Italian Psycho: Close-Up on Elio Petri’s "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion"

Elio Petri's Academy Award-winning satiric policier skewers fascism: its ugliness, its methods, its social and political interests.
Michael Pattison

Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) is showing February 21 - March 23, 2017  in the United Kingdom in the Oscar Series.

Petri’s cinema involved neither a utopian vision nor victorious narratives of class struggle. Rather, his central effort was to make the toxic condition appear as ugly, pervasive, and totally absurd as it actually was.

Evan Calder Williams

“Drink up, Mr. Innocent. Everybody here is innocent. Only one person here is guilty. And that’s me.”

—Chief Inspector, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

In her Rome apartment—an entrapment of curtains, doorways, plants, ceramics, a cluttered sea of earthen shades offset by a colorful stained-glass window—Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan) welcomes her lover (Gian Maria Volonté). He is a brutish man, with slicked-back hair and dark brown eyes. She asks him: “How are you going to kill me this time?” To which he responds accordingly: “I’m going to slash your throat.” And he does: mid-coitus. Augusta, back to camera, lets out a death cry as if it were an orgasmic groan. 

Fine lines. Elio Petri’s peculiar—and peculiarly brilliant—1970 film, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, is a lesson in dual forms. In the first scene, when the film’s nameless protagonist enters Augusta’s home, the tone is difficult to pin down. With careful sideways tracks towards our leading man, who stands outside the gated entrance to the complex—its numerous vertical bars connoting the (two-way) security of a prison—Petri establishes a sense of decorum, fully in line with the protagonist’s cream suit. But the music, by Ennio Morricone, tells us something different. Sharp string stabs on the one hand, jarringly comic sound effects on the other. And when the man kills his mistress: silence. 

Volonté plays the recently appointed Chief Inspector of Homicide. He is to be, for the remainder of the film, the lead investigator of his own hideous crime. Before he exits Augusta’s flat, he leaves behind just enough evidence to incriminate himself—should anyone care to look. Not that anyone does, of course: when he calls the cops to anonymously report the murder (the first of several such performances), he plays the good but disgruntled citizen, prodding at the police force’s incompetence. He himself is fully aware of such shortcomings, for they have enabled, in one way or another, his ascent to power. It’s the same police force whose oversights—willful or otherwise—help to uphold a particular social order, one that breeds mistruth, a culture without questions; when the murder victim’s neighbor is suggested as a potential suspect, for instance, one cop dismisses the idea on the grounds of the man’s professional and therefore social respectability: “A surgeon. Above suspicion.” 

This film is about fascism: its ugliness, its methods, its social and political interests. The police are fascists, here, insofar as they prefabricate the social conditions—fear, paranoia, a deferral to absolute power—that enables their political manifestation. And the perpetuation of this social image, top-down though it may be, is infectious indeed: in a later scene, when the Chief Inspector (assuming another comically thin disguise) confesses his crime to a stranger, the latter—a plumber—responds incredulously: “A respectable man like you?” Suspicion, we see, is gendered and codified by means of social class: the stranger himself then falls under suspicion. Here, the innocent are guilty until proven so. 

In addition, as the film develops, it becomes increasingly ambiguous as to what the investigating officers know with regard to their chief. When his traces of self-incriminating evidence finally begin to fall into place, he seems stricken by an inability, à la Patrick Bateman, to convince anyone of his guilt. The system—its image—must be preserved. Which can only further validate his aim: “You’ll never understand my action, my sacrifice,” he pleads, “with which I mean to reestablish, in all its purity, the notion of authority.” 

Petri’s film is a scathing portrait of a particular historical moment in Italian history. “The political situation is favorable,” the Chief Inspector remarks, entering his office to a crowd of admiring colleagues. As he sits behind his desk for the first time, Petri tilts the camera appreciably upward, revealing a giant wall map: of Rome. Fascism, we know, specializes in sleight of hand. Telling you one thing while doing another, it very acutely preloads an inverted common sense so that its otherwise absurd horrors can fall in place. To cheers: “Repression is our only vaccination! Repression is civilization!” (“Bravo!”)

That Augusta’s neighbor is a surgeon matters less than the fact he isn’t homeless, or unemployed, or likely to be politically active. “In every criminal there is an agitator,” the Chief Inspector notes, “and in every agitator there is a criminal.” One woman’s murder becomes a means by which to drum up the zeal required to crack down on anti-government protestors. The Chief calls them “destructors of authority.” 

Again, this word. A mania for authority? As he unravels, the Chief Inspector’s relationship to the murder victim is revealed through flashbacks. The couple, we discover, got their kicks from reenacting (and photographing) other famous crime scenes: the gruesome murder as lustful fetish. But Augusta’s death, the film comes to suggest, might have had more personal underpinnings: the Chief Inspector, it seems, takes objection to the ridicule to which he feels he has been subjected by his lover—for being sexually inadequate. (Always with the inferiority complex, the tedious victim narrative.) The final duality, in a film full of them, is that the Chief Inspector’s quest for political power finds expression in a kind of erotics of control: he murders Augusta out of sexual jealousy as much as he does so because her other lover, Antonio Pace (Sergio Tramonti), is an anarchist.

Fascism homogenizes desire: forbids alterity, plurality. Imposing its will with a petty vindictiveness, it overcompensates. Petri’s entire film seems to be formally and visually designed around its main man, to the point where his worldview bleeds into the mise en scène: those long police-station corridors, the endless aisles and stacked shelves of its basement, the interrogation rooms. This film is Kafkaesque long before its closing quotation. The architectural fabric seems not merely accusatory but incriminating, in the way Petri and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller shoot scenes—a combination of sequence shots and abrupt cutaways to noticeably high or low angles—and in the way large sheets of fingerprints hang from the ceilings.

Often, the action is filmed from afar, and half-obscured—by veils, door frames, mirrors, colored divides. As if the camera is hidden, conspiring. As if the scandal of fetish, and the fetish for scandal, can never be too far away. (When the Chief tells a left wing journalist that Augusta Terzi never wore knickers, the reporter declares: “I have my headline!”) Each of these—scandal, fetish—is embedded into the very architecture of a surveillance culture—and into Petri’s film. Sex and wiretaps: listening in. “Is his line tapped?” asks the Chief about Antonio Pace, long before we realize his ulterior motives in framing the younger man. “Of course.”

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