Tuesday, November 15, 2016
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Milano Calibro 9
Fernando di Leo’s B-movie masterpiece ‘Milano Calibro 9’ opens with a six-minute pre-credits sequence of cynically bravura brilliance. A parcel switch operation whereby a cache of money makes its way across Milan via three cut-outs is overseen by two hoods, the oily Pasquale (Mario Novelli) and the bristly Rocco (Mario Adorf). When the parcel finally arrives in their hands, they realise they’ve been conned. They quickly work their way through the chain of operatives, all of whom deny they were involved. This trio of luckless individuals are tied up in a cave outside the city and … well, we’ll let the following screengrabs tell the story.
Three years later and with the $300,000 still missing and the mob boss it should have gone to – The Americano (Lionel Stander) – still, how shall we say, curious as to its whereabouts, Rocco and his boys pick up the only name left on their list of suspects: Ugo Piazzi (Gastone Moschin), newly released from jail. Ugo, it turns out, was arrested the same day as the money went walkabouts, which The Americano and Rocco take as proof positive that he nicked it.
The police take an equally non-procedural approach to the case, with the Commissioner (Frank Wolff) and his Deputy (Luigi Pistilli) sitting around arguing about politics instead of, oh I don’t know, following clues, analysis forensic reports or tailing suspects. ‘Milano Calibro 9’ was based on a novel by Giorgio Scerbanenco, and the Commissioner, eternally railing against the Deputy’s passion for social justice and browbeating him with the fact that there’s a pecking order for a reason, is the mouthpiece for Scerbanenco’s rabid anti-communism. I’m guessing the Deputy gets fairly short shrift in the novel, whereas di Leo – writing as well as directing – has him score a few points off his stuck-up boss, even if he does get transferred to some shitty backwater by the end of the film.
No such polemics drive the interaction between Ugo and Rocco, however. Rocco first tries smarming the location of the money out of Ugo, then beating it out of them, then threatening on pain of death that Ugo had better present himself to The Americano.
In doing so, Rocco gets on the wrong side Ugo’s buddy Chino (Philippe Leroy), an assassin of some infamy and companion to former mob boss Don Vincenzo (Ivo Garrani). When Ugo keeps his appointment with The Americano, the latter – to Rocco’s consternation – orders Ugo to work with Rocco. A classic example of keeping your enemies closer.
So, with The Americano and Rocco watching him like a hawk, still convinced he’s the thief, and the police dimly aware of him while still sitting around the station disputing the socio-political narrative of early ’70s Italy, Ugo reluctantly commences his lowly duties in The Americano’s organisation, while turning his fuller attentions to rekindling an old romance with exotic dancer Nelly Bordon (Barbara Bouchet).
After its rip-roaring opening, and several tense scenes that edge Ugo ever closer to The Americano’s orbit, ‘Milano Calibro 9’ daringly takes its foot off the pedal in terms of narrative and tension – daringly because, for all the craftsmanship involved, it’s still an exploitationer and the cardinal sin of any exploitation movie is to be dull – and structures its mid-section as an enquiry into the lives of career criminals and those who hunt them, and the divisions that exist in both camps. The Americano and Don Vincenzo represent the old school, but where Vincenzo visibly exhibits a weariness that suggests he’s haunted by the life he led, The Americano is devoid of self-awareness. Ugo and Chino are mid-level players, both cautious and taciturn but capable of cold and unhesitating brutality when the moment is ripe. Rocco and sundry others are the muscle – thugs who are in the game for kicks, easy money and fast women. The nature of the criminal underworld is changing. Don Vincenzo eulogises at one point that there’s no real Mafia any more, just gangs killing each other.
Then, just as the pace threatens to subside into inertia, di Leo cranks things up: The Americano descends into paranoia; his low-level operatives start dying all over the place, usually as a result of incendiary devices; a mysterious individual starts cropping up in the background; and Chino crosses paths with Rocco again, with cataclysmic results. And all of this is merely set up for the final reel which is basically one rug-pull after another and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you.
‘Milano Calibro 9’ is a very different beast from, say, Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Almost Human’ or Lucio Fulci’s ‘Contraband’. In its close observation of how a specific criminal enterprise operates, it’s probably closer to Enzo G. Castellari’s ‘The Heroin Busters’, while Moschin’s existentially cool loner – played with such ruthless minimalism he makes Clint Eastwood look like Noel Coward – is worthy of comparison to Alain Delon in Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’. On the other end of the scale, Adorf goes for broke in his portrayal of a total nutjob, tearing into a final scene that would prove the blueprint for every edgy movie psycho up to Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in ‘Goodfellas’ and beyond. It’s a performance that almost verges into pantomime, but the terrible ferocity of his final scene ensures his – and the movie’s – place in cinema history.