An ambitious amalgam of fascist noir and absurdist satire, Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion has unjustly been relegated to Oscar winner turned semi-obscurity status. The 1970 recipient of the Best Foreign Language film award, it follows the ethical and intellectual disintegration of a recently promoted police investigator.
Played by Sergio Leone favourite Gian Maria Volonté, the nameless Inspector slits his mistress’s throat in an act that, at least initially, appears to be a logical progression of the pair’s increasingly deviant psychosexual gamesmanship, reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. The Inspector then audaciously parades concrete evidence of his own guilt before the Gestapo-like task force he commandeers. Suspense is measured not by how long he can avoid being caught, but by how far his colleagues will stretch their belief in the innocence of their superior.
At least in a surficial sense, Investigation’s conflation of the personal and the political most immediately resembles Bertolucci’s The Conformist, another 1970 film that utilizes a flashback structure to probe the childlike neurosis that cripples the man at the centre of its narrative. Yet Volonté’s inspector, a creature of carnal energy and rabid intelligence who continually succumbs to infantile rages and bestial perversities, is practically the inverse of the soul-shaken title character of The Conformist.
Director Elio Petri, a one-time communist journalist, immerses his central character in a skewed bureaucratic world defined by the sickly, death-pallor humour that percolated just under the skin of Bertolucci’s film. The Inspector offers maxims such as ‘Revolution is like syphilis, it’s in the blood’ to his followers, and maintains an easy rapport with a paparazzo covering the murder case. High-level officials gather to catalogue and scrutinize instances of leftist vandalism in their jurisdiction, and the meeting is ludicrously filled with earnest analysis and pregnant pauses; aside from the typical graffiti favouring Trotsky and Mao, there’s been a curious upswing in pro-Marquis de Sade tagging amongst brutalized revolutionaries.
Yet Petri gamely imbues the proceedings with a genuine sense of Big Brother menace that predicts the post-Watergate nightmares of The Conversation and Alan J. Pakula’s 1970s oeuvre. Creeping zooms from obscure, elevated vantage points suggest a clandestine, all-knowing hierarchy stretching upwards into infinity, while a tour of the police headquarters exposes miles-long caverns occupied by an army of wiretapping professionals and wall-to-wall surveillance equipment. And in the only instance we see the Inspector allowing for self-examination, he torturously sweats over his home tape recorder, feeding it riddles on the nature of power and the law. Of equal import to this balance of vicious satire and omnipresent paranoia is the film’s jaunty yet queasy Ennio Morricone score, referred to by the composer as a kind of grotesque folk music. That Morricone wrote the theme without having actually seen the film somehow only heightens the levels of moral and ideological incongruity on display.
Struggling with the very complexities of the film’s tone, Petri overstrains for narrative tidiness in the final act, employing an unwelcome excess of expository dialogue. Yet the painfully forthright points made about the jealousy, emotional regression and fascist madness consuming the Inspector’s psyche are offset by a spellbinding fever dream finale wholly worthy of the Kafka quote which graces the film’s last frame. And as a riotous gathering of fiery leftist students becomes nothing more than another layer of background ambiance against which the Inspector’s sanity unravels, Investigation ultimately reveals itself as an amber-preserved instant of 60s counter-culture fury transformed into new-decade fatalism.