There's no satiric genre filmmaking like Italian satiric genre filmmaking, as I've always said. Or at least, as I've always meant to have said. At any rate, I offer as proof of this notion a snotty poliziesco ("police film") from the underseen social satirist Elio Petri, one of those Italian films with an outstanding chunky, fun title, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. An official selection title at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, and the winner of that year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film (proving once again that the Academy used to be a lot more interesting than it is now), you can tell just from the film's awards pedigree that it has a bit more to it than is immediately obvious from a surface-level reading of the narrative: in an unnamed Italian city, an unnamed police department head (Gian Maria Volonté), newly promoted from the homicide squad to political containment, murders his lover (Florinda Bolkan), secure in the knowledge that he knows exactly how his former colleagues are going to investigate the crime.

Let's not mince words: it's a pretty great surface-level narrative, if you're a fan of Bad Cop dramas simply for the sake of it (and if you're not, then by God why aren't you?). I have only a little background in polizieschi and poliziotteschi, but on the evidence of this one film, it would appear that the Italian filmmakers of the '60s and '70s did cop films just as well as they did murder mysteries and sex farces: pretty damn well, and with much more attention to aesthetic niceties and intelligent screenwriting than the bulk of their counterparts in American filmmaking at the same time.

But Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion - I should probably cut that down to Investigation of a Citizen, or even just Investigation..., but it's so much fun to type out! - is about much more than its surface; I cannot in fact imagine the viewer so morbidly inattentive as to fail to notice what's going on underneath, given how urgently the film insists on its own subtext (at which point we might well argue that it has ceased to be subtext). For this is not really a murder thriller, as I briefly assumed it might be from the opening five minutes or so; it is a full-throated, pitch-black comic assault on Italian police corruption. Despite the title, our policeman (who is, naturally, the citizen in question) never comes under any sort of investigation whatsoever, despite having gone out of his way to leave clues in the form of bloody shoe prints, a thread from his tie, and fingerprints on just about every surface he can find.

Why does he do this? Ah, but that is the chief mystery of Investigation of a Citizen, and I should not want to give it all away. Let it suffice to say that by the midway point, roughly, we start to understand that his entire plan is something of a dare to his former colleagues: can you possible ignore such a mountain of evidence if it all points to a seemingly impossible solution? Would you willingly subvert the course of justice to protect a respected, powerful man? Maybe that's not even quite the nature of the dare, though. It seems just as likely that the investigating cops are so certain, down at the core of their being, that this man could not possibly have murdered this woman, that something deep and subconscious compels them to ignore all the proof of that fact. That, in essence, the need built into the Italian psyche for hierarchy and authority is so absolute that it is completely impossible to even consider the possibility that someone in a position of authority might be culpable for some crime. This is the reading I favor, for it well-supported by the film's last scene; its best scene, too, although I am not at all going to to give it away, outside of praising its absurd, through-the-looking-glass plot machinations, and the bloody wit with which Petri and his co-writer Ugo Pirro attack the upper echelons of the Italian police.

The final scene is just the capstone to a movie that has already made quite a lot of sport of policemen abusing their power: the protagonist doesn't just use his position to facilitate his murder of an irritating, clingy girlfriend (who he only met because of his position, for that matter; while their kinky sexual play is informed largely by his erotic fixation on the dead women he inspects), but to torment his former colleagues and to trump up charges against the politically undesirable - it's at times easy to forget, but one of the key elements of the story is that this soulless cop is actually in charge of quelling dissent from Communists, the Far Right, and homosexuals, among other socially disruptive groups, and by all means Petri makes good mileage from contrasting the bullying conservative mentality of this political ops team with the main character's willfully immoral behavior, even if it's a bit on the obvious side (but who ever said that satire couldn't be obvious?).

Outside of its very engaging message movie politics - in America, where our message movies are all fairly bland, warm and fuzzy things, it's hard to keep in mind how thrilling it can be to watch artists flouting an actual, honest-to-God repressive, demi-authoritarian government - Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is just a damn good movie, period. I have been previously unfamiliar with Petri's work, but other than a certain tendency to let the movie lose some of its energy and propulsion in the middle, when we're mostly just watching the protagonist wandering through his daily life, the film is directed with a brutal efficiency that adds considerably to the satire: most of the scenes have a sort BOOM!-and-done pacing that drives each moment's satirical point home like a dagger to the heart. It's a film that, in its better moments, doesn't give us time to stop and think, or catch our breath, but just fight to keep up with the quickly shifting locales and perspectives. It could seem rushed, but it doesn't: it's just a means of demonstrating the cruel, impersonal speed with which this particular bureaucracy punishes those it deems wicked.

Given the talented pool of cinematographers working in Italy in those days, it's not surprise at all that the film is also immaculately composed and shot; but Luigi Kuveiller isn't just any talented cinematographer. Like most Italian film professionals, he switched recklessly between genres, and his work in the famed gialli field (hyper-violent murder mysteries) included A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Lucio Fulci's best-looking film, and Deep Red, arguably Dario Argento's best-looking film (which is to say, it's pretty fucking good-looking either way). The poliziesco didn't allow for the same visually creative insanity as the gialli, but Investigation of a Citizen is still a fantastically well-composed movie, with some truly inspired close-ups and an opening murder/sex scene that is put together about as well as such a thing could be (thanks also to the fine cutting by Ruggero Mastroianni, an editor of no small merits himself).

Best in show honors, though, go in my estimation to two men: first begin Gian Maria Volonté, who appeared in just about every kind of movie that Italians were making in that period, and who gives here one of the absolute best performances that I have seen in any Italian film from the 1970s: he's sly, wicked, and implies much about the protagonist's motivations that turns out to be vital for a proper understanding of how the story works. At the end, when he finally has his inevitable breakdown, what could be screaming and melodramatic is instead... screaming and melodramatic, but in absolutely the best possible way. The other key figure in the movie is Ennio Morricone, one of the most overworked and hugely reliable composers in the history of cinema (for what it's worth, he's in my top 3 of all time, alongside Michel Legrand and fellow Italian Nino Rota. So now you know that). For Investigation of a Citizen, he supplies only a single piece of music, that gets repeated perhaps six or seven times in the movies 112 minutes, but it is phenomenal: I can't think of a better adjective than "sproingy" to describe it, a sort of bouncy melody in a minor key (if I am not mistaken, and I well might be) with a good deal of comic energy - it's the sort of music you'd expect to hear in a particularly slapsticky Looney Tunes short about cannibalism. More than anything else in the movie, it sets the tone immediately and irrevocably, that no matter how serious the subject matter of the film - murder and police corruption - the attitude towards that subject will always be sly and sarcastic, more of a wicked piss-taking than anything else. And lo! that is exactly what Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion proves to be, one of the most sardonic, brilliant satires of its era.