Saturday, 6 December 2008
Sunday, 12 October 2008
Gianfranco Baldanello's career is not exactly peppered with masterpeices. After working as assistant director on a number of peplums and pirate flicks, primarily under Luigi Capuano, he stepped up to the director's chair in 1965 to make 30 Winchesters for El Diablo. Over the next decade or so he dabbled in a few genres including spy films and comedies but primarily worked in westerns; an area that would account for around half of his total output. Black Jack, released in the boom year of 1968, is probably the high water mark of his career. On the face of it, there doesn't appear to be anything in the raw materials of the film to suggest it would achieve very much. A cast of lower tier actors and stuntmen, an obviously restricted budget and the aforementioned cliche plotline are not exactly inspirational. But to his credit, Baldonello, makes the best of what he has and crafts an excellent film from these modest component parts. Credit must also go to scriptwriter Luigi Ambrosini, whose story this is and whose take on the vengeance theme is far less predictable than is usual in such films. His central protagonist, Black Jack Murphy, is far from one dimensional and it is Jack's journey into obsession which is at the heart of the film's success.
Starting as a clever, almost suave anti hero type in the opening scenes of the film, Jack is transformed by his gang's betrayal into a bitter individual, twisted and crippled both physically and emotionally. He loses sight of all else in his life, shunning his devoted girlfriend for example, and pursuing revenge obsessively to the point of madness. After being shot in both legs and stabbed in the hand during a particularly vindictive scene Jack's physical impairments also make him an unusually disabled protagonist for a western. Hobbling with the aid of a stick through most of the film and unable to use a handgun his disabilities lead him to devise ways of defeating his enemies which no regular avenging hero would generally stoop to. Paying townspeople to mob one of the gang, tricking another gang member into shooting his own brother, kidnapping his nemisis' innocent daughter, these are not the actions of hero at all. Indeed, with his twisted physical appearance, single minded bitterness and cold blooded scheming Jack comes to resemble an almost Richard III type figure; his physical deformity mirroring his equally disfigured psyche.
Robert Woods plays this part well. For an actor who rarely exhibited any De Niro like qualities in his career he carries the duality of Jack effectively and shows that, with the right material, he could do more than just wear a hat. There are moments that don't quite gel, his manic laughter is a little overdone for instance, but on the whole I was carried along quite well and found any instances of 'overacting' quite fitting to the melodramatic nature of the story and the genre. I've always found Woods' career an interesting one. After early success in the reasonbly budgeted Seven Guns for the MacGregors his overall western filmography of some twenty odd titles boasts very little of note. Yet, every now and again he would be involved in something which would buck that trend. El Puro is an obvious case in point. Happily, Black Jack is another.
This film is far from being a masterpiece but it has enough qualities to make it thoroughly enjoyable and deserving of a place amongst the better examples of the genre. Its thoughful twist on the revenge theme, pyschological slant on the protagonist's character and skilfull mix of action and melodrama elevate it from the crowd and showcase the talents of those involved in their best light. Lallo Gori's score works well too, as do the settings, (I'm a sucker for a ghost town) and all in all this is a film worthy of a decent DVD release. Something it sadly lacks in an english language format.
Friday, 3 October 2008
Sunday, 31 August 2008
Friday, 8 August 2008
Monday, 28 July 2008
Thursday, 17 July 2008
Saturday, 21 June 2008
We've had Greek myths retold as spaghetti westerns (Return of Ringo), Shakespearean drama (Johnny Hamlet) and now here is Robert Louis Stevenson's 19th century adventure classic Treasure Island dressed up and repositioned in the badlands of the mexican border with wagons instead of ships and a plethora of bandits instead of pirates.
Surprisingly, this genre realignment works reasonably well in terms of setting and personel as the substitutions hold clear parallels with their originals. The desert stands in easily for the sea; its vastness, isolation and danger allow it to offer the same perilous and protracted journey. The bandits are an even easier fit. Swarthy, evil grinning cutthroats brandishing assorted weaponry and consumed by an all consuming lust for gold could be a fitting description for Raf Baldasarre and his cohorts just as easily as it could for a pirate hord. And if there is treasure buried it doesn't really matter where the geography of it is as long as its isolated and hard to get at.
Between God, the Devil and a Winchester manages to cover all these bases and stick reasonably close to the story and themes of Stevenson's original while populating the story with characters just different enough to add something new but similar enough to keep a firm grip on this children's favourite yarn. But therein lies the rub. This is a family adventure film. Something which spaghetti westerns really are not. As a result, although perfectly fine as a sunday afternoon time passer with your youngsters, this is not a film likely to successfully press the buttons of your average (or even not so average) spaghetti fan. For a start the central protagonist is a 10 year old boy and, as has been proved on more than one occasion, this is genre poison. Cute kids and spaghetti don't mix. Except perhaps with a garlic sauce and a nice chianti. Moreover, if the kid is being mentored and cared for by a pacifist priest in civvies with as much edge as a plastic butter knife you are doubly hindered in going anywhere other than syrup city and inevitably this is the destination of this film.
It's no one's fault really. The cast all do a reasonable job. Richard Harrison as the aforementioned plain clothes clergy does what is required of him, Robert Camardiel is reasonable value as the somewhat bizarrely named comic relief Uncle Pink. Even the kid plays his part with relative professionalism. It's just that the subject matter doesn't gel with the spaghetti sensibility and so we are left fundamentally unsatisfied. The problem is clear enough. In the cases cited above where older tales are retold in a western setting the stories were dark and full of gritty themes like revenge, incest, adultery and a loss of place. These are themes which lend themselves perfectly to the spaghetti style as they are the same ones at play in original stories throughout the genre. A bit of gold lust and treachery is all well and good but if it is played too light and tied up with an uplifting moral denouement someting is lost which no end of explosions and shoot outs can fix.
Gilbert Roland's character is a good example of what I mean. Obviously representing the Long John Silver role, Roland has an iron arm instead of a wooden leg but embodies the same mix of charm and baseness of the pirate captain. His charismatic untrustworthiness is a magnet to the boy and, on a surface level, leaves the viewer unsure as to which way he will ultimately turn. All so well and good, but, as a family adventure story with a firm moral position at its heart, it gradually becomes all too obvious which way he will finish up and the sacharine ending when it arrives undermines any pleasure we may have gained from him during the twists and turns of the story. Gilbert Roland always delivers a solid performance and adds a hint of class to anything he appears in. This is just as true here as elsewhere in his career. But solid and classy or not, he cannot inject more into the piece than the plot will allow and his qualities are inevitably undermined.
Ultimately then, this is a misguided film rather than a bad one. Treasure Island retold in the west probably sounded like a good idea when first suggested. A popular classic tale (out of copyright) involving treasure, bandits and double crossing seems to suggest plenty of opportunities for action and drama but, in reality, the idea was misplaced. Mythological or tragic dramas are far better suited to adaptation into this genre than adventure yarns. They are based around human weakness and passions, dark pyschological struggles where violence and revenge find a natural environment.
Of course there are plenty of lighter spaghetti westerns; films which don't delve too deeply into the darker sde of humanity. And some of these are very entertaining. But it's a difficult trick to pull off and I'm afraid Between God, the Devil and a Winchester just isn't special enough to really carry it off. It's not a bad film. It's not even a bad adaptation of Treasure Island. It just isn't good enough to overcome its weaknesses. If you have kids and want something for a rainy afternoon in front of the telly you could do worse. But you could do a lot better too.
Saturday, 24 May 2008
Sunday, 18 May 2008
Giuliano Gemma created a very successful career for himself during the mid sixties making a series of westerns that showcased his matinee idol looks, athleticism and ability to be gritty and ironic at the same time. These films succeeded, like no others, in marrying action and violence with a certain romanticism and dry humour and Gemma must take the lion's share of the credit as to why these films worked so well. Arizona Colt is one of his best.
Gordo Watch (Fernando Sancho), a bandit Chief in need of new recruits, attacks the local jail and carries off the inmates to his desert hide out. There they are given the choice of being branded (literally) into the gang or die. Arizona Colt, one of the freed men, outwits Gordo and escapes, telling the blustering outlaw he will "think about that". This becomes his catch phrase throughout as he weighs up each situation before exploiting it to his own advantage. On meeting Gordo's right hand man (Nello Pazzafini) on the stage into town, Colt stays quiet, even though he guesses that the town's bank is under threat. What he doesn't expect is that the popular saloon keeper's daughter, Dolores, (Rosalba Neri) will be murdered and that he would come under suspicion. However, once the bank has been robbed he offers Dolores' father a deal. He will bring back Dolores' killer for $500 as long as his other daughter, Jane, (Corrine Merchand) is handed over to him. Filled with a thirst for vengeance, Jane agrees, but when the killer is brought back with the help of the repenting drunken bandit, Whiskey, (Roberto Camardiel) the father (Andrea Bosic) understandably refuses to hand over his surviving daughter. The matter is resolved when Gordo comes back to town searching for his gold which Whiskey has secretly taken with him and Arizona squares off against the evil bandit leader.
A brief glance at this synopsis tells you one thing very quickly. Arizona Colt is far from being a hero in the traditional sense. He starts the film in jail, he soon declares himself a bounty killer by trade, he shows little or no regard for the general welfare of anyone but himself and even stoops as low as demanding a berieved man hands over his one remaining daughter in a trade for vengeance, making it quite clear that he doesn't mean to take the girl for the purpose of marriage. This is not the same avenging hero of Return of Ringo, or even the impressionable stray from Day of Anger. This character is harder edged and darker in tone and it is the dichotomy between his ruthless, mercenary actions and his clean cut good looks with kindly smile that creates a really interesting core to the film.
What is also obvious from a brief glance at the above synopsis is that this picture has a Spaghetti cast to die for. Fernando Sancho, Rosalba Neri, Roberto Camardiel, Nello Pazzafini, Andrea Bosic and, of course, Gemma himself; this lot line up like some kind of Eurowestern super group. But it doesn't even stop there. In the shadows you also find some of our favourite genre 'uglies'. Perenial bad guy Jose Manuel Martin is here and so is Jose Terron; a face once seen and never forgotten. The bottom line is that with all these gems on show this film would have to work very hard to disappoint and in Michele Lupo's capable, if not overly inspired hands, the result is all you could hope for. With everyone playing their part in a first rate package.
But first among equals here is most definitely Giuliano Gemma. It is easy to allow his boyish good looks to overshadow the fact that he was a very capable actor in these types of films. As I mentioned before, his ability to blend action hero, romantic lead and ruthless gunslinger into one role while simultaneously injecting a wry, ironic comic element with seemingly effortless flair is a skill unmatched by any other spaghetti actor outside of Clint Eastwood himself. And as such it is no surprise that he was such a popular actor in Italy during this period. In fact, in terms of box office success in westerns in his homeland Gemma outperformed every other single actor in the genre. His films consistantly made money throughout the cycle and, in Arizona Colt, it is easy to see why. All his strengths are on show, from acrobatic physical agility to comedic timing to gritty dramatic presence; Gemma exhibits it all here and it is hard not to be impressed.
Credit must also go to Michele Lupo of course, not just for his fine direction but also his contribution to an excellent script. The camera work of Francisco Marin and Guglielmo Mancori is also worthy of merit and the music score from Francesco De Masi is excellent.
All round then this is a top notch spaghetti made by a fantastic array of talent who all punch their weight. There are certain similarities here to the Ringo films (especially A Pistol for Ringo) but as mentioned before this one has a decidedly darker edge to it without ever being overly sombre. What's more is that it is readily available on DVD in a number of editions, although usually under it's U.S title 'The Man From Nowhere'.
Definitely not to be missed.