A great 1972 Italian movie that’s equal parts Quentin Tarantino, The Godfather, pulp paperback novel and totally classic Noir, or I should say Nero. Falling into the genre known as the Poliziotteschi, aka police/Euro gang stories, aka a genre I must see more of, Caliber 9 (English title) is brutally hardboiled, almost cartoonishly violent, features a devastating femme fatale (Barbara Bouchet) that gets hers in a shocking way that I’m sure would’ve come instinctually to many doomed classic noir suckers of the 50s, had the Hollywood Code permitted such frankness, and most importantly has as its central element a wronged man navigating a pretzel twisted, triple crossing plot.
After you’ve heard it repeated throughout the film, and especially as part of the heated dialogue at the end, the lead character’s name will likely stick in your head forever: Ugo Piazza. Played by Gastone Moschin (who film buffs are sure to know as Don Fanucci from The Godfather II) with a compelling mix of stoicism, softness, concern, tension and always the ability to elicit sympathy from the viewer, Ugo Piazza is just out of prison, on the verge of going straight, but instantly caught up by both sides of the law on suspicion of having stolen $300,000. Deny as he might, Ugo sees that neither side will believe or stop harassing him, so he joins the mob, stating he will find out for himself who took the money. Moschin is certainly not the greatest actor but easily one of the most watchable I’ve ever seen, despite seeming to do so little. Just when you think Ugo’s a big dumb scowling brute, he shows glimmers of something more beneath the stone faced surface. He takes relentless abuse without snapping and says some unexpectedly pithy thing that puzzles you and the other characters, and makes you wonder if you’ve underestimated his intelligence. If you’ve never seen Moschin then just imagine an Italian trenchcoated hybrid of Steve McQueen, Jason Statham and Bruce Willis.
Ugo keeps his head and his patience throughout, whether he’s faced with the flamboyant, greasy, nearly mustache-twirling maniac gangster Mario Adorf who delights in sadistic violence (one imdb reviewer aptly compares him to Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, to which I’d add: in Dennis Farina’s body, if you happen never to have seen this prolific and still working actor), whether it’s the loud, blowhard, single minded, unforgiving Police Commissioner Frank Wolff, or the quieter but more frightening and unpredictable mob boss “The Americano,” played by Lionel Stander. As these vises begin to tighten, Ugo asks for help from a blind former Mafioso and his sharpshooting bodyguard, the latter of whom refuses to get involved until he’s “pulled back in” after an ambush.
The plan comes to a head at a strangely tranquil psychedelic garden party when a shootout kicks off the first of a few stunning twists involving (elements sanitized to prevent spoilers): the pointing of a gun, a country ruin, an AC Milan souvenir bag, the femme’s double cross, another character’s change of allegiance and the aforementioned final series of quotes. The plot is masterfully constructed, the action is thrillingly choreographed, and most of the shots are impressive and memorable eye candy. The score by Luis Bacalov propels, haunts and evokes in all the right places, while being just funky and jazzy enough to remind you it’s the 70s, just in case the wild styling didn’t do that. Actually I should take that back, this film doesn’t look nearly as dated as you’d expect; if it wasn’t for the props of everyday life like phones or cars, very little would seem out of place in a new movie. I was far more distracted by the English dubbing and bored by the gratuitous neverending leftist speechifying of one of the characters than I was by any of the fashions or hairstyles. The whole thing is an experience you won’t forget, and one that in my case, is sending me in a new direction in movie-hunting and viewing.