Caliber 9 (1972)


Fernando di Leo bequeaths his masterpieces to Italian cinema with the noir trilogy based on Giorgio Scerbanenco’s stories, where he takes his realistic poetics to its extreme consequences and tells by images the dark side of the society. The Milieu Trilogy has been both a huge box-office success and an important source of inspiration for Tarantino and the new authors of the American pulp cinema.

Caliber 9 (1972) is dramatized by di Leo drawing from Scerbanenco’s stories, the filmography is by the faithful Franco Villa and the film editing by Amedeo Giomini. Production and costume design is by Francesco Cuppini. Assistant Director is the ever-present Franco Lo Cascio. The film is scored by Luis Enriquez Bacalov, who composes an unforgettable soundtrack performed by the bands New Trolls and Osanna. It is a Cineproduzioni Daunia 70 production, produced by Armando Novelli. Starring: Gastone Moschin, Barbara Bouchet, Mario Adorf, Lionel Stander, Philippe Leroy, Frank Wolff, Ivo Garrani, Mario Novelli and Luigi Pistilli.
The film faithfully recreates the black and muggy atmosphere of Scerbanenco’s stories, but it is not based on the collections Milano Calibro 9 and I Centodelitti, as they would us believe. Di Leo read Scerbanenco and he assimilated the setting between Milan canals (navigli) and roads, thus telling like him the stories of small racketeers without future, of whores, betrayals, violence and deceits within the world of gangsterism. Some erotic scenes between Ms. Bouchet and Mr. Moschin and a sensual dance in the night club complete a remarkable detective plot rich in suspense.
Two men and a woman are suspected of having stashed away three thousand dollars and for this reason they are tortured and blown up by some gangsters. Ugo Piazza (Moschin) is released from jail and the police watches over him because he is also suspected of having stolen the money. Rocco (Adorf), the right-hand man of the boss who calls himself The Americano (Stander), tracks Ugo down and makes his henchmen beat the living hell out of him. Ugo asks for protection to the old boss Don Vincenzo (Garrani) and his sidekick Chino (Leroy), but accepts to work on behalf of The Americano. In the meantime, he reconnects with Nelly (Bouchet), an old flame of him whom he meets again in the night club where she works. A shoot-out takes place during an ambush laid for Don Vincenzo and, even if Ugo refuses to shoot, the old boss is killed. In the meanwhile another $30,000, stolen from The Americano, disappears. Chino takes his revenge and with the help of Ugo he kills both The Americano and several henchmen of him, but he eventually is killed too. Ugo recovers $300,000 he has indeed stolen, which was hidden in a ruined house. The movie ends on a surprise twist, since it is discovered that Nelly double-crossed everyone and was in agreement with her lover Luca (who had got hold of $30,000) in order to kill Ugo and to take his money. There’s more. Ugo is killed by Luca, but before dying he kills Nelly with a fist. In the end Rocco kills Luca with his own bare hands. The police put an end to the faida by arresting the criminal survivor.
Di Leo writes Caliber 9 by elaborating an independent plot inspired by the reading of Stazione centrale ammazzare subito, one of the stories of the collection by the writer from Kiev. The film also takes inspiration from Vietato essere felici and La vendetta è il miglior perdono. This is it. Di Leo is an author in the strict sense of the word, original and free from any narrative influence: this is why he reads Scerbanenco, but afterwards he reworks his stories and creates his own product. The borrowing from the Ukrainian writer consists above all of atmosphere and subjects, since both tell stories of small-scale crime set in Milan. Di Leo fully succeeds in a difficult operation, i.e. to transfer the violent atmospheres of the western genre to the metropolitan noir. The best thing of the film is the perfect setting in Milan, between Public square of the Dome, the canals, evocative night shootings and foggy awakenings in a grey and cold city. The filmography by Villa depicts a gloomy and vicious Milan by night, in the hands of a less and less romantic gangsterism that is changing. Bacalov’s marvelous score emphasizes the topical moments of the film by creating a crescendo of tension. There are many interior scenes, while the theatricality is the Apulian director’s hallmark, who uses Dear Film’s studies to shoot scenes whose dialogues are not always convincing. Among the latter, there is the content repetitiveness when the Chief Commissioner (Frank Wolff) and the Vice Commissioner (Luigi Pistilli) discuss, since they embody an old-fashioned policeman and a modern and democratic one in an excessively simplistic way. The two actors give life to the worst part of the film, which is irritatingly slowed down by a stereotyped and unlikely discussion between two law enforcement officials. The subplot finishes with Pistilli being moved to Basilicata region in order to serve his too progressive speeches, which don’t go well with his right-wing superior. The director could have saved us entirely different apodictic statements like: “The rich don’t bother anyone!” “There are two kinds of rich people!” “Property is theft!” “All we do is provide services to the rich!” “The rich are always right!” “The police fight against students and workers!” “You’re an old cop. Criminals are an effect, not a cause” “The herds of Southerners coming to live up North do the most menial jobs, the ones no one else will do. No wonder they turn to crime.” “People are born criminal” and so on with dialogues that make us smile and turn out fusty. The scenes of brutal violence have pride of place and star above all Mario Adorf, a killer at the service of a boss, who acts behind the scenes. Among the actors a great Gastone Moschin stands out: he is perfect in the role of Ugo Piazza, a tough condemned to the defeat, a man from the North, cold-hearted, calculating and unforeseeable. Mario Adorf, his southern alter ego, is equally skilful: a strong, violent, brutal man (dubbed by Stefano Satta Flores), perhaps the actual protagonist of the film. Barbara Bouchet is a wonderful night club dancer, who dances wearing nothing but a pearl dress in a memorable scene. The scene of the sensual dance in the night club illuminated by suffused red lights is constructed by means of many close-ups, low-angle shootings, fades-in and fades-out, canted shots, plays with the movie camera and the editing. Perhaps it is a little too long, but the exhibition of Barbara Bouchet’s genuine and flourishing beauty deserved it. Di Leo reconstructs the dancer’s house faithfully to the most up-to-date 70s fashion, by showing off pillows and very modern colourings, which feature black and white checkerboard fabrics. The romantic part depicts Bouchet and Moschin in a long and passionate embrace that finishes with a convincing kiss and is emphasized by the intense music by the wonderful Bacalov. The sexual intercourse that follows is nuanced: the spectator can only guess and must content himself with the memory of the pearl dress from which the blonde Bouchet’s body showed through. She is so convincing in her role of the bad girl that di Leo would want her to be the dark lady in the sequel Blood and Diamonds (1977). In that film, Pier Paolo Capponi will play a role very similar to the one played by Adorf in Caliber 9, by wearing the mask of a brutal Sicilian killer. The roles of Philippe Leroy, Ivo Garrani (the blind, old boss), Lionel Stander and Luigi Pistilli also fit them like a glove. Philippe Leroy is Chino the killer, a man of honour who wouldn’t want to meddle himself but at the end he finds himself involved in order to defend his friend Ugo from Rocco’s arrogance and in order to take his revenge for the old boss’ homicide. The action scene taking place in The Americano’s swimming pool stars him during a deadly shooting that leads to the extermination of the whole band. “You finally got me to kill The Americano”, he whispers in Ugo’s arms before he dies. There is no survivor but Rocco, who would become Ugo’s avenger, a true crafty man who has earned Rocco’s regard after having organized such a good blow. Ivo Garrani is convincing as a yesteryear mobster who feels nostalgic for the authentic Mafia, a crime organisation that has disappeared, because current criminals lack the sense of honour. The final part of the film adheres to the canons of the film noir beloved by the Apulian director, where nothing is what it seems and above all there is no room for positive characters and consoling conclusions. Nelly is a dark lady with a young lover and she does not hesitate to kill Piazza for money, but she dies too from a violent fist that the man blows her before falling to the ground. Rocco closes the circle by beating to death Luca, Nelly’s boyfriend, who is guilty of having murdered without honour a man like Ugo who deserved respect. “When you see someone like Ugo Piazza, you’d better tip your hat! You can’t backstab someone like Ugo Piazza!”, Rocco shouts while he is repeatedly hitting the boy’s head on a table and kills him. The close-up on Ugo’s cigarette left on the table that ends burning marks the end of an intense film rich in suspense. Some years later, di Leo would write a novel drawn from this film: From Monday To Monday, the timeframe during which Ugo Piazza performs his deeds and meets his fate.
Paolo Mereghetti thinks that Caliber 9 is one of best films directed by di Leo, since the design of the characters, the climate of suspicion and psychological guerrilla and the background bitterness look towards the best European noir (from Melville onward), while the cursory brutality (which has reminded some critics of Don Siegel) anticipates the one that would characterised the poliziottesco genre which was about to explode. According to Mereghetti, di Leo makes a mature genre cinema, even if he is not so much convinced by his attempts to give a political meaning to the story, above all as to the figure of the policeman at loggerheads with his superiors (Pistilli) because he is too democratic. For Nocturno Cinema the film is a masterpiece in no uncertain terms. Tullio Kezich is much more lukewarm and talks about the director’s appreciable professional attitude. Marco Giusti on Stracult defines Caliber 9a cold film, ferocious and extremely realistic. For Morandini the film deserves two stars and a half for the way in which it develops a story of violent action with implications of social commentary and criticism.
Fernando di Leo gives an interview to Nocturno Cinema: “Moschin had only made comedies. I invented Adorf’s character myself. Leroy got immediately into the character and Bouchet had the necessary ambiguity… we worked well since I fell in love with the title and I bought the novel… but there is little of Scerbanenco, some inspiration; I wrote all the plot, the dialogues, the psychologies, the setting myself”. According to the director Stelvio Massi this film is the founder of the whole Italian police genre.

Genre: Noir Director: Fernando Di Leo Cast: Gastone Moschin, Barbara Bouchet, Mario Adorf, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Ivo Garrani, Philippe Leroy, Lionel Stander, Mario Novelli Date: Italy, 1972 Info: 100′

This review is drawn from the book “Fernando Di Leo and his noir and perverse cinema” by Gordiano Lupi (published by Profondo Rosso)

Translation by Barbara Pellegrini

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Gordiano Lupi
Gordiano Lupi (Piombino, 1960). Editorial manager of Edizioni Il Foglio, he contributes to Turin’s newspaper La Stampa. He translated the novels of the Cuban author Torreguitart Ruiz and published a number of books on Cuba, cinema, and many other topics. See the full list at He participated in some TV broadcasts such as Corrado Augias’s Cominciamo bene le storie, Luca Giurato’s Uno Mattina, Odeon TV series on the Italian serial killers, Rete Quattro La Commedia all’italiana, Monica Maggioni’s Speciale TG1 on Cuba and Yoani Sánchez, Dove TV series on Cuba. He guested on some Italian and Swiss radio broadcasts for his books and comments on the Cuban culture. In 2012 he published a long chapter in El otro paredon, an essay on the Cuban situation, written with four authors of the Cuban exile, and issued in the USA with English and Spanish versions. His books received a large number of reviews and mentions. See the full list at E-mail address: