Ugo (Gastone Moschin) has just been released from prison, with time off for good behaviour, and all because he was mixed up in a robbery and in an out of character move managed to get himself arrested, no matter that his associates thought him a reliable criminal who would never make such a mistake. But there is more to it than that, for 300,000 lire have gone missing from that heist, and back when this was discovered the henchmen of crime boss The Americano (Lionel Stander) visited some terrible vengeance on those they thought responsible, yet there was not one of those eventually executed by explosion in a cave who admitted they knew where the cash was, not even on pain of death. Does Ugo?
He claims he is innocent and you’re inclined to believe him when his adversaries are such an unlovely bunch of gangsters, but that left the mystery of who actually did relieve the hoodlums of their ill-gotten gains, and the suspects are few and far between. Milano Calibro 9 was one of the crime thrillers from Italian director Fernando Di Leo, who made them his speciality throughout the nineteen-seventies and as a result won himself a loyal following among cineastes who liked their thrillers with grit and a dose of politics, ideal for the Italy of his era. The country was at the time struggling under a rash of corruption and violence, either from the Mafia or would-be revolutionaries, with the authorities apparently powerless.
Naturally, this dangerous atmosphere was reflected in the pop culture of the day, and the police dramas were just one of those examples, with Di Leo demonstrating a more consciousness-raising method than many of those seeking to engage with the prurient. The trouble with that was those issues would tend to be forced into a narrative that was better as a straight ahead suspense and action piece, and it was not every filmmaker who could make the social aspect as well integrated into the entertainment as they would like, indeed they often stuck out like a sore thumb and could come across as ripe with hypocrisy should the work be seen to revel in the sex and violence as a way of delivering the message.
Quite often from a left wing filmmaker in the Italy of the seventies you would get a lot of Marxist justification for acting dreadfully as long as you were doing it in the name of taking down the bourgeoisie, and a right wing one would be so reactionary that their projects were difficult to appreciate without caveats that fascism was perhaps not so desirable. In this case, there were a few scenes of characters discussing politics that sounded as if Di Leo was mulling over the options as he was writing the script, but they were not exactly smoothly transitioned into the more traditional cops and robbers business, especially when the ostensible hero Ugo remained politically neutral as far as we could make out.
He was merely out to clear his name and continue with his life away from the criminals, but they would not be content to allow that when they were convinced he knew more than he was letting on about the missing money. Chief among those thorns in Ugo’s side was Rocco played by Mario Adorf who put in a sterling performance as a nasty piece of work who just won’t give up, and the scenes where he and Gastone went head to head, or at least with Rocco’s underlings doing his dirty work, were among the strongest in the movie. That said, it did grow a tad monotonous when most of the drama took the form of Rocco demanding Ugo admit he knew what was going on and Ugo denying it, though there were asides from Barbara Bouchet as the nightclub dancer Ugo wishes to settle down with, and the regular sight of bit players swapping packages of something or other, and that something or other might be cash or it might be an explosive device, they just can’t tell. Milano Calibro 9 was not exactly slick, but it was muscular and forceful, though its final twist was for the sake of a big punchline rather than dramatically satisfying.