Monday, 8 August 2011

Street Law (1974)

Country: ITALY

Il cittadino si ribella
Vigilante II
The Citizen Rebels
The Anonymous Avenger

Like most filmmakers working in the environment of popular Italian cinema between the mid 1960’s to the mid 1980’s Enzo G. Castellari found switching from one genre to another an easy task. It was made easy to him because the only difference between his westerns, crime thrillers, war movies, and post-apocalyptic science-fiction adventures was iconography and setting. At their heart almost all of Castellari’s films are westerns. It was rare for him to step out of the terrain of the action movie, and the narrative structures associated with westerns. When he did the results were almost always unspectacular, as his only giallo production Cold Eyes of Fear (1971) proves. Street Law was Castellari’s second bite at the poliziotteschi cherry after High Crime (1973) which also featured Franco Nero in the lead and is often overlooked due to its unavailability. It is in fact marginally superior to Street Law. But where Street Law does succeed is in its high degree of polish and the precision of its stunt work and action set pieces. High Crime can be seen as something of a dress rehearsal One that has descended into the murky abyss of a distribution limbo. Street Law’s prominence and longer lasting appeal is almost certainly due to is closeness to Death Wish (1974) and the torn from the tabloid hysteria that informs the opening montage.

Street Law’s story and screenplay were created by Massimo De Rita and Arduino Maluri who were both instrumental figures in the early development of the poliziotteschi filone. Their names can be found on the writing credits of Bandits in Milan (1968), Bandits in Rome (1968), Violent City (1970), the wonderfully titled Man with the Icy Eyes (1971) and the remarkable Revolver (1973). Castellari chose his collaborators well and the pace of the narrative is one of Street Law’s most notable features. The film opens with a series of crimes that were purportedly based on true events. Here Castellari indulges in both the freeze frame technique and slow motion. His debt to Sam Peckinpah is obvious as we see bullets exiting flesh in geysers of blood as the camera gazes on the suffering with a lingering fascination. Castellari’s mobile camera adds to the verisimilitude of these establishing shots in a way which communicates both reality and despair. Although the film is set in Genoa, there is no immediate signification of this. Instead the gritty urban locations, congested freeways, and the cowed populace act as a stand in for every major Italian city.

We are then introduced to the character of Carlo Antonelli (Franco Nero) a well to do engineer hoping to deposit some money in his local bank. Carlo has already been the victim of crime. The home we see being vandalised in a pre title sequence is his (one of the robbers even takes time out to urinate on the carpet!). Therefore it’s only acceptable that Carlo might be fairly close to the end of his tether. He is plunged over the cliff into the despair of vigilantism after being taken hostage by the trio of bank robbers and humiliated. Carlo is a fairly complicated protagonist. Much more so than Charles Bronson’s mechanical machine of retribution in the thematically similar Death Wish. He is vulnerable and flawed. His efforts to bypass the police and gain access to the criminal underground, initially at least, end in failure and humiliation. He is clearly out of his depth, totally ill equipped to fight criminals, but cannot shake the shame and effrontery to his values and personal morality. He debates this with girlfriend Barbara (Barbara Bach) who cannot get her head around Carlo’s highly personal quest, and is more content to keep her mouth shut and the let the incompetent authorities bungle the case.

It almost goes without saying that the police in Street Law are utterly useless. Not a single member of the authorities is sympathetic to Carlo’s plight, and there is even the suggestion that they are in league with the criminals. Carlo realises that he must commit crime in order to see justice done. He does this by blackmailing small time hood Tommy (Giancarlo Prete) to aid him in his quest. A word on Franco Nero; the man is quite simply magnetic in this film. Even his struggles to speak the dialogue in English cannot diminish the highly charged charisma he brings to the role. His physicality and emotional astuteness bring a depth to Carlo that makes him one of the most distinctive protagonists to ever feature in a poliziotteschi film. His odyssey is believable and fascinating. Despite these ‘star’ attributes though, Nero still manages to convey a sense of the everyday into his character. His multi-layered performance is possibly the single most impressive aspect of Street Law.

But in the end the overblown and hyper-stylised action sequences of Castellari take prominence. Castellari shoots with obvious pleasure the torments and agonies of Nero’s battered protagonist. One shot in particular of Nero glaring at his mocking torturers from a filthy puddle communicates in one moment the rage and despair of the innocent victims of not only crime, but of the school bully. The finale takes place in a signature Castellari location; the empty or disused factory. Here Carlo arms himself up and along with the aid of the reformed Tommy finally gets to administer his own brand of street law. The film embodies all of the salient themes of the poliziotteschi, most prominently of all the despair and cynicism at the ineffectual efforts of the authorities. The actions of Carlo make him an extremist, but one who has been forced to play this particular hand. Of course such a film is open to attacks of fascism or being right wing, quite frankly who cares, when the results are so damn entertaining.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Excellent write up for this one, Shaun. I must say I prefer HIGH CRIME to this one and I thought Nero was a bit overboard here. I haven't seen STREET LAW in some time so possibly another watch is in order. Castellari definitely had a flair for action sequences that surpassed many of his colleagues. I agree, though, that he especially excelled in westerns.

  2. Greg Stuart Smith10 August 2011 at 03:57

    Haven't ventured down the Poliziotteschi highway as of yet, Shaun. But this thoughtful and insightful review has me literally foaming at the mouth to do just that. Keep up the good work.

  3. Nice review, Shaun. I really like Nero's voice, and feel it adds immeasurably to his appeal.

    But I'm in two minds about the genre myself, as the glut of poliziotteschi in the 70s certainly suggests fascism was in no way banished from the Italian psyche at the time - although the films are so damned entertaining that I can't help but enjoy them.

    I feel 'Street Law' does, however, peter out two-thirds of the way in. The opening 40 minutes are taut and wonderfully paced, but the denouement is rather labored and does test one's patience somewhat. Nevertheless, the string of films by Castellari, Lenzi, Di Leo, etc. have a truly kinetic energy to them quite unlike other (American?) crime/police films of the era (the original 'Dirty Harry' excepted).

  4. @ Brian - I prefer HIGH CRIME as well, but only just! It requires a high profile DVD release, it's a shame Blue Underground didn't continue distributing Euro-crime flicks. STREET LAW is deserving of repeated viewing I think, so it's well worth giving it another go.

    @ Greg - This is a pretty good place to start on your journey. The key thing is that it's easily obtainable and the print is decent. The other widely available Castellari Euro-crime titles THE BIG RACKET, and THE HEROIN BUSTERS are also well worth a look. In fact THE HEROIN BUSTERS is one of my all time favourites.

    @Johnny - I agree, it is the entertainment value that shines through. If a spectator is intelligent enough to recognise their fascistic right wing tendencies, then it's easier to file that away, and just enjoy the films. I personally love vigilante films.

    There are a lot of scenes in which Nero drives around the streets of Genoa. These seem a little superfluous to me. So yes, the film does feel padded in places. The philosophical argument between Nero and Bach is also overplayed. In the end the vigilantism of STREET LAW is very very small. All he does is take out three guys. But there is a certain symbolic resonance to his actions.

    Thanks one and all for the comments and kind words :-)

  5. Great review Shaun, When I saw this I was expecting more of a shoot em up vigilante film, so it was nice to be surprised by it. It has a few wobbly moments but overall I really enjoyed it and while Nero may not be the most convincing actor, I agree his presence is magnetic.

  6. Thank you sir! I couldn't agree more with your sentiments about STREET LAW.

  7. Pretty fair Death Wish ripoff. Nero is fine, but his character wasn't given enough motivation to go off as he did.


Related Posts with Thumbnails