When a senior judge is murdered, shot down in the street in broad daylight, immediately followed by another who was walking his dog, the authorities decide a top-level detective is needed to handle the case. Inspector Rogas (Lino Ventura) is sent from Rome to the south of Italy to investigate.
A world-weary cop who has seen most of the underside of human behaviour, Rogas arrives just as another judge is shot by a sniper through the window of a bank. He begins by looking for links between the three victims and finds they all presided over three cases which were later overturned as miscarriages of justice. Rogas decides one of the victims of these cases is out for revenge.
Rogas tracks down two of the men. One is now a down-and-out tramp, another living in obscurity trying to avoid his past, but the third, Cres, falsely convicted of trying to poison his wife, has completely disappeared.
As Rogas continues his investigations he encounters some very dubious characters and situations. Another judge in the Cres case is an obsessive-compulsive who washes immediately after shaking Rogas’s hand, and has to hit his left hand against the wash stand to keep it under control (shades of Dr Strangelove), while the Chief Justice (a brief but excellent cameo by Max von Sydow) extols the virtues of strong government and likens a judge in court to a priest in church with the same sacred duty and cloak of infallibility: “Miscarriages of justice do not exist.” Both are murdered after speaking with Rogas.
The investigation proceeds against a background of political unrest, strikes and popular protest (particularly by the young) opposing the corruption of the political class. Rogas begins to suspect Cres is somehow simply being used as a convenient scapegoat, and contacts a journalist friend (Luigi Pistili) who is a senior figure in the Communist Party to see if he can discover if a conspiracy is at work.
Refusing to listen to Rogas's theories concerning Cres, the Chief of Police (Tino Carraro) moves him to the force’s Political Unit, seemingly so he can have access to their information.
Exposed to the world of political policing, Rogas becomes increasingly paranoid and afraid. His home phone is bugged, he sees a convoy of cars carrying senior military and political figures from the home of the Chief Justice, including the Police Chief who denies any such meeting took place. At a party at the Security Minister’s (Fernando Rey) home Rogas finds not only government officials and the ‘revolutionary’ opposition rubbing shoulders with each other, but Mrs Cres and (glimpsed briefly in a distorted reflection) Cres himself.
By now desperate to get to the bottom of the mystery Rogas arranges to meet the Communist Party Secretary-General in a museum. As they begin to talk two shots are heard and both men fall dead to the floor. The Police Chief makes a television broadcast stating that frustration with the case had made Rogas mentally ill, that he believed the murder of the judges was a communist conspiracy, and he assassinated the Secretary-General before shooting himself.
Meanwhile the military prepares to subdue the unrest in the streets.
Illustrious Corpses (Cadaveri Eccellenti, in Italian) is a classic European political thriller, rich in themes and imagery, in which an apparently straightforward police procedural becomes a nightmare of intrigue where nothing and no-one is what it seems.
The film itself is ultimately inconclusive. Who is behind the conspiracy and what is it meant to achieve? It appears to be neither ‘right-wing’ nor ‘left-wing’, just a cynical means of maintaining an elite clique in its place – despite their public political differences, everyone seems very friendly at the swanky party. The last line of the film: “The truth is not always revolutionary” gives a hint at Rosi’s point-of-view, basically don’t trust anyone, a potent message during Italy's "Years of Lead" (Anni di piombo) in the 1970's.
Rogas himself is an ordinary working-class guy, doggedly using traditional methods, who trusts his superiors (at least at first) and is totally out of place in the corridors of power and unused to the methods of political policing (at one point he walks in on an interrogation session and backs out of the room without saying anything as people stare silently at this intruder). Ventura underplays the role brilliantly and convincingly, particularly when the tough-guy cop (not above roughing up a suspect) realises what he has stumbled into and becomes a haunted, vulnerable human being.
We get some background to Rogas’s character. He is divorced, never sees his former family, and lives in a semi-furnished flat in a neighbourhood of new, anonymous concrete apartment blocks. A local farmer faced with eviction says that’s what ‘they’ wanted and shows the new concrete town on the hillside which will soon overwhelm his little homestead, something which is actually happening near my home in Portugal, even while I am writing this.
A sense of place is very close to the heart of the film, where locations switch from archetypal sunbaked Sicilian towns to concrete and plate glass modernity, and Rogas’s move to the Political Unit sees a change from dusty offices piled with paper files to a hygienic modern building (presumably newly-founded) where men in white coats analyse taped phone conversations and surveillance films.
It is here that Rogas witnesses attempts to force confessions and doctor evidence to make a case for the judges’ murders against some young political activists which backfires when a prostitute witness (Tina Aumont) refuses to change her story to fit the official scenario. She is a character who remains resolutely an ‘outsider’ with her own views and opinions.
Another feature of the film is an impression of the overwhelming weight of the past – from the mummified bishops of the opening scene (a macabre mockery of worldly glory) to the museum at the climax where the murders of Rogas and the Secretary-General are witnessed by the statues of Roman emperors.
This delivers the final message of the film: there has always been, and will always be, a political class pulling the strings of power and ruthlessly doing anything it considers necessary to hold on to them.
[A new DVD release is finally available with English subtitles. Strictly a no-frills release and with no attempt at restoration, but welcome as an opportunity to view this rarely-seen film.]