‘Milano Calibro 9’ or — Manipulation, Italian Style.
$300,000 is being passed down a line of mules yet, somewhere along the line, the money is swapped out for worthless paper. Furious, the double-crossed gangsters start a killing spree; slicing, dicing and beating the “innocent” mules in a startling montage of violence in their attempt to locate the stolen money. No one talks; they are bound; dynamite is used to finish the job. Cue the explosion, immediately drop the sweeping string score — replace with a kick-ass Italian prog rock complete with jazz/fusion flute just for good measure — and smash up onto the screen the title card ‘Milano Calibro 9’! And BANG! Now THAT’S how to start a movie!
Fernando Di Leo’s ‘Milano Calibro 9’ (1972) has one of the most breathless openings I’ve seen. It kicks like a tethered mule, a film just bursting to get going and show you what’s in store whilst perfectly setting up the incident that is going to put the next 90 minutes in motion.
After this explosive start the movie settles down as, three years later, we see ex-con Ugo leaving prison. He seems to be the only possible culprit to have stolen the $300,000 (money which belongs to a big, nasty gang boss called The American). Ugo had a viable plan after all — steal the dough then deliberately get picked-up on some other offensive to wait out the heat in jail. And so everyone from The American’s men to the police are breathing down Ugo’s neck, just waiting for him to dash for the cash or make some other slip.
Meanwhile Ugo is trying to live some sort of decent life on the outside. He hooks up with an old mafia boss (now almost broke and dying with his times), an old friend who is also a killing machine as well as his girlfriend whom Ugo hasn’t seen for years. Yet no-one really seems to believe that he doesn’t have the money. How can Ugo carry on with his life unless he can prove to them all that he doesn’t have the loot or even knows where it is? And with The American’s men just itching for a chance to bump him off, will he be able to prove his innocence before he is killed?
What is remarkable about ‘Milano Calibro 9’ (amongst many other aspects) is just how it focuses on the main character of Ugo (played brilliantly by Gastone Moschin). He is the very definition of implacability. I have never seen an actor who watches so furiously before, taking his time, saying nothing but, like some sweaty dynamite, always on the verge of combustion. We, like the gangsters, are constantly trying to read him, figuring out what is going on inside his large, domed, bald head.
And Gastone Moschin plays the part brilliantly. Look at the sequence where he visits his ex, Barbara Bouchet, in her club. The way he is constantly, nervously looking at her, the way the camera is up in his face filling the entire screen. This is a director who knows exactly what he wants from his actor and an actor who knows exactly what his director wants and is giving it to him. It is so well done. We might not “know” Ugo all the time but we are certainly getting into his skin.
The performances throughout the entire film are a joy. Compared to Ugo’s stoicism we have Rocco, a thug who is all emotional histrionics, chewing up the scenery every chance he gets. Frank Wolff brings the comedy as a reactionary detective, Lionel Stander provides an against type sinister mob boss whilst Barbara Bouchet is ever wonderful in a role that is more than just looking pretty.
Elsewhere the film plays out almost like a precursor to ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980) in that, on the surface, it appears to be a story of a gangster attempting to make good yet, once other factors have been thrown in — the American boss with his large-scale plans or the police officers constantly (and humorously) bickering about Capitalism — it becomes clear that everybody is a tiny cog in a much vaster, unstoppable geo-political machine. Like ‘The Long Good Friday’ this movie also has aspirations that lift it out of its genre and elevate it to something more than just a “gangster” film and both films pull that off.
The heart of ‘Milano Calibro 9’ is manipulation. When Ugo is first brought in by the police for a “we’ve got our eye on you” chat he is accused of manipulating his girlfriend, of freeloading off her (a conversation that then spirals into a argument between the Left and the Right in the way only Italians could do in the early 70s) and there are similar sentiments expressed concerning the crime world: who is using who?
This theme of manipulation is masterfully carried right through to the end where, without giving anything away, the film resolves itself beautifully and brutally. Everything this has been leading up to makes sense, is powerful both dramatically and narratively and is handled with fantastic skill by Di Leo. This is one of those endings that kicks you in the guts and stays with you long after and it is satisfying as hell. It is a burst of violence that has been simmering since that opening, left to percolate for eighty minutes or so and then, just at the right point, explodes like a fucking bomb.
‘Milano Calibro 9’ is not just one of the best of the Italian poliziottesco films of the 70s but is easily up there with the best gangster films ever made. It has that wonderful element all the best films have — a uniquely idiosyncratic character, and energy, all to itself. The story, characters, twists, turns and action are firing on all cylinders here. Plus, this is a very pretty movie to look at at times with some really nice cinematography (this film looks stunning on blu ray). And a last piece of icing for this cake — all this is packed into roughly ninety minutes running time meaning this is a movie as taut and mean as Ugo’s scowling glare.