There are actually two movies in the poliziotteschi genre with this title featuring Henry Silva that came out in the 1970s. This is the second such movie, released in 1975, and it is sometimes referred to as The Manhunt.
Crime runs rampant in Italy. A trio of thieves whose leader poses as a blind man use an innocent little girl to commit a robbery. As they leave, their leader shoots and kills the little girl, who only manages to mumble “Scorpion” before she dies. Henry Silva plays the girl’s father, who reunites with his separated wife out of grief, gets fed up with the impotence and corruption of the police, and instead begins investigating the murder on his own out of his own desire for revenge and vigilante justice as well as a need to make a statement in a nation gone sick from a never ending crime wave.
Unfortunately for Silva, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and he fumbles more often than not, tracking down the wrong leads, getting himself into trouble, and getting the people around him hurt or killed. When he does eventually find a man with a scorpion pendant hanging from his watch, he forces a transvestite prostitute to set up a phony drug deal, only to end up getting the prostitute killed. Not to be held back, he hunts the men himself, resulting in his house coming under attack and his wife being briefly kidnapped, before finally joining up with an extremist militant organization which seeks to end crime through terror and brutality. He even goes so far as to join them in a raid to capture a pair of thieves who accidentally killed a woman while stealing her purse; the militants hold them down and smash both of their hands with hammers while beating them into submission.
Finally, when he manages to find the hiding place of his targets, he nearly falters until he sees a little girl that reminds him of his dead daughter. This works up his nerve, and he enters a brief but climactic showdown where he takes down the gang at point blank range with a shotgun. There’s just one problem… It’s the wrong gang. The actual murderer of his daughter was killed in a shootout with police the night before. But the police let Silva go, because they understand that society as a whole is ultimately responsible for what he has done. The film ends with Silva and his wife deciding to move to Canada, only for Silva to see a police chase and use his car to stop the escaping crooks. Silva reaches into the back of the car for his gun, but his wife begs him to stop, leaving him in a moral quandary between his unfulfilled need for revenge, justice, violence, and peace.
Manhunt in the City is not a great movie. It’s poorly edited so that it feels choppy. Music just sort of comes and goes at times. It doesn’t always frame up the way it should, and it occasionally jumps between moments in jarring ways. As a result, it feels a bit impotent…but that’s also where it surprisingly succeeds. Ultimately the supposed hero will end up committing his own crimes and giving in to violent impulses in the name of justice, yet he is never fulfilled; despite his claims of the weakness, corruption, and ineptitude of police, their time-consuming methods are what actually resolves the investigation, not his fumbling. The movie never feels gratifying, yet the movie is only sharing the despair of the lead.
There are also serious questions posed about the nature of the police, the press, criminals, the public, and the perception of each other that feel particularly poignant considering our current problems in society. The social problems that director Umberto Lenzi attempts to tackle in this picture feel just as relevant to Italy in the 1970s as they do today. And while I don’t believe he was attempting to make a statement about it at the time, the general treatment of the transvestite prostitute is also something that will likely weigh heavily on the mind, considering the use of insulting slang but also the harassment and the violent act that inevitably happens yet isn’t shown. It doesn’t have to be, the implication is disturbing enough.
Manhunt in the City is a problematic movie, but it’s one I find myself respecting for its failures and shortcomings because of how well they match the shortcomings of its characters. It won’t sate anybody’s need for bloodlust, but it will make you question the usual behavior of the traditional action hero.