Fernando Di Leo was, in the estimation of genre-hound Quentin Tarantino, “the master” of the Italian crime movie, or the “poliziotteschi.” A violent action genre that picked up the escalating violence of American films like Dirty Harry and The French Connection, films where blood spattered and cops got their hands dirty, it was never as popular an export as the spaghetti western (which is displaced on Italian screens) or the giallo (which took the violence to surreal, sadistic extremes) but it sure put that distinctly Italian stamp on the genre. At its best, it brought the mercenary cynicism and greed of the spaghetti western into the contemporary urban milieu and, in the shadow of The Godfather, undercut the romantic notions of family and honor with a ruthless portrait of cutthroat underworld capitalism and unforgiving vengeance.
The films of Fernando Di Leo are the poliziotteschi at its best and four of his films in particular dismantle the pulp glorification of the mafia: Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1972), and The Boss (1973), which make-up his Milieu Trilogy, and his postscript Rulers of the City (1976). Like most directors in the industry, di Leo worked in the popular genres of the day, writing spaghetti westerns and directing a handful of giallo and sexploitation pictures before making Caliber 9, his first mob movie. It opens on a scene like something out of a spy thriller—packages passed from hand to hand, a covert trade-off in the subway, and back through the daisy chain of handoffs until the new package is brought back home—and Di Leo admires the precision of the operation. And then it all descends into startling brutality after the mob payout is stolen. It’s an inside job and everyone who touched the package is systematically tortured and murdered with a flamboyance that would be perversely comic (death by dynamite) were it not so sadistic. They’re not guilty, merely expendable.
And that’s just in the first act.