Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) – Absolute power corrupts absolutely

Italian director Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is about a man who commits a heinous crime to find out whether someone would implicate him. He desires to know if he is really untouchable – a citizen above suspicion. Why does he and not some other man want to try out this particular experiment? Because he happens to be a high-ranking police officer – the Chief of the Homicide division  (played by Gian Maria Volonte).   (I say ‘he’ because this is an unnamed character.)  He slits his mistress’ throat one fine afternoon after they are done indulging in some good ol’ masochistic sex and then proceeds to plant several clues in her apartment, with the sole intention of misleading the investigating officers. He even manages to get himself involved in this investigation.

These clues first lead them to her gay husband and then to another one of her lovers, a young student with political affiliations. He soon realizes that he won’t be making any progress with his “experiment” anytime sooner if he keeps doing this. So he decides to do, err, something different: he makes every effort to turn their attention towards him. Sounds intriguing, right? The film is not just a psychoanalytical study of a man who suffers from a massive god complex and a serious power fetish, but also a dark satire with strong political overtones. It’s a scathing indictment of authoritarianism and the corrupt ways of the police and presents here that dark time in history when Italy was overtaken by Fascists. When the Inspector is newly re-assigned as the Head of the political division, he gives a speech so vile and spewing with hatred and contempt that someone like Mussolini and even Donald Trump would’ve enjoyed listening to. As Head of the political division, his task is to suppress any form of dissent.


The big word here is “repression”. He wants to repress homosexuality, communism (Petri used to be a communist), anarchism and any form of political activity that would promote dissent. As the Inspector, Volonte here is a commanding and charismatic screen presence, with his slicked back hair and well-tailored suits and performs his chameleon-like part with the slithery charm of a snake. I have always admired this actor ever since I saw him in the first two films in Sergio Leone’s The Dollars Trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. He also screen space with Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge. I found him to be a very talented actor who manages to appear different in every film that he does and Investigation is no exception. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the terrific background score by Ennio Morricone. The film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of that year.



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