The 1970 Oscar race saw Patton coming out in front. The portrait of the war hero, showing his successes and his foibles, snagged the Best Picture prize. Franklin J. Schaffner's biopic took an unconventional approach by both inflating and deflating the mythology of a great man undone by over-confidence in his own abilities and stature.
There must have been something in the air. The evening's winner for the Best Foreign Language picture, beating out efforts by Luis Bunuel, Maximilian Schell, and Raoul Coutard, was Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. While the Italian film may not be as well known today as its American co-champion, it is no less effective a depiction of the downfalls of hubris and authority. I'd daresay, Petri's political thriller is also just as pertinent today as it ever was.
Inspired in part by the work of Franz Kafka, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a perverse mystery and a biting satire on the prevailing power structure and the cruelty of government systems. It opens innocently enough, with Ennio Morricone's ironically playful musical theme. With its nickel piano and comical mouth harp, it is the orchestral cue Carl Stalling might have written for Alfred Hitchcock had they ever worked together. Unlike a Hitchcock hero, however, the protagonist here is not the wrong man, he just wants everyone to think he is, if only to prove himself right. Gian Maria Volonté (Le cercle rouge [review]) stars as a Chief Inspector of the Italian police, whose hard-ass tactics have made him the star of the homicide bureau and earned him a new position in charge of political crimes. The Chief is a neo-Fascist whose lip service to democracy masks his true belief that the non-conformists (i.e. hippies, weirdoes, and communists) need to be monitored and manipulated with an iron fist. In one amusing scene, the first order of business for the Chief in his new position is to hear statistics about the fluctuation of graffiti in praise of foreign dictators. Mao is up, Stalin down.
Naturally, like many an uptight arbiter of moral decency, the Chief has his own kinks. The movie begins with the detective visiting his mistress, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan), a libertine of such wanton proclivities, she owns no underwear, an important detail in the forthcoming investigation of her murder. The rendezvous starts with Augusta asking the Chief how he plans to kill her today; he responds that he will slit her throat. This is their regular bedroom game--he has her re-enact the crime scenes that really turn him on--but today, it all becomes real.
Once he has done the deed, the Chief then proceeds to cover up his own crime. Yet, he does so in such a way that any smart investigator should be able to see right through it. He leaves his fingerprints everywhere, he steps in blood and puts footprints all over the house, and he calls the police himself. Hell, he even leaves in full view of the woman's upstairs neighbor (Sergio Tramonti), another of her lovers and a known radical. The Chief is essentially daring anyone to see through and disprove his obfuscations. The real sign of power is that despite his being the obvious choice, no one will have the guts to accuse him, no matter how many clues he gives them.
This is the main point of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, though the plot is more knotted than it might seem. As the movie unravels, and as we see more flashbacks to the Chief's relationship with Augusta, we begin to doubt his true motives. The script, written by Petri (The 10th Victim [review]) and Ugo Pirro, is intentionally mocking the warped way of thinking that would cause anyone to seek political power and also the way that power corrupts. In a bizarre twist on Poe's “Telltale Heart,” the memory of the dead woman taunts her killer in much the same way she apparently taunted him in real life. She pushed him to flex his manhood, not just in response to her, but as a challenge to his colleagues. It's classic super-villain pathology: he believes everyone is too stupid to match wits with him. He cruelly creates new red herrings, drawing innocent citizens into his trap only to discredit and ruin them.
There are many chilling parallels between Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and modern-day abuses. The Chief's desire to crush any opposing point of view is given action through wire-tapping and surveillance and emboldened via manipulation of the press. His barbaric interrogation techniques required little innovation when the Bush Administration adopted similar tactics. It's uncomfortable watching the Chief force a political prisoner (Vittorio Duse) to choose between maintaining a stress position or drinking an entire pitcher of salt water. His intention is to have the man finger his friend, Augusta's neighbor, the one who saw him, in a terrorist bombing. The prisoner relents, but we never know for sure if he is telling the truth. As has been argued time and time again, torture yields the results the torturer is looking for, but that doesn't mean those results are valuable.
The harshest critique in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is not for the Chief's approach to police work, but for the man himself. He is a vainglorious bully who can't sustain his own lies. Volonté is terrific in the lead, puffing up his chest when on the offensive, but crumbling like a baby at the most insignificant slight. His pathological hiding of the truth reveals more about who the real man underneath than he covers up, embodying the usual cliché that what a zealot most denies, that's what he truly is.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion has long been out of circulation. Criterion has struck their new Blu-Ray/DVD combo from a gorgeous 4K restoration, making for a lovely high-definition picture that preserves the look of the original film, delivering a clean, colorful image. The set is likewise loaded with extras, including lengthy documentaries on both Elio Petri and Gian Maria Volonté. There is also a recent interview with Ennio Morricone specifically about the film, as well as standard some archival elements.