On the poster art above, Quentin Tarantino is quoted as calling MILANO CALIBRO 9 “Il piu grande noir italiano de tutti i tempi”, which translates roughly to “This movie is motherfucking incredible.” Considering Quentin’s preferred parlance, he also probably threw the N-word in there somewhere, but we try not to do that here.
The point is that Fernando DiLeo’s 1972 crime thriller MILANO CALIBRO 9, also known sometimes more simply as CALIBER 9, is a really, really, really cool crime flick, in a down-and-dirty and completely under-recognized way. It’s about a career tough-guy who gets out of prison and is pressured by his old gang into revealing the location of money he may or may not know about. The mob doesn’t believe him, the cops don’t believe him, even his fine-ass girlfriend (German actress Barbara Bouchet) doesn’t believe him. Things get ugly.
That’s more than you need to know or care about the plot — not that the story isn’t worthwhile, but this movie has plenty else to recommend it besides its scriptwriting, I think. The camerawork by Di Leo’s regular DP Franco Villa is aggressive, visceral, even a little sloppy, which makes the whole enterprise have the feel of a punch to the face in a dive bar. The orchestral score Luis Enríquez Bacalov and the band Osanna is, most notably in the main theme, reminiscent of Morricone but with a bizarrely-awesome prog-rock twist.
It’s somewhere between documentary-style cinema-art and a brash, boistrous knuckle-dragging guy’s guy’s movie. Just check out the opening sequence, which starts on a blatant phallic symbol and progresses into a flurry of slugfests, dynamite. and the least relaxing shave ever:
You may notice from that sequence that, no offense, but most of the guys in this movie look a lot like like apes. It has a lot to do with Di Leo’s apparent ambition with the picture, to portray crime as it probably should be portrayed – violent and animalistic and not as appealing as most movies paint it.
The lead actor, Gastone Moschin, who plays the excellently-named Ugo Piazza, is like a cross between Steve McQueen and Bruce Willis, but with a brow that weighs a ton. Outside of a role in THE GODFATHER PART 2, he hasn’t been in many movies you’d have heard of, but he’s a very striking-looking dude. Most movies wouldn’t think past casting a guy with this kind of looks (basically handsome, but brutish) as a henchman, but it’s totally refreshing and probably necessary to have him as a protagonist. Pretty-boys have little place in badass crime films — you want a guy who looks like he can scrap.
Mario Adorf plays the gregarious but vicious and explosive Rocco Musco as a kind of proto-Billy Batts. Adorf was apparently Peckinpah’s first choice to play Mapache in THE WILD BUNCH, which tells you all you need to know about what this dude brings to the table. Rocco is loud and obnoxious but oddly charismatic and you sure won’t forget his face. Or his mustache.
Lionel Stander plays the ominous, malevolent crime boss. Stander was an American actor with a long television career, but he played his share of roles in Italian cinema — notably in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Lionel Stander, like Ernest Borgnine or Cher or Willem Dafoe, is the kind of actor who is impossible to imagine was ever a baby. Seems he was 58 for twenty years, and it’s possible he didn’t exist before or since.
The cops in this crime flick, the detectives on Ugo’s case, are given almost equal screen time to the cons, although they hardly get to leave the station. They’re still compelling, played as they are by a couple of terrific journeymen actors who are well-remembered by fans of Italian cinema from the era.
Luigi Pistilli is probably best known as Tuco’s brother the priest in THE GOOD, THE BAD &THE UGLY, but he also played against Lee Van Cleef in DEATH RIDES A HORSE, had a key role in the unforgettable spaghetti THE GREAT SILENCE, and also starred in the great Enzo Castellari’s EAGLES OVER LONDON.
Meanwhile, Frank Wolff was an American who worked with Corman and Hellman before moving to Italy. Like Pistilli, he worked with Sergio Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) and Sergio Corbucci (THE GREAT SILENCE), in the latter movie providing some much-needed sardonic comic relief as he does also in CALIBER 9.
It’s a great cast, and a rambunctious, energetic movie overall. The ending in particular strikes like a loud howl and a gut-shot. Quite honestly my comfort zone is Italian westerns and not Italian crime films — though some I can highly recommend are HIGH CRIME, VIOLENT CITY, STREET LAW, and REVOLVER, all fantastic — but this one, widely-regarded as a high-water mark of the genre, has compelled me to get my homework done.
MILANO CALIBRO 9 is screening tonight at 7:00pm at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
— JON ABRAMS
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