Italian journalist and crime fiction novelist Giorgio Scerbanenco was born in the Ukraine in 1911, but moved to Italy when he was just a child. After doing freelance work for several Italian women’s magazines, he turned to writing fiction and became famous for his crime novels, which eventually led to him being considered one of the fathers of Italian noir. Before his untimely death in 1969, Scerbanenco penned four novels that centered around doctor-turned-private eye-turned-police officer Duca Lamberti, thereby setting the stage for a number of Italian crime fiction authors. Known as The Milano Quartet, the Lamberti novels were written in accordance with the American hard-boiled formula as a means of criticizing Italian society, thereby doing for Milan “what James Ellroy does for L.A.” (according to John Powers of npr.org). Out of the four novels in question—Venere Privata (1966), Traditori di tutti (1966), I ragazzi del massacro (1968) and I milanesi ammazzano al sabato (1969)—three of them were adapted into feature-length films. Traditori di tutti, the 1968 winner of the French literary prize Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and the second book of the series, was never turned into a motion picture.
The first installment of The Milano Quartet entitled Venere Privata served as the basis for Yves Boisset’s 1970 French thriller Cran d'arrêt (Safety Catch) starring Bruno Cremer. In Boisset’s second feature (his directorial debut being the 1968 spy film Coplan Sauve Sa Peau), Cremer plays Lamberti, a former doctor who served time for euthanizing a patient, as he tries to help a young man coping with guilt in the wake of his girlfriend’s death. Critics have noted that the adaptation was subpar to the novel, not quite managing to capture what the author had envisioned. The exact opposite could be said for the 1969 movie version of the third Lamberti book I ragazzi del massacro (Naked Violence) which managed to convey the mood and tone of the novel despite not following it to a tee. It was adapted for the screen by director Fernando Di Leo, marking the first, but not the last, time that the Italian filmmaker used the beloved author’s writing as source material for his cinematic endeavors. With a screenplay penned by Nino Latino and Di Leo himself, Naked Violence (released in the UK under the title The Boys Who Slaughter) follows Lamberti (played by Pier Paolo Capponi) as he tries to get to the bottom of a horrific murder case—a group of eleven young male students gang rape and kill their teacher in a classroom, but rather than be on the run, they all return to their respective homes. One of the film’s most impressive and unsettling scenes is surely its opening sequence, shot with a handheld camera, showcasing bits and pieces of the nauseating crime, but omitting a very crucial aspect of it.
The fourth and final Lamberti book I milanesi ammazzano al sabato (which translates as ‘The Milanese Kill on Saturdays’) that was published a mere couple of months before Scerbanenco’s passing, was turned into a 1970 crime film called La morte risale a ieri sera (Death Occurred Last Night), directed by Duccio Tessari. With a screenplay written by Tessari and Biagio Proietti, the film follows Lamberti (portrayed by Frank Wolff) as he investigates the kidnapping of a mentally challenged girl, whose father will stop at nothing to find her. This part giallo, part police procedural, part neo-noir was praised as an overlooked, but significant contribution to Italian genre cinema, thanks to its disturbing premise, well-executed character development and a stand-out performance from Wolff. However, some critics and viewers took issue with Gianni Ferrio’s score, claiming that its vibrancy clashed with the film’s unsettling tone.
Apart from the adventures of Duca Lamberti, several other Scerbanenco writings were turned into well-received movies, most notably Fernando Di Leo’s poliziotteschi films Milano Calibro 9 (Caliber 9) and La Mala Ordina (Manhunt, The Italian Connection), the first two installments of the filmmaker’s Milieu Trilogy (the last part being Il Boss, based on paperback writer Peter McCurtin’s Mafioso). The script to Milano Calibro 9, written by Di Leo himself, was partially based on three stories that can be found in Scerbanenco’s short story collection of the same name. Di Leo had explained that the reason he took such a liking to the author’s material lies in their shared perspective of the world, which gave birth to a realistic approach that includes telling stories about “petty crooks and small-time criminals”. One such thief is Milano Calibro 9’s protagonist Ugo Piazza (played with baffling stoicism by Gastone Moschin) who gets out of prison after having served a three-year sentence, but immediately finds himself in trouble again when his old (crime) boss accuses him of stealing and hiding $300,000. With its intense atmosphere, clever writing and exciting plot twist, Di Leo’s 1972 adaptation is considered one of the best films of the poliziotteschi genre, and rightfully so.
La Mala Ordina came out that same year, with its plot borrowed from the short story Milan by Calibro 9 from the aforementioned short story collection, even though Scerbanenco unfortunately did not get an onscreen credit this time around. The story revolves around two American hitmen sent to Milan with the objective to locate and kill a pimp who stole a drug shipment from the mob. Not only is La Mala Ordina violent, exciting and adrenaline-filled, but its two killers actually served as inspiration for Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield, according to Di Leo fan Quentin Tarantino.
And although Di Leo did not adapt any more of Scerbanenco’s material, he did pen the story and co-write the screenplay (alongside Nico Ducci) for yet another poliziottesco film based on short stories from the author’s Milano Calibro 9 collection (the stories in question being Bravi ragazzi bang bang and In pineta si uccide meglio). Directed by Romolo Guerrieri, the 1976 movie Liberi armati pericolosi (Young, Violent, Dangerous) revolves around three young men going on a bloody crime spree, while the police force tries bringing them to justice. As its title suggests, the fast-paced film is gritty, exploitative and violent, with unexpected twists, turns and surprising character development.
There were two other movies based on Scerbanenco’s writing. A year before Liberi armati pericolosi came out, director Luigi Cozzi made the giallo film L'assassino è costretto ad uccidere ancora (The Killer Must Kill Again) inspired by the novel Al mare con la ragazza (By the Sea With the Girl). And in 1993, filmmaker Carlos Saura directed a Spanish revenge tragedy called ¡Dispara!, starring Francesca Neri and Antonio Banderas, based on the author’s story Spara che ti passa. And even though it is a shame that the beloved novelist never got the chance to see some of the fantastic films that were inspired by his work, it is safe to say that the world of cinema remains forever in his debt.