whom he recovers a distinctive ring; indicates that he is leaving on business for a few days; departs with hooker Rosaria, and is then set upon, beaten and shot dead by a group of men.
After some discussion amongst the police and political leaders, the decision is made to bring Inspector Luca Micheli (Frederick Stafford) in to conduct the investigation. Micheli has been persona non grata since he used the same illegal methods as many of his colleagues, but happened to do so on the wrong suspect/perpetrator – i.e. someone with connections. He’s also, predictably, the type whose dedication to the job has cost him his family.
Aided more or less only by his loyal sidekick, Micheli begins his investigations. An anonymous tip-off leads them to Delogo, a known mafioso with an impressive record on beating the charges against him. After a beating Delogo confesses to the crime, but Micheli’s intuition tells him what we would already know, even if we had walked in to the film five minutes late; after all, we’re only one-third of the way into the running time.
Getting the forename of the woman seen with Gagliari, Micheli pulls in a low-level drug dealer (Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli) and extracts here whereabouts, this time more with the threat of violence. Visiting Rosaria’s apartment, the investigators find her dead, the victim of adulterated heroin. And so it goes until it becomes increasingly evident what we already more or less knew.
The only matters that remain in doubt are whether Micheli will agree to forget what he discovers and become one of the conspirators, or whether he will continue to fight against them and, if so, with what type of outcome.
Extreme cynicism was rife in the police film internationally in the early 1970s, as a basic schism between the ideals of law and order became increasingly apparent. To give a few examples:
Callahan in Dirty Harry knew that Scorpio was the killer stalking San Francisco, but could not prove this and found his methods led to Scorpio’s being released by too-liberal judges.
Then Magnum Force saw Callahan going up against a self-appointed execution squad of fellow cops who were going too far – a plot point that seems more about box-office than consistent characterisation, at least from a cursory recollection. Certainly I remember preferring Steno’s La polizia ringrazzia, with its decidedly more downbeat treatment of a similar theme.
Or in the UK there is the first film outing of The Sweeney, in which Regan reluctantly investigates the death of a call-girl at the behest of a small-time villain, then realises he has uncovered a big-time conspiracy when said villain also dies and he is suspended from the force on trumped up charges. While the X-certificate given the film allowed for more sex, violence and bad language than the TV series from which it came, its televisual origins were also apparent. There was an obvious need for Regan to ultimately triumph. His regular boss, whose presence would have complicated the conspiracy narrative, was also a conspicuous – or is that structural? – absence.
In each case a further tension is the divide between providing genre entertainment and socio-political critique – and further, what form that critique should take. Here the entertainment aspect is foregrounded in a brief interlude between Micheli and Simona, albeit one tempered by a clear sense that this is a matter of business and not love, and a Remy Julienne-staged car chase. There’s also a shoot-out, and a couple of punch-ups where the blows have that exaggerated, conventional car-door-slamming sound.
The critique is, as might be expected, more muddled.
But then that could be said to be a reflection of a perceived situation where no-one had the answers?
But that could then be said to be a reflection of a perceived situation where no-one had the answers?
The final shot of the film, noted by an IMDB reviewer, is curious in this regard. On one layer, it appears to be a freeze-frame. Clearly, however, it is in fact an optical printing, since on the other layer, there is the motion of a swinging telephone receiver. The two images, previously united, have become fragmented.
On the subject of fragments, parts of Riz Ortolani’s score are reminiscent of cues for Cannibal Holocaust – the discordant strings, but minus the synthesiser bleeps – and Don’t Torture a Duckling – the powerful percussion, but minus Ornella Vanonni’s vocals, that accompany Maciara's death scene.