Fernando Di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (Caliber 9 in English) begins in gloriously over-the-top fashion with Rocco’s (Mario Adorf) henchmen rounding up and torturing three people to find out where some stolen money has gone. Cut to a cave and the three are tied together with a stick of dynamite. The bad guys laugh as the cave explodes. The rest of the film can’t quite live up to that initial promise of craziness but it’s still fun, and the ending is fantastic. When career criminal Ugo Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin) gets out of prison four years later, he finds himself in Rocco’s sights as the only one who could have stolen the money. There’s also the Police Commissioner (Frank Wolff) who wants to exploit Piazza to nail the elusive The Americano.
It’s not exactly a groundbreaking story – it’s basically Piazza going around waiting for Rocco to keep showing up and cause trouble, and attempts to inject pathos and romance with a blind old man and dancer love interest Nelly (Barbara Bouchet) respectively fall flat – but every other scene is charged with a violently masculine energy that could explode at any moment. The use of framing to show the power dynamics between the characters – low angles, handheld, and zooms – is masterful. (And if that kind of thing is important to you, the influence of Di Leo’s style on that of Scorsese, say, is hard to question.)
The sets and lighting are undeniably cheap, but a ’70s Italian cheapness that only increases in charm with age. There are some fascinating traces of the past, not only in the interior design, the urban landscapes and music but in its politics. Inspector Mercuri (Luigi Pistilli) is an outspoken socialist. He questions the efficacy of the prison system and asks the Commissioner why they don’t pursue bankers and businessmen with the same enthusiasm he has for The Americano. It’s a little shoehorned in, but serves as a nice reminder that exploitation filmmakers can be socially conscious too. Interestingly, Lionel Stander who plays The Americano was blacklisted from Hollywood for being a Communist to the extent that he had relocated to Italy by this period, also popping up in Once Upon a Time in the West.
This new Blu-Ray and DVD release from Arrow has a typically excellent transfer and a nice collection of special features, including featurettes on the making of this film, on Di Leo, and on Giorgio Scerbanenco who wrote the novel the film was based on.