Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion September 13, 2017
Gian Maria Volontè
1 Hr., 55 Mins.
Did the unnamed, central police chief in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) emerge from the womb a scoundrel? We’re partial to believing it: the movie surrounding him bills him a guiltless murderer before its first 10 minutes can even finish up, deciding that there's probably never been a moment in this man’s life where he wasn't a beady-eyed creep. He was likely the child who put on an angelic guise around mothers but secretly abused playmates during recess. Then the misogynistic high school jock who ruled the student body through intimidation alone. Eventually the police academy graduate whose
fondness for brute force and penchant for people pleasing brought him to the top of his class in just a few years.
In the film in which he stars, he’s a decade into policing his native Italian town. Lauded for solving hundreds of murder cases, with only 10 unsolved, his promotion to head of his department has come recently. But we presume that many of the resolutions were not the result of apt sleuthing but rather the inspector’s insatiable appetite for interrogative intimidation. How many suspects “confessed” just to get through a fist-supplemented grilling will never be known, and neither will the number of times the man planted evidence to hurry an investigative process.
He’s a rat. And, as Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion opens, apparently tired of his title-reinforced invincibility. During a typical rendezvous with his married mistress (the high-cheekboned Florinda Bolkan), he decides to trade meaningless passion for violence. While between his illicit lover’s jet black, silken sheets, he slashes her throat right as she’s about to reach orgasm.
But the police chief is unfazed. He calmly casts his lady’s body aside, then washes off her blood in the shower. His hair remains tightly coifed, as does his placid expression. He intentionally leaves fingerprints on every possible surface in the house. He calls his colleagues to report the crime, and then smugly heads back to the office. As predicted, he’s assigned to head the investigation of the murder. But he’s not planning on covering his tracks. Wanting to test the waters, he plants obvious evidence and other clues that will incriminate him. How much will be ignored, or at least unnoticed, by his fellow officers?
Made additionally intense by Ennio Morricone’s abrasive score, sounding like a circus from hell inflamed by a relentless surge of alarm clocks simultaneously blaring, the movie, more a severely dark satire than the psychological thriller it might sound like on the page, contemplates just how much a person can get away with when given enough power. The police chief, played by a spotlessly grotesque Gian Maria Volontè, is aware of his indestructibility and is fatigued. What exactly he hopes to achieve by the end of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is unclear; does he desire to be locked up with all the criminals he helped put away, or does he simply want to prove to himself that he can, in fact, commit a murder and walk away unscathed?
The film’s writer and director, Elio Petri, beckons the ambivalence. The movie is not completely set on analyzing the thought process of its eponymous scum. It’s rather an overarching comment on the corruption and abuse of power that so often blossoms in high office, warning consumers that even the men who are supposed to be rigidly moral, who are supposed to be protecting them from the evils of the world, can succumb to the ethical rot they should be monitoring. The conclusion, exquisitely bleak, does punish the police chief, but not in a manner we would expect. It determines, convincingly, that even if a man is not put behind bars when he should be, his knowing that he deserves punishment will be enough to drive him mad.
The feature is as timely now as it was in 1970, though it was certainly more shocking 47 years ago: Like the United States at the beginning of that decade, Italy was also in the midst of political tumult, and the film’s existence only lit the fuse on the stick of dynamite that was the unrest of the period. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and is still regarded as one of the greatest films of the ‘70s. As it often goes, a particularly great film can capture the mindset of the public at the time of its release. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion does just that. Yet it continues to be germane. That it's nearing its 50th anniversary and that remains the case is as disquieting as the movie itself. B+