Synopsis: In the first film of the Trilogy, small-time gangster Ugo Piazza has just been released from prison. He tries to convince the police, the mafia, and his one-time associate Rocco, a sadistic hoodlum who enjoys sick violence and , that he wants to go straight, but everyone believes he has $300,000 of stolen money hidden somewhere. Caliber 9’s stylized violence, fast-paced action sequences, tight editing and plot twists prefigure the work of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. The film also features a notable score by Luis Bacalov and the stunning Barbara Bouchet as Ugo’s go-go dancing girlfriend.
Milano calibro 9 7.5
eyelights: its straight-shooting crime story. Gastone Moschin.
eyesores: its mildly cartoonish performances.
Fernando Di Leo is a director whose work has been popping up in my various readings these last few years. Ever since a collection of four of his key films was released on blu-ray, his name seems to pop up everywhere. So, naturally, he was firmly put on my radar. And when I got the opportunity to pick up this same collection (albeit on DVD) for dirt cheap, I didn’t think twice about it; by that point, I was very curious to know more.
Although he started his career working with Sergio Leone on his legendary spaghetti westerns, Di Leo made his name making what’s called poliziotteschi (Italian action films that are set in the criminal underworld). Released in 1972, ‘Milano calibro 9’ is a relatively influential picture that is also the first part of the genre’s most iconic set of films, the so-called “Milieu Trilogy” – which was completed by ‘La mala ordina’ and ‘Il Boss’.
Based on the eponymous novel by Giorgio Scerbanenco, it tells of the fall-out from a cash smuggling operation gone wrong. Three years later, the culprit has yet to be found. But Ugo Piazza, who has just been released from prison on good behaviour, is the last person involved with the scheme who has not been brutally interrogated by the Americano’s men. So, naturally, he sends Rocco and his sidekick to greet the thug on his way out.
Ugo protests his innocence (as he will throughout the movie to anyone who asks), but Rocco doesn’t believe it and he follows him everywhere, harassing him, convinced that he’ll eventually catch him red-handed. He’s also hounded by the police, who don’t believe his innocence either. To make matters worse, the commissioner in charge of his file worked very hard to get him behind bars and is upset that he got parole; he badly wants to get Ugo.
Ugo asks for help from his friend Chino, whose allegiance is with another godfather. Chino is willing to help him out, but Rocco makes the mistake of interfering, which leads to some humiliating whoop-@$$ and forced contrition. Ugo also hooks up with his former girlfriend, a go-go dancer. She pleads for him to run away to Beirut. But he tells her that he can’t because it’ll make him as good as guilty and they’ll just track him down and kill him.
Still hounded by Rocco, Ugo is taken to see the Americano, who forces him to join the gang and work with the brute on various jobs; Ugo agrees so that he can find out who stole the original 300 grand. Unfortunately, one of the jobs goes wrong and Rocco believes Chino is behind it – or at least uses it as a pretext to get back at him, killing his godfather in the process. This sets off Chino, who massacres the whole crew. It’s an f-ing bloodbath.
Basically, ‘Milano calibre 9’ is double-cross after double cross; everybody but the viewer loses.
What makes this film a notch better than others of its ilk is just how credible the criminal dealings are; it’s raw and utterly unforgiving. I found it unsettling to see just how vulnerable Ugo was, even though he’s a hardened grunt (as a side-note, Gastone Moschin is is not a likeable character and he’s certainly not eye-candy or charismatic, but he’s excellent in the part. While the rest are slightly cartoonish, he’s the rock of the piece.).
Another thing that makes the picture so enjoyable are the discussions that the police commissioner and his subordinate have about the justice system. He constantly rants about the direction it’s taken in recent years, about its efficiency, the validity of paroles and how they are no longer the ones to interrogate criminals – the judiciary does that now; he complains that they are the ones who know these criminals best and, thus, can better do the job.
Meanwhile, his subordinate makes a few speeches about how the real criminals are the rich who transfer their money to other countries, leaving Italy struggling to make ends meet. He tells the commissioner that the hoods are just people who couldn’t find any other way to survive. He says that they should go after the rich to balance things; they are never under police scrutiny. Obviously, his opinion isn’t shared, causing much friction between them.
Clearly, Fernando Di Leo had something to say with this picture. And it’s this messaging, to me at least, that makes ‘Milano calibro 9’ more satisfying than most crime films, because it forces you to think even as it titillates you with sex and violence. Di Leo himself later reflected that these moments slowed the film down, but I whole-heartedly disagree: without them, the picture would just be a series of action pieces without any sort of substance.
Thankfully, the finished product is anything but: it’s a snapshot of a tumultuous time in Italy, with societal mores shifting and financial and political trouble brewing. It may not be representative of reality, but it captures the malaise of the era quite well. And it does so with no small amount of pulse-pounding action to boot. It’s no grand masterpiece, and it won’t win any prizes for originality, but it’s a fully engrossing and entertaining picture.
Date of viewing: February 11, 2016