Sunday, 21 August 2011

How to Kill a Judge (1976)

Country: ITALY

Perche si uccide un magistrato

Damiano Damiani’s How to Kill a Judge is a low key thriller that sits uneasily within the poliziotteschi cycle to which it has been consigned. It is almost totally devoid of action set pieces, and is remarkably bloodless for a 1970’s Italian crime flick. Compared to the high octane thrills and spills of Enzo G. Castellari or Fernando Di Leo this is a sedentary affair that at times comes perilously close to total inertia. Damiani who co-wrote the screenplay with Enrico Ribulsi was clearly intent on making a very serious film in which social and political imperatives are far more important than the conventions of the cycle. In fact at times Damiani goes out of his way to frustrate generic expectations. This is in order to maintain the clarity of the films political purpose, a purpose which might otherwise have been undermined by a proliferation of stunts and gunfire. Damiani was no stranger to appropriating the conventions of a genre in order to pedal an ideological point of view. His western A Bullet for the General (1966) flaunts its leftist credentials, but importantly retains a high entertainment factor. His earlier poliziotteschi Confessions of a Police Commissioner to the District Attorney (1971) likewise retains its entertainment factor without compromising its ideological vision. How to Kill a Judge however is so entangled within its socio/political message that at times it forgets to be entertaining.

What is immediately noticeable about How to Kill a Judge is the attention it places on characterisation. The screenplay creates a rich gallery of characters, and allows the audience the opportunity to witness behavioural motivation. But at times the film does seem very densely populated, and some of the lesser players could easily have been trimmed to avoid increasing confusion. The lead character Giacomo Solaris (Franco Nero) is an investigative journalist who prefers to expose his researches through the medium of film. His latest film is a searing critique of corruption in the highest echelons of the legal profession. It is patently clear who the Sicilian magistrate is based on, though the man himself reacts with indulgent humour at a private screening. The film within a film dramatises the magistrates links with the mafia, and concludes with his assassination. Although Damiani never made an art movie, the film that Solaris has made has all the stodgy symbolic hallmarks of art cinema, and one can’t help thinking that Damiani is silently mocking the form. With pressure mounting on the rogue filmmaker, the screenplay pulls out its first important plot twist when life imitates art and the magistrate is found shot dead on some wasteland.

Franco Nero is on inspirational form here, his conception of Giacomo is likeable and believable. The closer he gets to the Traini family, so his part in the tragedy builds. His guilt increases the deeper he gets in and he finds himself torn between his tabloid paymasters, his mafia friend (whose fate is one of the few violent scenes in the film), the investigating police inspector whom he has a strong friendship with, and the widow Antonia (Françoise Fabian) whom he feels responsible too. Giacomo juggles all those disparate pressures during his own private investigation which ultimately reveals the reality of his film. Constantly lurking in the shadows is the menacing spectre of Palermo’s crime syndicates. The face of this is a mobster who is on dialysis and whose death is one of the few truly disturbing moments in the film. The influence of the mafia goes to the very heart of the Sicilian legal and political system, and the film ends on a particularly bitter and cynical note when Giacomo’s own private investigation gets the mafia off the hook.

How to Kill a Judge requires a certain knowledge of Sicilian culture to fully appreciate its many layers. Damiano plays with the public perception of the region and the medias construction of the mafia and its influence. That the corrupt magistrate steps off this mortal coil as a result of a crime of passion might seem like a novel plot twist, but only to one attuned to those mafia perceptions. The final devastating images of laughing mobsters is hard for Giacomo to swallow, especially as his own dedication to the truth is the reason for their merriment. One has to admire Damiani’s non-sensationalist approach to the material. There is very little here for exploitation enthusiasts. What it does have is very committed pitch perfect performances from a very accomplished cast and an intelligent attitude to its convoluted plot mechanics. This is more of a mystery than a thriller, a drama with lofty ambitions. Even Riz Ortolani’s typically overblown musical delivery is downplayed. As a mystery How to Kill a Judge is very good indeed, but it can be a challenging watch for anyone who isn’t a little conversant with the socio/political landscape of 1970’s Sicily.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Brilliant review, Shaun. I like this and I've yet to see a Damiani movie I didn't like. Nero is good here and I think I prefer him in roles like this or some of his westerns such as THE MERCENARY where he isn't required to do too much in relation to fight scenes. TEXAS ADIOS is the best thing I've seen him in where he looked good in the fights. THE SHARK HUNTER is something to see if you want to see a campy, bizarre Castellari/Nero film with a lot of action.

    Back to Damiani, I am still surprised that he directed AMITYVILLE 2: THE POSSESSION. It looks nothing like any of his other movies. His GENIUS, A PARTNER & A DUPE (1975) is pretty bad even though that movie had a ton of problems.

    Definitely put INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION and EXECUTION SQUAD high on your to watch list, Shaun, if you haven't seen them already.

  2. Thanks for dropping by Sir! I knew this was a favourite of yours after reading your positive assessment in the articles you did on Italian crime films. AMITYVILLE 2 was something of a departure for Damiani. I know he made one or two horror pictures in Italy in the 1960's, but one can only assume he was lured by Hollywood promises. I do have a copy of A GENIUS,A PARTNER & A DUPE, but I haven't got around to watching it yet.

    INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN and EXECUTION SQUAD have duly been placed on a list that was very short until I met you! I think it grows every time we speak :-)


Related Posts with Thumbnails