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  • Jacob Knight

Ex-sentials: Rome, Armed to the Teeth (1976)

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

Here’s a funny story: when Tuscan-born filmmaker Umberto Lenzi originally received the screenplay for Roma ha un segreto (Rome Has a Secret), he thought it was boring as hell. Initially a spy picture set in the Italian capital, according to Lenzi, the story made no sense. The lead character was a milquetoast drag, and the themes lacked political bite. In turn, he recruited frequent Lucio Fulci co-conspirator Dardano Sacchetti (City of the Living Dead [1980], The Beyond [1981]) to help overhaul the script in a week, pitching producers Luciano Martino and Mino Loy on a film that zeroed in on the rampant crime that pervaded Rome in the ‘70s. In short, he wanted to make the Italo-explo Death Wish (1974).

Before we get too deep into Lenzi’s fascist masterpiece, a scene should be set. Umberto was just one in a class of directors who emerged during a thirty-year exploitation boom that’d overtaken Italy’s pop cinema market. Like all movements, it gifted motion pictures a few genuine auteurs: namely elegant murder junkies Mario Bava and Dario Argento, both of whom owned markedly baroque filmmaking fingerprints. Still, the Italoschlock industrial complex was primarily powered by blue collar craftsmen – Sergio(s) Martino/Corbucci, Antonio Margheriti, and Enzo Castellari, just to name a few – who became slaves to a sensationalistic grindstone. These dudes were genre chameleons and hype whores because that’s the only way they could get more work, churning out brutal product meant to put money in producers’ pockets.

Due to these steadfast cinematic carpenters, Italy became the globe’s hot spot for dark-eyed women being stalked and slapped by razor-wielding maniacs and despotic inspectors alike. Yet none of these maestros of mayhem were married to the Boot’s bad reputation like Lenzi, who managed to manufacture multiple impressively scummy transmissions throughout several subgenres. A former law student who traded in his briefcase for a film camera at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Lenzi lensed shorts based on the writings of Pier Paolo Pasolini and subsequently sojourned in Greece, where he climbed the production ladder before returning home to helm fantastical period pablum such as Messalina vs. The Son of Hercules (1964). Like his now notorious peers, there was no pretension in how Umberto approached his still technically sound art. Filmmaking was a job, first and foremost, and he frankly became quite good at it.

Now, anybody who knows anything about Italian cinema recognizes that the country was, for a time, the rip off capital of the world. Rome’s box office returns were often dictated by whatever Hollywood made popular. After Eon Productions turned James Bond into an international sensation, Lenzi jumped behind the lens for 008: Operation Exterminate and Super Seven Calling Cairo (both 1965). His Macaroni War movies and Spaghetti Westerns tiptoed in the massive footsteps of John(s) Sturges and Ford (not to mention Sergio Leone) with Desert Commandos (1967), Legion of the Damned (1969), and Pistol For a Hundred Coffins (1968). When black gloved maniacs became all the rage in gialli murder mysteries (courtesy of the aforementioned Bava/Argento Syndicate), Lenzi gave us a string of gruesomely melodramatic collaborations with Carroll Baker: Orgasmo (1969), So Sweet…So Perverse (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970), and Knife of Ice (1972)*. 

Regardless of his relative competency in other filmic stadia, the gore splattered concrete corner where Lenzi truly thrived was the hard-nosed poliziotteschi picture. Disdainfully labeled by critics who damned many of these movies for perceptibly bigoted right-wing rhetoric, their narratives practically begging citizens to pick up guns and take aim at the slimebags invading their streets, Lenzi’s contributions to polizi are incredible because they bald-facedly embrace the era’s more controversial political stances. In Umberto’s urban labyrinths, murderers and rapists lurk around every corner, traffic is merely an obstacle during car chases, the courts protect criminals’ rights instead of their victims’, and if the cops aren’t on the take, they’re more likely to shoot you in the face than toss bracelets around your wrists if they catch you in the act.

By the time Lenzi and Sacchetti rewrote Rome Has a Secret into Rome, Armed to the Teeth (1976), the director had already delivered Gang War In Milan (1973), Almost Human (1974), Manhunt In the City (1975), and Syndicate Sadists (1975), honing his skills filming explosive shoot outs and death-defying vehicular destruction that’d make Billy Friedkin blush. Jangly set ups and quick zooms captured every meaty punch and flesh-piercing stab. Otherwise gorgeous tourist traps became sun-bleached havens for drug dealers and debauchery. Banks are made for robbing instead of depositing, as Kalashnikovs transform innocent bystanders into little more than collateral damage.

But Rome, Armed to the Teeth (a/k/a The Tough Ones, a/k/a Brutal Justice, a/k/a Assault With a Deadly Weapon), is Lenzi’s polizi pièce de résistance. Not so much a narrative as it is a treatise on savage societal decay (and the one Inspector who can contain it his way), Rome, Armed to the Teeth introduces us to the titular city via twenty straight minutes of shattered, seemingly unconnected crimes in progress. Clandestine gambling joints, vespa-riding purse snatchers, preppy gang-rapists; all are threats to the safety of everyday citizens just attempting to live their lives. This is Rome by way of Hieronymus Bosch; a dingy canvas painted with two colors – cruelty and suffering.

At the center of it all is Inspector Tanzi (Maurizio Merli), a bright-eyed Franco Nero lookalike who knows there’s no reforming these marauding thugs. Force must be met with equal force in order to fabricate any semblance of order amidst this chaos, as Tanzi’s sparkling orbs seem to lose a little of their luster with each passing minute. After his lover, a transcendentally gorgeous court counselor (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), allows two juvenile muggers to go free, Tanzi scolds the woman for softening their punishment. “You’re always looking for some extenuating circumstances,” he hisses, “society, family, lack of affection, and other sociological drivel.” As the tag line for the movie’s American release promised: he makes Dirty Harry look like Mr. Clean.

Merli became the veritable face of Eurocrime thanks to Marino Girolami’s Violent Rome (1975), wherein he practically plays the same character as Inspector Tanzi. Like Clint Eastwood, only with far more flowing, golden locks, there’s a true grit Meli possesses that feels natural and lived-in. Under Umberto’s direction, he becomes a no-nonsense blunt instrument, stoically storming into superiors’ offices and demanding that they let him off the leash, or else their constituents will face the consequences. What’s most amazing is that Rome, Armed to the Teeth is indisputably on the Inspector’s side, and even rewards his righteously violent crusade by the end. Where other polizi pictures feature a morally murky completion, leading viewers to questions their so-called “hero” and his tactics, Lenzi and Sacchetti practically have the Police Superintendent (Arthur Kennedy) pat Tanzi on the back, despite the fact that he’s decimated and/or alienated virtually everyone around him.

Equally malicious is Tanzi’s archenemy: the hunchback Vincenzo “Il Gobbo” Moretto (spaghetti icon Tomas Milian, nigh unrecognizable here). A crippled criminal mastermind who utilizes literal butchery as his “legitimate” cover**, Moretto isn’t above debasing himself if it means getting away from Tanzi, as evidenced by a sequence in which he pisses his own pants and slashes his wrists after being violently questioned. In the abstract, Rome, Armed to the Teeth becomes one of the rare exploitation movies that’s actually about exploitation itself, as the hunchback manipulates his deformity to achieve sympathy from both the authorities and the audience. Lenzi and Sacchetti’s script combines with Milian’s performance to become far more layered than you’d expect from this sort of debased Eurocrime.

Despite his amoral antics, Milian makes you feel for how “Il Gobbo” has been beaten down by life and is thus filled with an obstinate level of rage. Tanzi seems to be the only one who recognizes how clearly evil the hunchback is, inflicting the movie’s most appalling act of nastiness on his nemesis. As retribution for Moretto’s goons assaulting and threatening Anna by giving her the bullet they promise to kill Tanzi with, the Inspector forces the cripple to swallow the slug with a shot of liquor. Later, Moretto then shits out that same shell, delivering a monologue about how he’s going to still put it in the cop’s dome. Apologies for the mild hyperbole, but this is when Rome, Armed to the Teeth becomes Italoschlock’s Hamlet, only with handgun ammo instead of a skull.

As the legend goes, Merli and Milian did not get along on set, which could explain why the venom they spit at each other during their few shared scenes feels so downright acidic, and invests us in finding out who survives the movie’s insane climactic set piece: an ambulance chase through heavy Roman traffic. This is Lenzi at his very best, as the director apparently staged the sequence “live”, without any permits and limited stunt safety nets. Like The French Connection (1971), there’s a genuine sense that someone – possibly an “extra” who didn’t even sign up to be part of the production – could actually die on camera at any moment, should the driver lose control of the bulky vehicle. It’s the very definition of “outlaw cinema”, as even while working within a system, there are no real laws governing these high-wire acts of pulpy entertainment.

Though this author will endlessly extoll the virtues of Lenzi’s polizi work, it’s inarguable that the workman’s true legacy was cemented the moment he practically snatched his own sleaze subcategorization from thin air. Beginning with The Man From Deep River (1972) – a cheeky riff on the Richard Harris adventure A Man Called Horse (1970) – the “Italian Cannibal” picture was born, as Lenzi stuffed pseudo-Western storytelling and the ghastly leering of a Gualtiero Jacopetti/Franco Prosperi Mondo documentary*** into his own filmic Brundlefly pod, disgusting the world forever. Seemingly dissatisfied with simply being a skeeze progenitor, Umberto then one-upped himself with Make Them Die Slowly (a/k/a Cannibal Ferox [1981]), which acted as a disreputable cousin to the Vomitorium King, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), with all the cocaine and unsimulated animal cruelty one could possibly stomach during a single diseased transmission.

Nevertheless, over forty years later, Rome, Armed to the Teeth remains Umberto Lenzi’s finest disreputable hour. The following year, Lenzi would get Merli and Milian back, bad blood and all, for a sequel: The Cynic, The Rat, and the Fist (1977), which would see Maurizo continuing to break heads as Inspector Tanzi, and Tomas playing a new heavy who leaves our favorite fascist lawman for dead. Undoubtedly the inferior narrative, The Cynic is perhaps an even better stand-in for both the Italoschlock ethos, as well as the careers of Umberto and his crazy colleagues: you keep doing what’s successful until it isn’t, and then you just move on to the next thing that’s going to make you some green. Filmmaking has never been so mercenary, but also pure in its own perverted way.

*For the wildest sorta-gialli with Lenzi’s name on it, check out the late period slasher Nightmare Beach (1989), which involves a killer who rides an electrified motorcycle. Umberto kinda sorta co-directed the film with screenwriter Harry Kirkpatrick (it’s a whole thing that we don’t have time to get into right now).

**This would allow Lenzi to work in some graphic imagery of cows being torn to pieces; real life animal cruelty that he’d get repeatedly dinged for throughout the course of his long career.

***If you really want to run screaming for the exits, throw on Jacopeti and Prosperi’s Farwell Uncle Tom (1971), a fictionalized transmutation of the Mondo subgenre where a group of documentarians travel back in time to the heyday of American slavery.

Jacob Knight is the co-founder/host/editor of Secret Handshake.

Note: Portions of this essay appeared in a previous iteration on a now defunct website and have been re-tooled and printed with the permission of the previous publisher.

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