Anybody who seeks power almost certainly can’t be trusted with it. The ambitious unnamed protagonist (Gian Maria Volonté) of “Investigation of a Citizen Under Suspicion” (1970) would openly admit that, and he would so openly because there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
Surprisingly, this unfettered freedom is a source of dismay to the Roman homicide detective about to accept his a promotion to a political unit where he’ll get to quash nasty subversive uprisings for a living. He wants to have limits, he simply doesn’t know where they are.
To find out, he engages in a social experiment. During a rendezvous with his kinky mistress Augusta Terzi (knockout Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan), he ups the stakes in their standard rough foreplay by cutting her throat with a straight razor. He then makes sure to leave as much evidence around the apartment as possible – fingerprints, shoe tracks, fabric traces – before calling in the murder anonymously and then leading the investigation. As the title informs the viewer, his station renders him above suspicion and he must become ever more brazen before anyone will acknowledge the obvious, yet even then… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Volonté is best known to international audiences as a baddie in a few Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns (“A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More”), but he was also the favorite lead actor of director Elio Petri who launched boldly into the most politically-engaged phase of his career with “Investigation.” The actor clearly relishes the role, wallowing in the total corruption of his character and, by extension, the state apparatus. He abuses his privilege as ostentatiously as possible, from a minor mind-game involving a vending machine at the police station to implicating random citizens off the street simply because he can.
While waving his dick to all passersby, the inspector also reveals the inherent infantilism of the grubbiest power-seekers. As he explains to his mistress, everyone becomes a child in the presence of authority and it soon becomes apparent he desperately seeks a figurehead to obey and grovel in front of. He’ll only find what he wants by committing the only unpardonable sin in his professional circle, confessing to wrong-doing, and thereby incurring the wrath of the powers-that-be who need him to maintain a united front. Oppression demands total compliance even from the oppressors.
Petri refracts his Kafka-esque tale (an influence openly acknowledged in the closing titles) through a grotesque lens, relying heavily on extreme close-ups often framed from forehead to chin, tactical zooms, and a camera that tilts off-kilter as it floats through some of the hollow, oversized chambers of power where skulkers like the detective do their dirty deeds. The visual style is buttressed by the score from the legendary Ennio Morricone, all full of twangy mouth harp and calliope-style bursts. The score initially hints at farce but also embodies the pitch-black satire Petri is aiming for. The music also covers up for some of the rough patches, a few insistently canted shots that more than drive the point home and the too-frequent flashbacks to the tedious S&M relationship between the protagonist and his mistress. Morricone could score a colonoscopy and make it fun for the whole family.
If Petri’s point is somewhat obvious (power corrupts), it is still vital and the depiction of “enhanced interrogations” suggests that some of the caricature is both too timely and too realistic for comfort. Volonté’s cartoonishly menacing inspector would fit right into the bunker in “Dr. Strangelove” but is just a shade closer to a real-life monster, the plausibly marketable kind that tends to get elected, and not just in Italy.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “Investigation” has never been released in North America before, and Criterion has more than made up for the oversight with this nearly-flawless 1080p transfer of a 4K digital restoration. It has a cool, muted color palette and a fine-grain texture with vividly sharp image detail; those extreme close-ups hide no blemishes. There is no visible distortion or damage. An exceptional transfer in every way.
The dual format release also includes a DVD transfer of the film which I only checked briefly. It uses the same nearly pristine source though obviously isn’t quite as sharp in image detail. Still, it’s a fine SD transfer, better than many high-def renditions.
The LPCM Mono audio track isn’t dynamic and sounds a bit hollow at times, with voices sounding slightly disembodied, but it is very crisp. The shortcomings are due to the source material as many Italian films of the era relied heavily or entirely on post-production sound. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.
Criterion has included a substantial array of supplements.
First is a short excerpt from an Oct 25, 1970 episode of “Le journal du cinéma” (14 min.) Critic Alexandre Astruc and Elio Petri hang out in a pub and the incredibly ebullient Astruc practically has to be restrained from making out with the object of his affection, the greatest director and artist and human being in the history of the world. It’s a bit excessive, but when Petri gets a chance to talk he has plenty to say.
“On ‘Investigation’” (2013, 24 min.) presents an interview with film scholar Camilla Zamboni who provides both political context and textual analysis of the film. This is the most incisive extra on the set and Zamboni provides plenty of detail both about Petri’s early career and the student protests in Italy that provide some of the film’s inspiration.
“Elio Petri: Notes About a Filmmaker” (2005, 80 min.) is a documentary which provides a comprehensive, chronological overview of Petri’s career. It’s biographical rather than analytical but the information provided will be new to many viewers, and it features a wide array of interview subjects including Bernardo Bertolucci, Gillo Pontecorvo, Robert Altman, Ennio Morricone, Vanessa Redgrave, and many others.
“Investigation of a Citizen Named Volonté” (2008, 55 min.) also follows a chronological, biographical approach to its subject. Volonté passed away in 1994 and left behind an extensive resume, with only the spaghetti Westerns being known to most international audiences. The documentary is pretty dry and plays like a TV special, but it’s of interest.
We also get a recent (2010, 19 min.) interview with Ennio Morricone, conducted by Fabio Ferzetti. Morricone is a marvelous interview and in his mid-80s seems like he’s still in the prime of his career. His recall is remarkable and, big shock, he knows what he’s talking about when he discusses his composition choices.
The disc finishes up with two Trailers, running six minutes total. It’s a very impressive collection of extras, one above and beyond what you might expect for a film that has fallen out of distribution.
The 30-page insert booklet includes an essay by writer Evan Calder Williams and an excerpt from a 2001 interview with the film’s co-screenwriter Ugo Pirro.
“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” will probably be new to many viewers since it has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in North America before and has largely fallen out of distribution, but it was known enough in its day to win the 1971 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, beating out Bunuel’s “Tristana.” This was an ancient time when the award was given to films that were actually good; “Closely Watched Trains,” “Z,” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” also won during the same six year period.
Criterion has absolutely stacked this release with supplements, and the high-def transfer is fantastic.