Italian directors during the heyday of movie production in that country had to be versatile. Rare were people like Sergio Leone or Dario Argento who could only make a handful of movies in a specific genre and be considered huge successes and major artists. Most of the time, they had to direct whatever was popular at the time. Generally they also made a lot of movies, churning them out in rapid succession. That said, not all Italian directors were good at everything. Mario Bava, for example, was an amazing director of horror and suspense, but made some truly lousy westerns.
I remember when I first got into Italian movies back in college, seeing the name of director Umberto Lenzi on horror schlock like Nightmare City and the revolting Cannibal Ferox. I all but wrote him off as a result. Years later, however, I discovered some of his earlier works. His string of fascinating giallo movies with Carroll Baker have become some of my favorites. He’s also one of the very best at the poliziottesco, or the Italian cop-action-crime movie. One of these major titles in his catalogue, 1976’s Free Hand for a Tough Cop, is now out on Region B Blu-ray from Fractured Visions. It’s a supremely fun and action-packed movie.
One thing up front about these poliziotteschi is that they were borne out of a very turbulent time in Italy. They called them the “Years of Lead,” referring to all the political and social upheaval. I wrote about Arrow’s box set called The Years of Lead here. A lot of these police movies had a political edge, like Sergio Martino’s Silent Action which also came out in ’76. Lenzi’s actioners tended to be less about political corruption and more about horrible, violent criminals. They tend to be hyper violent and some, like The Tough Ones and Almost Human, are deeply unpleasant. Luckily for those with weaker stomachs, Free Hand for a Tough Cop is not as rough.
The movie centers on Police Inspector Sarti (Claudio Cassinelli) who is quickly running out of time to rescue a wealthy businessman’s chronically ill young daughter. The crime boss Brescianelli (Henry Silva) has kidnapped her and is holding her for ransom, using her need for kidney dialysis as a way to get the money quick. The problem, the police have no idea where Brescianelli is, and the criminal world has clammed up.
In order to get inside dirt on the underworld, Sarti stages an elaborate jailbreak for Sergio Marazzi a.k.a. “Garbage Can” (Tomas Milian), a petty thief and confidential informant. Sarti hopes that with Garbage Can, and a small cadre of hired goons, they can track down Brescianelli and rescue the girl before time runs out. And before the goons get wise that they’re working for a cop.
Milian is a Cuban-born actor who became a big star in Italian genre cinema. Though notoriously tough to work with because of his method acting, Milian was a staple of Italian westerns and, later, the poliziotteschi. Lenzi made a total of six movies with Milian, all of them poliziotteschi. And in each, Milian played some sort of criminal, often the most vile, frothing, disturbingly violent of the bunch. Here, however, Garbage Can Marazzi is a playful trickster, a lowlife who loves being a lowlife but has a heart of gold and a knack for using his brains to get out of jams. It’s really great to see Milian in this context. Sure, he overacts a bit, but you can’t help but get a kick out of Garbage Can.
Lenzi’s great prowess as a director comes in full-blooded action sequences. Car chases, elaborately staged shootouts, and quick-cut fistfights in his movies are some of the best in the genre. The beauty–or maybe the health and safety nightmare–of Italian moviemaking at the time is how they were able to perform hair-raising car stunts in and around the actual busy streets of Rome. They look dangerous because they are. They look fast because they had to be. Nearly 50 years removed, they still pack a wallop.
If you’ve never seen a poliziottesco, I’d say Free Hand for a Tough Cop is a pretty excellent one to start with. It’s got a lot of comedy, feeling at times like a buddy movie from the ’80s. The action is top notch, and the bad guys are awful without being repugnant. It ends with one of the best shootouts of the genre, and the whole thing hangs together because of the charismatic performance of Tomas Milian. You never thought you’d hear so many people call someone Garbage Can, but this is the movie that proves you wrong.
The Blu-ray is out now from Fractured Visions, a UK distributor. The movie is presented in a 2K restoration from the original camera negative. Extras include several interviews with cast and crew, an interview with Umberto Lenzi’s daughter Alessandra Lenzi, a video essay, and two commentary tracks. It’s absolutely worth a look.