“The whole city is full of madmen. It’s like a carnival shooting range.” —Umberto Lenzi’s Almost Human
An icon of Italian cult cinema—particularly spaghetti westerns and crime films—Cuban-born actor Tomas Milian possessed a talent beyond his niche reputation. He regularly collaborated with directors like Bruno Corbucci and Umberto Lenzi on crime films, but the list of directors he worked with over the years (though particularly in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s) reads like a who’s who of both cult and arthouse cinema: Antonioni, Bertolucci, Visconti, Chabrol, Pasolini collaborator Mauro Bolognini, Carol Reed, Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, Carlo Lizzani, Lucio Fulci, Liliana Cavani, and Sergio Martino, among others (and not even counting his work with American directors in the ‘90s). His expressive face and dexterous performances often resulted in him stealing films right out from under more popular or recognizable actors. In their book 100 Cult Films, Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik wrote: “Although Milian studied at the Lee Strasberg Actors Studio in New York during the 1950s, his reputation flourished through a series of Italian genre productions that traded on his unnatural ability to contort his body in grotesque and unusual ways.”
Like other Eurocult favorite turned screenwriter, George Eastman (née Luigi Montefiori), Milian apparently often wrote his own dialogue (in Roman slang, no less, even though he wasn’t a native speaker), though he was dubbed to hide his accent. Over the years, he also worked in television, theater, and even music, though my personal favorite Milian roles will always be in poliziotteschi films. Despite their allegedly contentious relationship, he made a number of these with director Umberto Lenzi, generally more known to horror fans for giallo films like Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972) or notorious gore films like Cannibal Ferox (1981). They began this partnership with the explosive, nihilistic Milano odia: la polizia non può sparare (Almost Human, 1974), and would go on to make Il giustiziere sfida la città (Syndicate Sadists, 1975), Roma a mano armata (The Tough Ones, 1976), Il cinico, l’infame, il violento (The Cynic, The Rat and the Fist, 1976), Il trucido e lo sbirro (Free Hand for a Tough Cop, 1976), and La banda del gobbo (Brothers Till We Die, 1978). Like fellow poliziotteschi mainstay, Henry Silva, Milian played both sadistic criminals and heroic, if gritty police commissioners.
When the slimy Giulio Sacchi (Milian) is beaten up and kicked out of a gang after his cowardice is responsible for botching a bank robbery, he decides to take fate into his own hands and become a millionaire: by kidnapping Marilù (Laura Belli), the daughter of his girlfriend Ione’s (gorgeous giallo mainstay Anita Strindberg) industrialist boss. Despite his frequent moments of cowardice and ineptitude, Giulio is unable to pull off any crime, large or small, without a amassing a staggering body count. He knifes a cop when he’s caught robbing a cigarette machine for change, murders a man who rents him machine guns to pull off the kidnapping, and the chaotic cycle of violence only escalates from there. Hard-nosed local cop Commissioner Grandi (Henry Silva) will go to any lengths to find and stop Giulio, even outside the bounds of the law.
In Roberto Curti’s Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980, he writes,
It’s Tomas Milian’s outrageous, unforgettable performance that indelibly marks Umberto Lenzi’s Almost Human. On paper, Giulio Sacchi — long hair, shoes, and assorted tics — is a cross between Dirty Harry’s Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) and The Incident’s Joe Ferrone (Tony Musante), two of the creepier villains to ever hit the screens in the years preceding Lenzi’s film. Yet as played by the extraordinary Cuban actor, Sacchi becomes much more than that: the embodiment of an ancestral, absolute fury, a destabilizing outsider who steps over the rules of a civil society.”
Giulio’s antisocial behavior and his outbursts of chaotic, seemingly meaningless violence are unnerving and symbolic that Lenzi is operating within a slightly different work than the one found in Fernando Di Leo’s poliziotteschi like Milano calibro 9 (1972) or La mala ordina (1972), for example. Those films have scenes of violence or action so over the top that they borders on the absurd or even the mildly comedic, and often feature a society where government (and police) corruption is necessarily supplanted by an honor system found in the Machiavellian world of organized crime.
But in Almost Human, the police aren’t corrupt, they’re simply inept or hamstrung by an incompetent legal system. At one point, Commissioner Grandi states, “If I ever catch one of those bastards, I’ll shoot them right on the spot.” This foreshadows the fact that by the film’s conclusion, the cool if upstanding Grandi is pushed to his breaking point and executes Giulio in plain sight; the criminal dies on top of a trash heap outside of a bar where he was drinking champagne and bragging that the cops will never be able to prosecute him. Giulio’s execution is allowed by his fellow thieves and crooks, but he operates outside their system as well and his unpredictable, explosive violence is a liability for any “honest,” sane criminal. In the opening film, after he shoots a cop who simply asks him to move the getaway car, one of the bank robbers says to Giulio, “I suppose you’d have been happier if we had killed everyone in sight, you asshole.” And indeed, it seems like he would. His disdain for other criminals, regardless of their class, is striking. He tells a purse snatcher, “You’re all a bunch of mental midgets. […] You should be ashamed marching around with a satchel like some kind of Count.”
In Bodies of Desire and Bodies in Distress: The Golden Age of Italian Cult Cinema 1970-1985, Xavier Mendik compares Almost Human to the nihilistic American crime films of the ‘70s, like Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), and Death Wish (1973). Mendik writes,
while the poliziotteschi appears a carbon copy of the American lone cop narrative, closer analysis reveals that the two cycles address very different sets of social (and sexual) anxieties. […] By emphasizing the unstable social and sexual dynamics of the urban Italian space, as well as foregrounding an unhealthy veneration of the ‘transgressive, often disfigured body,’ Lenzi’s 1970 crime narratives also provide a crucial bridge between his earlier giallo and later zombie and cannibal productions for which he was to become infamous.”
There is the sense that two worlds are being bridged together by this film, though many of Lenzi’s efforts—where gore film or giallo—are less restrained than many of his directorial counterparts. The universe his films compromise are utterly cruel and generally populated by insane men and men. At one point in Almost Human, a detective remarks, “You know if these killings keep going on, they’re going to eliminate the traffic problem.” There is a sense in the film that cops and criminals alike have resigned themselves to the deplorable state of the world. The film’s original title actually translates to Milan Hates: The Police Can’t Open Fire, and it is this quality above all others—hatred—that Milian exhibits with such precision. Despicable and pathetic, Giulio is the physical manifestation of sleaze. It’s incredible to think that someone so handsome could transform himself—purely through a series of exaggerated but very specific mannerisms—into a character deeply loathsome, even disgusting.
While Giulio lacks the overt sadism of many poliziotteschi toughies and murderers, he’s something far more insidious and terrifying, because, unlike the majority of poliziotteschi characters, he has no shame and no pride. Though he seems to be on a quest for wealth, he cannot actually be bought for any price and his disdain for humanity is absolute. Curti writes,
With this performance, Tomas Milian would give way to a number of memorable screen villains in Italian crime film, often directed by Lenzi—the “Hunchback” in Brutal Justice and Brothers Till We Die and the “Chinaman” in The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist—before jumping the barricade and becoming one of the genre’s most beloved heroes with the character of Monnezza [found in Lenzi’s Free Hand for a Tough Cop and four other films] and inspector Nico Giraldi [who debuted in Bruno Corbucci’s 1976 effort The Cop in Blue Jeans and returned for 10 more films].”
Though he is certainly no criminal mastermind, his psychosis evokes some of the more demented film noir antagonists, like Raymond Burr’s twisted pyromaniac of Raw Deal (1948) or James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett of White Heat (1949). Curti writes, “Sacchi’s class hatred has a sexual component” and he refers to Giulio as a “rabid dog.” Like several of the characters in Mario Bava’s final film, Rabid Dog (1974)—particularly George Eastman’s hulking rapist—Giulio’s criminal plans are often guided by his sadosexual impulses. In one of the film’s most surprising sequences, Giulio and his fellow kidnappers chase Marilù from the woods (where they followed her and killed her boyfriend) into a home with several people socializing. After killing one of the men, the kidnappers force the two women and surviving man to perform oral sex. It is Giulio who initiates this sequence, when he steps up to the man and forces him to his knees, declaring that he believes in “equal opportunities for all.” Notably, he leaves the two women for his two cohorts (one of whom is giallo regular Ray Lovelock). Coincidentally, Milian was relatively open about his bisexuality in life, basically making him even more of a hero than he already was.
In this sense, Giulio functions as somewhat of a trickster-like figure and unusually challenges and subverts Italian notions of machismo. He’s bankrolled by his beautiful, successful girlfriend, who he takes repeated advantage of—including stealing her car for the kidnapping—but she tolerates it all seemingly because of her sexual fixation with him. He eventually murders her, when he pretends they’re going on a romantic vacation, but instead traps her in the car and pushes it off a cliff and into a lake. There’s a brilliant scene where Giulio is in the police station, reporting his girlfriend’s disappearance at one desk, while a detective roughly five feet from him is placing a call for “Giulio Sacchi” in relationship to the murder. Giulio literally cries and whines his way out of suspicion with absolutely no shame, and a perverse sense of pleasure that he has somehow hoodwinked the police.
In addition to moments like this, the unexpected assault sequence, and other scenes of torture, spontaneous murder, and even child killing, Almost Human builds to its downbeat conclusion. Commissioner Grandi states, “Now look you motherfucker, this guy’s killed a lot of people” (delivered as only Henry Silva could) concisely summing up the fact that Giulio has murdered seemingly everyone in his path, many of them for no reason: including his fellow kidnappers and Marilù. Milian is unforgettable in the film and if you’ve never seen him work his magic, this is an excellent introduction. And in addition to some fine direction from Lenzi, there’s a solid script from giallo master Ernesto Gastaldi, and a particularly memorable Ennio Morricone saxophone-dominated score is jazzy and suspenseful, and even occasionally mournful. Speaking of, I expected to feel more somber writing about Milian after his recent passing—and I certainly have the last few days—but his long career and brilliant talent will live on in more than a 100 films and it’s impossible to watch Almost Human without being remind of the obvious joy he brought to the screen (and by extension, to the lives of many cinephiles).