Sunday, September 13, 2009


Here's the first of a trilogy of crime films by Fernando Di Leo, an Italian director who's a new quantity to me. All three films are included in VideoAsia's Thug City Chronicles collection in letterboxed editions that probably make the entire collection well worth the price you might pay at your local Best Buy. This particular film has a classic crime plot, charismatic characters and direction that's dynamic without being flashy -- except when it has some female flash and flesh to flaunt.

Our protagonist is Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin), just out of prison but wanted by one Milan gang for another offense: the theft of $300,000 in American currency. He denies the theft but the underlings of "the Mikado" (Lionel Stander) don't believe him. They rough him up a bit and keep their eyes on him, but he makes no move to confirm their suspicions. The police are just as suspicious, but they want to use Ugo as bait to hook the Mikado.

Ugo has little to say to either group. He's a silent and strong type, powerfully built but no powerful mind by his own admission. He still has a few friends. One is Kino, the last retainer of a once powerful crime lord who's initially reluctant to defy the Mikado but ready to help a friend with money, shelter, and eventually more. Another is Nelly (Barbara Bouchet), an exotic dancer who was his girl before jail and hooks up with him again even though he didn't expect her to be faithful and she wasn't. A wild card is a mysterious figure in a red jacket and white scarf who stalks Ugo and later intervenes to set up a small-scale gang war between Kino and the Mikado, with Ugo in the middle.

Any more description would give away some important twists in the plot, and viewers deserve to experience this story fresh. It's a very conventional story that thrives in this telling. Di Leo establishes the menace in a pre-credits sequence that shows the Mikado's men dealing brutally with three people who apparently bungled a money-smuggling operation. The main man of this group is Rocco (Mario Adorf) who has an almost love-hate relationship with Ugo. He enjoys toying with the man but has a respect for him that later blossoms quite surprisingly into something like hero worship. Adorf gives a flamboyant performance that's actually helped nicely by his American dubber, who synchronizes his scenery-chewing quite nicely with the original actor and gets to spew out malapropisms like "the damages is astrological!" for comedy relief.

Mario Adorf in aggressive and more pensive modes.

Rocco needs to be done big to contrast with the laconic Ugo, who's ideally incarnated by Moschin, who I was surprised to learn later played the very different Don Fanucci in The Godfather Part II. Those are two very different characters. Ugo is really nothing but a thug, but his simplicity makes him sympathetic. You get the sense that he's the sort of guy who really has no other option than crime in his life. He's the rank-and-file soldier who gets manipulated by the schemers on top, and you find yourself rooting for him to be vindicated, either to be proven innocent as he claims or to get the upper hand on his tormentors along with the money. His minimal dialogue betrays a constant physical intensity, even in stillness, that explodes in moments of hands-on violence. He looks like the type that can kill with one blow, as he does at one climactic point in the film. And as with Adorf, Moschin's counterpart in the dubbing studio does a good job translating the character's blunt personality.

Milano Calibro 9 is one of those Italian crime films that wears its socio-political context on its sleeve. A lot of them are very conscientious about their settings, including city names in their titles, and geography matters to the larger story Di Leo hints at here. Ugo has to deal with two police officials, one a hardcase right-winger of the sort that would probably be the hero were this a poliziotteschi film, the other a more liberal cop who's interested in the root causes of crime. The Mikado (so called in the dubbing but actually "the Americano" in the Italian credits!) runs a sort of tax-shelter racket, smuggling wealthy folks's money out of the country to be deposited in Swiss banks. The liberal cop's more interested in using the Mikado to bring down the rich malefactors who are hurting the Italian economy, while the right-wing cop just wants to take down the Mikado with minimal collateral damage to the upper class. He mockingly red-baits his liberal colleague, who also argues that crime is surging in Milan because of an influx of low-wage workers from southern Italy who are exploited by their new employers and denied other opportunities for advancement. As far as I could tell, Di Leo doesn't really come down on either side, but reports the disagreement objectively to reflect the divisions in Italian society at the time.

So now that I've made the film sound more pretentious than it really is, let me stress that Milano Calibro 9 has plenty of kick-ass action, genuinely decent English dialogue (though one cop's admonition to Ugo to "get out of here and go play with her dangling dingleberries!" is just a bit awkward) and ample eye-candy mostly provided by the gorgeous Barbara Bouchet. It also boasts a terrific main theme and score by Luis Enriquez Bacalov with that characteristic Italian combination of romantic classicism and electric edginess. The Italian film composers just have a knack for expressing idealism and harsh realism at practically the same time; apparently it's a national trait.

Only the wide screen can hold the rampant sensuality of Barbara Bouchet in Milano Calibro 9.

Bouchet in her apartment, a small wonder of set design, and in matching clothes.

Milano Calibro 9 is a promising introduction to Fernando Di Leo in general and his crime trilogy in particular. Unless something jumps up suddenly to claim my attention, I expect to go through the remaining films in the coming week. From the peeks I took when I first picked up Thug City Chronicles, the next films look even more brutal than this one, but if the other story elements keep up with the escalating violence, this will be an extraordinary set of movies.

Since I've shown the trailer before, this time I'll show you Ms. Bouchet's complete dance number, as uploaded to YouTube by the appropriately named poliziottesco70. I think you'll enjoy it as much as Ugo does.


Rev. Phantom said...

I just discovered this one recently as well and I have to say it is one of my favorite poliziotteschi films of all time--if not one of my favorite films period. Glad you pointed out the score, because it really is quite incredible. Moschin's performance really blew me away--Adorf is great too.

The Great Tyrant said...

Funny you posted this as I posted a trailer for the movie from youtube on my own blog yesterday. One of the best Italian crime thrillers of all time, along with Castellari's High Crime [71].

I agree with you and the Rev - one of the best film soundtracks there is. Look up the Osanna LP - it's frickin' awesome.

venoms5 said...

This is an awesome trilogy and Henry Silva is a brutal bastard in the third film, THE BOSS (1973). I have the original Italian NoShame discs for these three films. Sadly, MILAN CALIBER 9 is a two disc set and while the film contains both English and Italian w/English subs, the second disc, rife with special features, has no subs at all. However, the latter two films have their special features subbed.

Haven't heard about this set from the bootleg outfit, VideoAsia. Did they port over the NoShame special features, too, or is it just the movies? Di Leo's second trilogy isn't nearly as good, nor memorable as this one.

MILAN CALIBER 9 is required viewing, IMO and a great intro to the genre.

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., you're one of the people who alerted me to Di Leo's work, so consider this my endorsement of your endorsement.

Tyrant: I saw that! I had the same trailer up when I did a preview of Thug City Chronicles last month, and it's a great one of its kind.

venom5: Of course VideoAsia did not port over any special features from the DVDs they copied. Funny thing is, when you start Il Boss you can actually see a scene selection screen for about a second before the movie begins. But at least VideoAsia is copying DVDs instead of tapes these days.