Often mistaken for a giallo film, Sergio Martino's The Suspicious Death of a Minor belongs to the other popular ‘70s Italian sub-genre; Politziotteschi films. Gaining popularity around the same time as the giallo film, Politziotteschi was essentially the action crime thriller response to the economic, political, and cultural developments at the end of the ‘60s. Martino, a genre-enthusiast with a stream of films in both genres, proved a skilful director with a consummate understanding of mystery filmmaking. Though he arguably doesn't have the respect of other Italian directors of the period, Martino is a reliable curator of thrillers with a great sense of humour.
Those expecting a giallo will be disappointed. The seediness of Italian giallo is present in the story (underage girls used in the sex trade, murder with a cut-throat razor) but the tone is surprisingly light. It never feels as seedy as Argento's giallo's or even the Politziotteschi films of other directors. The film eventually becomes a buddy film between a high-ranking secret investigator and a pickpocket. There's a great car chase, crammed with farcical OTT comedy to the point where it feels like it was cut from a Roger Moore Bond film. But the moral compass of the Politziotteschi films was often, like giallo, not pointing true and straight. The Suspicious Death of a Minor is no exception. Sure, its heroes distance themselves from the order of law in order to pursue "justice", but they also mug sex workers and treat the women they try to save like trash.
Writer Ernesto Gastaldi has a talent for subtle black humour, using the thriller structure of The Suspicious Death of a Minor to rip the piss out of Italian police officers and put many of his contemporaries to shame with a savvy script. Gastaldi treats his audience like adults, refusing to spell things out in the moment, allowing his character work to talk for itself. Surprises are followed by bold character defining choices, people have their own consistent moral codes that operate independent of each other, but Gastaldi doesn't get too bogged down in lecturing us. What he does do is deliver a nicely wound mystery film which pulls off some really dramatic thriller set pieces, not least the dramatic conclusion on board a hollow car-carrying train, and a shootout on a rollercoaster.
The Suspicious Death of a Minor is, perhaps problematically, a fun thriller, caught between the alluring action farce of a ‘70s Bond film and the seedy moral cavern of Italian Giallo. Taking aim at every level of Italian culture, Martino and Gastaldi put together a surprisingly enjoyable caper. Sure the hard-hitting exploitation of a title and subject like that are dismissed early, but as a film its watchable and nicely put together.
THE SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: SERGIO MARTINO / SCREENPLAY: ERNESTO GASTALDI, SERGIO MARTINO / STARRING: CLAUDIO CASSINELLI, MEL FERRER, LIA TANZI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW