During his film career that lasted from 1964 to 1985, Italian filmmaker Fernando Di Leo worked as a director on seventeen movies and wrote about fifty scripts. His directorial debut was an episode of the omnibus comedy Glieroi di ieri, oggi, domani, which was followed by uncredited screenwriting work on spaghetti Westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), the first and second installments of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. In 1972, Di Leo both directed and wrote the screenplay for Milano calibro 9 (Caliber 9) the first part of his Milieu Trilogy, which also consisted of the 1972 movie La mala ordina (The Italian Connection) and the 1973 film Il Boss (The Boss). All three of these are poliziotteschi films, a subgenre of crime movies that garnered popularity in Italy in the late 1960s and the 1970s, heavily influenced by French crime movies, as well as American cop films of the 1970s. These films were characterized by graphic portrayals of violence that included gunfights, car chases and organized crime, while the main characters were usually recluses who belonged to the working class. And even though Di Leo’s Caliber 9 was in no way the first poliziottesco film ever made, its success contributed to the popularity of the subgenre. Di Leo’s script, while mostly an original piece of writing, was nonetheless based, in part, on three stories from author Giorgio Scerbanenco’s 1969 short story collection entitled Milano calibro 9, consisting of twenty-two short stories depicting the Milanese underworld. For example, the part in Caliber 9 where several couriers swap packages, only for both of them to blow up when opened, can be found in Scerbanenco’s story entitled Stazione centrale ammazzare subito. This was not the first time that Di Leo based one of his movies on Scerbanenco’s works of fiction—his 1969 crime thriller I ragazzi del massacre (Naked Violence) was inspired by the writer’s novel of the same name. When talking about the similarities between himself and the author, Di Leo stated: “When I read his books, I realized that we shared the same vision of the world. He was a realist, he wrote about petty crooks and small-time criminals.”
Caliber 9 opens with a thrilling, nearly six-minute-long pre-credits sequence that catapults its viewers straight into a fast-paced depiction of a complex package exchange, without providing us with any narrative context. We soon find out that the parcel in question should have contained $300,000, but when the package reaches its destination, the cash is nowhere to be found. Those who took part in the exchange are found, tortured and questioned about the money’s whereabouts—but when those efforts prove to be futile, the participants are punished in the most brutal of ways. The violence we bear witness to in the film’s opening blindsides both us and the poor characters that end up in literal pieces. But what Di Leo masterfully does is omit the most important aspect of the transaction gone amiss—the moment the con itself took place. It is here that he prepares us for one of the film’s most prominent themes: the notion that appearances can be deceptive. And it is Di Leo’s intent to keep misleading us for as long as he possibly can.
For the remainder of the movie we are meant to follow Ugo Piazza (played by GastoneMoschin), a small-time gangster who has just been released from prison after three years. His new objective is to leave his old life behind and start anew. But unfortunately for him, his old life does not share the same sentiment. His former boss, ‘L’Americano’ (‘The Mikado’ in the English version), sends his henchmen to pick him up and find out what happened to the aforementioned $300,000, for the boss is convinced that Ugo is the one who stole the cash and hid it somewhere. Ugo claims that he was conned and has zero idea about where the money is. But nobody seems to believe him—not ‘L’Americano’, not Ugo’s former partner-in-crime Rocco (Mario Adorf) and not Ugo’s go-go dancing flame Nelly Bordon (Barbara Bouchet). From his ex-boss’ perspective, if anyone can bring him closer to the missing cash, it is Ugo. Because of this, our protagonist is forced to continue working for the gang if he wishes to live another day. His quiet stoicism that verges on passivity is juxtaposed with Rocco’s over-the-top antics, which makes for both highly entertaining and intensely gripping cinema.
This main storyline is interwoven with a minor sub-plot that pertains to the political affiliations of members of the Milanese police. We are presented with a right-wing Police Commissioner portrayed by American actor Frank Wolff on the one hand and with leftist Deputy Commissioner Fonzino (Mercuri in the Italian version) played by Luigi Pistilli on the other. And while the scenes of the pair’s falling-out due to their radically different worldviews are both well-written and interesting in and of themselves, the director later claimed he should not have included them in the movie’s final cut, because he genuinely thought that they negatively impacted the film’s pacing and took the focus away from the criminal protagonists.
But even though Di Leo did not cut those scenes from the film (and lived to regret it), something else was omitted from the theatrical version—title cards indicating the time and day of every scene were originally part of the movie, but were ultimately left out. One such inclusion of dates makes perfect sense, if we take into consideration that Caliber 9’s working title was in fact Da lunedì a lunedì (From Monday to Monday). And although ultimately discarded, this type of approach to the story that involved a precisely established time frame only emphasizes the underlying feeling that Di Leo’s movie seeks to project onto into audiences–the notion that no matter what Ugo does, the outcome of his actions has been set in stone from the get-go. The only thing left for us to do is watch his story unravel, knowing all too well that fate is more often than not a cruel mistress.
The feeling of impending doom is indeed palpable throughout Caliber 9’s 102-minute running time, but the real tragedy is that the protagonist remains unaware of this dynamic. And while he knows all too well just how dangerous the situation he has found himself in truly is, his personal relationship with time consists of him ‘waiting it out’. Ugo’s agenda is clear to him from the start and he remains committed to it one-hundred percent, never allowing himself to let on how he truly feels or what he really wants. Because one slip-up might just cost him his life. His time spent in jail was simply a series of moments he was waiting for to pass, leading up to his release that would bring him one step closer to his goal. The time he is now forced to spend with his former gang, whereby he is doing his very best to remain alive, is also a nuisance he simply has to wait out before he could proceed with his initial plan, one that we as the audience remain unaware of until the very end. This blissful ignorance of ours is made possible thanks to GastoneMoschin’s stoic portrayal of the ex-convict—his stone-faced expression remains unchangeable even in the most life-threatening of circumstances. It is not only his face that gives little to nothing away about Ugo’s ultimate goal. His actions i.e., the frequent lack thereof is another contributing factor to his waiting game, with him remaining oftentimes passive in the face of adversity. His passivity may seem odd, unconvincing or unmotivated at first, but his self-composure starts making perfect sense near the very end, when Ugo’s ulterior motives are finally revealed to us. It is only by calmly waiting it out that Ugo’s end-game can be achieved. The moment he abandons his poise and opts for recklessness just before reaching the finish line, is when fate stops smiling down on him.
Caliber 9, although at times unevenly paced, is nothing short of a violent and intense thriller with a musical score that proves to be an exciting auditory experience. Argentine-Italian Academy-Award-winning film score composer Luis EnríquezBacalov collaborated on the soundtrack with Italian prog-rock group Osanna, a seemingly unusual combination that ended up elevating the movie even more. Caliber 9 also served as inspiration for Italian director Enzo G. Castellari’s Milano Kalibro Kobe, a short film that was part of an advertising campaign for Nike Italia, starring the late Black Mamba and featuring several former Italian football players such as Giampaolo Pazzini, Claudio Marchisio, Gennaro Gattuso, Marco Materazzi, Alberto Aquilani, Italian NBA player Marco Belinelli, as well as former Dutch football player Wesley Sneijder. This alone should be testament enough to Caliber 9’s influence and prominence. Thanks to its enthralling atmosphere, well-written script and satisfying plot twist, Di Leo’s crime thriller is regarded to this day as one of the finest poliziotteschi films there is.
Violent Italy: Milano Calibro 9 (1972)