Mighty mustachioed super-cop Inspector Betti (Maurizio Merli) is determined to clean-up the crime-ridden streets of Naples. No sooner has Betti stepped off the train when he is almost run over and threatened by the local mafia boss (Barry Sullivan). However, Betti starts his crime-busting plan as he means to go on. When he catches thieves trying to break into a car, he slams the hood onto one guy’s head, beats the other to a pulp then hauls both their asses off to jail. Before long Betti has his hands full coping with a couple of home invading thugs who kidnap and rape the wife (Maria Grazia Spina) of a local businessman (Silvano Tranquilli), and with a series of violent bank robberies committed by smug career criminal Franco Casagrande (Elio Zamuto), who arrives each afternoon to sign his parole sheet and furnish his alibi. Bureaucratic red tape and the wall of silence upheld by the frightened locals all conspire to make the job very difficult for Inspector Betti. When shifty restaurateur Francesco Capuano (John Saxon) tries to double-cross the mob and winds up a target, Betti sees his chance to even the score.
For horror fans Umberto Lenzi will always be the talentless hack behind risible trash like Cannibal Ferox (1981) and Nightmare City (1980), but that is really only half the story. Film critic Kim Newman once observed, in Nightmare Movies his sagely analysis of horror cinema, that the unfortunate by-product of Italian exploitation always changing with the latest trends was directors who found a genre that suited them were all at sea the moment these went out of vogue. Just as Mario Bava could never quite get the hang of spaghetti westerns, Lenzi’s horror product was routinely lazy and slapdash. Early into his career however, Lenzi cranked out a slew of stylish giallo thrillers and by the mid-Seventies segued into a run of cracking cop movies.
Violent Naples was the second in a trilogy of films featuring the Inspector Betti character, preceded by Violent Rome (1975) and followed by A Special Cop in Action (1976) both directed by Marino Girolami of Zombie Holocaust (1980) infamy, but kick-started a string of poliziotteschi collaborations between Lenzi and star Maurizio Merli including Rome Armed to the Teeth (1976), The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977) and From Corleone to Brooklyn (1979). Merli was never the actor Franco Nero, his closest equivalent in the urban action stakes, was but nevertheless remained a charismatic, imposing presence as the super tough, world-weary but unflappably heroic cop. With his manly moustache, he became an icon of two-fisted decency putting a righteous smackdown on assorted outlaws.
Taking his cue not just from the obvious Hollywood sources Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry (1971) and The French Connection (1971) but also countryman Enzo G. Castellari’s run of uncompromising urban vigilante thrillers and the earlier, more cerebral spate of French policier films by directors like Georges Lautner, Henri Verneuil and Jacques Deray, Lenzi envisions Naples as a lawless cesspool inhabited by thieves, rapists and slavering scumbags. It is a reactionary stance to be sure but one that struck a chord with Italian audiences sick of their crime-ridden society in the Seventies. The film has faintly satirical undertones implying macho Italian pride (e.g. the husband who refuses to report his wife’s rape) is as much to blame for this sorry social malaise as anything else, but also reserves some outrage for the liberal press.
Amidst the brutality are moments of sentimentality as Betti instantly warms to a little boy who pretends to be crippled as he crosses the street, then flips the bird to outraged motorists. This scene prefigures the bitterly ironic finale which is the result of the boy’s father being the one man who won’t back down to the mob. Oddly, Betti observes early on that the mafia are poised to make an example of this brave man but does nothing to prevent the tragedy. Indeed, Betti may get the bad guys but always arrives too late actually save anyone. Equally everyone who lends a hand to the heroic cop comes to a sorry end, resulting in a nihilistic tone at odds with Merli’s superheroics. Lenzi dwells on the violence perpetrated by the evildoers (notably the scene where Casagrandi slams a woman’s face against each window of a passing train!) yet handles Betti’s retribution in oddly perfunctory fashion, so the action does not pack the same cathartic punch one gets from a Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson movie.
Like Castellari’s Street Law (1974) and The Big Racket (1976), the plot is a series of escalating atrocities building to the moment Betti blows his cool then blasts the bad guys to hell. Lenzi stages the car chases and shootouts with tremendous verve culminating in a spectacular extended pursuit-cum-leap onto a speeding tram. However, even this highlight was lifted from Verneuil’s superior Peur sur la ville (1975) and coupled with Lenzi’s workmanlike handling of the drama means Violent Naples is never quite as edgy or subversive as its cult reputation suggests.
Prolific, workmanlike Italian director and writer who dabbled in most genres throughout his 40 year career. Started work as a film critic before making his directing debut in 1961 with the sea-faring adventure flick Queen of the Seas. The two decades years saw Lenzi churn out westerns, historical dramas, Bond-esquespy yarns and giallo thrillers among others.
It was his 1972 proto-cannibal film Deep River Savages that led to the best known phase of his career, with notorious gore-epics Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive and zombie shlocker Nightmare City quickly becoming favourites amongst fans of spaghetti splatter. Continued to plug away in the horror genre before retiring in 1996.