A dark satire of fascism, police states, machismo, and kink, Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion stands as a forgotten classic of agitprop, a clever, confusing, delirious piece of leftist outrage thinly disguised as a psychological murder procedural. Petri has created quite the unique-slash-bonkers protagonist with Il Dottore, the unnamed chief homicide inspector of a paranoid, reactionary Roman police department, a man who murders his lover the same day he’s promoted to run the police force’s Political Section. That Petri focuses his criticism of the unstable, repressive Italian political climate of the early 70s through this madman works as a bold, provocative act of protest. Yet what’s truly remarkable is how damn entertaining the film remains in the midst of all this outrage.
Gian Maria Volonté, as Il Dottore, gives an amazing performance as a nigh-impenetrable psychopath, a tyrant so fixated on his particular mania—proving that he’s “above suspicion”—that any action or emotion on his part must be seen as a piece of his all-encompassing plot. He’s the egotist supreme, so myopically desperate to prove to himself his own supremacy over the law he obsessively works at his own downfall, just to find pleasure when it fails to happen. Volonté captures this compulsion with a terrifying volatility, going from playful cohort to condescending superior with little to no warning, from an abusive, manipulative investigator to a repentant, hysterical wreck, all to see how far he can push his insane game.
And this game makes for one confusing, nutso plot. I’m not afraid to admit to repeatedly uttering “what the fuck…” while watching Investigation, lost in an attempt to figure out if Il Dottore was either the greatest or the most inept criminal of all time. I mean, the first lines of the movie are from Augusta, Il Dottore’s consort and victim, asking her murderer, “How are you going to kill me this time?” He responds, “I’m going to slash your throat.” And then he freaking does, while leaving a trail of clues even Sanny Santangelo could pick up. Petri gives no frame of reference, no clue as to what’s happening, keeping a tight grip on exposition and context, allowing whats and whys of the scheme gradually slip out through measured bits of backstory. And, as the investigation swerves and sputters, Il Dottore is always there to slowly, maddeningly point it back towards himself.
To add to the absurdity, this inquiry comes amidst a political crisis in Rome, where hardline officials have authorized a paranoid surveillance program onto perceived leftists throughout the city, tapping the phones of thousands of citizens in an Orwellian pursuit of maintaining control. Petri makes no effort to hide his sympathies, portraying the police as either bumbling sycophants or threatening brutes, engaging in torture and mass roundups in futile attempts to bring about stability. These critiques can be broad and heavy-handed at points, yet this obviousness feels appropriate, especially whenever Il Dottore engages in demagogic haranguing of his underlings. His speech at a gathering of officers after his promotion, where he proudly and vehemently announces, “Others have the task to educate and to cure. We have the duty to repress! The repression is our vaccine! Repression is civilization!” comes off as blatant, over-the-top villainy, yet fits perfectly with the blowhard jargon and delusions of grandeur marking tin despots throughout history.
Petri ups the ante on the discomfort by constantly shooting the actors too closely, forcing a single sweaty, nerve-wracked face to take up the entire screen during an argument or a loaded exchange. He gives the police and their trappings a bleached-out, gray palette, lifeless and drawn, yet invokes deep color and vibrant decorations whenever venturing into private residences, especially Augusta’s sensuous, hedonistic apartment. And he employs one of the most batshit insane scores on record, a jaunty, noisy, pulsating Ennio Morricone classic that incorporates washboards, mouth harps, and circus piano into a disconcerting yet undeniably catchy soundtrack to Il Dottore’s mounting neurosis.
There’s a small bit of letdown with the ending, one that seems to turn the madness up to eleven only to back off it in a rather unsatisfying manner, but even this small qualm fits in with the arrogance and self-aggrandizement that Il Dottore exudes. Few actors can maintain such prolonged intensity and gonzo lunacy as Volonté does here, and, when paired with Petri’s incendiary, fearless commentary on systematic brutality within an overbearing police state, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion becomes an overlooked classic of dissent, an angry piece of pitch-black satire that feels all the more prescient in a post-Patriot Act, post-NSA scandal America.