• Gabe Powers

The Big Racket Blu-ray Review


Arrow Video

Blu-ray Release: April 18, 2022 (with the Rogue Cops and Racketeers double-feature set)

Video: 1.85:1/1080p/Color

Audio: Italian and English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono

Subtitles: English, English SDH

Run Time: 104:09

Director: Enzo G. Castellari


Inspector Nico Palmieri (Fabio Testi) is hot on the heels of a gang of ruthless racketeers. Realizing he’s not going to get anywhere within the confines of the law, Nico recruits a crack squad of civilians to dole out their own brand of justice. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)


Every big-name Italian cult director of the 1960s and ‘70s dabbled across genres, as the for-hire gig life required, but tended to find their greatest success in one or two specific types of filmmaking. Dario Argento and Umberto Lenzi mastered the stylishness of the gialli, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci redefined Gothic horror, Joe D’Amato had his shocks and sexploitation, but no one could do action like Enzo G. Castellari. He arrived onto the scene when spaghetti westerns were the rage and delivered a collection of solid, though rarely innovative films, including (but not limited to) Any Gun Can Play (Italian: Vado... l'ammazzo e torno, 1967) and Johnny Hamlet (Italian: Quella sporca storia nel West, 1968). He even made a solitary giallo, Cold Eyes of Fear (Italian: Gli occhi freddi della paura, 1971), before finding his niche while establishing the dominance of the poliziotteschi (or Eurocrime) genre with High Crime (Italian: La polizia incrimina la legge assolve, 1973) and Street Law (Italian: Il cittadino si ribella, 1974), both starring Franco Nero. The same year he returned to make one last western, the formula balking, late-stage classic Keoma (1976, also starring Nero), Castellari dipped into the brutal side of poliziottescho with The Big Racket (Italian: Il grande racket, 1976).



Poliziotteschi – a portmanteau plural of poliziotto/police and the suffix esco/esque (singular: poliziottescho) and sometimes called Eurocrime or ‘polizieschi all'italiana’ – was born out of attempts to repeat the box office receipts of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), among other American New Hollywood cop movies (which themselves were inspired by French crime films of the ‘60s), but quickly grew into a reaction to a specifically Italian wave of crime and violence, known as Anni di Piombo or The Years of Lead. The Years of Lead ran roughly between 1969 and 1988, and included mafia warfare, political assassinations, failed neo-Fascist coups, and brutal clashes between far-left and far-right factions. The angst, anger, and bitterness felt by average moviegoing audiences during this tumultuous period led poliziotteschi down increasingly violent and sadistic paths that mirrored the turmoil and spoke to the audience’s fears, sometimes challenging their notions of authoritative corruption with real nuance and, other times, fulfilling their reactionary demands for Fascist cops wreaking vengeance on a cartoonishly evil criminal population.


Before putting his stamp on poliziotteschi, Castellari directed a ‘macaroni-combat’ or Eurowar ensemble epic Eagles Over London (Italian: La battaglia d'Inghilterra, 1969) and later perfected his take on the Dirty Dozen formula of assembling a motley crew of WWII badasses when he made The Inglorious Bastards (Italian: Quel maledetto treno blindato, 1978). Then, in the ‘80s, he established a sort of spaghetti-apocalissi subgenre while trying to cash-in on George Miller’s Mad Max 2 (aka: The Road Warrior) and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (both 1981), creating another massive hit, 1990: The Bronx Warriors (Italian: 1990: I guerrieri del Bronx, 1982). The Big Racket essentially combines Castellari’s affinity for gritty criminal thrillers with his tough-guy ensemble formula (something he also used for the western, Kill Them All and Come Back Alone [Italian: Ammazzali tutti e torna solo, 1968]) and the heightened, comic book action style he developed for 1990: The Bronx Warriors and its sequels. In fact, the villainous, flamboyant costumed biker gang that Fabio Testi and his company are battling would be right at home in Mad Max’s post-apocalypse.



The action is the highlight and, from that standpoint, The Big Racket might be Castellari’s best film. The poliziotteschi were known for their insane stunts and explosions, but, more often than not, the coverage and choreography is frantic or even slapdash, depending on budget and time (studios cranked out crime movies at a rate that rivaled gialli and westerns). In comparison, every shot in The Big Racket is well-planned, from the tidiest establishing shot to the most chaotic car crash. In the past, Castellari had drawn influences from Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, but this particular movie bears the violent nihilism of Sam Peckinpah, crossed with the subtlety of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The script – credited to the director, Dino Maiuri, and Massimo De Rita – is a simple and reactionary vigilante tale, spiked with the occasional subplot to introduce members of the vengeful civilian posse. Like most poliziotteschi, it isn’t concerned with the dramatic nuance found in something like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) or Ted Post’s Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (1973). The moral of this story is closer to that of Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) and its sequels: the general public are dangerous sheep and the authorities only stand in the way of justice – your only hope is a big gun, a pocketful of bullets, and a hard-nosed cop who is brave enough to ignore due process. Don’t get too excited, though, because you’ll probably die for the cause, anyway.


As Roberto Curti puts it in Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 (McFarland Press, 2013)


...if The Big Racket is a parable, it is a gloomy, funereal, hopeless one. It’s populated by a wretched, miserable mankind, an obtuse flock that can be shaped at will: whoever raises the head and shows a little bit of civic sense is destined to pay a terrible price.


Video

The Big Racket doesn’t seem to have ever been released on official North American VHS or Beta. There are definitely Italian, UK, and Danish tapes, but I’m not sure if poliziotteschi movies were all that commonly bootlegged pre-DVD, save Contraband, because every Fulci movie available was bootlegged. Blue Underground’s 2006, uncut DVD (which was also offered SD streaming by the company) has long been the only viable option for collectors. Arrow’s Blu-ray debut was remastered from a 2K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. Details are tight, but not over-sharpened, clear, but not so clean as to override the grit and grain of Marcello Masciocchi’s cinematography. Like some of the other Arrow (and Blue Underground) transfers that originated with L'Immagine Ritrovata in Rome, the color-timing leans a little warm, but it doesn’t have that yellow/orange sheen seen on the worst offenders (which, on average, still look much better than DVD versions). If anything, it leans a little purple/red, instead. Some viewers might think the contrast levels have been pushed a hair too high, because of the crush on some of the deepest blacks, but I quite like the hard shadows and think they look better than the DVD’s somewhat blotchy darker tones.


Audio

The Big Racket is presented with English and Italian mono dub options, both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. As per usual, Italian films of this period were almost always shot without on-set sound and all language options are dubbed, so the choice between English and Italian is mostly one of taste. The English dub performers do a fine job, but the majority of the cast seems to have been speaking Italian, so its lip sync is way better on the Italian track. One thing that separates poliziotteschi from spaghetti westerns is the intensity of gunshots and explosions, all of which sound particularly bassy and impactful for a single-channel mix. The intense, jazz-rock soundtrack was supplied by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis under their shared pseudonym, Oliver Onions. The music runs a little quiet during dialogue-heavy scenes, but kicks into overdrive whenever action is concerned.



Extras

  • Commentary with critics Adrian J. Smith and David Flint (2022) – The Italian genre connoisseurs, Smith (horrorpedia.com/moviesandmania.com) and Flint (editor of Sheer Filth!: Bizarre Cinema, Weird Literature, Strange Music, Extreme Art; FAB Press, 2014) dig into all the things that make The Big Racket a unique and emblematic poliziottescho, while celebrating its cast and stunts, and exploring its political themes and similar movies from other countries (I hadn’t considered British films, like Mike Hodges’ Get Carter [1971] and TV series, like The Sweeney [1975]).

  • The Years of Racketeering (30:15, HD) – Co-writer/director Enzo G. Castellari discusses the poliziotteschi in general, early production, the writing process, cast members, shooting without permits (but permission), cinematography, the logistics of shoot-outs, and the mechanics of the big rollover stunt at the beginning of the film.

  • Violent Times (18:59, HD) – Star Fabio Testi talks about meeting Castellari, being cast in the role, the violence and fear that led to the popularity of the poliziotteschi, improvising during action/stunt sequences, the dangers of the film’s many explosives, and working with the rest of the cast.

  • Angel Face for a Tough Guy (43:20, HD) – In this lengthy interview, actor Massimo Vanni recalls his career as a Castellari regular, the director’s enthusiastic leadership style, the crime waves that inspired the film (including his own run-in with robbers), the Dell'Acqua Brothers stunt team, actors doing their own stunts, and more on the logistics of special effects and stunts.

  • King of Movieola (27:53, HD) – Editor Gianfranco Amicucci chats about wanting to be a racecar driver, settling for filmmaking, his editing techniques and learning on the job, collaborating with Castellari, and making movies on a budget in the Italian film industry.

  • The Great Racket (44:41, HD) – An appreciation and career retrospective of composers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis (Oliver Onions) by DJ/musician/collector Lovely Jon, who discusses the brothers’ work from popular rock/pop with The Black Stones, to session musicians and writers of innovative soundtracks, and how their choice to record lyrics in English helped their popularity outside of Italy.

  • Italian trailer

  • Image galleries – Posters, Italian fotobusta, German lobby cards, German pressbook



Limited Edition box contents:

  • Disc one: The Big Racket (plus extras)

  • Disc two: Heroin Busters (plus extras)

  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Roberto Curti and Barry Forshaw

  • Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Colin Murdoch

  • Twelve double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproduction artcards



The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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