If you consider yourself a gangster movie aficionado, and haven’t seen Fernando Di Leo’s seminal CALIBER 9 (original title (Milano Calibro 9), you really haven’t done your homework.
Director Fernando Di Leo is Italy’s Scorsese, the master of the gangster genre, and Caliber 9 is his masterpiece. It is a must see no-brainer for anyone into gangster movies, especially anyone who is a fan of Quentin Tarantino.
Di Leo is to Tarantino what bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Slayer are to bands like Metallica, Pantera, and Black Label Society…
There can’t be the latter without the former, and the former’s influence is evident in everything that the latter does.
Tarantino has publicly stated on many occasions his debt to Di Leo, and Di Leo’s influence is evident in all of Tarantino’s early work (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown).
On the Fernando Di Leo box set, Tarantino allowed this quote to be used on the cover:
“I am a huge fan of Italian gangster movies, I’ve seen them all and Fernando Di Leo is, without a doubt, the master of this genre.”
In Di Leo’s great MANHUNT (which deserves its own article) , the central characters are two American hit-men, one black and one white (sound familiar?)
Caliber 9 tells the story of Ugo Piazza…
An old-school mafia goon who has just gotten out of prison in Milan. And when we say just gotten out, he has just walked out the doors of the joint as the story picks up. This is crucial to the story, as Piazza is suspected of stealing $300,000 3 years earlier from the current powerful Underworld boss “The Americano“,
and the Americano wants his money back. The Americano has his goons, led by the ruthless Rocco,
tail Piazza everywhere he goes from the moment he exits the prison’s doors, because on the day of the disappearance 3 years ago,Ugo got himself arrested and thrown in jail the same day.
An alibi or coincidence? We don’t know, but either way…there’s no way he could have spent the money, and they want to be there when he goes for it.
So, Ugo has got the Mafia, the police, and even his old girlfriend on his heels for the money.
There’s also a mystery man in a red jacket who’s tailing him, who’s face we never see. In short, Things aren’t looking too good for our boy Ugo as he gets back to the mean streets of Milan.
After a breathtaking opening scene,
which illustrates the day of the disappearance 3 years earlier, we see a leather-jacket clad Rocco and his goons take care of the other runners involved in the money transfer that day. Cut to three years later, when Ugo steps out of prison. He is met by a sharp-suited Rocco, who has clearly moved up the ladder and is of much more importance and power now, in fact he is The Americano’s #2 man.
They let Ugo know that they know he has the money, and don’t plan to let him get to it. Ugo, played with a brilliant stoic performance by Gastone Moschin,
denies over and over that he has taken the money, and repeats over and over that he has no idea who took it.
And so begins this masterwork.
Caliber 9 was made in 1972, when Di Leo was at his apex and Italy was churning out great movies like this. None, however, are as technically perfect as films as Caliber 9 is. Caliber 9 is one of those movies, that unbeknownst to all during its production, would end up firing on all cylinders – acting, directing, score, cinematography. It’s all there. The whole is substantially greater than the sum of its parts, and Caliber 9 is the highlight of Fernando Di Leo’s storied directing career.
Ugo is tailed wherever he goes. When he goes to talk to the police commissioner,
he too pressures Ugo to tell him where the money is. Ugo, as with everyone, denies he has it. Ugo then goes to see his old friends, Don Vincenzo and Chino.
Before The Americano, Don Vincenzo was running things in Milan and Ugo worked for him.
But Don Vincenzo is a dinosaur, an older mafioso whose time has come and gone. The new underworld bosses are into bigger and badder things that the old school was too small for, like international money laundering, the Americano’s specialty. Now, Ugo visits them in a squalid apartment on Milan’s south side, in an area known as the Navigli district.
Interestingly, this area, which in the 1970’s was run down, has been gentrified today and if you visit Milan today, it is full of bars, nightlife, and nice apartments – much like watching the Williamsburg of Serpico in that great film compared to the Williamsburg of today.
Don Vincenzo and Chino greet Ugo, and Chino, who is now eking out a living doing hits, is reticent.
Ugo asks him if he’s heard on the street the news. Chino tells him he’s heard, and in a foreboding moment tells him
“I don’t know if you did it, but if you’ve broken the rules, they will make you pay.”
“The rules” here refer to the unwritten underworld rules of the street, the codes of which Don Vincenzo, Chino, Ugo, and Rocco live and die by. Ugo denies to Chino, his best friend, that he took the money. Chino tells Ugo he’d better go and see the Americano to see what’s what.
Ugo goes to the skyscraper in the center of Milan to see the Americano at his office. Here we see one of Tarantino’s influences come to light, as the framing of The Americano is exactly like the framing of Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction when he delivers his “pride” speech to Bruce Willis.
Di Leo, much like Tarantino, also likes to add mysterious devices to scenes – With the Americano, there is an ominous, illumanitiesque iron cross on his otherwise naked desk.
With Marcellus Wallace, there was the infamous band-aid on the back of his neck.
The Americano tells Ugo he works for them again, and to do whatever Rocco tells him to do. They are keeping him close, so he can’t get to the money. Ugo leaves and goes to see his ex love, Nelly, played by the stunning Barbara Bouchet, one of the top sex symbols of 1970’s and 1980’s Italy.
She too needles him about the money, and he denies that he has it. He shacks up with her at her post-mod Milanese apartment, which ironically wouldn’t look out of place as a SoHo loft of today.
Ugo stoically plays out the cards he has been dealt.Now that he knows that the Americano isn’t going to kill him – yet – he bides his time.
When Nelly asks him
“Why have you waited a day to come and see me, why didn’t you come the day you got out?”
“I just found out I am going to live. Yesterday I wasn’t sure.”
He is sort of a dead man walking, a man who has the rules of the underworld so ingrained in him that his own death in his situation makes nothing but sense, so he doesn’t fret about it.
Now he has to figure a way to play the miserable hand he has been dealt.
Later on, Ugo and some of Rocco’s men are at a bowling alley on a deal with a German businessman, and someone kills one of Rocco’s men in the men’s room and makes off with the another bag of money. Rocco and the Americano suspect Ugo told Chino about the job and Rocco, Ugo (who is forced to go) and some more goons go out to kill Don Vincenzo and Chino as revenge. Ugo is forced to watch as the men open fire on the two, but while Don Vincenzo is gunned down, Chino escapes. Back at the Americano’s, they are beating and about to kill Ugo when Ugo denies once again having anything to do with the second double-cross, as he had nothing to do with the first.
Against his better instincts, The Americano spares Ugo for the time being, trying to see if Ugo will get caught red-handed in a mistake, instead of accusing him without concrete proof.
Then, at a wild party going on at the Americano’s mansion, where Ugo is standing guard with the other goons, (Rocco is sent to wait at Chino’s squalid apartment to finish the job during the party), Chino shows up with 2 semi automatic pistols and opens fire on the Americano and his goons. Ugo realizes what’s going on and helps Chino, taking out some of the men as well, but Chino is mortally wounded during all the gunfire.
Here we see the brilliance of Di Leo again.
Ugo stands amid dozens of dead bodies littering the grounds,including his best friend.
We see him calculating to himself.
Then a shot of his legs walking,
Then suddenly breaking out into a trot –
HE’S GOING FOR THE MONEY!
HE HAS THE MONEY AFTER ALL!!!
Because Di Leo was smart enough to never reveal if Ugo actually had the money or not up to now, we, like the police, The Americano, Rocco, and Nelly are left with only Ugo’s denials in spite of the facts to come to our own conclusions. By the time in the movie that it is revealed he actually has the money, we almost aren’t sure what to believe.
But when he breaks into that trot, we see – just as Ugo decides in his mind, in that exact moment – that he has realized this is his one and only shot to get the money and get outta town.
Its brilliant filmmaking at its best, the montage allowing the viewer to conclude and understand in real-time along with the characters in the film.
Ugo hops in his mini cooper and high tails it to the abandoned farmhouse just outside Milan where he had hid the money.
He Stuffs it into a small bag and heads to the only thing he has left – Nelly – but is first intercepted by the police, who want to question him about the massacre at the Americano’s house.
Ugo accompanies an agent to the police station and comes face to face with Rocco, in another brilliant scene – who is also waiting to be interrogated in a waiting room.
Rocco, who has built a stubborn esteem for Ugo, realizes that for Ugo to have pulled this off he’s not so stupid after all.
With everyone else dead, Rocco proposes that he and Ugo team up to run Milan.
Ugo tells him he’ll think about it, but its just words, because all he just wants now is to ride off into the sunset with Nelly and live happily ever after.
There is a hysterical scene as some women who were at the villa are asked by the commissioner,
“So, ladies, was this guy there at the time (meaning Ugo)?”
Rocco, signaling by a not so subtle shake of his head to the women, to tell the whores to tell the cops that he wasn’t.
Ugo is released from the station when the questioning goes nowhere and makes a bee line to Nelly’s house.
There, it is finally revealed who the red jacket wearing mystery man is who has been following Ugo throughout the movie –
Luca, a young good-looking waiter at the nightclub where Nelly dances.
They are going to double cross Ugo, and he’s walking right into their trap.
It is also revealed that it was Luca who robbed the German guy at the bowling alley, setting up the deaths of Don Vincenzo and by extension, Chino, as we see the bag stolen from the bowling alley in the apartment.
Ugo lights a cigarette and tells Nelly they are off to Beirut to enjoy the money. He puts the cigarette on the edge of the dinner table and opens the bag to show her the $300,000 inside, and as he does he hears a round loaded into the chamber of a pistol behind him. Ugo grimaces as he realizes, even before Nelly yells:
“Shoot him, Luca”
What is going on?
Luca blasts Ugo in the back and Ugo, in his last act, punched Nelly in the temple and kills her.
Luca gives Ugo a final shot in the head and puts the gun down to tend to Nelly.
Rocco then comes through the door, and the Shakespearian tragedy is complete.
The old-school, by ‘the rules’ Rocco is so patently offended at what Luca has done, he grabs Luca by both ears and begins bashing his head into the corner of a marble coffee table.
In between each thrust of Luca’s head, Rocco screams
“You can’t kill a man like Ugo Piazza!”
“A man like Ugo Piazza, you better tip your fucking hat!”
The police enter in force and pull Rocco off Luca’s lifeless body, as Rocco is still smashing it into the coffee table in a over the top outburst of violence.
He gets in one last Sicilian spit of disrespect (think Christopher Walken in True Romance and King of New York) The final shot is of Ugo’s burning cigarette, still on the edge of the table where he left it.
Caliber 9 is also punctuated with a great side aspect of the scenes with the police commissioner and his vice commissioner. In Di Leo’s films, everything is black and white. The mafia goons are all Sicilians from south Italy; the commissioner is a fascist, ‘kill em’ all’ extremist, and the vice commissioner is a communist, supporting southerners, students, poor, and southerners. It is an interesting and great example as a primer of the socio-political climate of the Italy of the time, and to a lesser extent the Italy of today.
We here in America have a schism along primarily racial lines, whereas in Italy it is along a “North VS. South” line. It is illustrated brilliantly and symbolically with the dialog of the two police commissioners, who even insult each other along the way. at one point, The commissioner tells the vice commissioner, who are constantly at odds because of their conflicting police styles (and who was transferred from the south to help):
“You come from a place where people steal chickens! How the fuck do you know how to deal with someone like The Americano!?!?”
In an interview Di Leo said he wavered with taking the 2 police commissioners and and social aspect of their dialogue out because it he feared it would interfere with the storyline, but I am glad he left it in. It gives the film a depth and richness it would have otherwise lacked.
The score is just as brilliant.
A fusion of progressive rockers Osanna and classical composer Luis Bacalov,
it is a gritty, fuzzy, jazz masterpiece that compliments the film’s dark noir perfectly.It has cult status on its own, being sampled numerous times by hip hop artists, both here and in Italy. Brooklyn rappers Non Phixion used the theme in their song “The CIA Is Trying To Kill Me” on their seminal 2002 album “The Future Is Now”,
and top Milanese rappers Club Dogo used the theme to open their concerts.
Fernando Di Leo had an uncanny knack for storytelling,
especially among disenfranchised gangster elements of 1970’s Italy. He left us with many classic films of the genre, but none as resonant, influential, or as well crafted as Caliber 9.
If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and check it out, like, yesterday. Or better yet, pick up the great “Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection” DVD box set which includes Caliber 9 and 3 other films of his.
No respectable gangster flick library is complete without it as a backbone, and no respectable fan of gangster flicks can claim to be just that without having seen Caliber 9.
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