Although Italian cinema has produced some fantastic crime films, it never really took to noir. The exceptions are three movies by little known director Fernando Di Leo, Milano Calibre 9 (Calibre 9), La Mala Ordina (The Italian Connection) and Il Boss (The Boss).
Connected more by similar themes and actors than plot, they nonetheless form a rough trilogy of films combining fast paced story telling and gritty violence with a highly political analysis of the changing nature of organised crime and the dissolution of the Italian working class.
The most overtly noir of the three films, Calibre 9 (1972) centres on low-level mafia foot soldier, Ugo Piazzo (Gastrone Mochin, a well known Italian comic actor at the time). Released after three years in jail, Ugo is braced by Rocco (Mario Adorf), a clownish but lethal mob associate working for a Milanese crime boss known as The Americano.
Still smarting from losing $300,000 several years earlier (a breath taking series of scenes in the film’s first few minutes), The Americano thinks Ugo took the money and stashed it away while he was in jail. So does everyone else, including the cops, his friends and his ambitious stripper girlfriend (Euro-crime regular, Barbara Bouchet).
Ugo denies the allegation. All he wants to do is blow town for Beirut with his girlfriend and never see Milan again. Instead he’s forced to re-join the mafia, setting in train an elaborate game of ‘did-he-do-it-didn’t-he-do-it’.
Adorf also appears in The Italian Connection (1972) as a pimp who has been blamed for a shipment of heroin that has disappeared en route from Milan to New York. Two hit men, David (Henry Silva) and Frank (Woody Strode), are dispatched to kill the pimp and teach the Milanese branch of the organisation a lesson. “I want it to be spectacular”, the mild mannered New York boss (Irish actor Cyril Cusack) tells his assassins.
But the pimp is far more cunning than anyone gives him credit for and refuses to go without a fight. The two assassins spend much of the film chasing him through the underbelly of Milan, culminating in a fantastically rendered shoot out in an abandoned car yard.
As an aside, die-hard James Bond fans will also get a kick out of appearances in The Italian Connection by Adolfo Celi (Largo in Thunderball) as the local Milanese mob boss, and Luciana Paluzzi (a Spectre assassin in Thunderball and You Only Live Twice) as David and Frank’s local Italian guide.
The third movie in the trilogy, The Boss (1973), kicks off at breakneck pace with the massacre of a group of gangsters in a porn theatre by a hit man (Silva again, as a sort of Italian Parker) using rocket-propelled grenades.
The hit was carried out at the request of rival gangster Don Giueseppe. As revenge, one of the relatives of the murdered mobsters kidnaps Don Giueseppe’s heroin addicted, hipster daughter. Giueseppe’s boss, Don Corrasco (played with reptilian charm by Richard Conte, in one of his last screen roles), forbids Giueseppe to pay the ransom requested for his daughter lest it make their organisation appear weak.
When Giueseppe disobeys him, Corrasco orders Nick to kill him. But Nick has his own ideas, and proceeds to play all sides Yojimbo-style against each other.
Di Leo got his start screenwriting spaghetti westerns then directed soft-core porn, before turning to crime films. His noir trilogy is a mash-up of these styles. The sexual politics throughout the films is pretty bent and much of the action takes place in strip clubs and sleazy bars. Also on display are the weird camera angles and exaggerated, over the top shoot-ups and violence typical of spaghetti westerns.
All three films have a wonderful noir aesthetic. The participation of Silva, Strode and Conti, strong character actors who could no longer get work in the US and who’d all been around the block a few times, lend the stories a degree of tough guy authenticity.
That said the films are also very Italian, the highly stylised interior design, the progressive rock soundtracks and the sense of sixties European radicalism. Left wing political posters plaster the walls of a hippy squat the pimp has to shelter in in The Italian Connection. Cops have conversations about how organised crime can’t survive without the connivance of bankers and businessmen. In response to a junior colleagues complaint that the police should be out chasing anarchists rather than mobsters, his superior retorts, “Everyone is an anarchist to you since those students beat you up.”
The films chronicle the changing power structure of the mafia. Di Leo portrays organised crime not as a principled organisation dedicated to family and a strict criminal code, but as an anonymous, bureaucratic business entity. When Ugo gets out of the jail in Calibre 9 he is surprised to find the mob now have offices in a skyscraper. A blind former mafia boss, now living in poverty with a retired assassin laments to him: “They call it the mafia, but it is just gangs now.”
Calibre 9 and The Italian Connection focus on the foot soldiers of organised crime, men who grease the wheels of the larger mafia organisation and who are devoured by the bosses the moment they cease to of any use. By the third film, The Boss, things have moved up a notch and the mafia is shown collaborating with politicians and Catholic priests. This earned Di Leo the official ire of the Italian government, at that time still in official denial about the mafia’s existence.
Linked to this is a broader narrative about the corrosive effects of organised crime on the working class. The sense of alienation and social break down, the dissolution of family and community ties is demonstrated by the arbitrary nature of the do or die situations the main characters find themselves in.
It doesn’t really matter whether Ugo took the $300,000 or whether the pimp in The Italian Connection stole the heroin. Both of them, as well as Nick the hit man, are trapped by forces far greater and more ruthless than they can comprehend or, for the most part, hope to escape.
Calibre 9, The Italian Connection and The Boss are available in box set of Fernando Di Leo films, along with Rulers of the City starring Jack Palance.
Italian Connection poster courtesy of Cinema Strikes Back