Blu-ray Review: Illustrious Corpses

STUDIO: Kino Lorber | DIRECTOR: Francesco Rosi | CAST: Lino Ventura, Tino Carraro, Marcel Bozzuffi, Paolo Bonacelli, Alain Cuny, Tina Aumont, Fernando Rey, Max von Sydow, Charles Vanel
RELEASE DATE: Available now | PRICE: DVD $9.99, Blu-ray $17.31
BONUSES: Audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox, theatrical trailer
SPECS: PG | 121 mins | Foreign language crime drama | 1:85 | DTS | Italian with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie   | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Despite its seemingly horror-movie title (actually based on a surrealist game from an earlier era), Illustrious Corpses (1976) is a masterful policier that successfully blends drama and a political message. Director Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli) uses a quiet, leisurely approach to spin his tale of murder, judicial corruption, government surveillance, duplicity by the elite and one heroic cop determined to sort it all out.

That cop, Inspector Rogas, is played by Lino Ventura (The Valachi Papers), the one-time professional wrestler who gave incredibly nuanced performances for a tough-guy actor. Rogas is assigned to solve the ongoing murders of a series of high-profile judges. He initially focuses on three very likely suspects (who were all found guilty by the murdered judges), but as the film moves on, he begins to realize that the government, the military and the police are all involved in the murder spree and finding a single killer for all the victims is extremely unlikely.

Rosi avoided action-movie cliches and instead fashioned Corpses as a cerebral whodunit that has a very distinct political message. To differentiate the film from the many police procedurals and European tough-cop movies (think: Belmondo or Delon), Rosi opted for a slower pace and crafted with his cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis (Death in Venice, L’Argent) a number of strikingly dark visuals in which Rogas moves through dimly lit, menacing spaces (dark hallways, small offices and apartments and, most memorably, a room in a decaying mansion where every photo on the wall is missing one figure — the suspected killer of the moment).

Lino Ventura means business in Illustrious Corpses.

As was always case with the great French and Italian crime films, the cast list here is awash with familiar faces, each getting their own little showpiece moment. Charles Vanel (La Vérité) and Max von Sydow (The Emigrants) play some of the judges marked for death (with von Sydow’s speech being a particular highlight), Fernando Rey (That Obscure Object of Desire) is a crooked member of the elite who tries to warn Rogas away from the case, and Tina Aumont (Fellini’s Casanova) has a notable role as a hooker who witnesses one of the murders. Supplying the film’s moral core, Ventura is excellent as a police detective who is as streetwise as they come but uses logic to solve crimes instead of a .357 Magnum.

An original audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox was recorded for this release. Cox’s thorough knowledge of Euro-crime cinema stands him in good stead; especially welcome are the points where he notes that a particular plot point is puzzling even to him.

Cox is very good on small details in the film that most viewers would overlook — as when he notes that Rogas is one of the few movie detectives to take public transportation everywhere. His most valuable insights, though, come when discussing the novel that the film is based on (Il contesto by Leonardo Sciascia).

Cox notes that the novel follows the book’s lead by having the action take place in an unspecified European city — but the English subtitles used here imply that the film is set in the real Italy of 1975 (as when “Rome” is substituted for the phrase “capital city” in the original Italian).

The dark beauty of the imagery is explored by Cox, as well as the careers of the main cast and crew.  On a deeper level, Cox explains a real political strategy being used at the time in Italy that is indeed a big part of the film’s plot. The “strategy of tension” was a tactic used by the Italian government to discredit “terrorist,” namely Left, activists. This is reflected in the second half of Corpses, where Rogas beings to understand that the murders of the judges are beneficial for the government narrative about the students and Marxists that it seeks to condemn.

Cox also does bring up the ways in which the film is timely, most notably in its depiction of the militarization of the police and the constant surveillance of Leftist activists. He comments on a particular scene in which this surveillance (in this instance, the tapping of phones) is denied steadfastly by Rey’s character by saying, “… this kind of nonsense is just what we’d expect to hear today, is it not? How little has changed — certainly the excuses haven’t.”

But the commentary track is not a deadly serious affair for the duration. At various points Cox cracks jokes about the odder goings-on, at one point noting that one of the suspected killers “is an audiophile and has the head of a priest in jar… as you do.”

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”