New York City police detective Frank Berin (Michael Reardon, in his only movie) is assigned to investigate after powerful pharmaceutical magnet Mac Brown is murdered by an unknown assassin in front of a crowd on Wall Street. With no known motive nor suspects, Brown's beautiful daughter Monica (Barbara Bouchet, rocking a black wig, looking glamorous as always) appears on television offering a reward for information. A few years ago Berin tried to expose Brown as one of the leaders behind the heroin trade. He failed after his star witness a young girl named Fanny (Susanna Martinková), lost her eyesight as result of their drug testing. Brown's murder opens up an opportunity for Berin to reopen the case and flush out the rest of those involved. When Monica begins to suspect the guilty include her brutish fiancé Don Carbo (David Groh) she fears her life is in danger. Whereupon Berin goes undercover among the junkies, hippies and biker gangs, to get the goods on the drug syndicate.
1970 was the year Euro-crime thrillers, and European cinema in general, got serious about dealing with the drug problem. Although Terence Young got there four years earlier with his star-studded Poppies Are Also Flowers (1966), the dawn of a new, more socially conscious decade in filmmaking delivered Barbet Schroeder's sobering More, Serge Gainsbourg dealing dope with Jane Birkin in Cannabis, Jean Gabin trying to wean his son off heroin in La Horse, and finally Colpo Rovente a.k.a. The Red Hot Shot a.k.a. The Syndicate: A Death in the Family (its American release title). This psychedelic Euro-crime/giallo thriller was the lone directorial outing for production designer Piero Zuffi. He began as a painter based in Latin America before moving to Milan to design sets for the theatre. Most notably a much celebrated production of the opera 'Alceste' starring Maria Callas that ran for ten years at La Scala. His film credits include Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte (1961) and Federico Fellini's segment of the anthology film Boccaccio '70 (1962).
Zuffi's background in baroque stylization for maverick auteurs clearly influenced his stylistic choices here. While Colpo Rovente keeps one foot in street-based documentary style realism, Zuffi also infuses the film with a heady surrealism. As one would expect from a production designer turned director the arresting visuals include hippies cavorting in mirrored rooms, wild pop art light-shows, mondo footage and a horror like sequence where drug-addled flower children shamble about like the living dead. Zuffi also stages an amazing psychedelic sex scene where the rotating low-angle camera observes the lovers through a glass pane. If the fragmented storytelling is symptomatic of the era and something of an acquired taste it still serves the disorientating narrative. Less a traditional Euro-crime thriller in the mold of Umberto Lenzi's later all-action vehicles for Maurizio Merli, Colpo Rovente touches on themes previously tackled by Antonioni in Blow-Up (1966) and Elio Petri with Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). While the film delivers a few giallo-esque murders and poliziotteschi style gun-play, it if is pulse-pounding action you are after this might not be the Euro-crime thriller for you. However, those seeking something stranger, more cerebral and evocative of the late Sixties will find much to savour.
Italian films from the hippie era, both art-house and exploitation, often exhibit a problematic attitude towards Sixties youth culture: torn between the artistic thrill of the new permissiveness and conservative finger-wagging. To its credit Colpo Rovente at least attempts to engage with the philosophies underlining the counterculture with a little less of the grumpy Marxist cynicism that marred Antonioni's take on Swinging London. Silver-haired middle aged square Frank Berin is skeptical about the hippie movement but willing to immerse himself in the underground to learn something new. Berin's subsequent tender encounter with enchanting blind angel Fanny reflects his sensitivity even if it still caters to macho Italian fantasies. Evidently the best way to heal traumatized teen girls is with a good shagging. Ultimately however the film unmasks manipulative middle aged men as the true villains of the drug trade. It is the usual suspects: an alliance between corrupt big business and organized crime looking to exploit youth culture, preying upon the vulnerable and idealistic. Zuffi indulges in some heavy-handed symbolism (e.g. reoccurring images of bloated old men gorging food by a swimming pool represent the materialistic mainstream) and rips off a subplot from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) when the female lead is abducted and hooked on drugs by a gang of predatory leather-clad lesbians. The eighty-minute international cut is riddled with plot holes most likely rectified in the elusive one-hundred minute long Italian version. Either way the third act takes a downbeat slide into typical Euro-crime viciousness, disposing of multiple characters with causal cruelty, somewhat muddling an otherwise effective closing twist. At least we get a groove-tastic score by the great Piero Piccioni.