Color, 1975, 107 mins. 30 secs.
Directed by Pasquale Squitieri
Starring Joe Dallesandro, Stefania Casini, Benito Artesi, Ferdinando Murolo
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/B HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

The Climber

The ClimberOne of the more unlikely European movie stars of the second half of the 1970s was Andy Warhol Factory icon Joe Dallesandro, who became a counterculture sex symbol thanks to a trio of gritty, very candid, and often hilarious films by Paul Morrissey (Flesh, Trash, and Heat). Across the pond Dallesandro managed to land a much wider range of roles than the addicts and hustlers that had made his reputation, instead turning to a balance of action films, thrillers, and heady art projects. Critics frequently lambasted his acting ability, but there was no question the camera loved him and, in the hands of the right director, he could prove his doubters wrong. One example is L'ambizioso, which was titled The Climber (as in social climbing, not mountain) when it was shopped around for English distribution. The film didn't receive much play outside of Japan and a handful of European countries, but it became a bit of a cult favorite on the gray market trading circuit once it hit VHS and has since earned the Arrow Video special edition treatment.

First busted in Naples for smuggling, Italian-American aspiring criminal Aldo (Dallesandro) decides to enter the local underworld from the ground up with a warehouse management gig for a local mob ring. He also finds a loyal girlfriend in the form of Luciana (Suspiria's Casini) and turns The Climberout to have a real affinity for ruthlessness, never hesitating when he has to pull out a knife or a gun without warning. His attempt to skim some money leads to a violent smackdown that has him craving revenge and the formation of his own criminal organization, a path that's The Climberdestined to go in a very dark direction.

Though effectively violent and tough, this film is a bit different from the usual Italian crime films of the era focusing on cops, robbers, and car chases. This one takes a lot more inspiration from classic Pre-Code gangster movies charting the rise and fall of a young aspiring criminal (thus the original Italian title), and director Pasquale Squitiere puts his experience as a disciple of neorealism maestro Vittorio De Sica into play with intentional grimy, naturalistic imagery often using available light (supposedly in areas captured without permits). Casini couldn't deliver an uninteresting performance if she tried, and though our main character is a pretty nasty and unsympathetic piece of work, her involvement keeps you invested in how the whole violent saga is going to play out. Especially noteworthy is the firecracker of a soundtrack by Franco Campanino (To Be Twenty, A Man Called Magnum), which features some smoking funky crime tracks, lyrical Naples folk music, and wailing guitar rock. And whatever you do, don't miss the crazed soul theme around the 81-minute mark, a smooth and silky number about a guy realizing his girlfriend just dropped dead in the middle of his song.

The Climber The Climbermakes its Blu-ray and DVD debut in both the U.S. and U.K. from Arrow Video with a very organic, satisfying transfer that ranks up with the better Eurocrime presentations in recent years. It's not a particularly glossy-looking film, but film grain, The Climberdetail, and color schemes all look accurate and impressively rendered. Both the Italian and English tracks are included (DTS-HD MA mono), and it's a bit of a toss up as to which one is preferable. Both are dubbed throughout (Dallesandro's real voice is nowhere to be heard), but most of the cast was clearly speaking English on set so that one's usually in sync. Optional subtitles are provided for both tracks, and it's interesting to see how radically different the Italian one is at times with entire lines and even brief conversations included that are absent entirely from the English track. The sole video extra -- and it's a good one -- is "Little Joe's Adventures in Europe" (28m39s), an earthy and entertaining tour through the actor'sEuropean cinema adventures starting with Paul Morrissey bringing him to Italy for Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. He also talks about his ongoing relationship with the fiery Casini (whom he dated and also acted with in Dracula), his adapting to Borowczyk's La Marge by offering to do nudity when Sylvia Kristel "wanted to be a nun" and keep her clothes on, and alternating art projects in France (e.g., Je t'aime moi non plus and Black Moon) with "shoot 'em ups" in Italy like Season for Assassins. His stories about getting along with Serge Gainsbourg because they both drank a lot are memorable, too, and he doesn't hold back about being ripped off on one later project.

Reviewed on May 29, 2017.