Arrow Video: The Climber (1975) - Reviewed

My first encounter with European countercultural sex symbol Joe Dallesandro came in the form of Andy Warhol produced Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and eventually Blood for Dracula.  While still active in the film business, including the Steven Soderbergh film The Limey, it was this series of X rated subversive horror films and the recently re-released Merry-Go-Round that imprinted the Factory produced male sex icon into this viewer’s memory banks. 

Born a street hoodlum himself before becoming a male model turned successful leading actor with the power to draw admirers from straight and gay audiences, Dallesandro became a beloved underground cult hero often cast in roles demanding full frontal male nudity and/or graphic sex scenes.  It wasn’t until 1975 that the actor ordinarily cast in movies for his physique than his acting ability finally found a role that arguably hit closer to home than any other work in his oeuvre: the Pasquale Squitieri directed crime drama The Climber.

In a role best described as more than a little semi-autobiographical, Dallesandro plays Aldo, an Italian-American small time runner who, like many small time criminals before him, gradually climbs his way up the social ladder in the crime syndicate and quickly ascends from the hunted to the hunter.  Closest to Kinji Fukusaku’s equally gritty, violent and forthright yakuza pictures depicting the criminal way of life as it is rather than how cinema typically sensationalizes it, The Climber is a hard and often heavy crime drama chronicling the street rat’s rise to power as a fully-fledged mobster. 

Largely a procedural of gang violence, violent assassinations and Aldo’s own transformation from lowly and polite servant to domineering and ruthless crimelord, The Climber is at once familiar territory while offering Dallesandro a role which arguable airs out the actor’s own hamper of dirty laundry for all eyes to see.  Visually as aforementioned, this is a gritty looking crime drama which, like most Italian films of the time, is largely composed with handheld cinematography along with heavy use of the zoom lens.  It’s an ugly world and Eugenio Bentivoglio’s rough and ragged cinematography captures the harsh terrain beautifully. 

Performances across the board are solid and a solid counterpoint to Dallesandro is his girlfriend Luciana (Stefania Casini from Suspiria) who undergoes her own transformation from caregiver to the weak and wounded Aldo before becoming his hapless slave girl with his ascent to power.  Aiding the film’s somber mood is the original score by Franco Campanino which is equal parts funk, guitar rock and downbeat strings, giving listeners a soundscape that accurately reflects the mood of the central characters. 

Fans of Dallesandro and the Italian crime drama are in for familiar territory of the genre but not of the performer.  Ordinarily onscreen for his sex appeal, seeing him make a ruthless turn as a violent gangster was and still is a startling sight to behold.  Occasionally the film’s collection of men-in-suits crime meetings can become tedious and the finale’s landing is a bit shaky, but overall The Climber’s rags to riches tale of a rising crimelord delivers audiences a Dallesandro they haven’t seen before that oddly emerges as one that is as much about the character as it is about the actor playing him.  Not a masterpiece but as close to a confessional for Dallesandro onscreen as viewers are likely to ever get.

- Andrew Kotwicki