One of the great joys of watching films is when you see a director and an actor have a meeting of the minds. They embolden each other to step up their game, taking what might have a simple or familiar tale and raising the stakes until they are pushing the limits of their chosen genre. Italy’s hard-hitting poliziotteschi genre experienced this kind of mind-blowing duo act in 1974 when director Umberto Lenzi teamed with actor Tomas Milian to make Almost Human. Even experienced grindhouse vets will be left slackjawed by the seedy, brutal piece of work they came up with.
Almost Human deals with two plot threads on a collision course with each other. The first belongs to Giulio Sacchi (Milian), a small-time crook. His mixture of cowardice and psychopathic tendencies has him on the outs with the local kingpin so he hatches a wild scheme to kidnap the daughter (Laura Belli) of a prominent banker for a ransom. Of course, his viciousness leads to a pileup of corpses and errors as he pursues his trade and this leads him into conflict with cop Walter Grandi (the great Henry Silva). Grandi is quick to pick up the trail but Sacchi is devious and crazy enough to make things really difficult and deadly in a way that pushes Grandi to the limits of his role as a cop.
Poliziotteschi had a habit of taking the grim, violent style of ’70s American crime fare like Dirty Harry to wilder heights but Almost Human really swings for the fences. Ernesto Gastaldi’s tightly-plotted script functions both as a bleak crime film and a psycho-thriller, with the villain getting more unhinged and devious by the second. Sacchi’s the kind of guy who will wheedle info or help out people then bump them off when they become inconvenient, using his gift of gab and manipulation skills to keep the charade afloat.
The script also never shies away from Sacchi’s love for cruelty: case in point, a moment where he’s chasing his kidnap victim leads to the siege of the house where both men and women are molested, a child is accidentally killed and Sacchi ultimately ends up machine-gunning everyone. He even ties his victims to a chandelier to spin them around!
This wild pulpy/sleazy approach works for two reasons. The first is the work of director Lenzi. He has a gift for clockwork pacing and gives the grim action a sleek, cinemascope visual style. He also mirrors his psychotic anti-hero by relishing the material’s seamy, sadistic elements, with moments like the aforementioned chandelier scene working the film up to a kind of manic energy. He makes good use of the slick camerawork of Federico Zanni, who often worked with Lenzi on his poliziotteschi films, and a strong Ennio Morricone score that has both tough action music and a great saxophone-led instrumental that reflects the movie’s weary take on law and order.
The other reason Almost Human works so well is the stellar performance by Milian. In any other film, you’d call what he does overacting but here it is the glue that holds the film together. He delivers a level of bombast that fits Lenzi’s style in a hand-in-glover fashion. More importantly, Milian’s charisma sells Sacchi’s ability to fool those around him and the twisted joy he takes in plumbing the depths of Sacchi’s moral depravity make it impossible to look away as he goes wild.
At this point, it should be mentioned that Silva is a reliable pro in this film, offering a kind of “cool fire” that acts as a flipside to Milian’s theatrics – and he’s one of the few actors from this era of Italian genre filmmaking who could go toe to toe with Milian. There’s also nice work from Ray Lovelock as an accomplice of Sacchi’s who grows regretful as the chaos unfurls.
That said, Almost Human is the Milian/Lenzi show all the way… and whether you are into poliziotteschi or just the wild side of cinema in general, Almost Human is a must-watch. Milian and Lenzi were an acting/directing dream team for Italian crime cinema and this is their finest hour.
Blu-Ray Notes: for this review, Schlockmania screened Almost Human via the new blu-ray from Code Red. It offers an excellent transfer with both English and Italian soundtracks plus newly-translated subs for the latter. You also get Milian and Lenzi inteviews as well as a transfer of an old print of the U.S. version, which boasts an intriguingly re-edited version of the finale. Well worth picking up.