True Crime–Italian Style

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

I had long wanted to see Carlo Lizzani’s 1965 film “Svegliati e uccide” (known here as both “Wake Up and Kill” and “Wake Up and Die”), a torn-from-the-headlines re-telling of the career of celebrity criminal Luciano Lutring that appeared in Italy just months after Lutring’s apprehension in France. There had been earlier “true-crime” films made in Italy by Lizzani and others, but what made “Wake Up and Die,” (as I shall now refer to it) special was Lizzani’s early presentation of two soon-to-become standard crime-movie tropes: that the media makes the man and that the police are as unscrupulous as their quarries.

Simply put Lutring is a small-timer–a smash-and-grab artist whose preferred weapon is a heavy fireman’s ax. When he first inherits a sten-gun, he doesn’t even know how to fire it, but when the police find it hidden in a violin-case during a raid on one of his hideouts, the newspapers are quick to christen him “The Sten-gun Soloist” and delight in taunting the police with their failures to apprehend him. Lutring’s nemesis Inspector Moroni takes their taunts in stride, knowing that as Lutring becomes increasingly well-known and desperate the former “lone-wolf” will have to turn to the established crime syndicates for aid, and Lutring will lead Moroni to them.

The Austrian actor Robert Hoffman did a nice job of tracing Lutring’s journey from bold street-criminal to harried celebrity-robber who can’t sleep in any one place more than a single night and must pay out outlandish sums in protection money to his criminal associates, at one point lamenting that he has stolen billions of lira worth of goods but he has barely enough to pay for a night’s refuge.

A key scene occurs when Lutring, waving an empty pistol, invades the offices of a paper that has made him a national name to bitterly accuse them of being his partners-in-crime–they have pushed him up the ladder from comfortable anonymity to a fame that he never wanted. He used to do his jobs with only an ax, but now he must carry a gun and he never knows when he wakes up if that day will be his last. (He would be even more upset if he had known that Moroni has encouraged the paper to carry-out its cynical build-up of a nobody into a somebody.)

As Lutring’s wife Yvonne grows increasingly desperate, unable to get her man to give up his robbery spree, worried that the papers will goad the police to murder him, she goes to Moroni for help and before long Moroni has her informing on her husband, keeping him aware of Lutring’s movements. He promises that the Italian police will take him alive, but he knows that a trap is being set for him in Paris, where French Inspector Julien is his friendly rival. The film ends with Lutring wounded and desperately fleeing from the French police. We later learn that he was apprehended and served twelve years in a French prison.

Lisa Gastoni won an award for her work as Lutring’s harried wife, but I was especially impressed by Gian-Maria Volonte’s quiet intensity as Moroni. After his flamboyant turns as bad-guys in westerns, his cold-blooded cop who betrays Gastoni’s trust with off-handed brutality, finally calling her the tramp that he always believed her to be, and passes up numerous chances to apprehend Hoffman in the hopes that the small-fry will lead him to bigger fish–which he never does–is really quite memorable. In his next true-crime film for Lizzani, “The Violent Four,” he would make a complete volte-face playing the vainglorious leader of a quartet of bank robbers who terrorized Milan.

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