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April 19, 2022

Rogue Cops and Racketeers: Two Crime Thrillers by Enzo G. Castelari

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The Big Racket / Il Grande Racket (1976)

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The Heroin Busters / La Via della Droga (1977)
Arrow Video BD Region A Two-disc set

This two disc set is composed of Castellari's last two films, part of the Italian genre known as poliziotteschi, but also star Fabio Testi. The genre is generally distinguished by being about cops who often use extra-legal means of foiling criminals. The most cited inspirations are two American films, Dirty Harry, in which the law is upheld by going outside legal constraints, and The French Connection for the visceral pleasure of car chases, especially in urban areas.

There are the obvious linkages of the two films not only with the same star, key crew members, supporting actors, with the second billing of a recognizable English language actor. Beyond that, Castellari's protagonists do not have a private life. They are only seen as working professionals. The criminals that are being pursued are mostly the street level soldiers working on behalf of an organization that itself may be the subsidiary of a respectable front. Even if one is able to identify the higher echelon crime bosses, their death only means a temporary disruption rather than an end to their activity.

In The Big Racket, Testi plays a cop trying to bust a small gang operating a protection racket in Rome, turning vigilante when his methods cause him to be ousted from the police force. In The Heroin Busters, Testi goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of international drug traffickers. The basic stories are topical ripped from the headlines plots. As commercial projects made within modest budgets and genre expectations, what is of interest are the ways Castellari finds ways to make his films stylistically of interest.

The most famous scene in The Big Racket also involves a questionable set-up. Testi follows the gang of youngish hoods to a field that is the rendezvous point with a well dressed gangster, Rudy, clearly higher in the chain of command. Test is noticed, and his car is pushed sideway down the edge of a hill with Testi still inside. Testi is filmed in slow motion close up with the car rolling down sideways, shards of glass flying in the air. Castellari gives away how the shot was done in his supplementary interview. It is an amazing visual moment considering the limited means at his disposal and with a star who was willing to put himself in physical danger. Prior to that scene, Rudy is introduced in a montage of six close-ups done from different angles, with Castellari repeating that moment with Testi seen in four quick consecutive close-ups from different angles, done just before one of the bigger action set pieces.

What is striking about The Heroin Busters is the location work. In an early chase scene, Testi runs by a Roman street with what can only be described as artwork, too good to be dismissed as graffiti, on the wall of an apartment building. Several of the locations are empty. One chase scene was filmed in a subway station that had not yet been opened, with neon colored rings in the tunnel. Another scene was filmed in what appears to be the basic structure of an apartment building that was either in the early stages of construction or possibly abandoned. The final chase is with two small airplanes flying over a highway that had not officially opened. Castellari makes use of framing devices within the camera frame, most notably when Testi looks through a small pipe to scope out a criminal.

Second billed Vincent Gardenia has a small role as an old time petty thief who assists Testi in identifying the organization behind the protection racket in The Big Racket. David Hemmings has a much larger role as an Interpol agent in The Heroin Busters, although it is a shock to see his gray hair and puffy face just eleven years after his star making turn in Blow-Up. Both actors dub their own voices in the English language versions of their respective films. I had to look up Marcella Michelangeli on IMDb to realize I had seen her before in Padre Padrone and Beware of a Holy Whore. Most of her work was in genre films. In The Big Racket, Michelangeli plays the baddest of bad girls, defiant when the guys in the gang wimp out.

As is usual for Arrow, there is an abundance of extras. The enclosed, illustrated booklet has essays by Italian film historian Roberto Curti and British film historian Barry Forshaw. The two casual commentary tracks by Adrian Smith and David Flint are more geared to genre enthusiasts. There are also interviews with Castellari, Testi, supporting actor Massimo Vanni, and editor Gianfranco Amicucci. The Heroin Busters also features an interview with Nicola Longo, the former undercover policeman whose experiences provided some inspiration for the film.

Two small quibbles about The Big Racket - The actress Anna Bellini is referred to by her past married name of Anna Zinnemann. She had already divorced Tim Zinnemann, son of High Noon director Fred Zinnemann, for several years. Whomever did the subtitles misspelled the family name as "Zinnermann", making me wonder how no one noticed this error. Also, editor Amicucci's interview is titled "King of Moviola". For those unfamiliar with how films were edited in the pre-digital era, the Moviola was a machine that ran film through a vertical system, operated by a foot pedal. For whatever reason, Hollywood did not adopt using the flatbed system until the 1970s, even though this was how films were edited in Europe since the mid 1930s. We see a shot of a flatbed editing suite which makes me wonder if moviola was used as a generic term for editing machines. By the way, during my brief time making films, I have used both systems.

Both films have Italian and English language tracks, plus English subtitles. As was usual at the time, both films were shot to be post-dubbed and even in the Italian versions, the voices of some of the local cast are not necessarily their own.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 19, 2022 06:00 AM