Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: CALIBER 9 (1972)

Caliber 9 (1972)
(aka Milano Calibro 9)
Director: Fernando Di Leo
Seen via: Anthology Film Archives, NYC

Caliber 9 has been sitting on my to-watch list for years, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Once upon a time I downloaded a mix of poliziotteschi / Eurocrime themes, and the theme to Caliber 9 stood out as a massive highlight. (You might be able to track down the mix or at least the track list by searching for "Trondheim Violenta," by Luca Canali). As fate would have it, Caliber 9 was the second of the two films I was able to catch in the Anthology Film Archive's Italian Connection series. This film falls more squarely into the crime genre than Dallamano's What Have they Done to Your Daughters? As evidence, I give you exhibit A, our hero:

Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin, who's no stranger to crime films) has just finished his prison sentence, and no sooner has he exited the prison gates than he's accosted by his former accomplices. We've already seen the failed crime that landed him in jail in the film's opening montage: a heist in which $300,000 somehow went missing and the team responsible was killed for their error. (Blown up by dynamite actually, in a hint of some of the sadism that's to come.) Ugo is sort of a proto-Statham: quiet, downtrodden, yet bigger and meaner. When he claims to just want to return to his girlfriend Nelly (Barbara Bouchet) and leave the criminal element in the past, we want to believe him. But is he more hero or anti-hero?

The mastermind behind the failed heist, an enigmatic figure named The Americano, is convinced that Ugo stashed the $300k. The Americano has given his slimy assistant Rocco (Mario Adorf) full permission to hound Ugo until he coughs up its location. Rocco chews his way through every piece of scenery in sight, making Ugo's life hell - beating him up, trashing his hotel room, even threatening his stoic (and somewhat frightening) friend Chino (Philippe Leroy). He's a cartoonish lackey who provides a bit of humor to lighten up the brutal violence that fills the rest of the film.

Rocco (right), in an unusually ponderous moment, considers the choices that
 led him and his greasy colleague to this violent junction in life.
We're not entirely sure of Ugo's true motives after we see him leave jail, but he's not as dumb as he looks, and he deftly navigates his way through mind games with both Rocco and the inept police force. The film introduces an odd political element into the film through the police, and devotes entire scenes to internecine arguments about the theory and nature of the origin of crime. Whether it's because of some internal flaw in the being of the criminals (as an elder chief swears), or unrest caused by an oppressed lower class reaching critical mass (as a younger officer claims), Ugo and his former colleagues operate between the two extremes, or maybe along a different, more pragmatic axis. Money is there to be taken, and violence is just the most effective tool in the shed to get the job done. When things are personal, it's more to do with the tangled web of grudges and constantly shifting allegiances than with socioeconomic class. The theorizing may be director Fernando di Leo's authorial voice coming in a bit strongly, but it has the effect of letting the police spin their wheels while the criminal factions continually raise the stakes.

Ugo's face-punch face.
Caliber 9 is a really wonderfully stylish flick, and it's no surprise that this was heavily influential on Tarantino's early work. The film runs extremely tight at less than 90 minutes, and its colorful cast, continual double-crossing, and unrelenting brutality (particularly in the end) mean that it has all the ingredients for a thoroughly captivating crime story.

Thanks to the Anthology Film Archives for a great show, and for screening a 35 mm print that looked like it had been roughed up by a gang of thugs and might just fall apart at any second.

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