Sunday, 31 August 2008

One After Another

Dir: Nick Nostro


There are a number of actors whose consistantly high performances are also matched by their consistantly wise choice of material. Whether through sound judgement or sound advice they manage to maintain, and often increase their reputaions through choosing one solid vehicle after another. Richard Harrison, sadly, is not one of those actors. His career is peppered with roles he really should have steered clear of and as a consequence his is a filmography with as many duds as hits. But occasionally he made good choices and in these films he proved himself to be a solid leading man with qualities which suited him to a number of action genres and particularly to the western. One After Another is not only one of his better choices, I would argue it is very possibly his best.

At first sight the ingredients don't look overly promising. Nick Nostro is not exactly a household name in the spaghetti western director stakes, the budget is clearly on the lower end of what was already a 'seat of the pants' genre and the rest of the cast (apart from a couple of stand out exceptions) doesn't inspire great hopes. But somehow from these modest roots a very solid piece manages to emerge which will reward any fan lucky enough to get hold of a copy of this often under rated film.

Town banker Jefferson (Jose Bodalo) outwits blackmailing local bandit chief Espartero (Jose Manuel Martin) by robbing his own bank and blaming the crime on the mexicans. Things are complicated by the arrival of Stan (Richard Harrison), a lone Pistolero with an unknown connection to Ross, a bank clerk murdered during the robbery. Jefferson seizes on the chance of getting Stan to wipe out the mexicans, thereby removing any evidence of his own guilt but things become even more convoluted once Stan enters the bandits village and learns that all is not as it seems. What follows is a constant stream of cross and double cross with large spoonfuls of revenge, cowardice and intrigue and a smattering of romance and melodrama for good measure culminating in Stan picking off Jefferson and his henchmen 'one after another'.

The twists and turns in this film are relentless to the point where you come to suspect that the creative team behind it decided to shoe horn every possible genre element into it they could. Evil town banker, Mexican bandits, a stolen fortune in gold, revenge for a murdered family member, a lone gunmen working between two warring factions, a vengeful woman and a cowardly, treacherous ex army officer who sold out his own men for his own personal gain. All of these items are seen in countless spaghettis throughout the period. To have them all working at once in one story and still have some room left for a couple of original touches too takes some doing and I take my hat off to them for managing it so well.

One of the original touches here is having the tough, taciturn gunman lead character wear glasses throughout the film. A spectacled pistolero is not a common sight. In fact I can't recall a single other film which features a four eyed tough guy hero of this type. But it works extremely well and allows for some moments of genuine wry humour. The scene early on when Stan is confronted by Jefferson's chief henchman in the saloon and loses his glasses after taking a number of cracks to the jaw is an excellent case in point. Obviously used to such occurances, our man reaches into his coat and unfolds, Colonel Mortimer style, a selection of replacement specs before choosing a pair and returning to the affray with eyesight restored. Gladly, the film does not rely on humour for its merits however. It is a gritty and action filled drama with all of the above mentioned elements keeping it moving along at a decent pace and if we are in any doubt that this is no parody western there is some torture and the massacre of women and children thrown in for good measure. But as in most good spaghettis there is an element of ironic and somewhat black humour underlying the piece which contrasts the violence and allows for a balance of light and shade.

As mentioned above, this film does not enjoy an obviously stellar cast but the three main protagonists all carry their parts very well and more than make up for the lack of other names. Jose Bodalo is excellent as usual as the cowardly and treacherous banker while Jose Manuel Martin makes the most of one of his rarer leading roles. Although not required to act out of type, he manages to combine menace with sentimentality in his portrayal of the Mexican bandit Escartero. Martin is always a welcome face for me and it is a shame he didn't get to play lengthier parts more often. He always added value to every film he appeared in for my money and was worthy of greater use.
But this is primarily Harrison's film of course and he carries it well. Never an actor of great range, the role of Stan suits him admirably and allows him to play to his strengths. Taciturn without being wooden, his character is an interesting mix of self serving loner and justice seeking avenger and his bespectacled look gives him an air of intelligence and vulnerability which contrasts well with his gun toting ruthlessness. This was an ideal mix for Harrison as his physical size and presence was offset by a slightly childlike face which I always felt hinted at a softer side to any character he played. It certainly works for him here. I like Harrison. Some of his films, Vengeance and Gunfight at Red Sands spring to mind, are excellent examples of solid spaghetti fare which he works very well in. But he was ultimately an actor who relied heavily on the work being done around him in order for him to shine. He was never an actor who was likely to transform a weak film into a classic merely by his presence or charisma the way the very best of his contemporaries were sometimes able to do. And he sometimes made poor decisions as to what films to make. (Acquasanta Joe springs to mind in this context) But he was a good genre actor and in the right vehicle could be excellent value. One After Another was just such a vehicle and it brought the best out of him.

The work of the creative team behind the camera is equally solid. The direction of Nostro is competant if not inspired and I certainly wish he had made a few more westerns in his shortish career. He is remembered more for his peplums with Dan Vadis or the couple of spy pictures he made but on the evidence shown in One After Another he could have contributed a lot more to the western genre if he had been more prolific. Likewise, the music delivered by Berto Pisano is catchy and effective if a bit derivative and hinted that he too might have been better remembered in the genre with a few more outings.

As an all round piece One After Another is a well constructed example of the genre. It is no masterpiece by any standards but it is well paced, full of action and has enough twists and turns to hold anyone but the severist critic's interest for its duration. It is gritty and on the dark side for the most part but its odd moments of humour work well and are in keeping with the film's general tone. If I were to aim a single criticism at it I would say it borrows most of its ideas from other works but all genre films do that to a certain extent (that's why they are considered part of a genre) and what it borrows it uses well. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend to all fans.

The version I saw of this film was a DVD-R obviously taken from the Japanese SPO release. A beautiful widescreen print if occasionally a little dark, it does the film proud.

Friday, 8 August 2008


Dir: Michele Lupo


1977 didn't see the last of the Spaghetti Western but it was close enough. By this time production of westerns in Europe had slowed beyond a trickle to an occasional drip. The cycle had just about played itself out and its popularity in Italy had been overtaken by the crime and horror film in just the same way as it had in the rest of the world. Yet, in the face of this numerical decline, the quality of the product which did actually get made during this twilight period of the genre could be surprisingly good. Not all of it of course. There was some appalling rubbish churned out too (Kid Vengeance springs to mind). But considering the small number of westerns produced during these final few years the percentage of above average fare is quite an impressive one. Films such as Keoma, Mannaja and Four of the Apocalypse may not be from the very upper tier of the genre but they are certainly creditable affairs which gave proof there was still life in the old dog yet. California falls heavily into this category.

Set as the war between the states has just finished, California follows the story of a recently demobbed Confederate soldier, Michael Random, (not the character's real name but an alias he adopts from a popular tobacco brand) as he seeks a new start amongst the harsh realities of the post war nation. Bounty killers and veangeful, grieving families populate the roads, creating a perilous 'gauntlet' for the returning soldiers to run and after his young companion is killed, Random decides to head for the sanctuary of the boy's farm and family. All does not remain calm of course and when the bounty killers show up again Random's new sweetheart is taken hostage. Strapping on his guns again, the ex soldier is forced to embark on a new and more personal war as he seeks out the men who have taken his girl and attempt to bring her home safely.

The better of these twilight westerns were decidedly darker in tone and this film is no exception; undoubtedly Giuliano Gemma's most downbeat outing in the genre. In fact, for me, California has an almost post apocalyptic feel about it. From the opening scene we are consumed with mud, rain and misery. Random (Gemma) arrives at one ghost town after another, their decaying facades and caved in roofs signifying perhaps not only the desolation of a nation ripped apart by civil conflict but also the terminal condition of the western genre in Europe. The sets are so miserably dilapidated it is difficult to know if they were skillfully constructed that way for the purpose or just genuinely old and worn out, their useful days as western towns a melancholy memory. Whichever the truth, they are put to excellent use here, creating just the right backdrop of desolation and dispair for the story which unfolds around them. One of the towns even comes complete with craters in the street fresh from artillery bombardment which are readily put to use by our protagonist as pseudo open graves for two of his prey while a building on the verge of collapse is helped along with a well aimed bullet and becomes the direct cause of death for poor old Robert Hundar; a man who was killed in a number of ways during his long spell as resident bad guy in this genre but who I suspect was never knocked off by failing architecture before.

But the misery extends beyond the abandoned towns. At the farm where Random settles with his dead friend's family the sense of desolation is just as strong. In fact the whole film is shot in subdued light and colours to such an extent that even the lighter hearted scenes have a melacholy air. This is particularly noticeable during the scenes shot in Almeria; a landscape we are used to seeing in blinding sunlight and rich colours. All in all, not a mood you neccesarily expect from a Giuliano Gemma picture. Indeed, even the character Gemma plays, despite his kitten saving, girl rescuing heroics is decidely dirtier than is the norm for 'Bello Giuliano'. And I don't just mean the muddy uniform he wears. Gemma's fight scenes were always action packed and well choreographed. His background as an acrobat and stuntman meant that his natural athleticism and training made his physical abilities a strong asset which was usually taken advantage of. What is slightly different here is that we not only see his character fighting with energy and style but also with an unusually nasty edge. We don't just see punches and grappling but kicks and head butts. And I don't mean bullish, Bud Spencer type head butts driven at the stomach but, well aimed 'Glasgow Kiss' type head butts planted squarely into the face. One of his brawls (I won't say against whom in order to avoid a spoiler) also ends with a particularly vicious use of a lump of four by two with a nail in it. Not so much the pretty boy hero of the Ringo films or Adios Gringo here, but a far more jaded and ruthless character willing and able to get down and dirty.

Having said all that, the film eventually develops as time passes into a more traditional revenge themed tale and despite this angle being handled quite well it gives the impression of a certain disjointedness to the piece as a whole. Almost split into three separate phases the story starts as a tale of returning soldiers battling against forces of anarchy in a post war nightmare world, shifts to a love story as Gemma settles in to life on the farm with his friend's sister, and ends as a revenge and rescue flick as he sets out to save the girl and kill the bad guys. This variation in direction has put some fans off as an inconsistancy but I believe the changes follow more of a pattern than is perhaps obvious at face value. The middle section of the film which develops the love interest is setting up not just the rescue element but the idea of new hope. It is saying that perhaps life can be good and clean again and that it may still be possible to escape the war without too many scars. It offers the characters the promise of an unstained future. The events that follow, even the seemingly successful denouement, suggests that this hope is unrealistic. That even the 'victors' will have to carry their scars and live in a future that will always be tarnished to a large extent.

The cast here is very solid. Gemma carries the film largely of course and his previous work with Lupo in Arizona Colt and Ben and Charlie obviously allowed for a good understanding between actor and director. But main villain Raimund Harmstorf also plays his part well and brings some wide grinning nastiness to the role as long as a skillfully conveyed sense of tragedy in his characterisation of the bounty killer, Whitaker. Harmstorf is ably assisted in the bad guy department by the ever reliable Robert Hundar too and it was nice to see William Berger, although his role as the broken father grieving after his lost son keeps him fairly static throughout his part in the film. The young Prestons are competently covered by Paola and Miguel Bose and we even get a cameo from one of my favourite genre faces, Franco Ressel. There's a good, melancholy score from Gianni Ferrio too and although Alejandro Ulloa's cinematography is of the aforementioned subdued palette variety it fits the film well and is to his usual high standards.

The DVD release from NEW presents the film in a nice 16:9 ratio and offers English, German and Italian audio options. The quality of the transfer is up to their usual good standards although it is often only available at a somewhat hefty price. Mine was a lucky ebay purchase for which I am grateful as California is a very good example of the twilight spaghetti and a film well worth seeing for any fan of the genre.