Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Silent Action (1975)

aka La polizia accusa: il servizio segreto uccide

A small yet strange series of deaths of people working for the Ministry of Defense and the military hits Italy. Since all of the deaths seem to be accidental or suicides, no alarm bells start to ring anywhere. That's a problem, because the deaths are in fact murders and we the viewers the only witnesses.

The Roman cop Solmi (Luc Merenda) is as unsuspecting as anyone else, until he is starting to investigate the death of the private detective Chiarotti. Chiarotti's death is murder all right - his head has been bashed in with a fire poker. It's just all a little strange. Why is a mere detective as rich as Chiarotti was? Solmi soon finds a prostitute (Delia Boccardo) who must have been present when the detective was killed, but she nearly dies in a murder attempt that's made to look like a suicide. She can't tell Solmi much anyway. That Chiarotti was having an argument with a man and was killed by the man is pretty much all she knows. Useful descriptions are not forthcoming.

For DA Mannino (Mel Ferrer), the girl is still the main suspect in the case, whatever Solmi may think about her physical fitness to kill the victim with a few poker strikes and the psychological absurdity of the theory.

The case gets more interesting when a man gets arrested while breaking into Chiarotti's villa and stealing a single hidden piece of tape with the voice of a dead general declining to cooperate with a man named Rienzi. Even more interesting is the fact that the burglar claims to work for the Secret Service.

Solmi diligently asks the Secret Service what's up, but their Captain Sperli (Tomas Milian) denies everything, as spies are wont to do, but is still interested in talking to the burglar and hearing what's on the tape. When Solmi and Sperli get to the tape, it turns out to have been erased.

This is of course not the last time in the film that Solmi's witnesses are killed or kidnapped or someone who must be pretty close to the investigation interferes with it, but once his sense of justice is awakened, Solmi can't be dissuaded to leave the case be.

People know and love Silent Action's director Sergio Martino mostly for his Giallos, but as a working commercial director, he of course did his time in whatever genre was the flavor of the day, how fitting or unfitting his talents might have been.

Silent Action combines the Italian cop movie with the conspiracy thriller arm of the spy movie, both genres Martino's talents are surprisingly fitting for. The director was always an excellent craftsman, using every bit of technique he could afford to keep his films entertaining. If you ask me, the emphasis on "keeping his films entertaining" is the main difference between him and Bava or Argento who were more artfully minded and willing to use their visual talents to push their films in other, more experimental directions not every audience would be able or willing to follow all of the time. While I love both Bava's and Argento's films, I can't say that I blame Martino for "just" trying to make perfectly great genre films.

In the case of Silent Action, Martino was quite successful. After a somewhat slow start, the film picks up tempo until its plot is ticking along at a joyous pace. I read complaints about a certain lack of action in the movie, but that lack of action only exists in comparison with a handful of Italian cop movies that just don't need as much time to build their plot as a conspiracy thriller does and in the minds of people with severe ADD - on planet reality, there is plenty of chases and shoot-outs to admire, and while Martino as an action director is no Enzo G. Castellari, he is still pretty damn good.

"Pretty damn good" is also a fitting description for Luc Merenda's performance. Merenda usually is the Italian cop movie guy people forget when listing their top five actors in the genre (I blame the lack of a moustache, the moustacheless niche already filled by Fabio Testi), but he really is no slouch. His Solvi is a rather interesting variation on the cop movie hero - besides the lack of a moustache, he is less prone to long, reactionary rants about the evils of modern society and the beauty of the police state and shows a certain restraint in the use of unnecessary violence. Why, it even takes an hour until he starts to torture someone, and even then he's downright subtle about it. This of course makes his character surprisingly believable as someone actually interested in justice and not a vigilante as most of the dubious heroes of police movies often are. This time, the cop hero is actually someone to root for, giving the typical 70s conspiracy film ending (and if someone thinks that this counts as a spoiler, I just can't help it) a bit of weight even though the conspiracy itself isn't all that memorable.

All in all, it's a very fine film that balances the need for action and the need for investigation scenes as effortlessly as Martino is able to decide when to use his hand camera and when a long tracking shot.



David said...

Great review. Sounds like one I should track down.


houseinrlyeh said...

Thank you.
I'd love to hear what you think about it.