10 Best Italian crime films, 1945 – 1969

John Cassavetes in Machine Gun McCain
John Cassavetes in Machine Gun McCain

It’s been a couple of years now since I published In the Name of the Law, my book about Italian crime films prior to the poliziotteschi trend, but here’s a little bit of content I wrote for it which never made it into the final cut…¬† my top ten Italian crime films made between 1945 and 1969.

Bitter Rice
There were a number of classic neo-realist films which borderedon being crime films, and Bitter Rice is the best of them. Although ostensibly a glimpse into the life of agricultural workers in the po valley, it also happens to be a cracking thriller, one of the few films of the time that really stands up today. Doris Dowling is on the run from the police after being involved in a jewel theft and seeks refuge by leaving town and posing as a ‘rice girl’. But her ex-partner (Vittorio Gassman) is on her trail… Complete with excellent performances – it was a film that made a star out of Silvano Mangano – and a clever script, this is one that should be on the must see list for anyone with an interest in Italian cinema.

Big Deal on Madonna Street
Big Deal on Madonna Street

Big Deal on Madonna Street
Gassman again, this time as a hapless petty criminal who, together with a bunch of equally incompetent associates (including Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori and Memmo Carotenuto), tries and spectacularly fail to steal a safe from a pawn shop – largely because they all get distracted by a tasty pot of pasta and beans. The was the commedia all’Italiana take on a heist movie and it made director Mario Monicelli’s name. It’s funny, but moreover the heist itself is staged with considerable verve and it also manages to paint an authentic (if lighthearted) picture of the Italian underclass of the time.

The Facts of Murder
No, the giallo did not being with Dario Argento. It didin’t even start with Mario Bava. In fact one of the first succesful giallos was The Facts of Murder, directed by the feted Pietro Germi. He also stars as Inspector Ingravallo, a dogged cop investigating a murder which has taken place in an appartment block; but which of the other residents is the killer? Clever, innovative (for Italy) and immaculately made, this should be a much more acclaimed film than it is.

Bandits of Orgosolo
Made for an extremely low budget, Vittorio De Seta’s somewhat forgotten arthouse classic is a definite slow burner: a Sardinian shepherd (Michele Cossu) goes on the run into the mountains with his son after inadvertantly helping out some wanted bandits. To be honest, not a great deal happens – beyond the fact that Michele slowly metamorphosises into that which he has been wrongly labelled, a criminal – but it’s all incredibly filmed and rather poignant. It’s a similar but less hectoring and more poetic film than Francesco Rosi’s better known Salvatore Giuliano.

Hands Over the City
Salvatore Giuliano is usually picked out as Rosi’s best film – partially because it ticks all the neo-neo-realist boxes that the critics love so much when it comes to Italian cinema. But in my opinion Hands over the City is a much superior work. Neapolitan property developer Rod Steiger has some trouble when one of his shoddily constructed tenements collapses, opening a fully fledged inquiry into widespread corruption and the mismanagement of public funds. Political cinema started here, but this is an excellent thriller as well as a no-holds-barred indictment of the Italian political system of the time.

Mafioso
On a rather ligher note, we have Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso, another meeting between the Commedia all’Italiana and the crime film. Factory foreman Alberto Sordi returns to his Sicilian hometown for a holiday, but things don’t work out as planned: his Roman wife dislikes the heat and the reactionary local customers and what’s more he stumbles into a complex Mafia plot which ends up with him being forced into becoming an unwilling assassin. This is funny and stylish, but also has some serious points to make; it was Alberto Sordi’s best film.

Professional Killer
Less celebrated than most of the other films on this list, Professional Killer stands up as being one of the first and best of the 1960s Italian noirs. Former assassin Robert Webber comes out of retirement following the murder of his brother, who his old employers not-so-reeliably inform him was killed by a Parisian hoodlum called Tony Secchi. The trouble is that Secchi has undergone plastic surgery and nobody knows what he looks like any more, and what’s more Webber is saddled with a trigger happy young accomplice (Franco Nero). Director Franco Prosperi is one of the forgotten figures of the Italian crime film who specialised in moody noirs like this (fans of Fernando Di Leo should check out his work)

Alberto Sordi in Mafioso
Alberto Sordi in Mafioso

We Still Kill the Old Way
Possibly Elio Petri’s greatest movie (and there’s a lot of choice), this is a classic example of a political mafia movie in which the mafia are equated with the political elite and therefore the criminal corruption of a small rural outpost are used to represent¬†the greater corruptions that existed within the entire Italian state at the time. It also happens to be a darned good thriller, with on-sabbatical intellectual Gian Maria Volante trying to uncover the murderer of a pharmacist in his Sicilian hometown and discovering all kinds of nasty business. Cynical, clever, beautiful to look and excellently acted by the likes of Volante, Gabriele Ferzetti, Irene Papas and Luigi Pistilli.

Mafia
More Sicilian mafia hi-jinks, again being used to represent a wider picture of how criminal networks plugged themselves into ‘legitimate’ business and the state. Franco Nero plays a cop who has transferred from the city and finds himself saddled with a nasty murder case for which there appear to be no witnesses. It’s a nice partner piece with We Still Kill the Old Way, but more of a cop film and less of a giallo or melodrama. Director Damiano Damiani went on to become one of the key figures in the Italian crime film genre.

Machine Gun McCain
Partially a heist movie, but in no way glamorous in a caper / James Bond style, this is a downbeat noir tale about safe-cracker John Cassavetes, who dreams up a scheme to rob oone of the most successful casinos in Vegas. The job goes fine, but it turns out that the casino in question just happens to be owned by the mob, who aren’t at all happy about it. Director Giuliano Montaldo also made a more upbeat heist movie, Grand Slam, but this is the better film; a nasty and depressing affair in which everyone is up to no good and nothing ends up well for anybody.

About Matt Blake 873 Articles
The WildEye is a blog dedicated to the wild world of Italian cinema (and, ok, sometimes I digress into discussing films from other countries as well). Peplums, comedies, dramas, spaghetti westerns... they're all covered here.

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