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.