Sunday 28 October 2012

Almost Human (Umberto Lenzi, 1974) DVD Review...

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Umberto (Cannibal Ferox, Man From Deep River) Lenzi's brash poliziotteschi crime thriller kicks off in grand style, with a botched bank robbery that leads to a frenzied car chase filled with screaming rubber and battered metal – a sequence that best demonstrates Eugenio (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) Alabiso's tight editing. Blamed for ruining the score, Giulio Sacchi (Tomas Milian, Syndicate Sadists, full of twitchy energy) is introduced as an unreliable low-level hoodlum on Italy's crime-ridden streets, a man with enough chips on his shoulder to fill-out a fish supper. What's more, he's not above killing a policeman for a mere 600 lira stolen from a cigarette machine, in this film where the usual Italian glamour is replaced by uncompromising grit.

Written by Ernesto Gastaldi's (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh), we are presented with a vision of Italy exposed as a society ruled by a totally corrupt legal system which fails to enact the basic intentions of law and order. Criminals are routinely let off the hook due to a lack of evidence, and it is with this knowledge that Giulio crafts a scheme to yield him some fat cash: half a billion lira, to be precise.

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Giulio's plan comes to fruition when his middle class girlfriend Jona (Anita Strindberg, Who Saw Her Die?) – who is into him as a bit of rough, yet blissfully unaware of his criminal activities – reveals that she works with MarilĂș Porrino, the daughter of an exceedingly wealthy industrialist. Teamed up with two more hoods, Giulio and his gang kidnap MarilĂș for ransom – but not before Giulio's hot-headedness is written large across the screen as they unleash their brand of violence and 'equal opportunities for all' humiliation upon a gathering of the local bourgeoisie, who are quickly hung like trophies from a chandelier. The splurge of sadism is limitless, thanks to Giulio's rapidly escalating mania.

Consumed by arrogance, and a low view of society in general (the police, journalists, youth, the rich, and more are all derided), Giulio's teeth-gnashing irrationality and bug-eyed ego soon threaten to transform this kidnapping into the end of them all, as Henry Silva's hard-nosed Inspector Grandi closes in on them, following the trail of bodies left in their wake. There's an intriguing theme underlying Gastaldi's screenplay, too: the economics of a psychopath. Giulio, with his fragile ego and delusions of criminal grandeur (he brags about himself as a “genius” on multiple occasions), claims to have no care for money but is unremittingly obsessed with it. When he's not routinely scrounging off his employed girlfriend, he's bemoaning the earned wealth of others – wealth that, ironically, Giulio's hostage has no interest in (but then, perhaps she can afford to be so carefree). Giulio has no real talent, aside from his ability to mimic emotions to suit any given moment, and his descent into madness – born of a deadly moment of panic – is undeniably terrifying in how easy it comes to him. Indeed, his lust for it emboldens his arrogance.

The world of Almost Human is one of rising frustration and distrust (even disrespect) in authority. Class war becomes a face-off between the greed and anger of the 'poor and dirty' versus the blissful ignorance of the well off, while the justice system stands idly by in the middle, scuppered by lawyers lacking in morals (“all too typical of Italian law”), and politicians neutered by the malaise afforded to them by the system. In one particularly interesting scene – where Giulio visits an arms dealer – the criminal exchange is discussed using religious terminology, where machine guns are referred to as “Rosaries”. The socio-political disenfranchisement of Gastaldi's acerbic script knows no bounds, and is given an added edge by Lenzi's steely-eyed direction and Ennio Morricone's jagged, down-and-dirty score (conducted by Bruno Nicolai), which is all prowling pianos and stalking saxophones.

Shameless Screen Entertainment's 32nd release arrives – as is the norm – in the original aspect ratio (2.35:1), fully uncut, and with a decent set of extras. A half-hour interview with Milian is the main highlight, while a Fact Track, an essay introduction to poliziotteschi films, and a range of trailers fill out the rest of the extras package. Transfer-wise the films looks solid – although there is some print damage here and there, and a few fleeting snippets from lower quality sources. However, this release does suffer in the audio department. The Italian track is good, but the English track is troubled – with background effects sounding like a low bandwidth internet video from the days before broadband – you don't miss any dialogue, but a recurring echo as well as those muddy sound effects occur at frequent junctures.

Fans of Lenzi's work, and of the poliziotteschi genre in general, should be well catered for here. Even though the pacing down-shifts after a blistering first 35 minutes, on the strength of Gastaldi's biting script and Milian's crazed performance alone, you're in for a cold-hearted treat – a slice of an Italian crime thriller with a cynical sneer.

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