Aldo (Joe Dallesandro) was a nobody when he moved into Italy from time spent getting nowhere in the United States, but he had ambition to be a somebody all right. He regarded the lavish lifestyle of the crime bosses with envy, and made up his mind to be their equal or even their better, but having no contacts he was forced to start small, deciding to turn a personal profit by marking up the price on the goods the gangsters were supplying to the locals in Naples and pocketing the difference. That did not last long as the criminals quickly got wise to what he was up to, and he received a serious beating as a result, but there was nothing for him to do, it was either make his name in the underworld or die...
The Climber saw former Andy Warhol Factory celebrity Dallesandro trying to establish himself too, but as a bona fide movie star and the Italians were happy to have him for a few years of mostly low budget thrillers and crime dramas where he could behave as badly as he liked on the silver screen and get paid for it. This was one of the early efforts in that vein for him, after moving across the Atlantic to make the trash horror double whammy of Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula with Warhol's highest profile director Paul Morrissey; they mutually lost interest in one another freeing Joe to pursue his career as a leading man. He may have been short, but he did have the looks and charisma to succeed.
Whether he really did is debatable, certainly he remains a cult star to this day but he was never going to be a major box office attraction in the big leagues, no matter that he headlined movies such as this one. Here he was not called upon to convey much in the way of a searing performance, as with most of his European escapades he was more or less present for the audience to project what they wanted his character to portray onto him, which in this instance was a gangster on the up who despite not having the most promising beginnings manages to get pretty far up the ladder of illegal profits and influence before his inevitable downfall, though writer and director Pasquale Squitieri was so enamoured of the climbing element that he left the drop to the last five minutes.
Before that, we had yet another Italian crime drama where we were invited to wallow in the ways of the lawbreakers, Dallesandro ideal antihero material as he was amusing to watch scrabbling his way to, if not respectability, never mind respect, then a position of power that he was not going to relinquish without a fight. For the first half hour he finds that a real slog as he keeps getting injured by those he seeks to usurp, but while many of this nation's seventies efforts looked to Hollywood thrillers to emulate, this had minimal police input into the narrative, so much so that Naples came across as a place where crime had effectively taken over with nothing to stop it. The blockbuster that Squitieri was patently following was Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, only not at quite such a length.
Mind you, the rise and fall of a gang boss was not a yarn exclusive to Coppola's classic, he in turn had been influenced by the classic Hollywood gangster movies of the thirties, only he lent them an epic sheen to make them more acceptable with the tastemakers, while remembering to include the sex and violence that would appeal across the board to the average moviegoer as well. This was what you had here with The Climber, or L'ambizioso as it was originally called, except as with many of the Italian works there was little try at being respectable - they knew their audience. What was maybe more notable was that the leading lady, Stefania Casini, had more to do in this context than a lot of her contemporary actresses. Sure, she took her clothes off a little and looked decorative, but she was able to give a proper performance as the character had a genuine arc that tragically mirrored Aldo's once she hooked up with him by chance. They played well against each other, though not quite distinguished enough to lift this very much above the routine. Not a bad try, though. Music (a shade repetitive) by Franco Campanino.