‘Almost Human’ (1974) Blu-Ray reviewed

❉ Umberto Lenzi’s stylish giallo, with a strong score from Ennio Morricone.

Tomas Milian stars as Giulio Sacchi, a sadistic petty crook who aspires to criminal greatness. With his gang of impressionable weirdos in tow, Sacchi shanghais the pretty young daughter of a wealthy businessman but hardboiled cop Grandi (Henry Silva – Escape From The Bronx) is in hot pursuit. The dogged detective is all that stands between Sacchi’s gang and the ransom money, and he’s the only hope their teenage hostage has got…

Sacchi, a petty criminal, is determined to reach the big time. The film opens as he and his gang hold up a bank, Sacchi playing getaway driver. It’s just bad luck that a traffic cop comes along at the wrong moment, telling Sacchi that he’s parked in the wrong place and leading to the cop’s violent death when Sacchi panics. As the gang flees Sacchi inexplicably kidnaps a young boy who happens to be a bystander, although the boy is safely released following a lengthy car chase. Although the robbery failed, Sacchi realises that kidnapping is a far more reliable way of making his fortune. It also happens that Sacchi’s girlfriend works for an incredibly wealthy businessman who has a young daughter…

A number of commentators have written this film off as a Dirty Harry (1971) clone; violent criminal, tough-justice cop and the inevitable conclusion that such a stand-off will ensure. One can see why such a comparison would have been made (this followed Dirty Harry by only three years), and although Don Siegel’s film is clearly an influence that’s due more to the gritty, city-based setting and unusually graphic levels of violence than anything else.

Dirty Harry offered Clint Eastwood’s morally ambiguous protagonist as the hero – Andrew Robinson’s villain Scorpio is barely present until the climax of the film. Almost Human presents the reverse of that – we spend the bulk of the film’s running time in the company of Tomas Milian’s Sacchi and hardboiled cop Grandi (a rare good guy role for Henry Silva, the film’s most famous cast member) is almost incidental to the events, at least until the finale.

If there was an influence it’s quite clearly the Warner Brothers gangster cycle of the 1930s, many of which chose to focus on their gun-toting anti-heroes than on the lawmen who pursued them. Sacchi is far more from the Edward G Robinson school of psychopaths than the James Cagney – there’s very little to like about Sacchi, just like Rico in 1931’s Little Caesar. The similarities between the two don’t stop there – both are loathsome characters, yet strangely charismatic. Both are – to put it bluntly – thick. And both are extremely violent, preferring to mow people down than actually have to deal with them.

The bodies pile up throughout (Sacchi explains his kidnapping plot to his two aides by revealing immediately that the kidnapped girl won’t live – it’s more convenient to kill her) in the many surprisingly violent scenes that punctuate the film. The kidnapping initially goes wrong and their victim flees, seeking refuge at a house in the countryside. Soon every member of the family inside has been gunned down by Sacchi. He later kills his girlfriend (in a pleasingly ambiguous scene – we’re not sure if he tells her about the kidnapping in a bid to impress her, hoping that she’ll go along with it, or if he’d always planned to kill her anyway and just wanted to show off a bit before he iced her).

It was the graphic violence that turned off the Italian critics in 1973 (perhaps they didn’t expect it from a non-horror thriller) and they instead called the film fascist. Whilst it’s true that there’s none of the subtlety present in Dirty Harry, and the climax of the film perhaps does justice to their criticism, the film as a whole is slightly more interesting than that. It’s a character study of a repellent man (and at no point does the film try to excuse his actions), although the film could perhaps have gone further in offering explanations as to why Sacchi has ended up the way he has.

It’s all well and good to spend time in the company of such a character but when we never learn what makes him tick it feels that the time could have been spent better. Nevertheless, Sacchi remains a fascinating character, and he’s played with real relish by Tomas Milian.

Milian – an actor who never really found real fame, despite headlining a number of spaghetti westerns in the ‘60s and ‘70s, before at the end of his career appearing in “respectable” productions such as Traffic (2000), Amistad (1997) and JFK (1991) – gives what many have called his career best performance, and although I’m not familiar with much of his other work I can see why. Sacchi is a remarkably horrible character, yet whenever he’s on screen one cannot take one’s eyes off him. It’s a powerhouse performance, and Milian deserved to find more fame. He died only this year in March, aged 84.

His adversary, detective Grandi, was played by Henry Silva, who gave an unusually intense performance. Silva, usually better known for playing villains was perhaps best known for his chilling role as one of the brainwashers in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), although he was briefly considered a member of the rat pack and appeared in a number of their films, most notably Oceans 11 (1960) and was one of only two original cast-members to cameo in Soderbergh’s 2001 Ocean Eleven (alongside Angie Dickinson), his last film before he retired. One can see his determination to break out of his mould and play his steely cop for all its worth, and the reason that the under-written part is in any way memorable is entirely to Silva’s intense performance.

Given that the film spends much of its time following this psychopath, it’s a very hard film to like, but given its pace, direction (Umberto Lenzi, usually better known for his 1981’s Cannibal Ferox) and careful use of budget (this film looks expensive throughout, far more than just a low-budget cash-in on American films) it’s a very easy film to admire. It’s stylish, holds the attention and also features a strong Ennio Morricone score.

If you’re a fan of German krimi films, or indeed crime films in general, this is a must see, particularly seeing as thanks to Shameless Films this rarity is no longer hard to see.

The Blu-Ray

An impressive HD restoration offers a sharp picture that has just the right amount of grain present (no overuse of DNR) and the night scenes in particular stand out as rich and well lit. (Those blacks look impressively black).

There’s a brand new interview with director Umberto Lenzi, an interview with Tomas Milian, period interviews with cast and crew, and some bonus trailers.

There’s also the option of watching the film in its original Italian with English subtitled, or watched with an English dub, a worldwide first.

The film may not be to everyone’s taste (perhaps not even to mine), but it’s one I don’t regret watching, and I found more in it to appreciate and enjoy than I expected.

Specs

• Limited edition numbered collector’s edition
• Italian and English Audio
• Optional English subtitles
• Restored, uncut and unhinged – 101 mins
• Collector’s reversible sleeve – final artwork to be announced soon!

Extras

• A brand new Shameless interview with director Umberto Lenzi
• Tomas Milian Interview Milian Unleashed
• Period interview with Umberto Lenzi, star Ray Lovelock and writer Ernesto Gastaldi


❉ ‘Almost Human’ was released on Blu-Ray (VFD53999) by Shameless Screen Entertainment on 24 April 2017. Order now

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