Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion copped the Best Foreign Film Oscar, was a huge success on its home turf, and inaugurated the genre of cinema politico in 1970s Italy. Petri began his career as a movie critic for the Communist daily L’Unità. He apprenticed in films as assistant and screenwriter for several neorealist directors, then made his own feature debut in 1961 with L’Assassino, starring Marcello Mastroianni as a playboy who may be a murderer. Petri’s most compelling films are social satires played out as genre pieces. Petri, who died in 1982, argued that committed directors were obliged to work within the system if they wanted to address themselves to the masses.
Citizen (1969), a potent study of power as pathology, is his most successful use of the highly marketable suspense-thriller form. Its protagonist is a psychopathic police chief, an antihero who reflects Fascist ideals that harken back to Il Duce—for him and for his network of aides and informants, it’s always open season on Maoists, gays, and student radicals. He cuts the throat of his masochistic mistress, then deliberately plants clues that implicate himself to prove that he’s entirely above suspicion. He goes up to total strangers and confesses—the man thinks he can commit any crime he wants. He gets into a complicated cat-and-mouse game with his colleagues, leaving clues, then thwarting the investigation.
The film is dominated by the mesmerizing performance of Gian Maria Volonté as the chief—he’s never given a name. A militant leftist, Volonté, who got his start portraying heavies in spaghetti westerns and became the major star of Italian political cinema of the 1970s, was an actor of extraordinary presence. Hardly ever offscreen, he struts through the entire movie—nattily dressed, smirky, charismatic, simultaneously handsome and repellent as Petri’s visually flamboyant film turns into a heady mix of Marx, Freud, Wilhelm Reich, and Brecht, with a bit of Dashiell Hammett thrown into the blender.