SILENT ACTION and the Gonzo Greatness of Italian Crime Movies

Let it never be said that most Italian popular cinema played things too subtly. In the late ’60s through around the mid ’80s, the Italian film industry had a boom. The world loved their western cycle, so Italy used that to churn out hundreds of films exploiting the intrigue over various genres. After the Spaghetti Western faded, there came the giallo boom; nearly concurrent to that, in the wake of American cop movies like Dirty Harry and The French Connection, Italy ushered in a wave of cop-action flicks, usually with tons of over-the-top car chases and shootouts. One of these, Sergio Martino’s Silent Action, is out now on Blu-ray from British distributor Fractured Visions.

Italian cop movies, or Poliziotteschi (literally, movies about policemen) sprang forth in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They were a response to American policiers, French heist movies, and the nascent neo-noirs. In the post-Dirty Harry and Bullitt world, these Italian films usually focused on a proto-fascist, nigh-vigilante cop. He’d hate bureaucratic red tape almost as much as he hated criminals. The gangsters and thugs in these movies are especially vile, and we spend a lot of time in most watching their horrific exploits. A lot of kinetic car chases, tons of gun violence, general might-makes-right stuff.

Luc Merenda means business in the action flick Silent Action.

Fractured Visions

The journeymen Italian directors of the era had to make whatever kinds of movies were popular. The more auteurist examples, like Sergio Leone’s westerns and Dario Argento’s horror films, are very much the outliers. If you worked in the Italian film industry, you had to direct a lot of movies, of all kinds. There are obvious standouts in each of the genres; Fernando di Leo mostly made poliziotteschi and they’re mostly very good, but his sole giallo is pretty bad. Lucio Fulci made some interesting Westerns and crime movies but his forte was giallo and horror.

Sergio Martino is one of the rare directors who made a lot of each and most of them are really good. His biggest claim to fame globally is his cycle of gialli starting with 1971’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. These five films (six if you count a comedic giallo-poliziotteschi hybrid in 1975) are among my personal favorites. He transitioned almost immediately into a long string of sexy comedies (yes, that’s what they call them) which didn’t travel overseas much but were wildly popular at home. He did some pretty good Westerns and dipped his toe in the burgeoning cannibal genre; Martino even did some post-Road Warrior post-apocalypse movies. A true jack of all trades.

Handsome French actor Luc Merenda in Sergio Martino's Silent Action.

Fractured Visions

But amid his gialli and sexy comedies, Martino made a trilogy of straight-up poliziotteschi. All of them starred the handsome French actor Luc Merenda. The first of these was 1973’s The Violent Professionals; in it, Merenda’s cop goes undercover as a getaway driver for the mob to seek revenge for the death of his mentor. This film came in a banner year for Martino which also saw his proto-slasher giallo Torso and his first sexy comedy Giovanonna Long-Thigh. His next crime actioner was 1975’s Gambling City, which has Merenda not as a cop but as a Byronic card sharp who gets caught up in a gambling kingpin’s criminal escapades.

Silent Action is another story entirety. The Italian title La polizia accusa: il Servizio Segreto uccide translates to “The police accuse…the Secret Service kills,” which gives you some idea of the focus. Though Merenda’s cop, Inspector Giorgio Solmi, fits the usual two-fisted tough guy hero role, the surrounding narrative points to something much more sinister. At the beginning of the film, three high-ranking army officials appear to have committed suicide; we know as the omniscient audience that they were murdered.

Arturo Domenici and Luc Merenda in Silent Action.

Fractured Visions

Solmi and his cohorts investigate the murder of a wealthy master electrician. Apparently those exist. They learn the man’s final visitor was a sex worker named Giuliana. The woman at first seems shocked at the news, then inexplicably confesses to the crime. More digging uncovers that the dead man was also a private investigator who must have uncovered something he shouldn’t have. Giuliana confessed knowing that bad things might befall her if she didn’t. It’s all very complicated. Solmi soon discovers a massive conspiracy involving the secret police service, high-ranking officials, and a foiled coup attempt.

A policeman fires a gun in Silent Action.

Fractured Visions

The plot of the movie is particularly ripped-from-the-headlines, alluding to the Golpe Borghese, a failed coup attempt in 1970. Of special note here is that Martino wrote Silent Action without his usual screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Gastaldi is a legend among Italian genre film and worked extensively with Martino on a dozen movies, including all of his gialli and both preceding poliziotteschi. While Gastaldi thrived on twisty mysteries, he was generally not a very political writer.

A car chase through a construction site.

Fractured Visions

And that’s ultimately what sets Silent Action apart from most of the cops-and-crims genre in Italy at the time. Though it has the prerequisite car chases (a great one with tiny little cars through a construction site) and gunfire, the movie focuses on the bigger picture. Solmi, in any other movie, would handily demolish of all the bad guys; here he always feels out of his element, the problems so much bigger than his scope. It’s way above his paygrade and the movie never lets him forget it.

Here we have a supercop not against a sea of obvious criminals, but a murky quagmire of political power, government cover-ups, and long-held post-war biases. In this, Silent Action transcends the usual tropes of the genre. The cops are always uber-right-wing hero fantasies and it’s the namby-pamby government that keeps them from enact thing proper bullet-fueled justice to these criminals. Solmi is that kind of cop, but the conspiracy points toward what a real fascist coup would look like, and how all-encompassing it infects the seats of power. Loner fascists are good guys; fascism as a system is bad.

Tomas Milian in Silent Action.

Fractured Visions

This is an especially interesting move considering Italy was under fascist rule until 1946. The fall of that doctrine led Italy to a more cosmopolitan approach to the world. However, the 1970s and ’80s became a breeding ground for both far-left and far-right beliefs, so by the time of these movies, there was true turmoil yet again. While most poliziotteschi chose a happy-go-lucky outlook on wanton violence, Silent Action points to something far more shadowy, and altogether more interesting.

Blu-ray for Fractured Visions' release of Silent Action.

Fractured Visions

Martino’s films always have more going on than meets the eye, but Silent Action feels the most ideal-driven. It’s certainly the most interesting of his crime films, and rivals only outwardly political filmmakers like Elio Petri in focus, if not quite Petri’s execution. Highly recommended watch, especially now on Blu-ray.

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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