Italian director Fernando Di Leo (1932-2003) began his career in cinema as a scriptwriter of spaghetti westerns — and, in general, was far more prolific as a writer than a director — though he is generally remembered for the series of poliziotteschi he made in the 1970s: films like Milano calibro 9 (Caliber 9, 1972), Il boss (The Boss, 1973), and Il poliziotto è marcio (Shoot First, Die Later, 1974). This subgenre of Italian crime films were often marked by their brutal violence, socio-political themes, and plots that included police investigation, organized crime, heists, car chases, and elements borrowed from film noir. Though Di Leo explored a variety of genres throughout his career, I’m going to focus primarily on his poliziotteschi in this three-part series, beginning with his two earlier examples, Milano calibro 9 and La mala ordina (The Italian connection, 1972).
Like so many Italian directors, Di Leo got his start as a director with a segment in an anthology film — perhaps surprisingly, a comedy — 1964’s Gli eroi di ieri… oggi… domani (The Heroes of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow), which remains difficult to see. He would go on to develop his talents with a war film, Rose rosse per il führer (Code Name, Red Roses, 1968), and two erotic/psychological dramas, 1969’s Brucia ragazzo, brucia (Burn, Boy, Burn) and Amarsi male (A Wrong Way to Love). The latter starred giallo favorite Nieves Navarro, who would return for Di Leo’s first genuine foray into the crime genre made in the same year, I ragazzi del massacro (Naked Violence), about students raping and murdering their teacher.
With this film and his only giallo, La bestia uccide a sangue freddo (The Beast Kills in Cold Blood aka Slaughter Hotel, 1971), Di Leo first began to explore themes of violence and death in earnest. And though Slaughter Hotel is among the more obscure giallo titles, it’s one of my favorites, thanks in no small part to the fact that it stars Klaus Kinski and Rosalba Neri, as well offering up a cockamamie plot, where women at a country asylum — outfitted with medieval weaponry and torture devices — are targeted by a mad killer. But the poliziotteschi (or police procedural) is where Di Leo really came into his own and many regard his first film in this genre, Milano calibro 9, as not only his best, but one of the best in the entire genre. While I take a bit of a broader view, the film certainly lost no time establishing that Di Leo was able to build off the themes of film noir, the French thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville, and the slightly earlier Italian crime films of directors like Carlo Lizzani to result in a cinematic movement that blended an exploitation movie sensibility with the more politically conscious arthouse thriller to result in an unforgettable series of films with incredible topical resonance — as well as entertainment value.
Di Leo’s crime films came during a particularly fraught time in Italy’s history, when the country was beginning to experience the dark side of the Italian economic boom. This postwar “economic miracle” began at the end of the ‘50s — several years later than a number of other countries like the United States and Germany — and did lead to a number of advancements in Italy, including a surge in per capita income, alleviations in poverty in the largely rural southern part of the country, and numerous reforms on political, social, and economic levels. But it was also marked by an obsession with technological advancements and appliances (televisions, washing machines, and dishwashers), and this obsession with financial prosperity coincided with both left and right-wing protest movements of increasing violence. The late ‘60s through the ‘70s came to be described as the anni di piombo (“years of lead”), where acts of political violence became commonplace: kidnappings, bombings, organized terrorism, and even assassinations became a part of daily life.
While other countries, particularly in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, experienced protests and political violence — including France, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland — the difference in scale is dramatic. In “Italy in the 1960s: A Legacy of Terrorism and Liberation,” Richard Drake wrote, “No other industrialized country in the contemporary world had experienced anything at all like Italy’s fifteen-year-long affliction with terrorism. More than twelve hundred people died or suffered grievous injury from this violence, which from 1969 to 1984 included thousands of terrorist attacks. Dozens of groups on the left and the right were involved. Their victims included policemen, politicians, lawyers, judges, university professors, union leaders, industrialists, and unclassifiable bystanders.”
The loose body of organizations that fell under the umbrella of the left-wing group the Red Brigades, which included workers and students, were responsible for a dramatic amount of violence during their campaign against right-wing groups like the Christian Democratic party, including the kidnapping and assassination of political leader Aldo Moro. For a contemporary audience, the general support for the Red Brigade (and by extension, their extreme actions) may be difficult to comprehend. Drake wrote, “Without the political, material, and psychological support of these pre-revolutionary masses, left-wing terrorism would have faded quickly…” and with it, they were allowed to pursue a policy that included “[terrorizing] the Italian Republic with car burnings, beatings, kneecappings, and murders.”
These events — combined with organized crime-related violence — perhaps gives some context to Di Leo’s world of hyper-masculine gangsters, wrongly accused men, and nihilistic vigilantes embarking on stylized, dramatic missions of betrayal and revenge. In many ways, Milano calibro 9 is Di Leo’s ultimate thesis on these themes, particularly when it comes to issues of social order and Italian masculinity. Based on a book by Giorgio Scerbanenco — a Russian-born crime writer whose works would influence Di Leo more than once, but also inspired Luigi Cozzi’s unusual and amazing giallo L’assassino è costretto ad uccidere ancora (The Killer Must Kill Again, 1975) — the film follows Ugo Piazza (the hulking Gastone Moschin), a former convict being targeted by the sadistic gangster Rocco (the great Mario Adorf). Rocco is under the employ of a boss known as the American (Lionel Stander), who is convinced Piazza is hiding a sizable sum from a former robbery. Though he claims innocence, Piazza can’t seem to escape from Rocco’s violent, unpredictable world.
The beginning of Di Leo’s so-called Milieu Trilogy, Milano calibro 9, is framed around rigid social structures, which are primarily defined by codes of honor and the pervasive loyalty cinema often prescribes to organized crime networks. And unlike a number of other, more famous films focused on Italian or Italian-American organized crime (such as 1972’s The Godfather), Di Leo consistently resists glorifying these groups. And in this sense, Di Leo’s poliziotteschi overlaps a fair amount with giallo films: the characters are generally unlikable and unsympathetic, they all drink an absurd amount of J&B whiskey (which I’m also drinking as I type this, so any time they want to send me a sponsorship, that would be great), and they wallow in ‘70s fashions ranging from absurd suits and flashy discos to carefully designed apartments that result in a lingering visual impression, even though Di Leo has a restrained sense of style compared to directors like Mario Bava or Dario Argento (or even Sergio Leone, with whom he worked).
At their core, these films are about exploitation — primarily economic, but also emotional — and it is difficult to get attached to any of the characters when back-stabbings and betrayals are rapidly revealed throughout Milano calibro 9’s running time. Hierarchy is an ever-present but fundamentally unreliable framework, and in that sense, this is far more of a film noir descendant than an action film; Di Leo himself has spoken of the influence of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, like Le samouraï (1967), and Piazza is very much of the same stock as that film’s protagonist: reticent, stony, and even a touch sociopathic, his motivations are difficult to discern until the film’s third act. But unlike Melville’s Jef Costello, Di Leo initially portrays Piazza as a dumb underling, albeit one who manipulates others’ interpretations of him. Like Hitchcock, Di Leo would repeatedly use the “wrong man” trope, though here he turns that convention on its head, as Piazza is ultimately revealed as a calculating schemer — just like all the film’s other characters. He has actually hidden the money all along, which he plans to use to run away with his girlfriend (Bond girl and giallo regular Barbara Bouchet in one of her many compelling roles).
There is an eerie coldness to the world of Milano calibro 9 that extends to romantic love, reducing all social interactions — and all intimacy — to a series of struggles for dominance. Violence — particularly explosions, as in the crime films of Elio Petri — and death are carried out on unexpected targets (including women and children), and the film’s attitude towards its female characters is strangely egalitarian in the sense that they are also calculating and manipulative (again, much like those in Elio Petri’s films). For Offscreen, Roberto Curti wrote, “With his crime films based on the novels of Giorgio Scerbanenco, di Leo described the Milanese underworld with harsh, at times brutal realism, and with memorable results…. It’s not an exaggeration to consider him an auteur with a precise and coherent artistic trajectory inside Italian cinema of the 1970s.”
Rocco, the character played by Mario Adorf (who would have a larger role in La mala ordina), serves as a strange crux to the film in the sense that he spends much of its running time serving the American boss with an almost psychotic loyalty. Milano calibro 9 was the first (though far from the last, as this theme had even more prominence in La mala ordina) of Di Leo’s films to introduce the tension between American and Italian organized crime, and its themes of respect, rule-following, and order are taken to extremes; as film noir often deals with male characters grappling with identity crisis in the face of a changing world, the machismo that rules poliziotteschi is seemingly the result of a similar impulse. It is Rocco who ends the film most memorably when, defeated and faced with a triumphant Piazza in the police station, he debases himself and asserts a sudden, hysterical (and ultimately doomed) loyalty for Piazza.
These types of loyalties and social bonds were portrayed in an almost satirical fashion in La mala ordina, from later the same year. The film follows two hitmen for the American mob (Henry Silva, dazzling in a yellow bathrobe for a key introductory scene, and Woody Strode) who are sent to Milan to enact retribution for a missing heroin shipment. The Milanese Don in charge (Adolfo Celi) has pointed them towards a pimp, Luca Canali (Mario Adorf), though the Don is really using the innocent Canali as a cover for his own schemes. At first hunted across the city, Canali becomes obsessed with revenge when his wife (Sylvia Koscina) and child, as well as one of his whores (Femi Benussi) becomes involved in the violence.
Though generally known to English-speaking audiences as The Italian Connection, the film’s literal translation is “The mob orders,” which speaks to the perverse, even absurd nature of commands, loyalty, and justice within the conflicting American and Italian organized crime worlds. Roberto Curti wrote, “Di Leo wanted to call the film Ordini da un altro mondo (Orders from Another World), thus suggesting the idea of a transversal, a class view of the underworld, where the ‘other world’ is that of the American Mafia, which subjugates and dominates the Italian one.” Far more over-the-top than Milano calibro 9, La mala ordina places Canali in increasingly bizarre situations, seemingly to watch what will happen to a man when his entire family is slaughtered for no apparent reason. This builds off of the first film’s theme of doomed fate, which is combined with the gratuitous violence of exploitation cinema: here in the form of the murder of a woman and her child as they are unexpectedly run over by a van, a lengthy chase sequence where Canali hangs onto said van in an attempt to murder its driver with his bare hands (which he does, after putting his head through the windshield while the vehicle is still in motion), and an unforgettable final showdown in a junkyard, where he comes up against the two hitmen.
With La mala ordina, Di Leo proves that this other world is a place where absurd violence has become a means of establishing (or restoring) order, but to no discernible end. The friction between the Italian and American mafia adds a sense of fraught tension and immerses Di Leo’s protagonist in a sort of inescapable, film noir-like doom. It is notable that in both these two early films, American organized crime is essentially the instigator for violence and tragedy. In Letizia Paoli’s Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style, she wrote, “The American Cosa Nostra originally stemmed from the Sicilian mafia, though it has been a completely independent organization since at least the 1930s.” Certain cultural overlaps remained — as is often touched upon in cinema — but Di Leo focused on the cracks between the organizations and used this dissent and division as a creative locus. Canali is plummeted into the abyss between the two, because of the rigid moral codes that govern both.
Paoli wrote of the Kafkaesque omertà: “the cultural code that symbolizes, despite its multivocality, the obligation of secrecy… The core of this code consists in the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities or reliance on their services, even when one has been the victim of a crime. Such is the force of his prohibition that even if somebody is condemned for a crime he has not committed, he is supposed to serve the sentence without giving the police any information about the real criminal.” The hitmen do not seem to care that the Don has framed Canali or that it is unlikely that he has any connection at all to the heroin trafficking. Truth has little obvious function in a world concerned only with power and the perception of power. Paoli quoted a relevant Sicilian proverb: “To talk only a little is beautiful art. / The mouth is a betrayer of the heart. / Long steps and short tongue. / Say neither good nor bad about what does not belong to you. / It is all right to witness things as long as they do not harm your neighbor.”
Canali refuses to be silent, as for the first two acts of the film, the violence perpetrated against him is a complete surprise to him and has no discernible motive. For a time, he doesn’t seek revenge, but simply desires that his world should go back to its status quo. But the sole interest of the two hitmen seems to be that someone pays the price for betrayal against the presumably more powerful American mafia boss. Canali is left with two options: to go reluctantly towards a silent death, or take as many people with him as possible on the way. While the Swiss-born Adorf would go on to an illustrious career in Italian and German genre and arthouse cinema (though Henry Silva, among others in this film, would become a major figure of poliziotteschi), he remains one of my favorite among Di Leo’s protagonists, and is a lasting symbol of the utter absurdity — but inevitability, particularly in this other world — of violence and death. As Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.”