In the late 1960s, there had already been many American crime films that were able to let the blood and filth flow to show the true stories reflected in the current wave of rapidly growing street crime. Even the subgenre of the serial killer film saw its birth during this time as the American public was finally ready to hear about real life mass killers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck in the underrated Leonard Castle film released in September of 1969, “The Honeymoon Killers.” It only makes sense that the public was up for it as the Zodiac Killer was making his murderous way around San Francisco, and the Manson Family had tried their best to start Helter Skelter in March of 1969. The stories that had dominated the evening news in the states were finally allowed to be given the Hollywood treatment in such a graphic way that even the brutally shocking 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film, “Psycho,” had not been able to get away with showing. As far as organized crime was concerned, we had always made gangster films here, but they rarely showed mobsters as they truly were. Even Coppola’s superb 1972 film, “The Godfather,” as violent as it was, still gave the mob a style and even an elegance in the carrying out their wrongdoings that definitely sent the wrong message out to future crime lords living on the East Coast on what the day to day of an organized crime boss was like. Trust me, as an Italian-American growing up in Philadelphia when the Godfather came out, more of my classmates wanted to grow up to be a Michael Corleone than a Richard Nixon.
In Italy during the late 1960s, especially in the south and Sicily, organized crime and the corruption that traveled with it was akin to our street crime in that it was everywhere, especially in urban areas. So during this robust period of the high art films of Antonioni, Fellini, and Pasolini, when the extremely popular genre cinema of the Spaghetti Western was filing box offices in Italy and soon after in the US, the Italians were crafting another genre, The Poliziotteschi, crime films that were reflecting Italy’s growing concerns with the brutality and growth of organized crime that were made without the nostalgia of many of the French New Wave’s low budget crime films. The Poliziotteschis as well as the Spaghetti Westerns took their cues from the new wave of American crime films as far as their brutality was concerned, but it was the realism of the American police films that made the poliziotteschis so intense when it came to revealing the corruption and savagery of organized crime in Italy. As the 1970s rolled in and the Spaghettis started to repeat their plots and even characters (how many Django films were there anyway?), many of the directors of that genre began to also work on the crime film. Such was the case with Enzo Castellari. As far as Italian genre cinema goes, Enzo may be the king with Macaroni Combat films, Spaghetti Westerns, a Giallo here and there and yes, many many Poliziotteschis.
Castellari had scored big with two Poliziotteschis, “High Crime” (1973) and “Street Law” (1974) both starring the original Django, Franco Nero. Franco carried a lot of presence to any film he starred in, but as he was in such high demand, Castellari had to look for another lead for his next entry into the genre, and that actor would be rising international star, Fabio Testi. By 1976, Testi had a few leads in Poliziotteschis, starring in “Blood In The Streets” with Oliver Reed, and “Gang War In Naples” with Jean Seberg. In contrast to Nero’s smoldering sensuality and intensity, Testi was an almost too pretty and brooding actor of the Daniel Day Lewis variety. An accomplished actor, Testi brought a real sadness and empathy to any of the righteous characters of he would play in Italian crime dramas.
In 1976s “Il Grande Racket” (The Big Racket) Testi plays Nico Palmieri, a straight and narrow Rome detective who while witnessing a gang crime is violently attacked and is thrown off a cliff while still in his car in one of the more visually impressive scenes of action in this film. Nico survives, but his righteousness goes into overdrive while in the hospital as he becomes obsessed with taking down this gang who almost did him in and who is also shaking down every local business in the area for protection money. This gang in question, led by an English gangster named Rudy (Joshua Sinclair) is almost surrealistically brutal, almost past the point of most villains in poliziotteschi films, as evidenced in one early scene where a restaurant owner goes to Palmieri to become a prosecution witness after being leaned on for protection. It only takes one cut for the gang to be in possession of the restaurant owner’s young daughter who they gang rape to death in a grotesque scene clearly inspired by the gang rape at the beginning of the American film, “Death Wish.” In a later scene where an Olympic skeet champion aids Palmieri with some shotgun fire during an ambush, Rudy’s gang shows up again to rape and incinerate his wife.
After the gang skips through the judicial system again, Palmieri realizes that he has no ability legally to get Rudy and his posse, so he reaches out to a con friend, Pepe, played by veteran American character actor Vincent Gardenia, the detective in “Death Wish.” The casting of Gardenia is clearly the strongest nod to that revenge film, which was very popular in Italy at the time. He enlists Pepe and Pepe’s nephew to pull a few jobs and guarantees that there won’t be any police interference in order for them to be recruited into Rudy’s gang. When that fails due to some snitch high up, Palmieri is fired from the police force and decides to grab another hood from jail, who is a contract killer, a conman/club owner who had been screwed over by Rudy, the restaurant owner whose daughter had been killed, and the Olympic skeet shooter who lost his wife to form a killing team to wipe out all of the bosses and their henchmen in one spree. As the theme of overall corruption from government, police, and industry is key to many of Castellari’s poliziotteschis, “The Big Racket” has as its final location a manufacturing plant owned by the bosses.
Il Grande Racket Original Trailer
The final scene is done with an immense amount of gunplay, punctuated with the individual revenge fantasies of all of Palmieri’s group. There may not be a better payoff for a revenge film made during the entirety of the Italian crime drama genre. It is a glorious ending to a no holds barred, one hundred minute blast of a movie that for me, goes down as one of the nastiest poliziotteschis. Castellari’s film was indeed a box office hit in Italy, and inspired by the success of this crime film he would reunite with Testi a year later in 1977 and direct, “La via della Droga” (The Heroin Busters), another intensely violent and satisfying poliziotteschi.
Somewhere in between filming “The Big Racket” and “The Heroin Dealers,” Castellari would once again enlist Franco Nero and he would make the last great spaghetti western, “Keoma,” which needs mentioning because as I write this in the summer of 2015, Castellari has announced that he will start filming “Keoma Unchained,” a new Spaghetti where he has enlisted not only his favorite leads, Nero and Testi but also a virtual who’s who of Spaghetti Western royalty: Bud Spencer, Thomas Milian, and American actor John Saxon, the star of one of Castellari’s earliest Westerns, 1968’s “The Three That Shook The West.” Just like Detective Palmieri in “The Big Racket,” no matter what happens, there seems to be no loss of the fight inside Castellari. From Macaroni Combats, Giallos, and post-apocalyptic action films, give the man a genre, and he will crush it no matter what.