Milano Calibro Nove

MILANO CALIBRO 9 (1972) BY FERNANDO DI LEO

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Caliber 9; Calibre 9
Director: Fernando Di Leo
Writer: Fernando Di Leo (Based on stories by Giorgio Scerbanenco)
Year: 1972
Starring: Gastone Moschin, Barbara Bouchet, Mario Adorf, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Philippe Leroy, Lionel Sander

Synopsis:
Released after a three-year term in prison for a bungled robbery, Ugo Piazza plans to lead the straight life for a while. But no sooner is he back on the street than he’s picked up by a bunch of hoodlums under the employ of gang boss ‘the Americans’ – among them, the psychopathic Rocco – who are convinced that Ugo has stolen $300,000 from them. The gang forces Ugo to work for them in the hope that he will eventually lead them to their missing money.

Review:
Novelist Giorgio Scerbanenco is best known in Italy for his series of crime tales, including Milano Calibro 9, set in Milan, which when combined make up what is often referred to as the ‘black Milan’ universe.

It is this universe that lays the foundation for the film and its writer/director Fernando Di Leo accurately extends this bleak universe from the printed page to the visual screen with great aplomb.

Immediately MILANO CALIBRO 9 displays both self-assurance and intrigue as we witness an elaborate parcel exchange that begins outside of the city’s iconic Duomo and for the next five minutes plays out until a harrowing countryside explosion.  This opening sequence is arguably not just one of the best of the genre but one of the best committed to film!

Every element here blends perfectly, from the tension generating score courtesy of Luis Bacalv to the editing and the pacing of the frequent parcel exchange and the aftermath.

Almost everything you need to know about this sub-genre can be gleamed in the opening five minutes.

Credits over and we meet Ugo (Gastone Moschin), freshly released from jail for good behaviour after a robbery went awry, who is simply looking to start again. But crime boss The American won’t let him and sends his men to ask him to come visit him…or pay back the $300,000 he believes that he stole from him right before his robbery attempt and getting sent down.

It is here that we meet Rocco, the second in command for The American. This brash, greasy stereotypical Italian gangster stands in complete contrast to the silent, cold and patient Ugo and built on these two differences the two men wage a silent battle for supremacy.

One initial consequence of their difference sees poor Ugo forced to go to the Police Station in order to gain a temporary ID and it is here that we are introduced to the Comissario (Frank Wolff) and his new college Mercuri (Luigi Pistilli ) who provide an alternative angle to the films proceedings while breaking up the focus on Ugo’s life.

Fernando Di Leo however went on record stating that he would retrospectively have preferred to cut these two in order to bolster the action pacing of the film. Now while what he says is true, these two characters are ineffective in terms of policing and quite honestly superfluous to the whole film but despite this, their relative distance to proceedings, indeed they have very little really to do with the exception of perhaps one moment of tension, their constant theoretical debating of socialism and repression highlight the schisms between the old and the new. This is something which is mirrored in the criminal gangs themselves however here in the respect to the law, both debated approaches prove powerless to stem the tide of crime. Limited as they are in their narrow view and tied to specific ideological approaches which exclude the benefits of other thought. But MILANO CALIBRO 9 is not about social commentary and these debates are mere decoration at worst or a starting point for an external discussion at best.

So clearly not quite like Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST or Petri’s INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION but through these conversations Di Leo does at least try to help frame the action within the context of the societal opinion of the time, not to forget also mentioning the perennial Italian north/south divide.

Back to the film and almost everyone believes that Ugo pocketed the money, from The American and his gang, to Ugo’s long suffering girlfriend Nelly (Barbara Bouchet) and the police themselves. The result of such widespread belief is that Di Leo finds the story in the life and action of our anti-hero who, perhaps predictably, is forced back into his life of crime in order to stay alive.

Now I say almost everyone because we are also introduced to the blind Don Vincenzo and his hitman Chino (Philippe Leroy). These two don’t care if Ugo did or didn’t steal the money as Ugo was one of them and it did not break any of the old guards rules. Despite his loyalty to the two the time inevitably comes when he has to choose between his new and his old employer.

The overall effect of all of this is that MILANO CALIBRO 9 feels like a personal story, no doubt in line with the stories held within Giorgio Scerbanenco’s novel, and because of this it distinguishes itself from the majority of its contemporaries while managing to create an emotional impact on the viewer.

This impact is further enhanced through the choice of audible cues, strong performances and fleshed out characters that allow for personal and relationship development that appear believable.

Of course no crime film could get by without some level of betrayal and MILANO CALIBRO 9 has it in spades and yet it does not seem overused. This is because of how it is dealt with, some are secrets only unveiled to Ugo and us, the viewer, at the same time and others show us the information ahead of time making us complicit in the deceit and even if we wanted to warn Ugo we are powerless to stop the inevitable so we can only scream at the screen and pray he can find his way out of it.

By the end of Milano Calibro 9 not only do you feel sympathy for our anti-hero Ugo but you certainly warm…or at least begrudgingly respect Rocco. A testament to the terrific character development this film allows.

Everything I have said makes this a great film but it would be remiss of me not to mention the shot choice and cinematography (see the way in which the faces are lit while travelling in a car at 1hour 9minutes) courtesy of Franco Villa. Utilising a wide variety of outdoor shots that show us the black Milan, from the foggy streets to the grey industrial areas and the bars this Milan has succumb to the trappings of gang crime.

So if you are still undecided about whether you need to watch this film I will leave you with this statement. MILANO CALIBRO 9 is a gripping crime film that packs an emotional punch as much as a physical one.

Di Leo has brought to life real characters in a gritty, brutal and engaging story and that start…worth the price of admission alone.

LIVE LIKE A COP DIE LIKE A MAN (1976) BY RUGGERO DEODATO

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Uomini si nasce poliziotto so muore; Brigada anticrimen; Het recht in eigenhand; The Terminators
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Writer: Fernando Di Leo
Year: 1976
Starring: Marc Porel, Ray Lovelock, Adolfo Celi, Franco Citti, Silvia Dionisio

Synopsis:
Fred and Tony are members of an elite ‘special squad’ of undercover police in Rome, Italy which thrive on living dangerously with their license-to-kill.

Review:
LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN comes from a story by Alberto Marras (MEET HIM AND DIE), Vincenzo Salviani (THE DEVILS HONEY) and genre legend Fernando Di Leo (MILANO CALIBRO 9; THE BOSS) while it is directed by the notorious Ruggero Deodato (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST; CUT AND RUN; PHANTOM OF DEATH; THE WASHING MACHINE) so for any first time viewer it is understandable that expectations are high for this quasi-buddy cop movie.

Therefore it is almost an anti-climax when it starts with a subdued opening as Fred (Marc Porel – DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING; THE PSYCHIC; THE SISTER OF URSULA) and Tony (Ray Lovelock – OASIS OF FEAR; THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE; VIOLENT ROME; MURDER ROCK) cruise the streets together sharing one motorcycle while a song that could be on almost any light drama plays through. Interestingly it was star Ray Lovelock singing this track, titled Maggie. These opening minutes of LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN are certainly quite misleading but do serve to mark out the relationship between our two leads as intimate with their emotional bond represented by their literal physical proximity.

As the song plays out, it overtaken by the roar of the bike engine and the action begins; a handbag is snatched by a couple of thieves on a motorbike…well almost as the poor female victim had just left the bank and had her bag handcuffed to herself for security with the result being a botched and brutal robbery attempt. These sorts of crimes are presented as a common occurrence in Italian crime films of the decade, and certainly the country struggled with criminal violence throughout this period – rather worryingly motorcycle led crime is seemingly resurgent in cities such as London now due to the flexibility and quick getaway opportunities the smaller vehicles provide.

Rather unfortunately for our young thugs all of this action takes place right in front of Fred and Tony, still yet not identified to the viewer as law enforcement, leading to a ridiculous wheelie, the commandeering of a(nother) motorcycle – after all our heroes cannot share one for a chase can they – and the start of what can only described as a frantic, exhilarating chase complete with quick cuts, POV shots and tight editing.

In fact with something this good you almost don’t want it to end and seemingly neither did director Ruggero Deodato as the sequence becomes almost all encompassing showing us not just the successful weaving in-and-out of traffic but also an error or two, in one case resulting in the patio of a café getting trashed. By the end of this sequence the focus has shifted away from the criminals’ behaviour and become more about the amoral attitude of our supposed law enforcement, something that is tackled verbally by the Police Captain later, who seems unconcerned about the lack of due process. In his mind seemingly the unquestionable authority of the law and the resultant actions are clearly necessary so that wider society can flourish.

While most of the brutal justice at the hands of a lead characters in Poliziotteschi are due to them being failed by the legal system and their superiors (pretty much any Maurizio Merli character for instance falls into this group) here our officers methods are actually condoned by their superiors if not necessarily endorsed although admittedly this tolerance is pushed to the limit. Even so it makes for a rather unsettling situation especially in comparison to films such as THE CONFORMIST by Bernardo Bertolucci and INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION by Elio Petri earlier in the decade that show that what civil repression and unchecked power can do when exploited and abused by those in authority.

As LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN plays out however this would be just one aspect of Fred and Marc’s character traits that are certainly at odds with ideas of freedom, equality and due process. With these films from a bygone era it is easy to either view attitudes from a modern rather than contemporary perspective but similarly it is easy to dismiss clearly unacceptable behaviour as being simply how things were.

The argument that it was a different time and therefore cannot be judged by today’s standards is one to take note of but in more recent times it has been bandied around in relation to reports often of a sexual nature and this clearly is relevant here through the sexist and misogynistic attitude displayed by our anti-heroes.

Admittedly there is an argument in one case for the complicity of the female police secretary – although this then may lead to an off-topic discussion of implications and fear of speaking out – as they frequently beg her for sexual gratification only to be repeatedly knocked back through humour and intelligence as she proves more than a match for their advances. The same cannot be said for the sister of one of the criminals in the film, a nymphomaniac, who undergoes a rather inappropriate form of questioning…twice, later in the film.

However this opinion that we are forming of Fred and Marc is once more further complicated through the closeness of their bond and level of comfort with each other. This element lead Roberto Curti when writing in his book Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 to state that “their misogynist attitude suggests a subterranean homosexual complicity” and this is certainly an opinion I subscribe to, at least to a certain extent.

Their overtly macho posturing and attitude is betrayed by their bond of brotherhood although whether this is sexual, which I would argue not, there is a case to be made for it on an emotional level blurring the lines in how far this platonic love goes.

As a viewer we quickly come to the realisation that Fred and Tony are arrogant and semi-obnoxious, while it is hard to tell if they mean well or get a kick out of their legalised macho bullshit, although from the dialogue in the film it does seem the latter. But when their colleague is gunned down outside of their office, complete with a death fall that has to be in contention for the world’s slowest, they have an added impetus to hate crime and rack up the bodies with this pivotal event helping provide the catalyst for the remaining story.

LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN is structured like so many other eurocrime films, with an underlying story arc complete with a big boss being broken up by several minor or unrelated crimes in order to build context, character, and help drive the narrative forward through action set pieces in order to maintain attention and keep focus – some of these set pieces however are delightfully over the top and exactly what you want to see in a film of this type

One thing that helps place the film in the upper echelons of the genre however is its use of clever story direction as LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN is able to subtly shift tone and feel, with for example one sequence playing out more like a heist movie yet the holistic overall feel of the film remains consistent and coherent, never once breaking the viewers belief in the world or disrupting the flow allowing for an enjoyable and often entertaining experience.

However for whatever reason the film does seem to run out of steam towards the end and while still providing a competent ending it does appear somewhat flat compared to several earlier moments.

Essentially a brutal and amoral Italian Starsky & Hutch, LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN is a decent watch and a strong entry in the genre thanks to the  hugh level of skill of all those involved both in the cast and crew. It does not shy away from character flaws, for better or worse, and interjects some genuine humour into the film allowing it to keep the viewers’ attention without the need for constant violence.

Despite all these positives it is a shame that all of the women, with the exception of Silvia Dionisio come across either as victims of violence or morally corrupt but perhaps that is the point as very few paragons of virtue exist even on the male side with those who do not indulge in excessive behaviour often complicit in enabling it.

Through researching this film it was noted that there was due to be a sequel however due to personal differences between Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock this never really got going. If this was the sole reason then it certainly would have been interesting had Al Cliver, who had just finished working on Ruggero Deodato’s WAVE OF LUST (1975), got the gig as originally mooted.

Version Reviewed:
I reviewed this off of the 88 Films blu-ray release which offers English language audio as well as Italian language with English subtitles. Extras include a trailer and stills gallery along with the now expected reversible sleeve and a neat little poster artcard.

THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST (1977) BY UMBERTO LENZI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Il cincio, l’infame, il violento; O Cínico, O Infame, O Violento; Le cynique, l’infâme, le violent; Die Gewalt bin ich
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Writer: Ernesto Gastaldi, Dardano Sacchetti, Umberto Lenzi
Year: 1977
Starring: Maurizio Merli, John Saxon, Tomas Milian, Renzo Palmer

Synopsis:
Luigi ‘Chinaman’ Maietto bursts free from the big house and sets in motion his revenge on the man who put him there, the legendary Inspector Leonardo Tanzi. When an assassination attempt leaves Chinaman believing the heroic officer dead, Tanzi uses his new found anonymity to bring down the numerous crime organisations that are helping ruin his beloved city.

Review:
THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST represents the return of Inspector Tanzi as moustachioed blonde Maurizio Merli reprises his role as the vigilante Inspector from ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (aka ROMA A MANO ARMATA; THE TOUGH ONES, ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY WEAPON and BRUTAL JUSTICE in the USA).

No doubt commercially THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST with so named as a riff off of Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and it wastes no time in getting started as within ten seconds we witness a mugging. This undoubtably sets the tone for this ramped up sequel before it cuts into the by now clichéd shots of cars cruising the city as a flurry of criminal activities take place, and police cars speed around including past the iconic Milanese duomo instantly placing this film away from its predecessor.

After the opening credits we meet Tanzi, now a murder mystery novel consultant who discovers as he returns home from his surely unfulfilling job that someone has left an obituary note for marking his date of death as that very day. A bad omen for things to come. Thankfully he still possesses a gun so we know at least he will be safe…although I am certain his hands are registered weapons.

Jump to a shot of a police teleprompter and we learn of a criminal named ‘The Chinese’ who has just broken out of jail while the police inspector Astalli (played by genre regular Renzo Palmer – DANGER DIABOLIK; STREET LAW; VAI GORILLA; THE BIG RACKET and also alongside Merli in WHITE FANG TO THE RESCUE) calls in Tanzi to warn him that this criminal, who Tanzi apparently helped put away, might be looking for some payback. A hunch that we know is justified and ends up with our Inspector being dispatched…or so it seems allowing the action and characters to be transported back to Rome, even if most of them are meant to be elsewhere. With the basic plot now outlined we are free to enjoy the rest of the film and meet the rest of our cast.

With that we can say hello to our friend Tomas Milian, who plays The Chinese aka China, and he is quickly joined on screen by John Saxon, playing the American-Italian gangster Di Maggio. After a bit of fun small talk they get down to talking business…illegal business.

All of this and more has happened in just twenty minutes by  which time we have met our three main characters, how they relate to each other and witnessed just why Saxon is the top Mafioso in the city. All of this means a battle for justice, money and ultimately for vengeance is on the cards.

Tanzi’s struggle sees him once again pitted up against several hoodlums as the plot develops and ends up using almost anything available to him in his bid to bring criminal to justice including faulty wiring, stage lights, a camera which leads to a witty one-liner or even a sound board to burn a guy’s face, particularly brutal even for this film although the acid attack runs it close. As you can probably surmise there is a lot of action in this film and it is quite quickly paced with the result on our ex-Inspector becoming more and more desperate when faced against overwhelming odds, which is evidenced by the time he car jacks an innocent woman in a bid to get away from some crooks.

For all the desperation of the character however quite often Merli is in pure 70s playboy mode, the model of masculinity throughout the film even when he is hilariously traversing a corridor of laser beams, bordering on the comical as the film takes on almost a 60s spy thriller vibe thanks to the look of the ‘beams’ aka red string and the use of lighting.

On the contrary, Milian’s character China is a lot more relaxed and in control however some might argue the actor is disinterested but I would disagree although the character is a lot less repugnant than Il Gobbo in ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH and a little less unhinged which no doubt lends itself to this opposing view. Sure Milian’s performance is perhaps not as good as in the earlier film, who knows if the frustration of working with Merli boiled over resulting in the genuine bitterness on screen which was absent here but his performance as ‘The Chinaman’ is more than competent here while Saxon is his usual reliable self but it is quite clear that he only has a supporting role here.

Behind the camera things are just as good and it is apparent that even in the short time from the first Tanzi film, Gastaldi & Lenzi have increased their understanding of the genre’s constructs, its requirements and most importantly its audience. While the sporadic use of POV help ramp up the tension when necessary and shows how Lenzi has utilised all the tricks of the trade learned through his years of gialli and mystery.

Witty, violent and pure fun THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST is a film free from all societal and institutional story restrictions and this is its greatest asset as it allows Tanzi to go straight up against China and by extension Di Maggio with the usual building vinaigrettes giving way to a longer over riding narrative broken up by almost inconsequential crime peppered about to keep the momentum going.  The benefit is the scriptwriters ably manage to combine narrative context with action seamlessly allowing for an action packed, fast paced film but also this time with a compelling story arc that elevates the film to the upper echelons of the genre.

However for those of you who have read Curti’s fantastic book, Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 will find an opposing opinion to my own and so depending on your own personal approach to the genre you may wish to delve a little further into investigating this film.

Where I do agree with Curti however is in the use of the females, as often with Eurocrime films they are merely there as instruments for either the story or setting up an action set piece and here it is no different and although to judge a film by modern day sensibilities is always a dangerous thing to do it is clear who this film was aimed at and what the prevailing attitude was at the time.

Nevertheless it is an enjoyable straight forward film and if you want a bit more humour I recommend the English dub which mocks Merli’s stereotypically un-Italian blonde hair and blue eyes but whatever your audio preference grab a beer and a copy of the 88 Films version for a guaranteed fun night in.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the 2017 blu ray release from 88 Films. It’s a high-definition transfer from the original camera negative and I doubt the film has ever looked this good. Audio wise it has a restored English soundtrack, a restored Italian soundtrack and obviously English subtitles.

What’s more 88 Films have put in the effort and commissioned some extras just for this release, well perhaps not technically as some of it appears to be cut from the same source as the extra’s on the SYNDICATE SADISTS release but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The extras include eurocrime expert Mike Malloy talking about the film for just over ten minutes in an informative and humorous segment where Malloy tells of about the story happening behind the camera as well as in front of it. I’m happy to say Malloy takes to the camera like Merli to a backhanded slap and I certainly hope 88 Films use him some more…and unsurprisingly he does feature on the SYNDICATE SADISTS release as well.

Further extras include ‘Armed to the teeth again: An interview with Umberto Lenzi’ which contains a couple of revelations (such as the motivation of Milian during filming of ALMOST HUMAN) and tales covering both his own films and the animosity between Merli and Milian and the problems this caused. Although Lenzi does appear to misremember a few bits of his films this is forgivable considering the period of time that has passed and the great volume of work he has been involved with. Furthermore it is clear that this is part of a longer interview with segments taken for other releases.  In addition to this we also get ‘The cynic, the rat and the sadist: An interview with Tomas Milian’ where the actor seems to talk more about SYNDICATE SADISTS and therefore really should be on that release instead of this one. Regardless Milian is an interesting fellow to talk to and his discussion about his choice of dubbing artist, Ferruccio Amendola if you are interested, is an interesting insight into an area not often covered while he also discusses this films sequel, ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH, a release I am hoping 88 Films acquire soon.

FEAR IN THE CITY (1976) BY Giuseppe Rosati

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Paura in città, Hot Stuff, Street War, Cuerpo especial, Epikindynoi drapetes, La peur régne sir la ville
Director: Giuseppe Rosati
Writers: Giuseppe Pulieri
Year: 1976
Starring: Maurizio Merli; James Mason; Raymond Pellegrin; Silvia Dionisio

Synopsis:
The day Lettieri, a tough gangster, and his accomplices, escape from prison they start to plunder, kill and rob. Only one man might solve the affair; the suspended Captain Murri, whose violent persecution of gangsters led to more deaths than convictions but only Murri can stop these gangsters and deliver the city from fear.

Review:
Released during the height of Euro-crime cinema, FEAR IN THE CITY is a loose, unofficial sequel to director Giuseppe Rosati’s LEFT HAND OF THE LAW (1975) – both scripted by Giuseppe Pulieri, however this film sees the blonde haired star Maurizio Merli step in for Leonard Mann, who had previously held the role of the lead, Inspector Murri.

Wasting no time we are immediately thrown into the action which manages to pack in a prison break, infidelity and a lot of violence against police informers in its brief time, perfectly representing a city and a nation that has lost control.

Out of this chaos comes Inspector Murri, now looking slightly different as, but fans of the genre will be pleased to hear that he portrays the Inspector in exactly the same way as every other vigilante cop character he has ever played, typifying the no-nonsense macho vigilante cop with a social conscious and cynical view on the justice system which he is known for thanks to films such as VIOLENT NAPLES and ROME: ARMED TO THE TEETH.

If Maurizio Merli was in stereotypical form then the same can be said for FEAR IN THE CITY, which knows exactly what is expected as it contrasts the conventional yet seemingly powerless representatives of the law with the unconventional yet effective Inspector Murri. 

More than just a legalised thug, Murri is given a bit of character depth and emotional involvement which is delivered through the use of flashbacks but sadly this is as deep as it gets as Giuseppe Rosati fails to extend this to the main antagonist as we never get a true sense of the man or his underlying motives. 

Additionally a sub-thread (I daren’t say narrative plot point) is woven into the film regarding a kidnapped convict, Masoni, who was due soon for release and his ‘lady-for-hire’ niece but again this is perhaps not explored as much as it could or should be.

Despite this there is plenty of action overall, with the genuine chase sequence being very well handled as Maurizio Merli and his wigged up stunt double give chase on the back of a bike over jumps and up stairs. While the character depth not going far enough the action certain delivers. Interestingly the film also manages to succeed with its use of humour as many scenes poke fun at the genre conventions for example the ill-mannered chief of police (James Mason) categorically stating he will not have Murri in his unit at any cost only to receive a call from the Commissioner and capitulate immediately. This sense of playfulness in the plot helps to provide some balance and a contrast the more explicit action.

Overall FEAR IN THE CITY however fails to reach the heights of the genres top tier due to its failure to really add any substance to the storyline or initial set up.

The weak linear narrative explains the scene transitions but do not give any weight to the actions nor does it encourage any emotional investment on the part of the viewer which is a real shame as it has the majority of the elements to make a strong film.

Despite this though there is a lot to recommend about FEAR IN THE CITY especially as a second tier level euro crime flick. Maurizio Merli is on top judo-chopping, gun toting form while the chase sequences and shoot outs are exciting and are guaranteed to entertain fans of the genre.6

ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976) BY UMBERTO LENZI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Roma A Mano Armato; The Tough Ones; Roma Armada; Roma a mano armada; Brigade special; Assault with a Deadly Weapon; Brutal Justice; Die Viper
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Writer: Dardano Sacchetti
Year: 1976
Starring: Maurizio Merli, Arthur Kennedy, Giampiero Albertini, Tomas Milian, Ivan Rassimov

Synopsis:
A tough, violent vigilante cop makes it his mission to bring to justice a machine-gun-carrying, hunchback killer by any means necessary.

Review:
The first of two Inspector Tanzi films (THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST would follow the subsequent year with stars Maurizio Merli and Tomas Milian rekindling their bromance), ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH kicks off in traditional genre style – with an in-car camera sequence allowing us to cruise the streets and case the local banks while bobbing our heads to a nice little score courtesy of Franco Micalizzi.

We quickly meet our hero, Inspector Tanzi (Maurizio Merli) who is tipped off about a gambling den which he promptly raids with all the usual charm and violence of the archetypal Maurizio Merli character. Keep an eye out for the hapless guy who answers the door and is suddenly thrown to the floor by the entering Tanzi. Rather than being pissed off he picks himself up and casually strolls across to the bar for a J&B.

Annoyed that the bust didn’t yield any significant collars barring one known thug,  Tanzi doesn’t have to wait long before getting a second chance to dispense some justice. As lucky would have it while being sat in his car waiting, he witnesses a motorbike mugging by a couple of criminals. Determined not to let these crooks slip through his fingers he sets off in pursuit only to realise right before dishing out another ass kicking that they are just kids.

These action set pieces however are just a prelude to the adult violence that would follow, including a brutal robbery that personally affects Tanzi. This sequence not only provides the motivation for Tanzi to increase his efforts but also is used as a plot device by Dardano Sacchetti to highlight the impotence of the Italian justice system, thus working this genre trope in relatively early.

By now the Inspector has shown himself to be the stereotypical vigilante cop, one who sees the police methods he is duty bound to adhere to as actually being restrictive putting the whole force at a disadvantage when compared to ironically liberalised criminals they are up against.

Such is Tanzi’s disillusionment with the system that after a violent robbery occurs resulting in the death of a guard, when a colleague states that “we shouldn’t have let him go the other day” referring to an unrepentant and repeat criminal, a clearly irritated Tanzi replies “Don’t be silly. A cops been murdered but we went by the book that day. That’s what’s important.” Hmm as a viewer we doubt that he is being sincere.

In ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH director Umberto Lenzi and writer Dardano Sacchetti don’t just deliver the expected goods but have a knack for adding just that bit more to differentiate their films as interestingly for this type of movie, Tanzi has a permanent girlfriend, Anna (Maria Rosaria Omaggio – who went on to star with Tomas Milian in COP IN BLUE JEANS as well as NIGHTMARE CITY and BLOODY SIN), a youth offender psychologist who acts as the sympathetic voice of redemption and rehabilitation to his more hardline, uncompromising, black and white, dare we even say intolerant approach to justice. This differing ideology is in fact the cause of much friction between the two, further exacerbated by the plight of the aforementioned two juvenile offenders. Although immediately after the most extreme bout of these discussions the film presents his methods as paradoxically the safest solution for those setting out on a criminal path.

“I’m talking about two young boys dead by excess of humanity”

This could easily be a throwaway line in a film that appears to prioritise action over genuine social commentary. But through not only the idealistic sparring but also the seemingly minor conversations between Tanzi, the Chief and their peers, it appears that Dardano Sacchetti might actually have something to say about the methods of Italian justice of the time.

And bizarrely it is something that resonates with us today. Becoming particularly relevant in the context of the witnessed shifts in voter trends across Western and Central Europe as well as the arguments around the liberal elite, political correctness and the rise of the right – enabled by the impotence or perhaps over compassion of the left.

Almost ironically however Tanzi, through his police state brutality and repression of rights represents the defender of citizens’ freedom and safety. This is a theme that was prevalent in several high profile Italian films of the early seventies and clearly tapped into the feeling at the time, be it for or, in most cases against the status quo be it governmental or economical.

Back to the film and Tanzi’s partner Anna; through her no doubt justifiable arguments for reform and second chances she states that “prison makes them all delinquent”. A clear attempt to justify one sides argument that the contemporary methods were not suitable but rather trapping those caught into a self-perpetuating, dangerous cycle. 

Again parallels could be drawn to our modern times, especially in the UK where the effectiveness of reform is being investigated, albeit for economical rather than humanitarian reasons.

All of this happens in next to no time as Umberto Lenzi has covered all of this within the first seventeen minutes, and all before we even first meet Tomas Milian (it’s an even longer wait for you Ivan Rassimov fans) who plays Moretto. 

A seemingly pitiful hunchback on the periphery of the criminal underworld and unfairly framed by Tanzi in their first encounter. In fact Tanzi appears to go too far here and Moretto is driven to desperation in his bid for revenge. An act that has significant consequences for the Inspector, both personally and professionally. 

But what about Ivan Rassimov? He hasn’t been forgotten and finally makes an appearance halfway through the movie as an abusive boyfriend who is keeping his young girlfriend dependent on drugs. Unfortunately for him however the girl is the sister of Tanzi’s fallen colleague giving him a feeling of responsibility to set things right.

Now to keep momentum going there unfortunately isn’t room in the story for two key villains and as a result Ivan Rassimov is given a surprisingly small part for an actor of his standing but does excel in the limited time he has. 

This smaller than expected role is almost forced by the construction of the films in the genre. It also has the added effect of meaning that it takes a while for the Tomas Milian character Moretto to actually develop, but the wait is not only worth it but additionally helps to frame the character subsequent actions in a wider context.

Tomas Milian’s character gets pushed further and further and we begin to a transformation from Moretto the outcast to Il Gobbo, where his mental state and compassion soon begin to mimic his physical appearance, at least in regards to the attitudes of the time. 

And by the final act he has completed his transformation in the machine-gun welding madman that indiscriminately hurts anyone who stands in his way of self-gratification and money. 

A couple of the storylines that make up ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH eventually dovetail (with the others merely included for narrative momentum or potentially to flesh out the run time) leading to a final confrontation and bizarrely a motivational switch between our Inspector and his right hand man. Although once again Tanzi’s initial thoughts on justice are ultimately reinforced. 

It is a shame however that despite this, the actual end of the film is a little lackluster especially when compared to the rest of the films actions and it’s contemporaries.

While arguably Dardano Sacchetti tries to weave too many elements into the story, and despite being wrapped up I feel the film never had the resolution it was meant to, and is in fact rather forgettable compared to the previous action. 

Umberto Lenzi’s first film in the Tanzi series is less political or social in focus than many of its peers and while the Inspector suffers from the genre clichés of being frustrated by the impotence of the law, something explicitly stated via dialogue, I would argue that this focus is not a  key objective of the film which prefers to prioritise frequent bouts of action.

The film also works in a few moments of humour such as the chief of police suddenly remembering at midnight it’s his 22nd wedding anniversary and demanding a sergeant gets him a dozen red roses immediately or one of several wisecracks made by Tanzi or Moretto. This element does help to break up the film allowing the viewer to remain engaged.

Now it has been stated by other sources that Umberto Lenzi, and some of his films by extension, had fascist leanings and while the story does lean more to the centre-right suggesting anything more would be a gross overstatement especially when we consider that other characters provide a genuine balance to the issues both in their interactions and their own minds. And while Dardano Sacchetti would write the script it was from a collaborative story with Umberto Lenzi and so we have to allow the man some credit for this balance there, even if the authoritarian side always wins…but if it didn’t then we would be left with a poor excuse for an action film.

Combining strong camera work with terrific editing, which accentuates the action due to the choice of cut timings being spot on, it is a shame that the anti-climactic ending somewhat dampens the final thoughts of the film, but ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH is despite this, guaranteed to entertain fans of the genre both new and old.

My only other minor gripe would be with one sequence which appears a little more sadistic than the others and therefore a little out of place but it passes quickly and normal ass-kicking Maurizio Merli action is resumed.

If you do check this film out and it floats your boat make sure you also watch the sequel THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST as well as the quite conceptually similar Betti films (VIOLENT ROME, VIOLENT NAPLES, A SPECIAL COP IN ACTION) which sometimes share actors, directors and in the terms of the last of the trilogy almost the same title.

On a side note Umberto Lenzi and Tomas Milian would almost reprise the character of the hunchback in the unrelated 1978 film ‘LA BANDA DEL GOBBO’ with ‘gobbo’ being the italian word for ‘hunchback’. And be on the look out for the US release under THE TOUGH ONES in which several establishing shots have been allegedly changed in order to port the action from Italy to the US.

CONTRABAND (1980) BY LUCIO FULCI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Luca il contrabbandiere; The Naples Connection; Luca el contrabandista; La guerre des gangs; Das Syndikat des Grauens; The Smuggler
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Gianni De Chiara, Ettore Sanzo
Year: 1980
Starring: Fabio Testi, Ivana Monti, Marcel Bozzuffi; Luciano Rossi;

Synopsis:
Fabio Testi stars as Luca, an ‘old-school’ cigarette smuggler who triggers a ferocious mob war when his brother is killed and his wife kidnapped by a rival gang headed by a totally drug dealing, depraved sadist who is intent on replacing the cigarette smuggling status quo.

[Adapted from the Shameless DVD release]

Review:
Seemingly a million miles away from the sun-kissed coast of Naples that exists in our minds, CONTRABAND starts in a bleak, misty Neapolitan harbour where a local smuggling gang, led by our protagonist Luca (Fabio Testi – WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?; GANG WAR IN NAPLES; THE BIG RACKET), make a successful yet clearly illegal pick up only to be rumbled by the fuzz resulting in a passable chase which has the novelty of being on the water instead of in the streets.

Struggling to get away, Luca pulls plan B out of the bag and his neat trick ensures that all of his team get away…but at a cost of two million in earnings. It is clear that the gang were sold out and Luca thinks he knows who by.

With suspicions aroused it is not long before Luca’s brother Mickey (Enrico Maisto – THE CLIMBER; VIOLENT NAPLES; CORLEONE) is gunned down in front of him and it is this event that is the real catalyst for the story. 

Although relatively early this pivotal moment of the film is treated with all the grandeur it deserves as director Lucio Fulci pulls out the slow-motion effect in an attempt to heighten the emotional impact but as would happen on a number of other occasions throughout the film these little attempts to add a touch of gravitas to proceedings fail to hit the mark.

Now by this point of the story we have been introduced to Luca’s family, living and dead, but through an exposition we discover exactly why there was a such a tight bond between brothers and why vengeance is so important to Luca.

Having spent the opening twenty minutes laying down these emotional foundations it is a shame that the affect on the viewer is minimal, although this is in part down to the limited range of Fabio Testi. Thankfully however there is a growing level of criminal political intrigue, double crossing and violence to keep our attention. 

I suspect that Lucio Fulci could see that the drama was failing to register at this point and rather bravely at this point the director decides to double down as CONTRABAND boosts the family element ensuring that it not only added further impetus to Luca’s vendetta but would also raise the stakes for the viewer thanks in part to one particularly sadistic scene.

With this it is interesting to see that after all these attempts at building intricate plotting between characters and a strong family dynamic, albeit a two-dimensional one, the director falls back to what many modern audiences would expect – graphic, shocking violence – as a body is thrown in a sulphur pit, a face shown being burnt by a bunsen burner and a throat being shot off being just some of the highlights of the brutal war that ensues between the old guard and the new crime boss from Marseille, played by Marcel Bozzuffi in a part not too dissimilar to the one he held in THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

Despite all of this violence however, CONTRABAND fails to live up to its promise in the action stakes, relatively speaking, and this arguably could come down to Lucio Fulci himself, on his first and only eurocrime film, not yet being knowledgeable enough in directing the required big action scenes to the same standard as genre masters Enzo G. Castellari (HIGH CRIME; STREET LAW; THE BIG RACKET THE HEROIN BUSTERS) and even fellow journeyman Umberto Lenzi (GANG WAR IN MILAN; ALMOST HUMAN; SYNDICATE SADISTS; VIOLENT NAPLES; THEY CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST) had achieved by this point in time.

This is not saying the action is bad here, in fact the violence considered in isolation certainly lives up to the hype and shock expected of the director but it is the surrounding action and context that is notably weaker than his peers in the genre. 

Which arguably explains why CONTRABAND shifts ever so slightly more towards the dramatic, and this is something that it suffers for in an almost pedestrian first act. Looking at the period in which the film was made this dramatic aspect may also tie in with where Italy was as a society at the time. Moving into a new decade the stories of public disorder and seemingly random true life violence that once influenced the seventies eurocrime were becoming more infrequent and while Lucio Fulci has technically maintained the tradition of drawing from real life it is here perhaps with more of an artistic licence as he delves deeper spending more time on Luca’s family dynamic than perhaps is necessary in this film or rather should I say in the audiences demands.

Coming at the very tail end of the sub-genre one could almost see CONTRABAND as an evolution from the more direct action set-piece focused eurocrime (I do feel that A SPECIAL COP IN ACTION attempted this as well). It is also worth noting the sporadic use of two police officers throughout the film. Used sparingly they break up the criminal focus and more serious drama thanks to their dialogue lending an almost thoughtful (and sometimes lighter) tone as they mimic the conversations of the philosophers of antiquity by discussing the morality of the smugglers actions and how communities rely on them for their livelihood while at the same time being in direct violation of law and civil order. Honourable crooks if you will – much like Luca and no doubt the small number of producers on the film who were actually Neapolitan smugglers (as noted by Roberto Curti in his book ‘Italian Crime Filmography 1968-1980’) and surely had a hand in how they were portrayed.

Overall CONTRABAND is not only a Lucio Fulci film – layered, intelligent and at times graphically violent– but one representative of a certain point in his career. While it will certainly appease those looking for superficial violent thrills it does attempt to offer much more, even if it does not necessarily succeed. 

Clearly not a top tier film, despite the wonderful and seasoned supporting cast, CONTRABAND does entertain and add a little something different to the genre.

Oh and as well as nice gun-toting cameo from Lucio Fulci look out for our pal Luciano Rossi. He would also go in to feature in Lucio Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD in the same year and the two films were released in theatres only three days apart.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the 2014 Shameless Films DVD release which had a slightly grainy image quality and English dubbing of a dubious quality but it is released uncut and with an Italian audio track.

Finally the lenticular case for the DVD packaging is fantastic and certainly does the film and Shameless justice. Check it out.

THE BIG RACKET (1976) BY ENZO CASTELLARI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Il Grande Racket; Racket; Big Violence; Forajidos 77
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Writers: Enzo G. Castellari, Massimo De Rita, Arduino Maiuri
Year: 1976
Starring: Fabio Testi, Vincent Gardenia, Renzo Palmer

Review:
A toe tapping score introduces the film as a criminal gang terrorise a commercial neighbourhood all the while police Inspector Nico Palmieri (a strapping Fabio Testi – WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?; THE HEROIN BUSTERS; RINGS OF FEAR; CONTRABAND) watches on, waiting for his chance to pounce and bring some justice to the streets. Opening with scenes of mayhem and violence is nothing new for the genre and the film set’s itself up nicely with these opening sequences but it is not long before director Enzo Castellari’s style (and apparent love of multiple camera angles comes into play to provide something different.

After the brief introduction of Rudy (Joshua Sinclair – KEOMA), the English boss of ‘the racket’, we are treated to multiple angles of the same instance which although fails to provide any additional depth or understanding is a good excuse for some breathtaking footage as an internal catches the reaction of the Inspector as he is trapped inside his car which is repeatedly rolling 360 degrees down a hill. This scene is worth mentioning in itself not because of the usual distance shot of the car but for these cuts to an the internal camera as we see the poor Inspector turned upside repeatedly as glass shatters all around him.

Unsurprisingly hospitalised and now disillusioned with the (trope alert) impotence of the law, Palmieri seems almost beaten as he states when asked if he wants to go after the punks that did this to him “What’s the use …in 3 days they’ll be out and about again”. 

Finally however our dejected Inspector reaches that stereotypical eurocrime turning point of admitting that if the law cannot do what is required and if the ends justify the means, then he is the man to take the law into his own hands and make a difference.

Setting about his plan to bring down the mysterious English boss, Palmieri uses some dubious methods which not only result in the release of the lackeys he does manage to collar but also in some gruesome repercussions for one unlucky citizen and his family. Once again reiterating the point that the law protects the guilty and not the innocent.

These initial failed attempts see Palmieri kicked off the case, or at least that is what is said but in practice it makes no difference to the film as he ploughs on with his mission propelling the film forwards and providing a handy little plot device to eschew the procedural aspects that sometimes bog down these types of films but has enough room to allow for the justification and organizational protection (although whether this is a good thing is another debate especially when we consider the tale of repressive power in Elio Petri’s INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION – but let’s make like this film and sidestep serious political debate) that only being a member of the police force can provide.

From here the film is pretty unrelenting in terms of action as director Enzo Castellari is pretty much given carte blanche to indulge and he certainly makes the most of the opportunity as cars are blown up and violence rife. All of this action however comes at a price as THE BIG RACKET utilises its action for two purposes; the first is to entertain, and secondly to replace the need of a subplot or character relationships as it is actually through action rather than dialogue that these instances occur, such as the ways in which we an elderly pick pocket and a champion skeet shooter are introduced. 

The introduction of the later occurs via a high octane and brutal gunfight. If the retaliation by the ‘racket’ to the earlier inconvenience caused by Palmieri and a meddling civilian was brutal, Enzo Castellari takes things up a notch for our new have-a-go hero as the tone suddenly shifts to slightly darker territory more akin to the sleazier entries in the wider genre, such as ALMOST HUMAN and RABID DOGS, and as powerful as it is the result is that it feels a little alien to the rest of the film.

Irrespective of this short lived tonal shift, a double crossing and sacking helps lead us to the formation of our vigilante squad and with the random roping in of an ex-mob hit man our motley crew go off to settle old scores in an explosive showdown.

Despite lacking the rugged looks and masculinity of contemporaries such as Franco Nero or Maurizio Merli, the athletically built Fabio Testi, fresh off a year which saw him star in the Lucio Fulci western THE FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE and the Tonino Valerii crime drama VAI GORILLA, puts in a solid performance as Inspector Palmieri. 

If you are not familiar with his other performances then you may be forgiven for thinking that the star is a little two-dimensional, as his character lacks any form of emotional complexity or emotional engagement that would either test the actor or provide some additional depth to the narrative. However the actors loss is the films gain, with this lack of depth actually streamlining the film allowing for the momentum of the action to be maintained. 

On the subject of the cast the film also features notable performances from a strong cast including Vincent Gardenia (DEATH WISH; LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS [remake]), the familiar face of Renzo Palmer (DANGER: DIABOLK; STREET LAW; THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST), as well as Glauco Onorato (BLACK SABBATH; VIVA! DJANGO) and Antonio Marsina (KEOMA; THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD; THE LAST BLOOD) amongst others.

After HIGH CRIME and STREET LAW, THE BIG RACKET is a successful return to the world of the vigilante for Enzo Castellari which is pretty close to being definitive of the genre. I say this because it makes a terrific introduction to the genre, displaying many of the hallmark tropes with its disillusioned cop, impotent justice system, well-choreographed entertaining fights and vigilante civilians standing up for justice all contributing to the mirroring of the chaotic and frequently violent Italian society of the 1970’s.

Overall however THE BIG RACKET is an entertaining watch from start to finish that promises and delivers everything a fan of the genre would want and despite not being quite up there with the best efforts of the genre it deserves to be in the collection of every fan of the genre.

Additional:
As a bit of a side note, if rumours are to be believed THE BIG RACKET represents something of an oddity for the films of Enzo Castellari and the period in general due to the way that the audio was recorded first in Italian and then dubbed into English after, as opposed to the usual method of the other way around. 

Allegedly this is because star Fabio Testi was unable to speak English. However, many directors at the time (perhaps most famously Lucio Fulci) would frequently have cast members speaking their lines in their native language because they knew that it would all be dubbed over anyway as the Italian industry rarely worked with live sound. 

Meanwhile Enzo Castellari actually comes from a family of film makers with his father, Marino Girolami, also being a director who worked on VIOLENT ROME and ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST amongst others.