First published by Little White Lies
“I figure I’m doing OK, why change what’s working?” So, near the beginning of Eurocrime! The Italian Cope and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s, says actor Henry Silva of his willingness to keep playing gangster roles throughout the Seventies in the cheap, quickie Italian crime flicks known as poliziotteschi – and his attitude summarises the entire philosophy behind this faddish copycat subgenre flicks, emerging in the wake of the by-then moribund spaghetti westerns, and themselves destined eventually to suffer a similar fate of self-immolation through exhaustion, underfundng and all-round overkill. Yet despite their failure to capture the American market that they often slavishly imitated, poliziotteschi were for a while incredibly successful domestically and in other countries outside the US – and as long as they continued bringing in both audiences and money, why indeed change what’s working?
The man who would go on to become the subgenre’s most iconic star was also an emblem of its copycat nature. For Maurizio Merli (who died in 1989) was originally hired for Violent Rome (1975) merely because of his physical resemblance to Euro superstar Franco Nero – and poliziotteschi were in a similarly parasitic relationship with the U.S. cop movie boom of the early 1970s – and in particular with The French Connection (1971), Dirty Harry (1971) and The Godfather (1972) – often stealing from them storylines, scenes, even verbatim dialogue. Yet beneath their visceral mix of system-fighting cops, torture-loving crooks, and fugitive lone-wolf gangsters, these testosterone-fueled action thrillers also concealed much reflective commentary on local politics, in a nation where the mafia and various terrorist organisations ruled the streets with extreme violence.
Written, directed and edited by Mike Malloy (who also contributes to its fabulously muscular score), Eurocrime! The Italian Cope and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s is a thoroughly researched, comprehensive tutorial on this subgenre in seven well-organised chapters. Yet far from being a dry academic exercise, it adopts explosive titles, frenetic split screens, vividly high-lit poster art, in-your-face film excerpts, animated interventions and a driving pace to mimic the flashy machismo of its subject – all illuminated by a rogues’ gallery of talking heads drawn from amonsgt the film’s most prominent actors, directors, writers, stuntmen and dubbing artists. It is a rambunctious, often hilarious trawl through the archives, told with much good humour, but also with careful contextualisation and genuine cultural as well as critical analysis.
Like Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008), this is a documentary on a lost piece of film history, earning its titular exclamation mark in sheer, balls-to-the-wall vibrancy. Sure Malloy shows the insane, generally unsafe stunt work, and the way that life imitated art imitating life when it came to these productions’ mob connections, but even the section on dubbing manages to be utterly engaging – and no punches are pulled in examining the misogyny that permeated these films. To viewers who know nothing about the subgenre, Eurocrime! will come as a genuine eye-opener, and will provide a lengthy wishlist of genre films, made on the fly for little money and under difficult circumstances, that came both to define and to reflect a particular place and time.
© Anton Bitel