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.