by Pauline Kael
There is a moment of frustration in We Still Kill the Old Way in which the hero, Gian Maria Volontè, presses his clenched fingers against Irene Papas’s leg, just above the knee. He doesn’t get any further, but that moment has more desire and passion and sex in it than several recent pictures full of beds. We Still Kill the Old Way is an unusual thriller, for it’s not about a big heist or a cute gang of thieves and it doesn’t ingratiate itself by making things easy for the hero or the audience. Based on Leonardo Sciascia’s A Man’s Blessing, it’s a thriller with a theme — as, in a sense, The Trial and The Castle are, and though the movie isn’t pretentious about it, it has probably been influenced by Kafka. The professor hero — a man who has always been an outsider — finds himself involved in a crime in his own Mafia-ridden Sicilian home town, and this familiar region becomes as terrifying and incomprehensible as the desert in a Paul Bowles story. One can experience all philosophical systems’ collapsing at home and it turns home into a desert. His life begins to resemble paranoid fantasy — which, the movie suggests, is what life is for people who live in a corrupt society. In the usual thriller, the man trying to solve a crime gets caught in a larger network of crime until he tracks down Mr. Big and exposes him. In this movie, there is no one to expose Mr. Big to because Mr. Big is all there is. The very concept of justice doesn’t exist here, so the innocent professor becomes the fool.
It’s easy to present fantasy on the screen, but to show a man’s life in completely realistic terms as this film does and make us experience it as fantasy is difficult. The director, Elio Petri, tightens the hold on us as the hero becomes more desperately helpless and we begin to realize that there is no way out. It’s not an “important” movie or an innovative one, and Petri does not seem to be a strikingly original talent, but he’s a solidly professional young movie-maker, and one never feels superior to this picture, as so often happens with thrillers. Petri keeps one tense and uneasy, wary, expecting the worst at each moment. His method is indirect, and he exposes entangled social relations without comment. The island looks hot and barbaric, ominous and yet teeming with life in the way movie locations look only when the director and the cinematographer really know what they’re doing. Volontè is one of those rare actors who are so believable on camera that one is caught up in the character rather than in the performance. As the politician who knows how to get along, Gabriele Ferzetti (the hero of L’Avventura) is more actorish, but he, too, is smoothly convincing — perfectly weak, perfectly worldly. Irene Papas is perhaps rather too inscrutable, but she is powerful and effective in her role; one never doubts that she will survive in this society. At the end, in her white wedding dress, her black eyes shining, she seems as strong as corruption.
The New Yorker, March 9, 1968