The Mattei Affair [1972] – A Hard-Hitting and Idiosyncratic Political Drama

By blending documentary and reportage elements as well as incorporating realistic mise-en-scene, Italian film-makers of late 1960s and early 1970s provided an alternative and different point of view of their country’s political and social reality. The films of Francesco Rosi, alongside Elio Petri, Valerio Zurlini, Pasolini, Taviani Brothers, and Ettore Scola, featured a particular critical tendency in depicting the social and political events of Italy, which were expressed on an artistic level through a distinct form. Within such a revolutionary atmosphere, Francesco Rosi not only plucked out his contents and themes from the reality, but also found a new way of representing the socio-political reality. Rather than ratifying reality or wildly dissenting against it (by sensationalizing the conspiracy theories, the way Oliver Stone did with JFK [1991]), Rosi’s filmic text and image gracefully questions the reality without ‘interpreting’ it.

The Mattei Affair (Il caso Mattei, 1972) was one among the three best Francesco Rosi’s works, the other two being Salvatore Giuliano(1962) and Hands Over the City (1963). The Mattei Affair shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes with Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven. Similar to Salvatore Giuliano, the film opens with the controversial death of the eponymous character, and gradually tracks down the man’s remarkable role in the public arena. Referred as the “The most important Italian since Julius Caesar”, Enrico Mattei (1906-1962), the subject of the story, is a maverick politician and CEO of the state-owned business empire ENI (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi) aka Nation Fuel Trust, who upon discovering natural gas reserves (methane; and little oil) in the late 1940s in Northern Italy’s Po Valley sought to turn it into a national energy source.  Moreover, Mattei emerged as a powerful player in the world stage when he started building an independent network of oil consumers and producers, by-passing the monopoly of Anglo-American companies (which Mattei nicknamed ‘Seven Sisters’) that dominated the post-World War II oil industry (especially in the Middle East).

Similar to his previous entries in the Cinema Politico, Rosi’s The Mattei Affair is an innovative ‘film investigation’, examining the economic boom of post-war Italy and the disturbing geo-political realities of the Cold War. The film’s release in 1972 was considered to be timely as the OPEC oil crisis (of 1973) brought to world’s attention the politics of oil production. Before the 1973 crisis, the Seven Sisters controlled 85 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves (by mainly exerting control over Third World oil producers; after 1973, it was all under the dominion of OPEC cartel and state-owned companies).

Francesco Rosi opens the film as an investigation into the mystery behind Mattei’s accidental death. On October 27, 1962 on a journey from Sicily to Turin, Mattei’s private aircraft crashed during a violent storm. All three men on board – Enrico Mattei, pilot Bertuzzi, and American Time-Life journalist William McHale –died. The death was tainted by suspicion, the general consensus of the time and the later investigation (in the mid-1990s) alluded that the industrialist and politician was deliberately killed by a bomb on board. The usual suspects behind Mattei’s alleged assassination were: the CIA, OAS (far-right wing French terrorists), and the mafia. Mattei’s venomous criticism on the US and French government is well publicized.

Through ENI, Mattei sought to access hydrocarbons in Algeria, once the country achieved its independence from the French colonists. Mattei publicly announced that he would do business with Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) and reprimanded French government’s colonial enterprise.  This put him in the ‘black list’ of OAS. A reformed mafia chief named Tommaso Buscetta, in May 1994, claimed that Mattei was murdered at the request of the Cosa Nostra, a crime syndicate in United States with close ties to the Sicilian mafia. The motive was obvious: Mattei’s political stance is causing harm to the American interests in the Middle East. Many details regarding Mattei’s suspicious death weren’t known by the time Francesco Rosi’s riveting film released. Yet by the 1990s, Italian law enforcement reclassified Mattei’s death as homicide although no suspects were identified.

Rosi unfolds Mattei Affair through a complex flashback, piecing together fragmented bits of information available on Enrico Mattei in the public forum (the archival footage of interviews and speeches), and by including distinct perspective of men closer to Mattei. Keeping intact the enigmatic aspects of Mattei’s personality, the variety of materials accumulated on the central figure gradually reveals the social and political reality in which he thrived and struck down. Similar to the narrative tactics Rosi used in Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City, the film-maker focuses less on his protagonist’s private life and predominantly explores his public life. As Rosi himself once said, “In the general economy of stories, personal lives have no real importance” [1].  

Film critic and scholar M.K. Raghavendra explains Rosi’s choice in this manner: “Rosi desists from trying to give us the ‘true’ person as fictionalized biographies like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) usually do. There is no sequence, for instance, in which his ‘sincerity’ is emphasized” [2]. Rosi makes up for this intriguing lack of psychological exploration (or dramatizing the private life) by perfectly casting the most charismatic Italian star, Gian Maria Volonte. Mr. Volonte does a great job of not sentimentalizing the role. When we comprehend the full effect of Mattei’s battles and the nature of his nemesis, an emotional identification of sorts is formed, unlike the very limited perspective of Sicilian bandit in Rosi’s 1962 masterpiece. 

Apart from Salvatore Giuliano (1962), the story of trying to piece together a popular man’s life (the fragmented flashback structure), reminded many critics of Orson Welles’ landmark cinema, Citizen Kane (1941); though the subject chosen here was ‘very real’ and circumstances surrounding his death was fresh in people’s minds. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called The Mattei Affair, “a sort of semi-fictional Citizen Kane without a Rosebud” [3]. Nevertheless, unlike any (based-on-real-events) political dramas of the later era, Rosi preserves the enigma of the man and also enhances the mystery surrounding his demise (rather than opting to manipulating the material in order to offer a ‘plausible’ theory). Rosi’s intention isn’t to just raise doubts and asks questions about Mattei’s life and death. He uses Mattei (or the ‘biopic’ narrative) to intensely and objectively look at the wider political realities that don’t feel far removed for the contemporary international audience. Like the masterful work of a great political film-maker, Rosi’s The Mattei Affair is infused with skepticism about the historical truth (or the official verdict), but his narrative representation (of the source material) never slips into exploitative territory. 

Rosi’s examination of Enrico Mattei’s life starts in the immediate aftermath of Second World War (in 1945) when Mattei was hired to shut down the Italian State Oil Company, AGIP. But after stumbling into a research account on Italy’s vast reserves of natural gas, Mattei sought to turn Italy into an industrial powerhouse (As he himself put it, “I transformed Italy from a country of song and dance to an industrial power”). Though Mattei was a member of Christian Democrat Party by this time, and was a partisan fighter during the war, in 1931 he became a member of the Mussolini’s National Fascist Party (he was, however, not active in politics and mostly involved himself in industrial activities). When a journalist questions Mattei’s political affiliations in the narrative, he cleverly states, “I use them like a taxi. I get in, let them take me to my destination, look at the meter, pay, and leave.” Mattei built his industrial empire (through ENI) in the 1950s by making deals with former fascists as well as the communists.

When the cartel of American, British, and French oil companies denied ENI a place, Mattei directly went to the Shah of Iran (in 1957) and signed an accord. In 1959, he went to Moscow to negotiate the purchase of crude oil from Soviet Russia. In the film, Rosi observes Mattei standing in a long queue in the Red Square to visit Lenin’s tomb, expressing his earnestness in doing business with the Soviet government. Mattei did it all in the midst of the Cold War, when West European democracies and US were clear-cut about their archenemy. One of the most memorable sequences in the narrative (apart from the glorious scene set in Gagliano, Sicily), was Mattei taking a newspaper man on a trip from Italy to the oil fields of Middle East, delineating the politics of oil. “The Middle East has 80% of the world's reserves. You and I and millions of others in the world…work, eat, dress, ride cars, are warm, have fun……thanks to the riches here. Yet Arabs are starving. The oil is taken from under their noses. They keep their poverty, illiteracy…infant mortality…a thousand other problems,” states Enrico Mattei, which doesn’t seem to just specify the geopolitical context of the 1970s.

There’s also a double-edge to the mystery scrutinized in The Mattei Affair. After deciding to shoot a move on Enrico Mattei, Francesco Rosi, in 1970, hired Italian journalist Mauro De Mauro (played by Aldo Barberito in the movie) to conduct an investigation on Mattei’s two days in Sicily (before the fateful plane crash). Mauro retrieved an audio-tape of Mattei’s last speech, and eight days after receiving the audio-tape, in September 16, 1970, Mauro disappeared. It was said that before his disappearance or presumed kidnapping, the journalist has told his colleagues, “I have a scoop that is going to shake Italy.” What’s more interesting about Mauro’s disappearance is that the investigators who pursued leads in the case were also later killed. Even Rosi appears as himself in the movie, asking questions about De Mauro’s disappearance. There’s also a theory that Mauro’s kidnapping (and murder) doesn’t have anything to do with his investigation on Mattei’s death, but the result of Mauro uncovering a (failed) right-wing coup d’etat.  

Apart from extracting a powerful performance from Volonte, Rosi has collaborated with some of the best Italian artists to make Mattei Affair. Rosi’s co-writer was Tonino Guerra, prolific and veteran screenwriter who has worked with Michaelangelo Antonoini, Frederico Fellini (and even with Takovsky in Nostalghia [1983]). The mosaic structure of the narrative duly avoids ‘entertaining’ viewers and never foregrounds sentimental action. The film was lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis, known for his high-profile collaborations with Robert Bresson and Luchino Visconti (reputable Italian editor Ruggero Mastroianni has also done a great job, the cutbacks slowly revealing the biographical details are fascinating to behold).

Overall, Francesco Rosi’s unflinchingly objective interrogation of the oil monopolies and crony capitalism through the tale of an ill-fated industrialist in The Mattei Affair (116 minutes) conveys us some timeless truths. “Why haven't you explained in your newspapers what oil really means? You never explained that oil……makes governments fall. Creates revolutions, coups d'etat. It determines world balance. You don't say that,” Enrico Mattei emphatically states, and nearly five-decades since the movie’s release, those words still reflect the current political realities.  


1. Hands Over the City: Confidential Reports by Stuart Klawans, Critertion, Oct. 23, 2006
2. Directors Cut: 50 Major Film-makers of the Modern Era, M.K. Raghavendra, Harpercollins, July 2013

Hands Over the City [1963] – An Undeniably Gripping Drama on the Politics of Corruption

Francesco Rosi’s reputation as the one of the best post-war Italian film-maker is built on his hard-hitting political dramas of the 1960s and 70s, which sought to maintain the “balance between reality itself and an interpretation of reality” [1]. Post-war Italian film-makers are generally divided into four generations with Rosi belonging to the significant second generation, who all worked under the great neorealists and yet their aesthetics was directed towards the then-contemporary political and social realism than to any distant memories of war and its aftermath (which was often viewed through a simple individual’s perspective). Rosi worked as an assistant director for the great Luchino Visconti, whose films evolved over time from classical realism (‘The Earth Trembles’, 1948) to critical realism (‘Rocco and his Brothers’, 1960).

Rosi labeled ‘critical realism’ as the ‘second phase of neorealism’, and further explained that, “In the beginning, neorealism involved only the attempt to be a witness to reality, with no critical perspective, just a desire to record reality. But this was not enough.” [2] Film scholar M.K. Raghavendra mentions in his essay on Rosi that, "…where neo-realism tries to be ‘truthful’, Rosi’s political films start from the premise that historical truths are elusive." [3] In fact, Rosi’s fractured, non-linear investigative style strives to reveal the hidden complicities underlying the official version of the facts. But while reconstructing the political past (by utilizing the methods of documentary cinema), Rosi also acknowledges that truth can be elusive, and that the truth beneath the ‘surface of events’ may never reach the larger public.  

Hands over the City

Unlike the other great political film-makers of the era (Gillo Pontecorvo, Costa-Gavras, Elio Petri), Rosi’s narratives neither commits itself to an individual’s emotional trajectory nor overtly satirizes the ideological intentions. His quasi-documentary approach remains intriguingly ambivalent, never representing the political or social reality through the experiences of one of the characters, feigning objectivity. Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962) isn’t a conventional biopic on the brutally murdered real-life Sicilian bandit, but rather a layered exposé of the corrupted relationship between political establishment, mafia, and business interests. The larger-than-life titular character is largely (and strangely) absent from long sketches of the narrative and never viewed up-close (literally & emotionally).

With Hands Over the City (‘Le mani sulla citta’, 1963), Rosi returns to his native Naples to dramatize an inquiry set in motion by members of the Naples City Council to decide on the culpability of the City in the collapse of an decrepit apartment building, killing two and severely injuring a boy. The members of the inquiry, predominantly led by councilmen of ruling right-wing party, have already made their decisions, and most importantly they want to keep the inquiry focused only on this single event. A determined city council member of the Communist Party named De Vita (Carlo Fermariello), however, is more interested in exposing the confluence of politicians and real estate power brokers whose appalling ethical compromise is the root of the problem.

But at the same time, Hands Over the City is not a film with protagonists or antagonists, and it doesn’t withhold any greater sense of mystery. Rosi clearly chronicles the civic corruption in the opening frames of his narrative as elected councilman and land developer, Edoardo Nottola (Rod Steiger) speak of transforming the city-owned land by constructing high-rise apartment buildings.  Nottola, his ruling right-wing party, the mayor, and city’s construction agencies choose any site they fancy, and start the work without bothering about official approval or zoning laws. Nottola promises his party men that it’s a no-risk venture, assuring a five thousand percent return on their investment. The huge profits apart from filling the politicians’ pockets eventually fills the party’s coffers, which is just as good since election is coming up. 

The risk factor comes into play when an old building collapses while Nottola was building a new one nearby. Nottola rushes to the scene, but to discreetly transport his son, who was supervising the construction. When the mayor is pressured by his Center Party allies, he sets up an inquiry, which includes the earnest council member, De Vita.  But De Vita’s further attempts to prove the wrongdoing takes him through a moral black hole of the city council. As he exasperatedly observes, “Compliance is only verified after an incident. Each department did its job. Let people die.”  Nevertheless, De Vita’s acute understanding of the corruption at the heart of housing speculation gains the attention of a fellow council member and a Center party representative, Balsamo (Angelo D’Alessandro). Yet it looks like a near impossible task to challenge the political structure that permits corruption to thrive.

Hands Over the City is one of the most coherent and accessible films of Francesco Rosi. But similar to the central figure in Salvatore Giuliano (1962), the anti-hero of this film – Edoardo Nottola – remains distant throughout the narrative, and is also frequently absent from the screen. Nevertheless, such distant approach to character is a signature of Rosi, who concentrates more on the political machinations than interpersonal dynamics. Rosi does show Nottola wordlessly contemplating (a long sequence unfolding against a blaring musical score of Piero Piccioni) and (quietly) making decisions without an iota of regret or remorse. But what’s missing here is the character’s interiority (something Rosi deliberately does in his films). Moreover, De Vita although sounds like a heroic figure, is often seen downcast and frustrated, perfectly exuding the emotions of a good-hearted politician, who is playing the game for a long time despite being aware of the grim results (it is no wonder  Carlo Fermariello brilliantly plays De Vita as he is not a professional actor, but a elected councilman). The characters of De Vita and Balsamo suggest the presence of a didactic intent on the part of film-maker (in fact, De Vita delivers a thunderous speech in the final scene). But the authenticity with which the characters are presented (acknowledging their limitations) purges any notions of grandstanding or didacticism.

Francesco Rosi’s showmanship does garner our attention in key scenes, in spite of his quasi-documentary approach of filming in real locations and presenting real social problems. For instance, framing Nottola in front of his office wallpaper (a huge canvas of Naples city map), signifying how the cityscape is a plaything for Nottola and his fellow council members. The theatricality of the allegedly outraged conservative council members when accused of having ‘blood on their hands’ is one of the memorable visual moments in the narrative (Rosi films the gallery of council members in a long shot and a closer view from behind as they cry out, “Our hands are clean!”).

Eventually, what makes Hands Over the City (101 minutes) a powerful feature among the Italian political cinema (Cinema Politico) is the universality and continuing relevance of its themes. Rosi ends the film with the timeless text, “The characters and events shown are imaginary. The social and environmental context is real.” Expelling the didactic intent or the expository writing of political cinema, Rosi uses the cinematic medium to design a form of activism that not only zeroes-in on an indisputable sociopolitical reality, but also attempts to awaken the sleeping consciences of those who prefer not to see. 


1. Hands Over the City: Confidential Reports by Stuart Klawans, Critertion, Oct. 23, 2006
2. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, Millicent Marcus, Princeton University Press, 1986
3. Directors Cut: 50 Major Film-makers of the Modern Era, M.K. Raghavendra, Harpercollins, July 2013

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion [1970] – A Italian Political Satire of the Highest Order

Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) is a grotesque, political satire that seems to be cut from the same cloth of Kafka’s parable. Our essential notion of law is based on the general principle of equality and non-discrimination. But what if ‘law’ is just another institution which castigates humanity and is driven by norms and rules closely linked to fascist ideology? Law as an iron fist institution will only uphold hegemony and pat on the back of a rigidly structured ideology. In such a scenario, the ones with a power to (legally) judge will always be placed out of the bureaucratically enforced rules and norms. The powerful figures of bureaucracy become the noble class, enjoying their exclusive access to law to perpetually repress the common citizens.   

Petri’s incendiary political drama, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is based on this particular idea that some citizens are above suspicion. It’s just like the famous quote in Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more than equal.” The film, nevertheless, opens like a conventional crime genre film. Adorned by Ennio Morricon’s flamboyant musical score, in the opening frames we see a man discreetly entering his mistress’ Roman apartment. He kills her with a disposable razor during sex. But uncharacteristically, the killer starts leaving ample clues to implicate him in the crime. He leaves finger and foot-prints all over the crime scene. He leaves a large sum of money for the investigators to strike off robbery as a motive. Furthermore, he leaves a loose thread of his lavender silk-tie in one of the murdered woman’s sharp nails.

Before leaving the crime scene, the man makes an anonymous call to the homicide department. Finally, while leaving the apartment building, he walks out in the presence of a young man, a ploy to secure a witness. Later in the narrative, a homicide detective tells his department chief, “The killer must be an idiot”. The chief agrees, “Yes, an idiot”. But the detective doesn’t know that his chief (Gian Maria Volonte) is that killer. Of course, the unnamed sociopathic chief has killed his lover, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan) to absolutely prove his hypothesis that he is ‘above suspicion’. The narrative brilliantly and viciously chronicles the chief’s power trip, starting from his return to the crime scene, now as an investigator, and he once again touches everything in the apartment.

Elio Petri often cuts to flash-backs, recounting his days with Augusta. Augusta Terzi is clearly fascinated by the power the chief of homicide department withholds. His affair with Augusta gradually leads to erotic games based on staging of murder scenarios. This explains the film’s opening exchange between Augusta and the chief: “How are you going to kill me this time?”, she teasingly asks, to which the man replies, “I’m going to slash your throat” and then embraces her. The fetish for staging and photographing the homicide scenarios reflects the protagonist’s infantilism and psychosexual conflict, which he effortlessly masks in the public by being a traditional patriarchal figure to the lawmen, relentlessly exuding macho attitudes.

In fact, apart from wickedly testing the boundaries of his power, the chief kills Augusta because her fascination with his power gradually wanes, and she expresses contempt over his sexual inadequacy and arrested sexual development. He thinks that by teasing his sexual shortcomings, she has indirectly derided his authority. Hence that becomes the hidden motive, which becomes clear as the protagonist causes more chaos. On a broad scale, Petri uses the chief’s pre-occupation with power to examine how the system of law deems which citizens are ‘above suspicion’ and which citizens are the ‘natural suspects’. After striking out Augusta’s husband’s involvement in the murder, the police considers her upstairs neighbor, Antonio Pace (Sergio Tramonti), a young anarchist, the same man who had ‘accidentally’ seen the inspector chief leaving the crime scene.

 Nevertheless, the chief doesn’t want an innocent person to take his place. As he argues to himself, “if you send an innocent man to prison in your place, then the fact that you're above suspicion has not been proven.”  So, he wants the officials above and below him (in the power ladder) to know he is the culprit and yet be absolved of his crime (because he’s ‘above suspicion’). Director Petri wants to showcase that in an authoritarian power structure, the ones who are legally deemed as ‘guilty’ has nothing to do with committing a crime, but they are unlucky to fall under the parameters (grounded in social status, ideology, and race) of guilt.

This is splendidly emphasized in a scene the inspector chief delivers a thunderous monologue, addressed to his colleagues, increasingly blurring the lines between criminal activities and democratic expression of dissent. He equates a bank robbery with subversives involved in strikes and sit-ins: “They both have the same objective. They just use different methods. Their objective is to overthrow the current social order.” This insightful trip into the mind of a power-wielding fascist ends on a thoughtful note. He proclaims: “Let others take up the task of healing and educating. Our duty is to repress them! Repression is our vaccine! Repression is civilization!”

Although Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion opens as a traditional crime film, it is much more than a narrative about a powerful man getting away with murder. It was both a timely as well as timeless exploration of how authoritarian power works and thinks. In the film’s beginning, the unnamed chief of homicide department is promoted as the chief of political intelligence. Augusta Terzi’s murder happens on his last day in homicide. Political Section is ostensibly engaged in a bigger operation, wiretapping thousands of alleged ‘subversives’, ‘anarchists’, and ‘leftists’. While walking through a long corridor of files (collected through eavesdropping and wiretapping) and entering into a room consisting of a wall-length computer (that instantly searches for the files on subversives), the chief’s lust for power reaches a crescendo (he gleefully shouts, “America has arrived!”).

Elio Petri and his co-writer Ugo Pirro’s acerbic portrait of corruption and fascism were considered timely because it perfectly reflected the actual political situation in Italy in the late 1960s. In the Senses ofCinema article (by Gino Moliterno), it is mentioned that when Petri privately screened the film for his contemporaries Mario Monicelli and Ettore Scola, though they were enthusiastic about the film, they also agreed to the possibility that Petri is going to end up in prison. In the wonderful Criterion essay (by Evan Calder Williams), I learnt how Petri throughout his short career (he made only 12 films and prematurely died of cancer at the age of 53), was reprimanded by both the studios and far-left critics (one side feeling Petri is too political, whereas the other side lambasting him for not being deeply political).

Yet despite the widespread political unrest of the time and the vitriolic critique from the far-left, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion was the single biggest successful film in Petri’s career, reaping both awards and blockbuster status. The film won two awards at Cannes (Jury Prize and International Critics’ Prize), and eventually got the Best Foreign Academy Award (while it was also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay’).

Alongside Investigation and the two films Petri made immediately after it – The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and Property Is No Longer a Theft – they came to be collectively known as ‘Trilogy of Neurosis’. The inspector chief at one point in the narrative states, It’s a disease I probably contracted from my prolonged use of power. It’s an occupational disease.” As the Sense of Cinema article emphasizes, if 'Investigation' had been an exploration of the neurosis of power, The Working Class Goes to Heaven was meant to explore the neurosis of work, while Property is No Longer a Theft (1973) caustically satirized the desire for property and money as pathological.”

Like any stories dealing with infallibility of law and bureaucracy, 'Investigation' is riddled with Kafkaesque strains. In fact, Petri ends the film with Kafka’s quote (from his 1915 novel ‘Before the Law’): “Whatever he may seem to us, he is yet a servant of the Law; that is, he belongs to the Law and as such is set beyond human judgment.” Just like what Kafka does with his pointed tales, Petri makes a critique of power and reveals the obscure mechanisms (largely invisible to the common populace) essential to keep rolling the wheels of hegemony. Eventually, apart from Petri’s clear-eyed direction, Investigation’s success and impact is multiplied due to Volonte’s emblematic central performance.  The perverse delight with which he flaunts his culpability and his earsplitting speeches perfectly realizes a fascistic creature.

Overall, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (115 minutes) is a grim allegory on the nature of unchecked power and authority that isn’t far removed from the political realities of the present. Elio Petri employs absurdist, satirical narrative tone to make us face the hard truths about the 'true' status of law that’s both unsettling as well as thought-provoking. 


Lonely Are the Brave [1962] – A Free-Spirited Cowboy Thrust into the Modern Age

The bonafide Hollywood Superstar Kirk Douglas was best known for playing discomfited small-town reporter Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s Ace In the Hole, a humane commanding officer in Kubrick’s Path of Glory (1957), the rebellious slave in Spartacus (1960), a reprobate movie producer Jonathan Shields in Vincent Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the revered painter Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). He also played excellent roles in Out of the Past (1947), Champion (1949), Gunfight at O.K. Corral (1957), Seven Days in May (1964), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), etc. But Mr. Kirk Douglas himself considers playing John W. Burns (a lone cowboy smothered by disorienting modern times) in David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave (1962) as his most favorite moment in the long career. 

Dubbed by British film-maker Alex Cox as ‘leftist American Western’, the film was based on Edward Abbey’s 1956 novel The Brave Cowboy. The novel was adapted into script by Douglas’ friend and the most famous among Hollywood’s blacklisted professionals Mr. Dalton Trumbo. Although Trumbo started working on the script by 1958, two other Kirk Douglas star vehicles – Spartacus & Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset (1961) – released before it. By the time Lonely Are the Brave released into theaters, the blacklist was lifted (although it took few more years to reinstate the Oscars Trumbo won for script writing which he wrote under pseudonyms), but unfortunately the movie wasn’t a commercial hit. Despite writing in an era of despair, Trumbo didn’t use the material to preach. He writes a simple yet powerful character study of a tragic Western hero, where the actions speak for itself. 

Director David Miller didn’t have a distinguished film-making career. Except for the noir thriller Sudden Fear (1952) starring Joan Crawford, Mr. Miller’s projects were mediocre at its best (after Lonely are the Brave, Miller once again worked with Trumbo for the reasonably good conspiracy thriller Executive Action). However, David Miller’s exploration of extremely polarizing American society and disarrayed system is full of subtle visual cues which we don’t often see in studio-backed Western films. Trumbo’s meticulous, non-didactic script touches on themes of individual freedom, illegal immigrants, systemic crackdowns, escalating militarization (themes which are more relevant in contemporary America).  The film opens with a spectacular scene: a cowboy breaking his mischievous and clumsy horse Whiskey on the open range. The atmosphere and the playful character is something we have seen in hundreds of Westerns. But when the cowboy lifts his hat to look up he sees jet smoke in the sky. Suddenly we are bestowed with the fact that the tale isn’t set in mid or late 19th century, but at the present (early 1960s).

The cowboy named John W. Burns (Jack for short) rides through New Mexico, cutting the barbed wires established by private corporations, not because he is a proletarian who condemns private ownership, but simply because he is a genuine free-spirited soul. There’s a beautiful shot when Burns and Whiskey ride into town, crossing the very busy road. As he struggles with his horse in the middle of the road with cars & trucks blasting through, the predicament of the cowboy in modern reality becomes plainly visible. Burns rides to his best pal Paul’s (Michael Kane) house where he learns from his beloved wife, Jerry (Gena Rowlands) that he is in jail. Paul is imprisoned at the local prison for providing sanctuary to illegal Mexican immigrants. Burns decides to help his friend before he is moved to upstate prison. He deliberately gets himself in a fight at local bar and that too with a bullying one-armed war veteran.

Later at the police station, when the officer turns him loose since the prisons are full, Burns delivers a vigorous blow on the lawmen. With an amplified charge-sheet that will at least get him a year, Burns finally meets Paul in the cell in order to tell his plans of breaking themselves out. However, Paul denies the offer as he doesn’t want to bring more misery on himself and his family. He doesn’t want a life on the run. It is evident that despite an undeniably charming posture, Burns is deeply averse or even afraid to modern rules and the enclosed spaces. After failing to persuade Paul, he decides to breaks out on his own. He takes Whiskey across the vast, open wilderness. A disdainful, annoyed local sheriff named Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) leads the police pursuit. The odds are clearly stacked against Burns’ mad dash to Mexico, since military men volunteer themselves to track down the cowboy in helicopter (the general calls it a practice). We hope that the cowboy dodges his pursuers, metaphorically rising his middle finger to the stern system.

There are plenty of fascinating touches in Trumbo’s character sketches. The relationship between Burns and Jerry is at once both enigmatic and deeply emotional. They both have been friends from childhood and it’s evident that Jerry is in love with Burns, but Trumbo’s writing doesn’t denigrate their connectedness or romanticizes it. Although Trumbo’s characters involve themselves in acts against the system, he doesn’t charge it up with overbearing ideology. Paul’s act of human decency, Jerry’s decision to commit herself to son Seth and husband, Paul and Burns’ non-conformity stand against government thugs could be understood and related without scrutinizing it through a political lens. 

Director David Miller does a commendable job in realizing Trumbo & Abbey’s vision of inhumane, apathetic modern world. Flawlessly photographed by Philip Lathrop, each expertly staged scene brims with naturalism. The barroom fight and shots of Burns gliding up the mountain with rocks tumbling down creates truly menacing atmosphere. The best scenes in the film are when Burns tries to break in Whiskey in order to help him escape. On such occasions, the disobedient Whiskey stands-in as representation of cowboy’s existential crisis. He repeatedly tries to hold onto its rein, the struggle reflects his broad struggle with the external factors to hold onto his cherished vision of freedom.

 It’s understandable why Kirk Douglas loved playing this flawed yet fascinating cowboy. There’s a sense of calm or lack of forcefulness in his performance. There’s no extra glorification added to celebrate Burns’ act of self-preservation. Douglas eventually lets Burns be the confused guy and the one detached from reality without trying to justify himself verbally. The supporting cast including Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau are also nothing short of excellent. Matthau’s splendid sardonic humor dispels the otherwise gloomy chase. Nevertheless, the film ends with one of saddest and most memorable shots. The dazed look of the cowboy, the empathetic gazes of passersby, the blaring horse writhing in pain, and the relentless downpour; ‘will humanity ever triumph over the inflexible, conformity-seeking world?’ the question haunts our mind as we look at these most brilliant visual compositions. 

Lonely Are the Brave (108 minutes) is a singular and achingly sad Western drama about a fiercely independent cowboy fleeing away from the clampdowns of modern industrialized society.