Saturday, 17 July 2010

Apocalypse Joe


Dir: Leopoldo Savona


1970


Joe Clifford, a trigger happy wannabe Shakespearian actor, inherits a gold mine from his uncle and sets out to take possession. On arriving at the mine he finds it has been taken over by a local bully called Berg who apparently acquired the deeds just before Joe's uncle met a sad and 'accidental' death over the edge of a local cliff. Joe is unconvinced and sets out to find the truth and reclaim what is rightfully his.

Also known as A Man Called Joe Clifford the title of Apocalypse Joe fits the content of this film much better as Clifford, played by Anthony Steffen, the genre's most prolific leading man, is something of a one man apocalypse. The bullets fly and the corpses mount up in a dizzying display and it is clear that the whole flick is designed as a non stop action fest featuring every possible Steffen action cliche along with a whole lot more. As such it finds a lot of fans amongst Steffen buffs but does it warrant its popularity? Well I like Steffen too. You pretty much know what you are going to get when his name is over the titles of a picture and although he was never likely to win any awards as an actor he usually delivers in his own way. But I like a little more than just shooting in my westerns so I'm going to try and evaluate this film on a little wider basis than its body count.

To begin with I have to say that I approach the film in a positive way from the get go as one of my favourite Steffen films, Killer Kid, was also made with director Leopoldo Savona so I know they can produce good work together. I must also say though that Savona's westerns are a mixed bag; some good, some not so great. But on the whole he was a solid director from what I call the second tier of the genre; working on middling budgets with actors such as Steffen, Richard Harrison, Mark Damon and the like, well known names but not really big stars. Killer Kid, for me, was a perfect vehicle for Steffen. A decent story enhanced by lots of great action set pieces and an opportunity for Steffen to act a bit too. It also features a grandstand performance from Fernando Sancho of course but then any film would benefit from that. But it is also a consistent film which starts well and keeps getting better. Apocalypse Joe, unfortunately, despite having some very good elements, doesn't manage to hold that same level of quality throughout.

For example, Steffen's character, Joe Clifford, seems to be two people at once. To begin with he is a frustrated actor, coming across as quite juvenile and frightened of his aunt. Very un-Steffen like. But by the time he arrives at his inherited mine he has transformed into the usual taciturn, steely eyed ruthless hard man we are more familiar with. His frustrated actor persona resurfaces occasionally when he dons a series of disguises to outwit his enemies but, on the whole, we never really believe that that's who he is. Joe Clifford, the young wannabe thespian has all but disappeared with explanation. This may be just as well as accepting Steffen as a Shakespearian actor is stretches belief somewhat and maybe as the film progressed those concerned realised it and reverted to type. Either way, it is a failing and when judging the film as a whole it does let it down. For me, though it does allow for some nice ideas to be explored, it would have been better left out altogether because once we get into the meat of the film, namely the action, it really gets going and is a genuine treat for fans of Steffen at his 'roll and shoot' best.

Because, at heart, this is a pure action fest; designed, it would seem, to display every possible gunfighting set piece they could think up. We don't just get Tony rolling and shooting we get him diving and shooting, hanging and shooting, jumping and shooting, dropping and shooting and every other conceivable, or inconceivable, combination physical exertion plus shooting. And when he can't get to his hapless opponents Tony uses a bit of ingenuity to bring them to him. In a memorable set piece, my favourite from the film, he pushes a bundle of wood from the roof he is perched on down onto a loose floor board below, creating a see saw that fires the bad guy standing on the other end into the air where our man dispatches him with a single shot without breaking a sweat. Marvelous stuff and it reflects what this film is really all about. Lots of opportunity for Steffen to let fly while everyone's tongues are firmly set in cheeks without ever stepping over the line into open parody. This, I believe, is the film's greatest strength and credit is due to those concerned that this line between action and comedy is maintained expertly throughout. It would have been very easy to descend into buffoonery in this film but they resist the temptation without ever taking themselves seriously for a moment.

The film has other strengths too though. First among which is the excellent music score from the great Bruno Nicolai which remains one of the most memorable features of the picture. We also get Eduardo Fajardo as the principle bad guy which is always a bonus altough I have to say he was somewhat underused. For example, during the final shootout, which last some 30 minutes in total (a full third of the entire film) Fajardo is merely placed on a balcony shouting instructions while his army of minions are slaughtered one by one. He is still there by the climax and his eventual demise is surprisingly unimaginative. In fact, it is decidedly anti climactic and really doesn't fit with the bonanza of varied comeuppances which precede it.

And this is symptomatic of the film's failings. There are a number of lost opportunities in the film which, had they been dealt with better, could have raised the film to a more memorable level. A prime example of this is the opening scene. Steffen looks into camera holding a human skull and quotes the famous line from Hamlet, "To be, or not to be" and then proceeds to perform a soliloquy in front of a western street audience climaxing with him gunning down five burly looking men in the front row with a pistol hidden in the skull. Sounds good. But apart from the opening line everything else is played silent and covered by the opening credits while Nicolai's theme plays over the top. Now, as I said before, Nicolai's music is one of the film's best features but used in this way it completely ruins the possible tension of what could have been a great scene. Why not play it out straight and have the credits and music follow straight after? That way you would get two for one highlights before the film is even ten minutes old.

For me, it is missed opportunities like this that stop the film reaching its full potential and mean that, for all its positives, it remains a good Steffen flick but not a great one. Certainly better than many but not matching his very best. If you are a Steffen fan though you are sure to enjoy it. I must say that I did a lot more this time around than on my first viewing some time ago. Perhaps I missed some of its charm last time or perhaps I am just warming more and more to Steffen in general. I'm not sure. But it is certainly worthy of a watch for any Spaghetti fan if only to see Tony in a dress and togged up ludicrously in a viking helmet as Macbeth. Just don't expect too much Shakespeare.

Monday, 24 May 2010

God Forgives...I Don't


Dir: Giuseppe Colizzi


1967


Terence Hill and Bud Spencer became synonomous with the later, parody dominated phase of the Spaghetti Western cycle with their highly successful teaming in the Trinity films of Enzo Barboni. But their first teaming in a western was a very different affair. One in which their 'little and large' relationship was given its first opportunity to show itself but which was an altogether darker piece of work and one far more fitting to the grittier sensibilities of the 1967 Spaghetti.

A train is robbed of a $100,000 gold shipment, apparently leaving all the passengers and crew dead. But one survives and informs the insurance company of how it was carried out. Hutch (Bud Spencer) recognises the plan as being one which only notorious bandit Bill San Antonio could be capable of. But San Antonio is supposed to be dead. Killed in a gunfight with a mutual acquaintance, Cat Stevens (Terence Hill). Hutch sets out on behalf of the company to track down Cat in order to locate San Antonio but on hearing of the robbery Cat leaves Hutch behind and goes looking for the bandit himself. San Antonio (Frank Wolff) is, as Hutch suspected, still alive and well and living with a new gang just across the Mexican border; sitting on his cache of gold and terrorising the local villagers. So when Cat, and later Hutch, arrive to confront him a three way showdown is inevitable and a lot more people are likely to die.

God Forgives...I don't was Colizzi's first stint in the director's chair but his hand here is surprisingly assured and accomplished. The very first two scenes of the film; the opening, where the train rolls into a station carrying a car load of corpses and it's follow up, a moody and tense poker game in a smokey room instantly set the tone for the whole film and mark Colizzi as a director who knows what he is after. Well shot, superbly timed and exuding just the kind of look and feel your average Spaghetti fan eats up with a spoon this is top draw stuff and worthy of some of the best in the genre. And it doesn't let up there. The story, which at times is quite complex, involving flash backs and mystery, is played out well and a good balance is maintained throughout between the action and its set up. As a result it keeps the viewer engaged and satisfied while never stooping to a constant crash, bang, kablooey onslaught. This is all to the good.

Having a good cast working at the top of their game never hurts either. Both Hill and Spenser perform to their very best here and it is easy to see why theyu became such a successful and long running double act. But for all the success they went on to have, for me, this is by far their best outing as a team. Spencer plays Hutch with the determined but not too bright air that suits him perfectly and thankfully had yet to descend to too much clenched fist head banging antics. While Hill is super cool as the athletic and laconic Cat, showing off his gymnastic skills as much as his shooting ones and acting as the perfect foil to Spencer's dog like demeanour. But despite Hill and Spencer's fine performances it is Frank Wolff who is the star turn of the piece. Bill San Antonio is one of the best bad guys of the genre and Wolff inhabits him completely, exhibiting cool calculation and arbitrary violence in equal measure. Ruling his men with acidic sarcasm and condescension as well as unpredictable cruelty he swaggers in every scene, eliminating those who no longer have use with the casual stroke of swatting a fly. Wolff is supreme here and nowhere better than in a scene in which he appears at a saloon to meet Hill. Arriving to find Hill sat at a table in the corner he calmly states "too many people here" and instantly guns down the only two other inhabitants of the room, the bar man and a hapless customer. This casual dishing out of arbitrary violence is not just intrinsic in his character but seems to speak for the whole genre and by this one act he becomes a metaphor for every proper bad guy who ever murdered with a sneer in the Almerian desert.

The whole thing is also helped along by a good score from Carlo Rustichelli which contains a nice contrast from rousing choral theme to a solo guitar tune, both of which fit the movie very well. And, despite the fact that this is no comedy there are some lighter moments which raise a smile or even a genuine laugh. There is a moment where Rosa, a fading prostitute, looks lovingly at the photo of Tito Garcia in her locket and laments " he was such a good looking man". If you've seen Tito you'll get the gag.

Colizzi went on to make two more films featuring Hill and Spencer in the roles of Cat and Hutch. Ace High followed in 1968 while Boot Hill completed the trilogy the year after. Both these films have their moments and Ace High in particular benefits from the reliable talents of Eli Wallach but neither film, in my opinion, match the quality of this first outing for the team. Watching Hill and Spencer together it is easy to forget that this was their first film as a duo. They have an obvious chemistry and the style of each, in this setting, compliments the other perfectly. It is a film I have seen a number of times and can honestly state I like more and more with every viewing.

The version I watched of this was the Dutch Filmworks DVD. It runs at around 108 minutes which makes it as close to uncut as you could ask and is in the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio with english audio. The picture is reasonable but has not been fully remastered and shows a number of faults from the original print but this is no problem and is a pretty good release although I believe it is now out of print. If you can find a copy though it is worth getting and is probably the best English friendly release available.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Clint the Stranger


Dir: Alfonso Balcazar


1967


Clint (George Martin) wants to leave his gunfighting days behind him and settle down with his estranged wife and son so sets out to find them in Wyoming where they have gone to start a new life. On finding them Clint's wife Julie (Marianne Koch) is reluctant to take her man back as she fears he will continue in his violent life and she wants none of it for her boy and her. But Clint persuades her to give him a chance by handing over his guns and promising never to take them up again. She allows him to stay on as a hired hand to prove himself and all seems to be going hunky dory until local rancher, Shannon (Walter Barnes) and his boys start bullying and putting pressure on all the local homesteaders, Clint's family included, to sell up and let him take over the whole valley to run his cattle on. Their tactics get increasingly violent and Clint's resolve to stay passive while still keeping his self respect and that of his young son is tested to the limit before he is finally pushed into action and a large scale showdown settles the matter for good.

It may not be so obvious from the above synopsis but this film is, in large part, a reworking of the classic American western, Shane (even down to the "Come Back!" final scene) and, as such, is very much a western in the classical tradition. Clint, despite his gun fighting past, is strictly an honourable hero figure who attempts to keep to his word and only strays back into violent action in protection of his community and when no other option seems workable. He is also a devoted and loving father and his rekindled relationship with his young son is kept firmly at the centre of the narrative's progress. He also has a clear love for his wife (it's Marianne Koch. Who wouldn't?) and is just a general all round good guy which does not make him a typical Spaghetti protagonist circa 1966. But then this is not a typical Spaghetti film of circa 1966. For starters, despite its Spanish location shooting this has a very different geographic look and feel. It is set in the foothills of snowy mountain country and so was filmed in the Pyrenees not the usual Almeria, Fragas or Manzanares. It is very much a 'green' western but, in this case, that is far from a bad thing a la cheap Fidani. The scenery is magnificent and is used very well by cinematographer Victor Monreal. Indeed this majestic backdrop, in true western fashion, goes a long way in covering up for some otherwise weak material. I don't have a problem with that however. You use what you've got and this scenery is good value. With it's unusually northern setting it also means there is no space for any Mexican bad men so Fernando Sancho, despite still playing an exuberant heavy, has no sombrero here and plays a character called Ross. No matter either; Sancho still delivers his usual sneering, bullet slinging performance and doesn't disappoint.

All in all, this film comes across as very 'unitalian'. Its classical style, romantic content and (spoiler alert) happy family ending harks back to a different era of westerns. But then this is predominantly a Spanish film rather than an Italian one. It's a three country co-production (Spain, Italy and Germany) but is clearly dominated by the Spanish contingent and the traditional leanings of the Spanish producers of the time have their stamp on the entire proceedings. For similar examples see the early films by Joaquin Marchent like Gunfight at High Noon or The Implacable Three. The Spanish westerns of this era were far more likely to try and emulate their American source material than cultivate a distinctive style of their own the way the Italians were doing but their product, if you like traditional westerns (and I do) remains very watchable.

In the case of Clint the Stranger it benefits from an excellent core cast. George Martin was a fine leading man who looked the part and could play villain or hero with equal effectiveness. Here he is the macho good guy with the eyes that belie an inner sadness and he carries it off with his usual aplomb. As mentioned above Fernando Sancho turns in his usual good value performance as one of the heavies and Walter Barnes is equally pleasing as the villainous patriarch rancher. Finally Marianne Koch delivers beauty and feminine strength as Clint's determined and virtuous wife, giving the part possibly more gravitas than the script might suggest. A good bunch of genre stalwarts who lift the film above some of its more corny tendencies in my view and in conjunction with the fine location photography already mentioned equal an enjoyable western of the old school style.

The film is not, however, without its faults. There is a cutesy blonde kid of course (it's a Shane remake after all) and this can become irritating as always and some of the other support cast are not as strong as the central players or, to be fair, some of the other Spanish bit part actors we have come to enjoy over the years. Where are Lorenzo Robledo and Victor Israel when you need them?! And for a film which leads inevitably towards a showdown between Clint, Ross and the Shannons the final shootout leaves a lot to be desired with Sancho in particular falling over almost unnoticed. This is a shame as the preceding large scale shoot out, complete with explosions and a burning town was excellent and should have been topped by a tense climactic showdown. It wasn't and the film has a damp ending as a result.

Despite this Clint the Stranger delivered more than enough to keep me watching and although it is far from one of the genre's best examples it is well worth catching if you don't mind a more traditional style western or a leading man in a hair piece. I have no problem with the first and, in the case of George Martin, no problem with the second either. Lee Van Cleef during his wig wearing phase is another story entirely.

As an aside if you are looking for an English language version of this film you are most likely to find it under the strangely ungrammatical title of Clint, the Nevada's Loner. Lord only knows where that one came from but it is under that name that it is released by Wild East on a good value double bill DVD along with its 1972 sequel, equally inappropriately entitled There's a Noose Waiting For You Trinity. This second film is strangely almost identical in story to the first except that the boy has grown up a bit and there's a part for Klaus Kinski to do one of his drive by performances as a bounty hunter and it could easily be seen as a remake rather than a sequel. It's also, in my opinion, not as good as, despite the addition of Kinski and the retention of Martin in the main role there is no Sancho, Koch or Barnes and the look and feel of the piece lacks the big scope clearly the budget of the original.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Arizona Colt Returns


Dir: Sergio Martino


1970


The Spaghetti Western genre is littered with pseudo sequels; films which purport to be a follow up to a previously successful one but which, in reality, have no official attachment, only a purloined character or name in the title. So it will come as no surprise that Arizona Colt Returns bares little resemblance to its 1966 predecessor. What is a surprise is that the makers did try to make at least a passing attempt at linking this story with Michele Lupo's original and despite some obvious failings wound up making a reasonably watchable film.

Arizona (Anthony Steffen) and his friend Double Whiskey (Roberto Camardiel) are living outside the town of Blackstone living off the gifts of food and booze provided by local landlord, Moreno. All is nice and easy for the pair until Keene (Aldo Sanbrell) pays a local drunk to testify that Arizona has robbed a stagecoach. Arizona is arrested and hanged but cheats the hangman and escapes. Meanwhile, Keene attacks Moreno's ranch and makes off with the old man's gold as well as his daughter (Rosalba Neri). Moreno offers Arizona a reward to retrieve the girl. He refuses but after Whiskey is captured and tortured by Keene and his gang our hero changes his mind and sets off to put things right. He tracks down the gang and finds the girl but there are more tribulations and surprises afoot and Arizona needs all his skills plus a little help from a pretty barmaid before the game is up.

As I said, the makers of this film did at least make an effort to make links between this film and the original. Just not many. The similarities are short and sweet.

1. The lead character has the same name and maintains his catch phrase of "I'll have to think about that".

2. His sidekick is called Whiskey, provides comic relief and is played by the versatile character actor Roberto Camardiel.

3. Rosalba Neri is in it.

And that's about it. Not a great deal really but, to be fair, a lot more than many 'sequels' of the time managed. Its differences are, of course, far more numerous and so I decided to approach the film, not as a continuation of the original, but as a completely different animal so as to better be able to judge it on its own merits. This proved to be an easy task and one I'd receommend to anyone looking to get the maximum enjoyment from the film.

To begin with Anthony Steffen, fond of him though I am, is no Giuliano Gemma. So accepting Steffen as the same character as the original was always a non starter and it was an automatic reaction to consider this as just another stock Steffen part. One of his big hat rather than little hat ones obviously as it doesn't take long before we get that slow 'looking up from under the hat brim' shot that we all know and love from Tony's many westerns. Approaching the film in this way meant it started paying dividends for me right off the bat rather than being constantly compared to a film which is a personal favourite and which it was never likely to match. It also meant that I started judging it based on what I expect from a good Steffen flick and in those terms it performs pretty well. Apart from the aforementioned 'look from under hat brim' shot we are also treated to the high action quota expected from any Steffen vehicle and, of course, the obligatory 'roll and shoot' moment without which no Steffen film is complete. In fact, the anticipation for the 'roll and shoot' proved to be one of the great pleasures of the film for me and one which the director wisely held out on as long as possible to add that heightened sense of delayed gratification to the patient viewer.

The cast in general is also a big plus for this film. Steffen aside (he is, I accept, an actor not to everyone's taste) we have Aldo Sanbrell getting a decent size part for a change as the chief bad guy and the ever welcome Raf Baldassarre as his right hand man. There is, as mentioned above Roberto Camardiel in a reprise of his role as Arizona's drunken sidekick and the divine Rosalba Neri as the kidnapped daughter of local bigwig Moreno, played by the equally welcome Jose Manuel Martin; an actor whose mention on the opening credits of any film immediately increases my likelihood of enjoyment a hundred fold. For the most part these fine bunch of Spaghetti regulars live up to expectations too. In fact it is only the under utilisation of Miss Neri and the over utilisation of Camardiel that left me disappointed in any way. Neri was often given marginal roles in these films when her greater presence would have been a clear benefit so this comes as no surprise. Camardiel though, is a very versatile actor who can bring a lot to any film he appears in but who tended to split his appearances between wide eyed villains and burly comic relief parts. This is one of the latter and does not show Roberto at his best. For that see his homosexual bandit leader in Django Kill!. Here he is largely irritating and it was noticeable to me that the film got off to a slow start as a result of his domination of the first reel but got much better by the half way mark when his character is wounded and bedridden and Steffen sets off alone to sort things out. At this point the action kicks in proper and we get the pseudo serious film we had been hoping for.

It's also worth noting that it is around the same time that Bruno Nicolai's score markedly improves. For some reason a theme song was written and utilised throughout the film that can only be described and toe curlingly cringeworthy. This is a song which would have even been rejected for the Luxembourg entry for the Eurovision song contest and, in fact, sounds like that is where it may have originated. Any song that has the following lyrics deserves nothing less than an acid bath death. Consider:

I guess I gotta get my gun,
I guess I gotta shoot someone,
Bang bang, Hey yippee yippee ay.

But that's not the half of it. We then get the chorus:

Beng bang bing bang
Bong bang bing bang
Beng bang giddy up eeyay. (repeat)

You get the point. And it needs to be stated that anyone with a weak constitution should consider avoiding this film for this song alone. But if you are made of hardier stuff and can get past this musical monstrosity there is definitely pleasure to be had.

The film has other faults of course. Some of the plot makes no sense whatsoever. Arizona's immediate falling in love with the barmaid, pretty as she is, is one case in point but this is irrelevant stuff really. The film is short and sweet (coming in at under an hour and a half) and delivers some pleasing set pieces while clipping along at a steady pace. In truth, I wasn't expecting anything nearly as entertaining as it turned out to be and Sergio Martino is to be complemented on a decent effort in what was his first of only two westerns. It's certainly not a film that will ever threaten to disrupt the cannon of 'greats' in the genre but I, for one, have sat through much, much worse. Even with that god awful song.

The version I saw was the Koch Media German release which, as always, benefits from a beautiful widescreen picture with Italian audio and English subs. One or two short scenes seem to be of inferior picture quality but overall it is an excellent release of a reasonable film.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Hellbenders


Dir: Sergio Corbucci


1967


Sergio Corbucci was always something of an enigmatic director. Lauded and sanctified as one the holy trinity 'three Sergios' on the basis of his masterpieces he was also guilty of almost unforgiveable sloppiness at times and has as many bad films to his name as good. Films such as Django, The Great Silence and The Mercenary became seminal texts in the Spaghetti Western genre; innovative, extreme and stylish while Massacre at Grand Canyon, Johnny Oro and The White, The Yellow and the Black were almost equally memorable for their uninspired direction, patchiness or plain bad taste. The Hellbenders, a film from the middle of Corbucci's affair with the western, falls somewhere in the middle; an overall solid film which sometimes exhibits the director's best attributes, while other times not seeming like a Corbucci film at all.

Colonel Jonas (Joseph Cotton) assisted by his three sons and an alcoholic prostitute attacks an army convoy transporting a million dollars in bank notes. Leaving all the guards dead the gang then set off for home across the border, the whore, Kitty (Maria Martin) posing as a grieving widow and the money stashed away in a coffin in a regimental coach. Jonas plans to use the money to reignite the Confederacy and start the war all over again. But despite the initial success of their robbery things start to become more and more difficult for the group as they make their way slowly across country. To begin with Kitty, never reliable in the first place, attempts to run off and is killed by one of the sons. Then, after tricking another woman into filling the fake widow's boots (and mourning dress) they are faced with a continual stream of obstacles; an army troop, a posse, Mexican bandits, even some townsfolk who turn out to have known the soldier whose dead body they are pretending to transport, and eventually, inevitably, all comes to a head just as they come into sight of the Hondo River; the final barrier between them and freedom.

In many ways The Hellbenders resembles an American western as much as an Italian one and I can't help but wonder if this is as a result of the input of producer Albert Band; an Italian American whose real name was Alfredo Antonini but whose films were always geared to be more attractive to the U.S market. Aside from a couple of Steve Reeves Peplums Band produced five westerns in europe. All starred American lead actors and in some cases the supporting parts too were carried by names from across the Atlantic. Presumably this tactic gave his westerns a more 'authentic' look in Europe and a more palatable taste in the States. Whatever the reasons, for the most part Band's westerns maintained a pretty decent standard. In fact, arguably his weakest effort was the one he made previously with Corbucci, Massacre at Grande Canyon. It is also said that Band's technique as producer was particularly 'hands on' (he sometimes directed his own films in fact) and that Corbucci struggled in both collaborations to put his own stamp on either film. The truth is probably impossible to know but The Hellbenders is certainly an unlikely example of the director's work coming as it does close after his ground breaking Django and just before two of his greatest efforts, The Great Silence and The Mercenary; none of which resemble this film very much.

That is not to say that The Hellbenders is a poor film. On the contrary, it is a good story well told and featuring some excellent elements. It just doesn't obviously fit with the above titles. It is also not to say that the film has nothing about it which suggests Corbucci's influence because, in parts, it clearly does. The strong female role of Claire, excellently played by the impressive Brazilian actress Norma Bengell, is just what you might expect from the director. His films often feature such a character and this has always stood out in a genre that is overtly male dominated. But there is a distinct lack of brutality on show and at this time in his career it was Corbucci who was pushing boundaries in that area. There is also, for large parts of the film, a distinct lack of action and this is possibly the least Corbucci like element in the whole film. The second Sergio's films were far from being clones of each other but you could usually bank on a fair dose of running around and shooting when sitting down in front of any of them. The Hellbenders, in stark contrast, is positively sedate and although there is action in key scenes the real focus of the film is the slowly unfolding journey taken by its protagonists and the constantly building tension as the family get ever closer to the border while their chances of success get increasingly tenuous.

At the centre of this dramatic tension is the dysfunctional family unit led blindly by Jonas towards a goal that only he really believes in. His sons, each personifying a different vice (greed and lust in the case of Jeff and Nat, jealousy in the case of both of them) are lost both to him and his cause but he is too proud and arrogant to see it. This part is perfect for and perfectly portrayed by Joseph Cotton in his best Spaghetti appearance. His straight back and constantly pained expression convey beautifully the repressed anguish of a man sensing the collapse of an edifice he has built his life around but not wishing to acknowledge the fact and this characterisation is one of the lasting strengths of the film. As is Ennio Morricone's haunting Death of the South theme played mournfully on the trumpet; a theme so effective it was subsequently reused in other westerns in an attempt to add gravitas to lesser products.

The Hellbenders is a good film. It is easily downgraded because of some of the other work produced by its celebrated director but to be fair to it, in comparrison to its companions in the genre as a whole it is certainly deserving of a place in the upper tier. It is well constructed, has some nice set pieces spaced throughout its length and delivers a satisfying, while still somewhat ambiguous ending. That makes it a film to be recommended in my book and one which I tend to enjoy more with every viewing.

The DVD I most recently watched of this was the Region 1 Anchor Bay release which was a stark improvement on the previous fullscreen Mill Creek copy I had. The film, like most others, benefits greatly from its proper widescreen aspect ratio and allows its 'bigger canvas' to become more evident.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Kidnapping


Dir: Alberto Cardone


1968


Alberto Cardone is not the most celebrated Spaghetti Western director. You are unlikely to hear of his films being likened to any of the masterpieces or mostly highly regarded films of the genre. But for a man who consistantly had to work with restrictive budgets he was, in my opinion, a master of making the most of his limited resources. Kidnapping is perfect case in point.

Former sheriff, Fred Leinster (Brett Halsey) has descended into drunkenness after the death of his wife and son in a buggy accident. Easy prey for someone wishing to take advantage of his weakness he finds himself lured into acting as a middle man for bandits who have kidnapped a local woman's son and demanded $20,000 for his return. Leinster collects the cash but he and the gang member sent to direct him are ambushed and the money taken by a mystery assailant. With the bandit dead and the money gone Leinster is left with all sides blaming him for their losses. Realising he needs to fix things fast he sobers up and sets out to return the boy, retrieve the money and clear his name.

This is a simple enough plot but it's played out at a slow and steady pace, low on action but high on intrigue, which allows us to connect properly with the characters and enjoy the gradually increasing tension of the story. The occasional red herring is placed to keep us guessing, to a degree, as to who the real villain is, the hero is flawed and is allowed a series of mistakes and an arc to his character which makes him much more believable and the whole thing is constructed with just enough dialogue to keep things clear without cluttering the thing with unnecessary exposition and gabble. These facets, though seemingly straightforward, are all too often ignored in films at the lower end of the budgetary scale. Directors are sometimes inclined to make up for limited resources by filling the screen time with constant, but pointless action. Fistfights break out and drag on. Men ride endlessly back and forth over open country. Shoot outs occur for little reason and continue for more time than is necessary or enjoyable. To his credit, Cardone rarely descends to such tactics (although his $20,000 on Number 7 is a sad exception) and in this film avoids them altogether.

Another plus for the film is its sparse but effectively used cast. Brett Halsey plays the drunken but moral lead well and his easy screen presence adds to the weight of the film while Fernando Sancho and Germano Longo provide everything required of the principle baddies. Moreover, Teresa Gimpera as Jane, the kidnapped boy's mother plays her part with a suitable degree of dramatic gravitas and looks great into the bargain. Even the young boy is not nearly as irritating as many are in such parts. All in all, the cast are a genuine asset to the film and their performances are all executed.

Michele Lacerenza provides a solid if uninspired score; some of which, predictably, features his own, beautiful trumpet playing. A sound easily recognised by anyone familiar with the ground breaking scores by Ennio Morricone on Sergio Leone's Dollar films. Lacerenza supplied four music scores of his own for Spaghetti Westerns including this one and they were all for Cardone. All of which were decent but none of which threatened the work of the tryue maestri in the genre.

If I'm looking for faults in the film I would suggest that Halsey's character, although admittedly a reformed drunk tends to mess up as often as he succeeds in his pursuit of the boy and winds up with a rope around his wrists or neck with a little too much regularity for the audience to genuinely accept him as a winning character but this is a minor point and possibly over shadowed by the fact that his weaknesses also give him our sympathy and lend him a higher element of realism. Not something which often features large in Italian Westerns. I would also liked to have seen more of Fernando Sancho but then I can never get too much of Sancho so that is also something of a moot point.

I like Cardone's westerns. In fact only the aforementioned $20,000 on Number 7 has disappointed and when his budgets are considered his consistency of quality is laudable. Invariably he manages to add stylish elements to straightforward plots and allows interesting characters to develop while still delivering sufficient and well constructed action scenes. He will never threaten to usurp the reputations of some of the genre's bigger hitting directors but his work was pretty darn good for all that and I for one would rate him in the upper echelons of the less well known or celebrated Spaghetti auteurs. Kidnapping is a fine example of why I like him as much as I do.

The version of the film I saw was an excellent fan dub with a beautifully clean widescreen picture and english subtitles. I'd been wanting to see this film for some time and this copy of it allowed me to enjoy it in its best possible light. Thanks go out to the fellow fan who made this possible.

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Hate Thy Neighbour


Dir: Ferdinando Baldi



1968



Bill Dakota and his wife are gunned down in broad daylight by bad guy Gary Stevens (George Eastman) who is after the map to a goldmine the hapless Dakota is carrying. Stevens rides off with the map, leaving Dakota's young son alive. The boy is taken in by Dakota's brother Ken, (Spiros Focás) who then leaves him with his sweetheart Peggy (Nicoletta Machiavelli) while he sets off after the villain in search of revenge. Meanwhile, Stevens has teamed up with sadistic big shot Chris Malone (Horst Frank) south of the border but is double crossed by him and tortured for his share of the map. At this point Ken catches up with the pair and a series of to-ing and fro-ing, crossing and double crossing ensues before the dead brother is avenged and the map is finally retrieved.

Hate Thy Neighbour benefits from an excellent cast. Eastman is first rate as the mean and grinning heavy while Horst Frank is even more at home as the white suited, high mannered sadist. Between them they provide a double whammy of bad guys and revel in the mean spirited shenanigans that unfold throughout the film. Frank, in particular, is memorable as a pseudo Roman emperor type figure; pitting his Mexican peons against each other in fights to the death armed with only a small wicker arm shield and a two pronged baling hook. These scenes are excellent and are the ones you will remember most when the film has faded to black. But perhaps this abundance of heavies is also one of the film's greatest weaknesses. Because the film's hero, and it does have one, is so overshadowed by the size of Eastman and Frank's characters that he is practically lost in the process and despite having just finished watching this movie I am hard pressed to remember much about him. Not even what he looks like. This is unfortunate, as Spiros Focás is not a bad actor. Indeed he has had a long and successful career in Italy and his homeland Greece and even on occasion in America. The problem is he doesn't seem so well suited to the western genre and his part is not given enough dominance in the plot to allow him room to shine through. On the contrary. Despite the familiar plot devices on show in the film they are, on occasion, turned on their head to focus on the villains; especially Eastman.

For example, there is a long sequence in which Eastman is captured by Frank and beaten, then hung upside down over a pit of snakes to try and get him to give up his half of the map. This is a scene usually set aside for the hero to play. Overcoming such adversity before returning to defeat the bad guy. But our hero here gets no such opportunity. Rather, we have one bad guy torturing another. The result is we lose interest in the hero and find ourselves becoming attached to the least sadistic of the two villains. Maybe a nice idea but for this to work Eastman's character needs to be allowed to develop; have some form of arc and then perhaps either reform or come to a tragic end. (preferably the latter) But what we get is no change at all and no room for the hero to make a claim for the foreground of the movie. He doesn't even get to kill his brother's murderer in the end. I won't give anything away for those who haven't seen it but, suffice to say, for a story based around the tried and trusted plot motive of 'revenge for a slaughtered family' the ending fails to satisfy what the audience would naturally expect.

In light of all this I can't help but categorise Hate Thy Neighbour as a film of lost opportunities. As I said before, the cast is good. As well as Eastman and Frank we are treated to the presence of Nicoletta Machiavelli, one of the genre's favourite female players. But again, she is not given enough to do to make a real impact and her character is left to inhabit the periphery for the most part. This is a double shame as Machiavelli was not only an asset to be seen as much as possible but was also at her best when allowed to play a more forceful character. Her role in Navajo Joe always springs to mind in this aspect, where, although her character is clearly subordinate to that of Burt Reynolds, it is often she who is driving the plot forward.

All this is not to say that Hate Thy Neighbour doesn't have its charms or its qualities. It is an entertaining film throughout and Baldi's undoubted skills shine through from time to time. Also, although the two villain device detracts from the role of the hero and, thereby, unsettles the balance of the piece they are both great fun to watch in action. And the aforementioned gladiatorial fight scenes with the hooks are an excellent device, somewhat reminiscient of the final duel in Seven Dollars on the Red between Anthony Steffen and Fernando Sancho where Sancho wields a hook in a similar fashion.

But, in the end, I came away feeling that this film falls into the 'in-betweenie' category of Ferdinando Baldi's westerns. Nowhere near the heights he reached with Forgotten Pistolero, or even Blindman but better than the dross of the Carambolas or the failed, if entertaining, attempt at a musical in Rita of the West. Rather this film sits amongst the middle ground of films like Texas Adios or the more flawed outings with Tony Anthony, Get Mean or Comin' at Ya! It's a decent enough ride and a pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half but one which had the potential to be a lot, lot better.

The version of this film I watched was the excellent Koch Media release. It has a crystal clear picture quality and English audio, the language option I would opt for as the actors, for the most part, all seem to be speaking it in the film despite their various nationalities. My only gripe with the release from Koch is that the extra interview included with Baldi and Eastman does not have any English subtitles; only German and I would have loved to hear what these two genre stalwarts had to say. This is a recurring lapse on the part of Koch who otherwise are exemplary in their releases and very English friendly with a product designed principally for the German market. But I understand they are finally putting such things to rights with their upcoming release of The Mercenary. Viva Koch Media!