[Originally published at Cinespect]
“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” unfurls with an aesthetic concision that belies its increasingly erratic narrative. Tautly edited but patiently held takes establish a man (Gian Maria Volonté) looking up into a woman’s apartment, and the woman (Florinda Bolkan), staring back. Tracking shots briskly follow the man into the building and up the stairs to her room, where a playful rapport turns with one obscured action and a moan of surprise and pain into murder. Rather than slip out undetected, the man proceeds to deliberately leave his mark all over the crime scene, roughly smudging his fingers on glasses, hooking a loose thread of his tie under the victim’s fingernail, even tracking through blood to leave shoeprints.
Elio Petri’s camera takes all of this in with an impartial inquisitiveness shot through with a slight thrill of transgression, though one senses that the former tone is a reflection of the central character’s subjective response as much as the latter. As much as the man’s cryptic actions, this has a puzzling effect, one that only gets more confounding when it is revealed that he is, in fact, not merely a police officer but the chief of Rome’s homicide division. For the remainder of the film, Volonté’s unnamed chief does everything he can to lead his subordinates back to him, only for each glaring clue to be rationalized, every near-confession ignored as cops look everywhere but right in front of them. To spice things up further, he begins to present personal and political enemies as possible scapegoats, especially student anarchists that the police have been eager to suppress for some time.
Petri’s political statement—concerning the lawlessness of those appointed to keep the law in Italy—is forthright, but the oddity of the narrative, and the grim satire it produces, tangles the explicit commentary in a series of comic digressions. As in the later “American Psycho,” “Investigation” routinely has its protagonist confess to his crimes, only for people to assume he’s joking. When forensic investigators turn up his fingerprints at the crime scene, they simply attribute this to the chief’s carelessness, and they do not even chastise him for that. Flashbacks reveal the sadomasochistic bond between the cop and his doomed mistress predicated on the policeman’s power, which sexually excites the woman and in turn helps drive the man to übermensch delusions. But are they really delusions if a man can glibly confess to murder and still get away with it?
Volonté plays the chief’s toying villainy worthy of Iago, all rage flecked by a self-awareness that is all the more terrifying for making the character not insane but super-sane, logical on a level above that of those around him. A faint smile tugs at even his most impassioned and fiery countenances, giving away that, for all his efforts to be caught, the fact that he constantly evades arrest brings him immense pleasure. Yet Volonté also helps to foreground an occasional sense of acute terror that replaces the satirical approach to police brutality with its more direct implications. The flashbacks are charged with an eroticism that dies when the chief actually acquiesces to the woman’s desire that he “interrogate” her, the speed with which he assumes total control of her physical and mental state is frightening. Similarly, a single cut separates the defiant, chanting face of an incarcerated student radical and that same young man, shivering and sweating on his knees in an interrogation room, so obviously ready to confess to anything that the several minutes spent torturing him just a bit more for the camera are unbearable.
“Investigation” proved to be eerily prophetic: The discovery of a suspicious bomb providing a convenient excuse to target left-wing groups was an event that occurred in real life just before the film ended production. But the film’s vision of a police force that exploits democracy to shore up totalitarian authority extends well beyond contemporary Italian politics into an enduringly relevant critique of unwatched watchmen. Ennio Morricone’s score, with its tinkling but discordant piano, sounds like a music box going out of tune, a fitting accompaniment to Volonté’s chief first tinkering with, then being driven mad by the limits of his self-contained world. That world is gutted yet superficially maintained by the finale’s grim punchline, in which the same system that beats confessions from every usual suspect suddenly rallies valiantly—and violently—to prevent a respectable member from indicting himself. Apparently the only crime a lawman can commit is to admit that he committed a crime.
As a critic says in a feature-length documentary included in Criterion’s superlative package, time has effectively forgotten Elio Petri, something this disc seeks to single-handedly rectify. And what a job it does: Apart from the aforementioned 80-minute doc on Petri’s career, Criterion’s release comes with an overview of the film by scholar Camilla Zamboni, an old interview with Petri for French television, an hour-long documentary on Gian Maria Volonté, and an interview with Ennio Morricone about his collaborations with the director. Each of these features digs deep not only into this single film and its sizable contemporary impact but into the careers of all the major players, with emphasis on the rich history they had together. The net effect raises enthusiasm for this superb feature even further, but, more importantly, it encourages the viewer to seek out more of the director’s work and to rediscover a popular political artist whose name no longer registers immediate recognition.
As for the movie itself, a 4K restoration results in a breathtakingly detailed image, be it in the dulled textures of Rome’s omnipresent history, or in the surreal splashes of vividly chromatic equipment in the seemingly limitless police headquarters, with bright blue databanks and orange-tinted office glass. Catch glimpses of the film formatted for analog TV in some of the extras to get the best idea of how crisp the film is now, though a healthy level of grain preserves the original image information. Similarly, the uncompressed mono soundtrack ensures that the dialogue and Morricone’s infectious score are always strongly replicated. All in all, this is one of Criterion’s finest offerings of the year, and a semi-annual reminder of what they do best: rediscover forgotten gems, then put them forward with such a strong case one wonders how these movies ever left the cultural consciousness at all.