Caliber 9 (1972) Review

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Paul A J Lewis of

Milano calibro 9 / Caliber 9 (1972)
Director: Fernando Di Leo
Screenwriter: Fernando Di Leo
Starring: Gastone Moschin, Barbara Bouchet, Mario Adorf, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Ivo Garrani, Philippe Leroy, Lionel Stander

In a world of tough guys and even tougher breaks, there is one overriding principle: fate. You can’t escape it. You must play the hand you’ve been dealt. How effectively you play that hand… well, that depends on your skill.

If there’s a central theme that informs the work of Italian film director Fernando di Leo, whose work as a screenwriter during the 1960s on westerns all’italiana/‘Spaghetti Westerns’ was followed in the 1970s by directorial duties on a series of hard-bitten films about gangsters that flit around the edges of the poliziesco all’italiana (Italian-style police film), it’s the struggle with fate. In exploring this theme, di Leo’s movies tread the fine line between European cinema and American popular cinema. In terms of their aesthetic (and, more obviously, their setting), they are recognisably Italian, but at the same time they concern themselves with themes that obsessed Hollywood Renaissance filmmakers of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn: the battle of the sexes in an age of women’s lib (and the interplay between traditional macho male anti-heroes and their increasingly liberated ‘molls’); do we really have control over our own lives; and what battles, if any, are worth fighting? Indeed, it would have been interesting to see how di Leo would have approached a script like The Cincinatti Kid (Norman Jewison, 1965), with its card-game-as-metaphor-for-life message.

However, some of di Leo’s movies are rebuttals of the messages to be found in the movies of his Hollywood contemporaries: for example, in its focus on the criminal milieu rather than the then-popular rogue cop figure, Milano calibro 9 is in many ways a rejection of the ideas to be found in a movie such as Dirty Harry – a film that was often imitated by the Italian poliziesco pictures in the 1970s (for example, Enzo G Castellari’s Il grande racket/The Big Racket, 1976) – and this rebuttal can be found in the dialogues between Frank Wolff and Luigi Pistilli in Milano calibro 9. This is an aspect of di Leo’s work that I will return to later.

Born in 1932, during his youth di Leo achieved a degree of success with his contributions to Italian theatre, poetry and literature, publishing his first collection of poems (“Le intenzione”) in 1960, and following this up with a collection of twenty inter-related short stories entitled “I Racconti della Provincia”. Before becoming involved in filmmaking, he also published a semi-autobiographical novel entitled “I Nostri Atti”, and worked on adaptations of classic dramatic texts.

In the 1960s, however, di Leo became involved in the world of cinema. After attending the C.S.C. in Rome (the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Europe’s oldest film school, founded in 1935, and now known as the Scuola Nazionale del Cinema), he co-directed the social comedy Gli eroi di ieri, oggi, domani (1963, with Enzo dell’Aquila) and began to make his mark as a screenwriter. In this capacity, di Leo contributed to Sergio Leone’s classic westerns all’italian (or, ‘Spaghetti Westerns’) Per un pugnio di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964) and Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More, 1965), as well as Duccio Tessari’s Una pistola per Ringo (A Gun For Ringo, 1965) and Il ritorno di Ringo (The Return of Ringo, 1965). Following this, in 1967 di Leo directed his first solo feature length movie, Rose rosso per il Führer (Red Roses for the Führer), a war drama about the Belgian resistance.

However, it was in the 1970s that di Leo delivered the films for which he is most remembered: in 1969, inspired by the work of Kiev-born author Giorgio Scerbanenco, di Leo wrote and directed I ragazzi del massacro (The Boys Who Kill/Naked Violence), the first feature in which di Leo’s singular form of Italian ‘noir’ became fully apparent.

After I ragazzi del massacro, di Leo delivered an unusual film in the form of the thrilling all’italiana/giallo all’italiana (Italian-style thriller) La bestia uccide a sangue freddo (The Beast Kills in Cold Blood, most commonly known in English as Slaughter Hotel, but also released as Asylum Erotica, 1971).

Then, in 1972, once again inspired by Scerbanenco’s work, di Leo directed Milano calibro 9 (Calibre 9). The first of di Leo’s ‘milieu trilogy’, Milano calibro 9 was followed by La mala ordina (Black Kingpin/Manhunt)—released the same year—and Il boss (The Boss/Murder Inferno), the final part of the trilogy, released in 1973.

Di Leo continued to work throughout the 1970s, delivering films that mostly fell within the crime genre, until his final feature Killer contro Killers (Death Commando), which was released in 1985.

Since his death in 2003, there has been a resurgence of interest in Di Leo’s output, and a corresponding growth of critical interest in his films, which appear to be assuming the status of classics within their respective genres. A significant number of his films have been released on home video formats, and in addition, in May 2005 a number of his films were screened at the ICA in London. For some time during the mid-2000s, there were also rumours of a Quentin Tarantino-helmed Hollywood rethinking of La mala ordina.

However, for admirers of di Leo’s work, the core of his career as a filmmaker is the ‘milieu trilogy’, consisting of Milano calibro 9, La mala ordina and Il boss.

Like I ragazzi del massacro, Milano calibro 9 once again originated with a short story by Scerbanenco. The film focuses on Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin), an ex-con who, upon being released from prison, finds himself under pressure from both the police (who are convinced that he’ll reoffend) and his former criminal confederates: led by The Americano (Lionel Stander), Piazza’s former associates believe that Piazza stole a significant amount of money from The Americano. Throughout the film, Piazza’s proverbial hand is forced and his will is tested time and time again: although he appears to wish to ‘go straight’, Piazza has little choice but to become involved once again with the criminal fraternity with which he operated before going to jail.

In the course of trying to convince The Americano and his gang (including The Americano’s ‘muscles’, Rocco Musco, played by Mario Adorf) that he did not steal the money, Piazza also becomes involved with his former moll, Nelly Bordon (Barbara Bouchet). Bordon appears to try to persuade Piazza to leave his criminal past behind.

Moschin (left) and Adorf (right) in Milano calibro 9 (1972)

Piazza enlists the help of his friend Chino (Philippe Leroy) in his struggle against The Americano’s thugs. But once again, things go wrong in The Americano’s camp: during a trade-off at which Piazza is present, one of the bagmen is killed and The Americano’s money is stolen. The Americano suspects Piazza, but Piazza suggests that it would be more correct for The Americano to suspect Musco.

After a dispute, The Americano suggests that he knows who stole the money, and enlists Piazza’s help in a hit on the anonymous thief. During the hit, Piazza realises that he is being asked to kill Chino and his former boss, Don Vincenzo (Ivo Garrani), who in an earlier sequence criticised the ‘new generation’ of criminals: ‘They call it the Mafia, but really they’re just gangs fighting each other. The real Mafia doesn’t exist anymore’. Don Vincenzo is killed, but Chino survives.

Later, at a party held in The Americano’s honour, Chino resurfaces and causes mayhem in revenge for Don Vincenzo’s death, killing The Americano’s henchmen. After a period of passivity, Piazza joins in. During the battle, Chino is mortally wounded, but manages to kill The Americano. The Old Order has symbolically eliminated the new generation of criminals, but at the cost of its own extinction.

Piazza leaves the site of the massacre and flees to an abandoned church where di Leo’s cruel sense of irony becomes most apparent: although throughout the film, we’ve been led to see Piazza as a victim who cannot escape his life of crime, it is revealed that Piazza did in fact steal The Americano’s money.

Returning with the money to Milan, Piazza encounters Rocco. Rocco discovers that Piazza has stolen the money and the two men develop a new-found respect for each other.

At Nelly’s flat, Piazza discovers that he has been betrayed: with her young lover Luca, Nelly conspired to steal The Americano’s money, and now they have conspired to kill Piazza and steal his money too. Luca mortally wounds Piazza, who in a fit of rage kills Nelly. At this point, Rocco storms into the room and kills Luca, in respect of the man who was once his enemy, Piazza.

One of the central themes of the movie is the issue of ‘biding your time’: in prison, Piazza has had to bide his time, waiting for his release. And on the outside, he finds that he has to wait in order to find the right time to claim the money he stole from The Americano. Life on the outside is little different from life in prison: when Frank Wolff asks Piazza what he plans to do now he has been released from jail, Piazza replies ‘[T]ake it easy’; Wolff responds with, ‘Just like in jail’. Like life in prison, for Piazza life on the outside is characterised by ‘taking it easy’: doing your time quietly, with the minimum of trouble.

The movie is to a large extent about ‘taking it easy’ and the experience of the passivity of waiting. This theme is reinforced in a number of key scenes in which Piazza’s stone-faced passivity is put to the test. In one of these scenes, Piazza is by turns interrogated, provoked and threatened by Frank Wolff’s police commissioner, who believes that Piazza will naturally return to his criminal roots; in the second scene which revolves around Piazza’s passivity, the hotel room in which Piazza is staying is trashed by Rocco and his goons. Piazza remains on the bed, his passive demeanour only dropping when Rocco taunts him about his ‘plan to fuck over The Americano’. (Ironically, at this point Rocco is unaware that Piazza has such a plan.)

This sense of passivity also ties in with the sense of fatalism that informs the film: like many of di Leo’s movies, there is a sense that the characters are doomed from the outset, and that events are only building towards their logical conclusion. All the characters can do is wait for that conclusion to arrive. A recurring theme in di Leo’s work is the idea that our futures are written for us by the powerful: by crooks like The Americano, and by cynical cops like Frank Wolff’s character.

Throughout much of the movie, The Americano is an unseen presence, and in a number of scenes he is likened to a ‘God’ (‘I bet you wish The Americano died while you were in jail’, Rocco says to Piazza; ‘but he’s immortal [….] You know what The Americano always says: “do unto others what they would do to you, before they do it”’): in effect, The Americano is a ‘godhead’: something like the Wizard of Oz, he is a figure of respect hidden behind the scenes, a puppeteer who doesn’t reveal his presence until it is absolutely necessary. He’s the man who pulls the strings of most of the characters in the movie; but as the story of Don Vincenzo’s fall from power suggests, The Americano’s decline is inevitable. Don Vincenzo’s past reminds us that even the powerful are not immune to the forces of fate.

In discussing criminals like Piazza and The Americano, Frank Wolff’s character’s dialogues with Mercuri (Luigi Pistilli) reveal his distrust of a ‘soft touch’ to criminals and his belief that justice should concern itself with retribution rather than rehabilitation. As such, Frank Wolff’s character is a hyperbole, an exaggeration of the ‘supercops’ that, during the 1970s, were becoming popular in US cinema, inspired by the success of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), and in the many examples of Italian poliziesco films that emulated it – such as the Maurizio Merli-starring actioners Roma violenta (Violent Rome; Marino Girolami, 1975), Napoli Violenta (Violent Naples; Umberto Lenzi, 1976) and Il commissario di ferro (The Iron Commissioner; Stelvio Massi, 1978).

Wolff’s character’s cynicism and narrow-mindedness are revealed in the scenes in which he discusses (in something approaching ‘Socratic dialogues’) his ideas with Mercuri. Mercuri suggests that the police ‘should act on a larger scale […] Let’s get the ones who evict people and who beat up students and workers’, and Wolff’s response is, ‘Stop being a subversive [….] You read too much left-wing material’. As played by Luigi Pistilli, Mercuri is level-headed in the face of Frank Wolff’s agitation, and it’s hard not to see Mercuri as the ‘voice’ of di Leo, especially when he states that ‘The Americano is an effect, not a cause [….] [T]he mass of Southerners who come to live up North do the most menial jobs, that noone else will do. They are badly paid, live in poor housing and have no social benefits. No wonder they turn to crime’. Additionally, in their discussion of student protests (and the suggestion that a bomb detonated in one of the sequences was planted by a man with a ‘clean record’ who had only been arrested for his part in some unnamed ‘student protests’), these dialogues also allude to the growth of the Red Brigades: radical activist/terrorist groups who, in 1972, were beginning to hit the news, growing out of the student movements and spreading from Milan (where this film is set) to other parts of Italy.

But the grand irony of the movie (and the source of its incoherence/self-contradictory nature) is that Wolff is right in his judgement of Piazza: Piazza was set to return to his criminal roots, and he had stolen The Americano’s money. Wolff’s denouncement of Piazza mid-way through the film as ‘a mooch’ and ‘a manipulator’ is revealed at the end of the film to be accurate: Piazza has been just as guilty of manipulating people as his enemy, The Americano. In his last moments, even Piazza’s friend Chino realises that Piazza has manipulated him into killing The Americano (in a moment of revelation, he declares ‘You finally got me to kill The American’. Moschin’s features seem to register a subtle moment of shame before he leaves the site of the massacre to collect his money). The irony of the closing scene is that Piazza’s apparent passivity has belied his status as a manipulator of people: in reality, he is anything but passive.

And what of the advice given to a man beaten by Piazza for hitting on Nelly? ‘You have to accept it’: you have to accept it because ‘it’ is all there is, and there isn’t an awful lot you can do to change ‘it’. This is perhaps the overriding theme of the movie, the ‘message’ that most of the audience are left with: bide your time, but be aware that fate and the powerful will conspire against you until all you can do is ‘accept it’.


Written by Paul A J Lewis

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