Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

The Mafia Worlds of Fernando Di Leo

Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection (RaroVideo)

Caliber 9 (aka Milano Calibro 9) (1972)
The Italian Connection (aka La Mala Ordina) (1972)
The Boss (aka Il Boss and Wipeout!) (1973)
Rulers of the City (aka Il padrone della citta and Mr. Scarface) (1976)

Caliber 9 (1972), the earliest film in the Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection quartet of Italian gangster pictures, opens on a scene like something out of a spy thriller—packages passed from hand to hand until the trade-off in the subway, and then the swaps back until the new package is brought back home—but quickly descends into a sequence of startling brutality, all the more brutal because the characters who are systematically tortured and murdered (blown up by dynamite in a cave in the hills, like something out of a perverse melodrama) are not guilty of the crimes they are suspected of. They are simply expendable.

The debut mob movie from writer/director Fernando Di Leo, a veteran screenwriter of spaghetti westerns who came to Caliber 9 (1972) after directing a handful of giallo and sexploitation pictures, establishes the sensibility of his gangster films to come: a hard, unfeeling brutality, a pitiless expediency and an understanding of who is expendable, who is untouchable, and what happens when those rules are broken, as they invariably, inevitably are. This set limns the boundaries of the Italian mafia movie in four rough, tough, pitiless films of greed, ambition, revenge, corruption and the lie of the criminal code.

These are hard, stripped down, lean narratives, where the complicated webs of alliances and betrayals are laid out with clean storytelling lines of force and set in motion with a pitiless momentum. Not that they move at a machine-gun pace, but the plots and schemes tumble out of the control of everyone involved and the reverberations of every attack—success or failure—has consequences that ripple through the underworld.

Gastone Moschin as Ugo

In Caliber 9, the thugs of a mob boss called The Americano (Lionel Stander) have free reign to rough up a former member of the gang, Ugo (Gastone Moschin), who is suspected of stealing a cash drop-off, but a fallen crime boss and a local assassin, friends of Ugo who lend the abused soldier a hand, are off limits, thanks to residual respect from the organization. But that kind of protection is fleeting and, as the films go on, arbitrary. “They call it the mafia, but it’s just gangs now,” sighs the blind Don Vincenzo, but what he means is that the mafia itself has become simply a country-wide street gang. He mourns a code that likely never have existed yet he still holds on to like an article of faith.

By The Boss (1973), which opens on the jaw-droppingly-executed massacre of the heads of a rival family (it involves a private porno screening and a grenade launcher), gang war trumps diplomacy, even when the bosses in Rome put their foot down on inter-family warfare (it’s bad for business). But it doesn’t stop there. Don Corrasco (Richard Conte, channeling some of the crime boss dignity of his role in The Godfather), driven by twin engines of avarice and intolerance (this Sicilian doesn’t like to see this Calibinian gang pollute the mob bloodline), starts icing everyone standing in his way, and he adopts the loyal orphan Nick Lanzetta (Henry Silva) as his new right-hand man… until it becomes more expedient to sacrifice him.

Between those two films is The Italian Connection (1972) starring Mario Adani, the top dog thug of the Americano’s gang in Caliber 9, as a remarkably affable and well-liked pimp whose popularity on the street makes the Milan boss nervous. So he frames him for a crime that brings a pair of hitmen (Henry Silva, the flashy one, and Woody Strode, the intense, brooding one) from New York to make an example of him. (Quentin Tarantino, a fan of Di Leo from, one assumes, the dubbed editions that landed on video during his time as a video clerk, has stated that this pair was an inspiration for Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction.) In the culture of crime bosses and killers, Adani’s Luca is a petty figure who has earned the respect from the neighborhood merchants and hustlers and even the girls in his stable, so when the price goes on his head, these outsiders end up looking out for him… up to a point. Outside of the Darwinian viciousness of the mob, these small-timers put loyalty and friendship over other considerations except survival. What makes this film buzz, however, is the information vacuum around Luca, who has no idea why he’s being hunted but turns just as ferocious when the dishonorable boss targets his own family (flesh and blood, not crime) in his rush to rub him out before the New York guns discover the truth. The twists and turns of these plots are gripping, to be sure, but are less about surprising the audience then revealing the true character of the players (both the corrupt and the loyal) and the unforgiving character of their mercenary culture.

By The Boss, it’s clear that the criminal code of “The Family” and the family is all a hoax dreamed up by the bosses to keep the soldiers in line, an ideal they ignore whenever it suits its purposes. It’s all about power and commerce, a balance decided at the top. The bosses in Rome aren’t upset at the blood but the interruption of business. When the Don’s plans fall short, he just serves up another loyal soldier, but this time his patsy fights back. The battle between the codeless crime boss and the loyal gun who follows orders but pays his respects even as he betrays his own ties sets the scene for a new order, but Di Leo is no idealist. There is no veneer of the romanticism or the paternal responsibilities of the crime boss seen in The Godfather, and no tragedy when it is betrayed time and time again.

The Boss ends with “To Be Continued,” but in fact it ends Di Leo’s loose trilogy of mafia thrillers. Rulers of the City (1976), the final film in the set, is a simpler, more self-contained revenge film with no ties to outside bosses or internecine gang war. Jack Palance takes top billing as Scarface, a feared rival boss who is scammed by reckless young debt collector Tony (Harry Baer) and his new buddy Ric (Al Cliver), a blond thug who was recently kicked to the curb by Scarface. What appears to be a stupid stunt by a sophomoric soldier trying to show off develops into a more elaborate (if not at all well-planned) revenge plot that springs from a murder seen in the prologue. This is no confidence game nor a planned gang war, simply unstoppable forces unleashed. Reckless courage and immature bravado take care of the rest. It’s also, for all the gunplay and gangster violence, the lightest of the bunch, a mix of caper, revenge and gang war movies rolled into a neat package with the closest the collection comes to a happy ending (that’s assuming there is such a thing as a happy ending built on the corpses of the losers).

Henry Silva in "The Boss"

Di Leo has none of the baroque style of the giallo nor the operatic bloodbaths of the spaghetti westerns. The violence of these film is extreme but direct and his shoots the same way, with a camera that constantly brings us into the middle of every conflict and an almost garish display of crude color. These are crude people with a façade of culture trying to cover a savage nature, and the bigger the boss, the more barbaric the behavior.

But Di Leo still prefers to hang with the soldiers, whether following orders or going rogue, where for all the violence of their lives, their street-level smarts and practical morality is far more admirable than the mercenary nature of the bosses. These bosses are petty feudal lords in the twentieth century, sacrificing their serfs for a shot at taking over the next fiefdom or at least robbing their trade. The thugs themselves are more beholden to the hierarchy of command and the ranks of respect, but have no qualms trading that code in for advancement. That the rules don’t apply to the bosses is something that becomes clear to the men keeping an eye out for their shot at the big time. There is no loyalty, and really no family, simply power.

And it’s not just the mobsters. Caliber 9 (1972) features debates between the hard-bitten police commissioner (Frank Wolff), who longs for the good old days of roughing up suspects and beating confessions, and his token liberal intellectual subordinate, a college-educated modern cop who blames poverty and social inequality but offers little in the way of practical policing. While Di Leo satirizes the whole ineffectual argument here, he presents both men as at least committed to their positions, something that he yanks away in later films, where the public servants with the biggest show of commitment turns out to be the most corrupt, simply another compromised cog in the whole broken system. By Rulers of the City, the police aren’t even a factor. It is a criminal society.

Most (if not all) of these films have been haphazardly released in the U.S. on DVD and/or VHS, in sloppy, indifferent English dub versions under a bunch of alternate names. This collection, from the Italian label RaroVideo, presents the complete, uncut versions with the original Italian soundtracks and good English subtitles with alternate English dub soundtracks (with the American stars speaking their own lines). All them are widescreen, adjusted to fit the 1.77:1/16×9 television widescreen ratio, though the final film in the set, Rulers of the City, is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, which results in a softer, less distinct image when zoomed to fill widescreen monitors.

The image quality is acceptable but not stellar, soft and a little rough, perhaps as a result of translating the video from Italian PAL to NTSC (the differences between the listed running times on the cases and the actual running times as clocked by the DVD counter supports the suspicion). The colors are harsh and rough hewn, like a spaghetti western in an urban setting, as is the sound, with that unmistakable post-synch dialogue and foley sound effects (from slaps and punches to gunshots and squealing tires) and urban opera scores (Luis Enriquez Bacalov, who scored three of the films, is a tremendously prolific composer who won scored for the likes of Pasolini and Francesco Rosi and won an Oscar for Il Postino/The Postman). Most of the films are clean and undamaged except The Boss, where there is a few minutes of image instability, color defects and sound drop-out.

Caliber 9 features the 38-minutes documentary “Fernando Di Leo: The Genesis of the Genre,” with interviews with Di Leo (it was made before he died in 2003) and many of his collaborators, and the 26-minute TV documentary “Scerbanenco Noir,” on author Giorgio Scerbanenco (whose story provides the basis of the screenplay), and a photo gallery with commentary by historian G. Moschin. Every disc includes a retrospective featurette on the making of the respective film, filled with interviews with the actors, producers, crew-members and Di Leo himself, and a director biography and filmography. All of these Italian-language documentaries were produced seven or eight years ago for the original Italian DVD releases. A booklet with an introduction by Luca Rea and a 2001 print interview with Di Leo (conducted by Rea) completes the box set, slipped into the slipcase next to the four thinpak cases.

Dave Kehr tackles the set (and offers his not insubstantial insights to the films, the genre and the sensibility of di Leo) at The New York Times here.