When people think of Italian genre movies, they generally think of Giallo — lurid colors and knives flashing in the dark. But it bears remembering that Italian pop cinema, especially in the 60s and 70s, wasn’t just about the masked killers, spurting neck wounds, and shambling zombies of horror films. Take the Poliziotteschi genre, which focused more on two-fisted action than thrills and chills: these films took cues from American works like Dirty Harry and The French Connection, but dialed the police brutality and overall cynicism up to often uncomfortable levels, with heroes who would treat things like due process and human rights as vague options rather than rules. For the most part, Poliziotteschi films were set in Italian cities like Naples, Rome, and Naples, but once in a blue moon one would come along that took place outside of the genre’s native country. Alberto Martino’s 1976 film Strange Shadows in an Empty Room is one such film, having been shot and set in Montreal. This alone should make it something for Montreal and Canadian genre fans to seek out, even if the film is quite uneven in a number of regards.
The action begins when a university student is killed in an apparent poisoning case. As luck would have it, her brother (who looks old enough that he was almost certainly intended to be her father, or at least one would hope) is a Dirty Harry-style, loose-cannon cop, who comes to Montreal from Ottawa to investigate the murder, with nary a word about jurisdiction or the ethical minefield of a cop investigating his own sister’s murder.
While that description of the premise could be taken to indicate a fairly straightforward plot, it becomes apparently fairly quickly that Strange Shadows is one of those films that consists more of a number of very loosely connected scenes than an actual A-B-C narrative. Most of the runtime is spent watching our hero stumble from one lead or hunch to another in what quickly becomes a confusing jumble of characters, ideas, and even moods. It’s not what you’d call a focused movie, to put it mildly. One minute the cop is interviewing a blind woman (whose exact role in the film is rather unclear), and the next he’s getting into a punch-up in an apartment full of trans sex workers; even while watching the movie it’s hard to describe the process that took him from one to the other.
The film’s tone comes off as similarly cobbled together, with some sequences clearly shooting for a Giallo horror vibe, while others are straightforward cop action. One has only to look at the various titles ascribed to the film to get a sense of the identity crisis going on. Strange Shadows in an Empty Room sounds much more like the title of a suspenseful horror/thriller, while the film’s alternate title of Blazing Magnum feels much more suitable. Just as the lead spends the film wandering about without an especially clear path, the film itself will sometimes switch gears seemingly to kill some time, seemingly trying to appeal to a broader audience. One sequence suddenly takes us to a murder in a darkened alley, followed by the gruesome discovery of the body in a rock crusher, and later on that blind woman is stalked by an unseen assailant in a scene that could almost be out of a Fulci movie. These could, in theory, have been integral scenes, but ultimately come off as non-sequiturs, jarring for their tonal shifting, and of questionable importance in the film’s overall structure.
But then there’s the car chase. Strange Shadows, while certainly entertaining overall, definitely falls into that category of films worth seeing just for one particular scene. In this case, the scene in question is an absolute ripper of a car chase through the streets of Montreal that deserves an honorable mention at the very least on any list of great movie car chases. Impeccably presented and very deftly executed, the sequence is without any doubt the centerpiece of the production, a ten-minute sequence that takes the two cars involved over jumps and through barriers, all while performing more skid turns than any tire has a right to withstand in one sitting. Watching this absolute mayhem play out across familiar streets is a real treat for Montreal movie fans, but even those who can’t tell St. Jacques from Somerled will find plenty of enjoyment in this sequence.
While far from an archetypal (or even all that good) example of Poliziotteschi, Strange Shadows in an Empty Room has enough charm and novelty to make it worth tracking down — especially if seeing your hometown as the backdrop for rock ‘em sock ‘em 70s police action sounds like it would be your thing.