Director: Fernando Di Leo
Screenplay: Fernando Di Leo
Based on a Novel by: Giorgio Scerbanenco
Starring: Gastone Moschin, Barbara Bouchet, Mario Adorf, Philippe Leroy
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
The Italians spawned a number of subgenres that have remained popular amongst lovers of cult and genre cinema. I love a good spaghetti western myself and I’ve been starting to work my way through more giallos recently. One Italian subgenre I wasn’t particularly aware of until watching Arrow’s new release of Fernando Di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (a.k.a. Caliber 9) though is the poliziotteschi. This is a form of crime and action film that came from Italy in the late 60’s and 70’s, cashing in on the success of tough American cop thrillers like Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The French Connection. Although Di Leo’s film wasn’t the first in the subgenre, it was a critical and commercial success and helped boost the popularity of the poliziotteschi and the director. I’d heard of Milano Calibro 9 through a podcast and I’ve been keen to see it ever since, so I was very happy to hear Arrow Video got their hands on the title.
The film opens with a classic money/drugs exchange which goes wrong, resulting in some gangsters being out of pocket by $300,000. They quickly take their anger out on all those who could have done it, in a spectacularly violent fashion. They find nothing, although they didn’t quite get to everyone. Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin) was sent to prison shortly after the deal. Mobster nutcase Rocco (Mario Adorf) is waiting for him as soon as he sets foot outside the prison gates, and harasses him for the money. Ugo claims he doesn’t have it, but Rocco tells him that he has to pay the money back to his boss The Americano (Lionel Stander) or there will be devastating consequences. The police believe Ugo has the money too and also give him a hard time. Ugo does his best to keep both sides at bay, enlisting the help of his former gangster ‘family’ Chino (Philippe Leroy) and his Don. As expected, things don’t quite go to plan though and the bodies begin to pile up.
The opening sequence really blew me away and got me straight on board with the film. The editing is fantastic, particularly in this first set piece. It’s tight as a drum, creating a punchy but tense package handover – a setup all too common in thrillers, but presented so well it feels genuinely exciting here. The violence that soon follows fires on all cylinders, rapidly cutting between some viciously aggressive attacks (what Rocco does with a cut throat razor is horrific) and utilising a handheld camera brilliantly, without resorting to indecipherable shaky cam. The sequence ends with a bang, quite literally, and I think I actually said “woah, this is awesome” out loud.
The rest of the first half of the film brings the pace back down to Earth though and I did start to get a bit disappointed after such a promising opening. I wouldn’t say it drags, but it’s less exciting and impressive in this section. It’s still very good though, I just thought I was set for non-stop exhilarating action rather than the gritty police thriller it became. A couple of political debates between the two lead police officers feel unnecessary for instance (in one of the special features, Di Leo himself says that he should probably have lost those scenes). They’re interesting enough, but feel out of place and do derail the film momentarily when they appear.
Another botched deal in the middle of the film kicks things back into gear and proves the opening scene wasn’t just an anomaly. The action and intrigue builds to an exciting and bloody climax with a few twists that seem obvious after the fact, but in the flow of the film did come as a surprise and I certainly didn’t expect the final outcome.
The story isn’t as dense as some crime thrillers, focusing largely on Ugo simply trying to stay alive and convince everyone he doesn’t have the money. This mystery, as to who has it and what he’s going to do, keeps you intrigued though. Moschin’s quietly powerful performance helps as he gives little away, but you can sense the anger and frustration bubbling under the surface. The cast in general are better than in your average Italian genre fare. Many of the giallos I’ve seen for example aren’t exactly filled with strong performances, but here you’ve got a cast that perfectly fit their parts and deliver a rich variety of hard men and detectives. There are no real good guys – even Ugo isn’t a particularly nice guy, but you still get invested in the characters. Adorf as Rocco is another notable cast member. He is brash and annoying, but this fits perfectly with his character and his function within the story. When he lashes out at people he’s genuinely frightening too. You truly believe he’s lost it, particularly in the shocking final scene.
The other component of the film I want to mention is the music. A legend behind numerous Italian genre movie soundtracks, Luis Bacalov (Django, The Grand Duel) composes the score here alongside the prog rock group Osanna. Combining driving rock with big grand orchestral flourishes, the music is bold and exciting. Even the track used in a sex scene manages to impress, mixing an incredible guitar solo with the fairly generic melody to bring it alive. Needless to say, I ordered the soundtrack on imported CD the next day.
Milano Calibro 9 is an exciting and tense crime thriller, made with consummate skill by Di Leo. His direction and the film’s editing give the set pieces a tremendous energy that more than stands up against today’s overly choppy techniques. The first half is perhaps a bit slow compared with the rest and there are mild flaws here and there, but on the whole this comes highly recommended and I’m now keen to dig further into the poliziotteschi genre.
Milano Calibro 9 is out on now in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Arrow Video. As usual, Arrow doesn’t disappoint on the picture and sound quality. It looks and sounds like it probably did on its original release.
There’s a whole host of great special features. Here’s the full list:
– Calibro 9 2004 making-of documentary featuring interviews with director Fernando Di Leo, stars Barbara Bouchet and Philippe Leroy, and others
– Fernando Di Leo: The Genesis of the Genre documentary charting the filmmaking career of the Milano Calibro 9 director
– Scerbanenco Noir a look at the work of Italian crime writer Giorgio Scerbanenco, author of the original Milano Calibro 9 novel
– Gastone Mochin audio interview
– Italia Violenta Matthew Holness, writer and star of cult television series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, offers up an appreciation of Milano Calibro 9 and the Italian poliziotteschi sub-genre
– US & Italian Trailers
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Reinhard Kleist
Fully-illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Roberto Curti, author of Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980
A number of these come from the US/Italian Raro Video releases, but it’s the first time the film has been released on DVD in the UK, let alone Blu-Ray so we don’t necessarily need new featurettes. They’re all decent too. The making of doc has poorly shot interviews and the interview with Holness has got sound issues, but in terms of content you get everything you’d ever want to know about the film, its creators and the genre it helped popularise. So as usual Arrow have come up trumps.