Hands Over The City (Le mani sulla città) is a superb drama which sheds light on the political machinations on a post-war Italy. Rod Steiger plays Edoardo Nottola, an Italian business man with a lust for power, money and land. However, his schemes start to crumble when the collapse of a building in Naples causes an inquiry into the the city’s land development.
Francesco Rossi’s 1963 film doesn’t pull any punches in how it perceives the bureaucracy of the Italian government. The inquiry at the centre of Hands Over The City verges on farce, with one department within the administration being oblivious to what the other is doing. The administrative circus is reminiscent of the mob mentality within Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire Of The Vanities – everyone wants to be seen to be helping the unfortunate, but they’re only looking out for themselves. This showed that the greed is good frame of mind existed decades before Gordon Gecko took his first step down Wall Street. From Mussolini to Silvio Berlusconi, Italian politics has always been filled with characters who totter on the brink of parody – and the bureaucrats in Hands Over The City are no different.
Rod Steiger’s performance here strikes the right balance between powerhouse and introspective. He could have showboated here, playing-up the bullying businessman aspect of the role, but it’s really the quite moments which make this performance work. Steiger was always a strong actor and it’s a shame that he was never given the credit he deserved while he was alive (he died in 2001). He’s almost a footnote actor, mentioned in passing when we discuss the likes of Marlon Brando. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate Steiger’s career.
This remastered Masters of Cinema blu-ray helps to highlight Hand Over The City’s great cinematography – Naples has never looked so ugly! Rossi uses the concrete jungle to deliver a view of Italy which is far from glamorous. The stark black and white photography perfectly captures the ramped-up industrialisation of post-war Italy, as the country moved into the latter half of the 20th Century. This is definitely not a way of attracting tourists to a country that features such great beauty.
Hands Over The City is a weighty film with a few scattered sardonic laughs. Francesco Rossi’s production doesn’t try to gloss over Italy’s political corruption, it holds a magnifying glass to it, showing its every flaw. This is a political drama which feels as fresh and relevant today as it would have done in 1963 – and that’s the power of great cinema.