Thursday, 31 December 2009

Hate Thy Neighbour

Dir: Ferdinando Baldi


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!

Monday, 30 November 2009

Brother Outlaw

Dir: Edoardo Mulargia


After the sad passing of Tony Kendall I felt I should watch one of his westerns in memory of his illustrious and varied career. In fact I actually watched my own little Tony Kendall double bill, starting with a western, Brother Outlaw and finishing with one of his Kommissar X eurospies, Strategic Command Chiama Jo Walker. Unfortunately for the sake of this review, the latter was far better than the former.

In fact reviewing a film like Brother Outlaw is always going to be problematic. In particular the reviewer is faced with the dilemma of how to approach it in the first place. As an example of the Spaghetti Western in general or just as an example of the 1970s, end of cycle, El Cheapo film which were the death knell of the genre. Perhaps both. As compared to the better films of the genre it is pretty weak but if you are a fan of the films of this period a la Demofilo Fidani and his ilk you may find this an entertaining ride. Maybe.

Dakota Thompson (Tony Kendall) is sheriff of Tombstone. But during a stagecoach robbery in which all his men are killed his life is mysteriously spared while the money is carried off by bandits led by Alvarez (Dean Stratford). On his return to town Dakota is accused by local lawyer Donovan (Omero Gargano) of masterminding the robbery and is sentenced to 15 years hard labour. In fact it is Donovan who is directing the bandits' activities and with Dakota out of the way they continue their nefarious deeds. Meanwhile Donovan forces his beautiful young ward Jean (Sophia Kammara) into an agreement of marriage. All seems perfect for the villainous lawyer but Dakota's brother Slim (Jean Louis) manages to free his sibling from Gaol and the two team up in their quest to sort out the bad guys and clear Dakota's name.

The above is a pretty standard 'revenge for a wrongful imprisonment' plotline and Mulargia doesn't try to complicate matters any by dressing it up any further. In fact, the whole thing is so loose and erratic that I couldn't help but feel that everyone involved had simply gone through the motions to the point of shooting a whole bunch of cliched scenes and then arranging them into a flimsy plot line afterwards. This may sound harsh but consider the evidence. Dakota and his brother turn up at a Mexican pueblo early on asking for the whereabouts of Alvarez. No information is offered in response to their enquiries and as they leave they are involved in an elongated shoot out with various gang members. Soon after, however, they decide to attack Alvarez's hide out while he is busy elsewhere. How did they know where it was? Donovan tells Alvarez to lay low and wait for orders later on only for him to turn up in an ambush immediately after where Slim is killed. Whereupon instead of trying to kill Dakota too he rides off. What the...??? These are just two examples of a patchwork plot that bares no scrutiny but if this was as far as it went I could shrug and let it go. Lack of logic in Spaghetti scripts is a common enough occurrence for me to make allowances for such things. But in this film Mulargia crosses the line into outright sloppiness that builds up into an unacceptable mess.

For instance, a few continuity blunders here and there will not spoil an otherwise entertaining film but when this goes as far as the female lead wearing two totally different wigs throughout the picture, alternating between a shoulder length one with a fringe for interior shots and a much longer, fringeless one for exteriors I can't help but question the level of care taken. These two hair styles were so disparate that to begin with I was unsure if she was supposed to be the same character and at another I wondered whether they had simply used footage from another film to bodge the whole thing together. In truth, I think the actual reason was it was all a bit rubbish and thrown together. Although I also suspected that the interior shots with the shorter wig were shot later, purely for purposes of exposition in an attempt to make sense of the random exterior stuff already in the can.

Mulargia also pads unashamedly throughout. An over drawn out scene like the afore mentioned shoot out is a prime example but, even worse, is the interminable 'waiting for the bank job to start' scene. This time waster lasts almost five minutes without a word being said and is made up of a seemingly never ending series of zooms, close ups and jump cuts which are painful enough but are then compounded by the robbery scene itself which eventually follows and could qualify as one of the most anticlimactic scenes ever submitted to film. Add all of the above to a series of Fidaniesque 'riding between location' shots and you will fully understand what I am on about.

I suppose my biggest problem with this film is that, at the outset, I really wanted to like it. Tony Kendall was a likeable actor and Edoardo Mulargia has made some perfectly enjoyable films along with at least one (El Puro) that I rate very highly. But the truth is that this is one of Mulargia's weakest, if not laziest efforts and Kendall, for all his charm, does not fit well in the western genre. He was far better suited to the campy, tongue in cheek Eurospy stuff and he needed a far better vehicle than Brother Outlaw for him to shine in the saddle. He really doesn't look at home here and doesn't even wear a hat. It's almost as if he knew he was out of place and tried to maintain a more contemporary look despite the trappings of horse, six gun and stage coaches. Whatever the reasonings, Kendall's involvement here was a mistake. The material wasn't the right vehicle for his talents and his talents weren't strong enough to elevate the material.

As I said at the outset, it is difficult to know how best to judge a film like Brother Outlaw. Alongside films from the peak of the cycle, it is horribly inferior. But by 1970, when this was made, the average quality of Italian westerns had dipped markedly. By the standards of its direct contemporaries it is not so bad, but, truth be told, it is still pretty darn poor. It's strongest point is probably its musical score but this is no great achievement either as most of that is lifted straight from Why Go On Killing? A previous film of Mulargia's and one he is far better remembered for.

All up I am glad I opted to watch two Tony Kendall films to honour his passing. If Brother Outlaw had been the only one I viewed it would have been something of a mute tribute. As it is, I will choose to remember him fondly as Jo Walker and pretend for the moment that Brother Outlaw never happened.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Lola Colt

Dir: Siro Marcellini


The Spaghetti Western genre, in fact the Western genre in general for that matter, has always been a male dominated place. These were films almost exclusively made by men for men and the women who took part often did so in a marginalised sense; appearing as victims, eye candy or both. This is undoubtedly one of the failings of an otherwise vibrant genre and it is to the credit of those women who did make a career in these films that their presence became memorable despite the chauvinism of the arena in which they worked. Occasionally though, a female performer managed to feature as a lead and Lola Colt is a prime example, not only of one of these rare occurrences, but also of why they so often failed to succeed.

Like Little Rita of the West of the same year, Lola Colt is a vehicle for a musical performer. But unlike the former, this film is not an all out musical. Rather it shoe horns in a handful of saloon scenes where Miss Falana's talents as a singer and dancer can be showcased. These are the scenes where Lola is obviously most at home and it is clear from them that she was a terrific performer in her own field. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is merely window dressing; a flimsy inconsequential plot played out with little conviction by anyone concerned and as a result you find yourself hanging out for the next musical number. Not something I would often say in connection to viewing a Western.

The plot itself, for what it is worth, is as follows. Lola and her performing troupe arrive in town with one of their party sick with what turns out to be malaria. They need a doctor but the only person available is Rod (Peter Martell) who is studying medicine but has yet to qualify. This is due to his being caught up in the town's problem which is its being held under the boot of local bad guy, El Diablo (Germán Cobos). El Diablo has taken a bunch of the townsfolk hostage at his nearby ranch and is gradually bleeding the community dry with ransom demands while his men generally cause havoc in the area. Lola, whilst taking a shine to the good looking medical student, encourages Rod to rise up against their oppressor but he and the other men of the town are reluctant to endanger the lives of the hostages. Eventually though Lola convinces them to act and leads them in a rescue mission on El Diablo's ranch. A mass gunfight ensues and when the dust settles Lola leaves town with her love interest in tow.

All of the above comes complete with occasional romantic clutch scene and suitable, if chronically cliched, flashback to explain Lola's determined feistiness and unwillingness to be the victim of mean spirited bullies. All reasonable stuff but all equally just a bit half hearted; leaving the impression that the whole thing was thrown together in order to fill the space between Lola's leg kicking, bum wiggling song and dance numbers. Fair enough, one might say and I wouldn't argue for the most part. Miss Falana had genuine talent in this area and was clearly more comfortable singing and dancing than she was acting. But I can't help but feel that with a little more imagination on the part of the producers she could have been offered something more interesting in the way of story and character and, who knows, she might just have proved herself more than capable of carrying a better all round film. Either that or they should have concentrated on her obvious strengths and gone down the full blown musical line a la Little Rita of the West.

The really annoying thing is that, in isolated spots, the film has some genuinely promising moments. Moments which when you look back at the entire film seem completely out of place with the rest of the piece. Foremost among these is the opening scene where we first see El Diablo at his most diabolic. The town's priest walks to the edge of town to plead with the villainous boss to spare the lives of a couple of unfortunates he is preparing to punish. The catch is in how the punishment is set to be carried out. In a film based mainly around a cabaret act it is something of a surprise to open the proceedings with a couple of exploding crucifixions. But that is exactly what we are treated to and as El Diablo rides off to the backdrop of these obliterated unfortunates we could be forgiven for expecting more of the same. Unfortunately, it proves to be an anomaly in an otherwise tame narrative. The only other time we get close to this level of nastiness is during Lola's flashback scene where we witness her family being mounted on wagon wheels and shot at for fun by a bunch of unidentified villains while little Lola watches on tearfully behind the windows of the house. The drama of this scene however is completely counteracted by the fact that the girl playing Lola as a child is clearly of a totally different racial make up to our adult star. Lola Falana is an Afro American of Cuban extraction but the girl in Lola Colt it appears she has a background as a poor white child. I know the budget was probably tight but surely they could have found a black girl somewhere in europe to play this little non speaking part instead of slapping some brown make up on some unfortunate child actor from the Elios backlot?

In reality I suppose it doesn't matter so much and is no more out of place than the soul funk accompaniment to Lola's musical numbers which are not only chronically anachronistic but also clearly feature a saxophone, electric guitar and full drum kit despite the band on show wielding a banjo, squeezebox and piano. At the end of the day it is just a movie and a light weight one at that. It obviously never sets out to be anything serious and as a result should be judged on its own terms. In that way it is fair to say that the film is generally entertaining enough and that based on her musical numbers Lola Falana was a pretty impressive performer in her day. Consequently I could easily see this movie becoming a 'guilty pleasure' for some. For me though, its inconsistencies outweigh its pleasures and I suspect any future viewings on my part will be with the liberal aid of the fast forward button.

Ulimately Lola Colt is an interesting genre entry as a rare female led one but anyone hoping for a quality Spaghetti which upturns all the usual sexual stereotypes of the genre will be sadly disappointed.

The copy of this film I watched was a composite one using an Italian TV widescreen image with English dub from an inferior VHS release laid over where possible. The Italian version is longer and as a result the English audio drops out on occasion but as the film is not of an overly complex nature it had no real detrimental effect on my ability to follow the narrative in any way. If you only get to see the English VHS release though you will miss out on a number of scenes, the opening exploding crucifixions being the most notable among them.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Son of Django

Dir: Osvaldo Civirani


After more than two years of writing these reviews it seemed inevitable that I should eventually tackle the film whose title matches my nom de plume but I must be honest and say I have been avoiding it somewhat as I've always felt it is a film with little of note to discuss. That being said I recently watched a reasonable wide screen version so now seems as good a time as any.

Seeking to identify and take revenge on his father's mysterious back shooting murderer, Tracy, the eponymous Son of Django, (Gabriele Tinti) travels to Topeka City and positions himself between two rival ranchers in a bitter range war. Both ranchers, Ferguson (Gabriele Vargas) and Thompson (Pedro Sanchez) used to be friends with Tracy's father and are the prime suspects as his killer. Tracy does his best to solve the mystery while fending off constant attempts to eliminate him until all is finally resolved in a major shoot out in and around the town's saloon involving every major player in the drama including gun toting preacher Father Fleming (Guy Madison), another of Django's old buddies from the distant past.

The mystery element of this plot is somewhat undermined by the casting of Daniele Vargas as Ferguson. I have yet to see Vargas in anything where he doesn't play the slimy, untrustworthy villain of the piece. Trying to carry off any form of 'Who's the real bad guy?' thread which involves him is akin to rolling out a 'Who's the Mexican bandit?' story starring Fernando Sancho. But this is unimportant in reality. As are all the other machinations we are offered. Once we get past the first twenty minutes or so where it is unclear who the hell we are following at all we know how the whole thing is going to pan out anyway and we are watching not to see who the villain is but how he finally gets his come-uppance. This is fine and as long as you don't expect anything exceptional you are unlikely to be overly disappointed with how Civirani plays it out.

In fact unexceptional is the word which best sums up the film in every area. It's not bad, in fact it is pretty enjoyable on its own terms, but it really doesn't offer anything memorable. This is not surprising as, from top to bottom, Son of Django is a second division spaghetti. The cast, although perfectly adequate, are not from the first tier of talent active in the genre, the director is capable but unimaginative and the budget was such that Civirani doubled as cinematographer as well. A feat which, to be fair, he often elected for in his directorial outings. Guy Madison is probably the biggest name of note amongst those involved which should tell you all you need to know and despite his top billing he is not much more than a fringe figure in the story. Meanwhile faces who usually are mere background performers get some more prominant screen time. Ivan Scratuglia, for example, plays Four Aces, a hired gun who helps our hero out and has the chance to actually act rather than just shoot and fall over. This is all good and such elements actually add to the film's appeal for me. It's also just as well that they didn't try to pass off the aging Madison as the titular son, or Django would have had to be a gunslinger from the Napoleonic era.

The real lead is of course Gabriele Tinti and I must say he carries the part pretty well. Tinti is better known for the plethora of appearances he made in the Emanuelle (note the one m) series of films with his wife Laura Gemser. In fact he made something like a dozen of these soft porn romps whereas Son of Django is his only western. This is a shame as he looks the part of a stubble chinned gunfighter and I think he could have made a success of a longer affiliation with the genre. He certainly brings enough to the part of Tracy to suggest that this could have been the case and among old hands like Daniele Vargas and Pedro Sanchez looked right at home.

The film does have its failings though and a prime example is a bar room musical interlude which is nothing short of dreadful. Ill conceived, badly executed and so out of place it beggars belief as to why it was ever thought a good idea in the first place. It serves no purpose for the plot and doesn't even have an excuse as a character introduction. The lady singer it features is strictly a fringe figure and of no great import to the story. It is just a badly thought out set up and is one of those scenes where you find yourself squirming with discomfort and hoping, not only that it will end soon, but that the rest of the film will not continue in a similar vein. Thankfully it doesn't. But it's inclusion in the film casts a lasting shadow of doubt and leaves a bad taste which takes some time to get rid of. This sort of scene just doesn't fit the genre. Cut an ear off or impale a shooting hand and I don't have a problem. Introduce a thigh slapping chantreuse and I come out in a rash that takes days to wear off. In fairness, the film does recover but my trust in the director was marred and for a picture which is mostly unremarkable it is bad scenes like this which unfortunately linger after the end credits and lower it in my overall estimation.

However, such scenes are not a reason to avoid this film in its entirety. They just highlight the benefits of the fast forward button. For the most part Son of Django is a jolly enough ride. The cast do a good job with unremarkable material, the score is pretty decent and all in all it is a pleasant serving of pasta for any fan in a good frame of mind. It ain't in the same league as the Corbucci original but then it's always a tough ask for a son to live up to the achievements of a famous father.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Wrath of God

Dir: Alberto Cardone


A man is working at clearing vegetation in a field when another steps up behind him. The camera starts at the man's black boots and rises slowly to the gunbelt strapped to his thigh. The Colt pistol is removed from the holster and loaded by the anonymous man and in so doing some stamped lettering can be read on the side of the weapon. It reads "Made in Italy". I have no idea if this was an oversight on the part of the filmmakers or a deliberate inclusion designed to entertain the observant viewer. Either way it pleased me enough for me to approach the rest of The Wrath of God (for it is the opening of this film which I have just described) with a smile on my face and a forgiving nature in my heart. Any film with that kind of beginning is goning to get brownie points from me no matter what. Thankfully, the rest of the movie didn't disappoint.

Mike (Brett Halsey) returns home in order to leave his gunfighting days behind him and settle down on a farm with his old sweetheart but things do not go as planned. Finding Jane murdered, Mike is set upon and left for dead by her seven killers who also steal his life savings of $10,000; all in $50 dollar bills. They leave only seven dollars and Mike vows to track down every man, paying him back with a solitary dollar and death.

A Spaghetti fan of any length of time will recognise some pretty familiar conventions here. In fact it would be fair to say that pretty much every element of this film is derivative of others in the genre; from the revenge for the murdered sweetheart motive to the episodic 'picking off' of each villain structure to the 'surprise' chief villain reveal at the end. Even the seven dollars left behind by the murderous gang was used before. In fact by Cardone himself in Seven Dollars on the Red. But despite it's recycled nature this is a thoroughly satisfying film and is a credit to all involved. Cardone directs competently despite a clearly restricted budget, Mario Pacheco shoots the film with some flair and the cast play their parts well, maintaining a consistant mood and overcoming any of the film's more glaring flaws. And flaws there most certainly are. Looming large among them is the weak ending which, althogh crafted as a surprise, is anything but. Being so predictable as to be almost an offense to the audience's intelligence. I won't give details here just in case, by some stretch of possibility, someone doesn't get it while watching but, in reality, I could probably reveal all without risk of being accused of any major spoilers. Equally strange, although far less important, is a scene in which Halsey has a duel with one of the bad guys in a pitch dark room. In this scene we are not only asked to accept the use of luminous paint as an acceptable device but, more bizarrely, get to watch as the defeated bandit jumps out of the room at Halsey despite having just been defeated by a bullet in the forehead!

The fact that such sloppy lapses did not dull my enjoyment of the film in any great way speaks volumes for the quality on show for the rest of the picture. Halsey is at his coolest and plays a great hero with quintessential style while always looking magnificent. Anthony Steffen should have taken note. This is how to wear a hat! Not to mention a very fetching black serape and a rather natty waistcoat. He also carries off the action sequences with skill and is believable in a dramatic sense while wisely keeping his lines to a minimum. Of the seven, or rather eight bad guys involved Wayde Preston and the ever dependable Fernando Sancho are the stand outs while Cardone shows his deft touch with a fight scene in the excellent one on one knife fight in the desert between Halsey and Franco Fantasia. A scene which uses an overhead POV really effectively and challenges Cardone's other great fight scene, the finale of Seven Dollars on the Red featuring Fernando Sancho and a baling hook, for tension and style.

All in all this is a very solid and satisfying slice of Spaghetti pie. Its failings of plot, predictability, occasional lapses in logic and highly formulaic structure are more than made up for by its sound direction, interesting photography and solid acting performances. Not to mention an effective score written by and featuring the delightful trumpet playing of Michele Lacerenza, veteran of the Dollars films of Leone. The film is a fine example of good genre film making. It delivers what the viewer wants with more style than the budget would seem to allow and leaves with one a sense of satisfaction in having enjoyed an hour and a half of good quality fun. This is what Cardone is good at. He was no master in the Leone or Corbucci mould but he made good qualty, enjoyable films and always seemed to do the best possible with the resources he was given. I like Cardone's films and Wrath of God sits comfortably among his clutch of highly recommendable works.

Unfortunately I do not know of an official english friendly release of this film. I was lucky enough to view an excellent fan dub which used what looks like the Italian Eagle Pictures release as its source and added english subs. It is a film well worth an english language release. In fact, what would be even better would be an Alberto Cardone box set featuring all of this director's very enjoyable westerns. Now there is a project for Koch Media to consider.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Sonny and Jed

Dir: Sergio Corbucci


The Spaghetti Western genre has always been known for its violence. Sometimes it would be fair to say it has been notorious for it. And Sergio Corbucci has always been at the forefront in terms of pushing the boundaries of good taste in this area. In its time Corbucci's most famous film, Django, was banned because of its graphic ear cutting, whipping and wanton slaying of countless extras. Physical brutality, or the imminent and constant threat of it, is a regular ingredient in this genre and became as much a part of its make up as horses, big hats and Mexican peons. But never, to my knowledge, was there such an emotionally violent film made during the entire cycle as Sonny and Jed.

Sonny dreams of an exciting life as an outlaw and when notoriuous bandit Jed Tregado crosses her path in need of help she thinks her chance has come to make some money and change her life forever. Her life certainly is changed but not neccesarily for the better. Tregado proves himself to be every bit as mean as his reputation and by attaching herself to him Sonny embarks on a roller coaster journey of abuse, murder and mayhem where money is won and lost but her search for love is ever ongoing and ultimately futile.

Sonny and Jed despite its western trappings is the story of a disfunctional, co dependent relationship between two people who are plagued by their own base instincts, self loathing and deep desire to have and be something better. Sonny longs to be loved yet the man she chooses gives her nothing but abuse, both verbal and physical, from their first encounter. Jed lives by his own admission "like an animal"; caring for no one and taking what he wants when he wants it but, on occasion, he shows himself to capable of better sentiments despite himself. Together they expose both the best and the worst in each other but can never quite escape their own failings and weaknesses. This is not an easy film to watch. If you are hoping for some classic Corbucci action you will be largely disappointed as the gunfights and explosions are sporadic and appear only after long periods of bickering between the two protagonists. If you are hoping for a tale of love in adversity with a happy resolution you will be equally disappointed. The happy scenes (of which there are some) are far outweighed by the miserable and ugly ones and the unhealthy relationship between the two miserable individuals weighs as heavy on us as it does them. It is a gruelling ride for all concerned and that includes the viewer. I admit to being on the verge of switching it off on more than one occasion. But, ultimately, I was glad I stuck with it. It may not be a western tale in the conventional sense but it is a story worth telling. I know some people lose patience with the film as they become increasingly irritated by the abusive nature of Jed and the pathetic willingness of Sonny to be abused and I can understand that view. It is hard to warm to either character but, for me, it is this uncompromising nature of the characters which is the film's greatest strength. In stories such as these we always hope for some form of revelation on the part of the protagonists which will change their behaviour. Or, failing that, a nasty come uppance for the dominant, abusive partner. But, in reality, life is rarely that straight forward. Sonny constantly comes back to Jed. And in so doing she both encourages his abusive behaviour and is a constant reminder to him of his own weakness. At the same time she elicits moments of tenderness from him and reinforces her own inner sense that she is not worthy of anything better.

This is harrowing stuff and I believe works on an emotional level rarely attempted in any genre films, let alone a western. And its success is largely due to the strong performances of Tomas Milian and Susan George in the eponymous roles. Milian is the Marmite of actors. People tend to love him or hate him and this role will likely do nothing to change anyone's preset opinions. I believe he does a great job here, inhabiting Jed in true 'method' fashion but if you are prone to find his style annoying this one will probably only reinforce your dislike. Likewise with Susan George. In the 1970s she made a number of films where she portrayed unlikeable, petulant characters and for some she became synonymous with these features. Although Sonny I think is a little more sympathetic in nature she is not an easy character to feel great sympathy for either but here I think it is a great credit to her abilities as an actress that she carries off the role without compromise. It is also to her and Corbucci's credit that despite her obvious good looks she is never used here simply as eye candy. She gives a real performance and the film is all the better for it.

Sonny and Jed will not be everyone's cup of tea. It is a difficult film to like and it is certainly not a film I would recommend to anyone looking for a couple of hours of escapist fun. But it is a well made film and considering it was made at a time when Corbucci was seeming to lose his way it doesn't exhibit any of the sloppiness the great man was occasionally prone to. It benefits from some solid acting and an uncompromising approach. Just don't be fooled by Milian's beret. Companeros this most definitely is not.

Monday, 31 August 2009

$1000 on the Black

Dir: Alberto Cardone


In 1966 Alberto Cardone made two westerns with titles connected with the game of roulette. Seven Dollars on the Red and $1000 on the Black. In the crazy and unpredictable world of Spaghetti Western titles it should come as no surprise that neither of these films had anything to do with roulette in any way whatsoever. Both films also starred Anthony Steffen and, as all fans know, predicting the quality of a Steffen film is far more problematic. In a career that included dozens of Spaghettis and spanned the full time frame of the cycle Steffen's style stayed consistant but the quality of his films certainly did not. Seven Dollars on the Red proved to be one of Steffen's better outings. If anything, $1000 on the Black, is even better. Although, in truth, much of the film's appeal resides in the performance of his co star, the excellent Gianni Garko.

Johnny Liston returns from twelve years of imprisonment for a crime he didn't commit to find his brother, Sartana, their home town and surrounding area with his band of hoodlums. What's more, Sartana has taken Johnny's erstwhile sweetheart, Manuela, as his woman and spends all his free time when he is not extorting cash from the local townsfolk beating her or whipping her mute brother, Jerry. Johnny rescues local beauty Joselita Rogers from the clutches of some banditos but she shuns him when she discovers his identity as it was for the murder of her father that Johnny was convicted. Johnny is appalled by his brother's reign of terror and sets out to thwart his activities but gets no support, either from the townsfolk or his embittered mother who dotes on Sartana and vilifies Johnny for being 'weak'. Twisted family loyalties ensure that neither brother will openly attack the other but they struggle against each other until their mother's death when all bets are off and a showdown is inevitable.

Alex Cox, in his recent book, described $1000 on the Black as "visually fantastical, with no concession to that dull and deadly notion, 'realism'." For me Cox hits the nail on the head in terms of what makes this film appealing. It has melodrama in big heaped spoonfuls, a bad guy who is deliciously bad, a good guy we can root for and a mad, embittered matriarch in a big house whose malicious influence pervades all. All this acted with an unmistakeable relish in the Italian style where the term 'less is more' is never remotely considered. Everyone involved contributes their part here but, as mentioned above, Gianni Garko as the evil brother Sartana is very much first among equals.

This is not the Sartana character which became synoymous with Garko in the years to come but a very different animal. Psychotic, sadistic and Oedipal this Sartana is a whip wielding nut case who loves his mother and hates everyone else and whose blonde, blue eyed good looks are in stark contrast to his pseudo Mexican bandit persona. Garko plays the role well and proves beyond doubt that he was one of the few Spaghetti stars who was capable of inhabiting any character he chose. A true actor, he is as convincing here as the heavy as he was in any of his more usual good guy parts and his passionate, exuberant approach to this particular role works as a great foil to Anthony Steffen's stone faced hero. The two make a very effective pairing and between them create an absorbing spectacle. Steffen is...well...Steffen, and that's just fine. He does what is required and the part suits his style well. Tony was never a man who was going to challenge anyone in the acting stakes so it is not surprising that he is upstaged by Garko here but he performs well and brings sufficient steel to his character. He also performs his action scenes with his usual skill. This is where Steffen is at his best and he doesn't disappoint.

$1000 on the Black is also a film which features s few decent parts for women. Erika Blanc plays the feisty bereaved daughter with a good deal of strength while Angelica Ott offers contrast in her portrayal of the abused and downtrodden Manuela. But the stand out role among the girls goes to the older woman of the piece, Carla Calo, as Rhonda Liston, the embittered mother of Johnny and Sartana. Hard faced and even harder hearted, Manuela is at the centre of all that the boys do; goading Johnny into action, encouraging Sartana's brutality, despising the townsfolk for their hypocrisy. Her tortured soul hangs over the entire town and everyone in it and it is only through her ultimate death that the inevitable blood letting can begin between the brothers. Only once her influence is removed that they feel free to settle the score for good.

This is all pure melodrama laid on with a thick brush and is deliciously over the top. As Cox said, there is no attempt at realism and we are grateful for it. From the ridiculous pseudo Aztec fortress which serves as Sartana's headquarters to the implausability of no one ever suspecting the clearly shifty Judge Woods of being in cahoots with the villain this film doesn't even try to be believable. It's just a big old larger than life bundle of nonsense played straight and with gusto. And it is the strength of performance that makes the whole thing work. It's a film which never takes itself too seriously but never plays for laughs either so the viewer can jump into the emotional rollercoaster of the story, hold on through all the action and get off at the end exhausted and smiling from the fun of the ride. No one cares if the guns used are correct for the period. Or even what the actual period is. We certainly don't give a damn about what on earth those Aztec carvings are doing on a fort in the U.S. Why should we? They look cool and that's enough. Let's not even start to ask why the Mexican girl, Manuela has a brother called Jerry. It can only divert attention away from the fact that this film is a blast from start to finish. One that doesn't tax the analytical mind overly but which has enough depth to give it some bite. It doesn't challenge the best in the genre in terms of overall quality in any area but it is unwaveringly entertaining and that, surely, is more than enough.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


Dir: Cesari Canevari


An outlaw is rescued from the hangman's noose by a band of Mexican bandits but once safely out of town our bad guy murders his saviours and holes up with a couple of old partners in a ghost town and plans a stagecoach robbery. They are joined there by one of the partner's girlfriend and an element of sexual tension is added as all the boys take a shine to her. During the stagecoach job the previously rescued outlaw is knocked off and the remaining villains go back to the ghost town to lay low for a while. During this time one of them hides the loot to keep everyone's hands out of it and a pacifist drifter and recently widowed woman arrive in the town by chance. Nastiness ensues and things are complicated further by the discovery that an old woman has been living in the ghost town all along; dreaming of rebuilding it to its former glory and figuring the stashed loot will go some way to financing her plans. All eventually comes to a head when the drifter escapes from his ropes with the aid of his loyal and somewhat aggressive horse and our original bad guy shows up, alive after all, to claim the loot for himself.

Sound familiar? Well if you, like me, had recently enjoyed the pleasures of an earlier spaghetti entitled Kill the Wicked, it certainly will do as this plotline is identical in practically every way. What's more, if you check the scriptwriter credits on both films you'll find they were both written by the same guy, Mino Roli. So he managed to sell the same story for two separate films. Nice move. But then nothing surprises me too much with Spaghettis. Or Italian genre films in general to be honest. The question really, I guess, is does the second film offer anything better or at least sufficiently different from the first. And the answer to that, for me at any rate, is yes...and no.

For all its similarities of plot and character, Matalo! is most definitely a very different film to Kill the Wicked. In fact it is very different to just about any other Spaghetti Western I can think of. Predominantly because, in an era of psychodelia, this film is the one which offers the most overt marriage of Western and Hippie conventions. In short, it's something of a trip. Only with big hats and horses.

The first thing which you are struck by is that for the first forty five minutes; a full half of the entire film, no one (apart from some initial mutterings from a priest) is seen to speak. That is not to say there is no dialogue. But that no one is ever shown speaking. Either the character speaking has their back turned to camera, or they are in a long shot or, often, are offscreen altogether. Apparently Canevari intended to eliminate all dialogue from the film except for the single order, Matalo!, which makes up the title. He doesn't manage quite that level of silence but the dialogue proper only really kicks off once Lou Castel's pacifist boomerang wielding character arrives in town. This change comes as quite a jolt after so long with few words and makes the film somewhat disjointed as a result. I would have prefered to see them stick with the largely silent approach. Apart from anything else, little is actually said of any real consequence. Only the explaination of why old Mrs Benson is still in town needs any clarifying words. The rest would work just fine in pantomime. In fact, for me, it is this lack of follow through which is the film's biggest fault. Strange to say, for a film that is as whacky as this in many ways I don't think it is quite whacky enough. I felt like it went to the edge and then pulled back rather than commiting itself fully. So that despite all the acid rock music and boomerangs it still kept a cautionary and somewhat unconfident hand on convention. A perfect case in point is the use of a misplaced and ill judged voice over injected briefly into the scenes between the outlaw's escape from the hanging and his arrival in the ghost town hide out. This provides nothing. It merely, detracts from the mood which has been deliberately constructed and comes across as something of a cinematic cop out. As if they were afraid we would all be a bit too confused by this point.

On its plus side there are some strong visual performances on show. Corrado Pani looks great as the principal bad guy, Bart. There is a Kinskiesque quality about Pani here. Not just in his facial resemblance but also in the barely controled menace that lies underneath it. (Although to be fair Pani is a little more attractive than Klaus and tends to smile a bit more.) His sniffing the burnt powder smell from his gun after firing is a nice, creepy touch and his heavy lidded, slack lipped look contrasts well to the hair trigger violent nature of his character. It's a pity Pani didn't make more westerns. He could have become a favourite. Luis Davila also played his part well as the more conventional bandit, Phil. In fact, of the three main male protagonist it is Lou Castel, the top billed and better known of all who probably shines the least. It doesn't help that he isn't introduced until the film is fully half way done. The other characters have had time to establish themselves by the time he eventually shows up. But his is also something of a flaky, weak character who spends most of his time crawling around or getting beaten up. And by the time he is ready to take on the villains (courtesy of his aforementioned and more active thinking horse rather than any activity of his own) I had frankly lost interest in him. Things were not helped when he started flinging boomerangs about. I'm sure it sounded like a good idea at the time. Indeed Castel has said it was the factor in the script which attracted him to the role. But in truth it is a bridge too far. Watching gang member Ted (Antonio Salines) hiding around a corner only to be struck down (repeatedly!) by a series of flimsy whirling sticks was, I suspect, far more painful for me than it was for him.

There are more positives however. Visually, the film is always interesting, with Julio Ortas' cinematography showing why he was Mario Caiano's camera chief of choice on so many of his better looking films. His unusual use of focus, or lack thereof, is particularly striking and the film has a genuinely unique look and feel as a result. The score, for all its anachronistic acid rock style works pretty well I think and adds to the atmosphere; injecting a contemporary menace to the piece. Wailing, fuzz boxed guitar solos and driving drums all help create a chaotic soup of unhinged anarchy and I couldn't help but think of Charles Manson's ghost town while watching this. Especially when considering the seemingly hypnotic, charismatic attraction some of the females feel for Bart, a character easily paralleled with the notorious hippie mass murderer. One woman kills herself because of him early on despite him clearly being responsible for her husband's death and then Mary, (Claudia Gravy) the murderous girlfriend of Phil, kills and double crosses on his behalf; risking everything and ultimately giving her life as a result of her devotion to him. Gravy is another big credit for the film I believe. She exudes sex throughout and brings a level of tension and frustration into the ghost town scenes which can be cut with a knife and gives some much needed interest to these sequences. But she also shows a believable vulnerability in her attachment to Bart and this balance in her character makes her role work all the better. She also looked so great in her log fringed hippie, pseudo indian gear that its anachronistic nature became irrelevant. Not something that could be said for Lou Castel's paisley patterned jacket. Although, to be fair, perhaps Miss Gravy's physical charms make me more forgiving in this area.

Matalo! is, if nothing else, an interesting oddity. Its hippie score, fashions and sensibility make it a memorable piece to be sure. But, these factors aside, it is not that great a western. It has positive elements for sure. But if I'm honest and compare it to its identically plotted predecesor, I would have to say the earlier film, Kill the Wicked, is the better, more tightly crafted one. The sixties gimmickery and boomerang silliness, on the whole, detracts rather than adds to the core themes and storyline. In short, Canevari just doesn't get the mix quite right. He goes too far in some ways and not far enough in others in his genre bending and the end result falls short in both areas as a consequence. It could be categorised by some as one of those films that you either love or hate. Tom Betts famously hates it. But, on reflection, this isn't the case for me. I fall well and truly between both camps. I enjoyed it on the whole. Felt it had some real strong qualities in parts but felt a little let down overall by some of its failings. It's well worth seeing for all that. But for me, if I'm in the mood for a whacky Spaghetti ride on the fringes of Bizarreville, I'll stick to Django Kill!

The version I watched of Matalo! was the Wild East edition. The picture and audio quality are not quite in the Koch Media league but it is very watchable none the less, is well worth getting and includes an interesting little interview with Lou Castel to boot. Their tongue in cheek dedication of the film to Tom Betts is also a nice little in joke which raised a smile for me.

Friday, 31 July 2009


Dir: Edoardo Mulargia


Cjamango (Ivan Rassimov) wins a pile of gold from a laughing Mexican bandit in a poker game but has his winnings instantly swiped when two more villains arrive at saloon spitting lead in all directions. Somehow surviving this ambush our hero follows the bad guys and discovers them at each others' throats after falling out over the gold. Tiger (Piero Lulli) has taken the gold for himself and Don Pablo (Livio Lorenzon) is out to get it back. Meanwhile a black clad whiskey seller (Mickey Hargitay) has also arrived whose real purpose is a mystery and Pearl (Helene Chanel), the daughter of the local drunk is carving out a precarious existence in the middle. Cjamango sets about playing one rival gang against the otherin his quest to retrieve his stolen fortune until the final and inevitable shoot out settles the matter once and for all.

Cjamango is a film seemingly made from disparate ideas from other films. The central premise of a town with two bosses and a lone outsider playing them against each other is obviously lifted straight from A Fistful of Dollars and the character of Cjamango, has more than a passing resemblance to Eastwood's Man with no Name character. Especially in the opening saloon scene where he is sporting a poncho. But there are also obvious nods to Corbucci's Django too. Rassimov's character quickly replaces the poncho with a cape and the name itself is an obvious variation on the man made immortal by Franco Nero the previous year. Fistful is also recalled in the role Pearl plays as protector of local orphan, Manuel (Giusva Fioravanti); mirroring in some ways the parts of Marisol and Jesus from that earlier film. And just for good measure, Mickey Hargitay seems to be wearing Lee Van Cleef's costume from For a Few Dollars More. All in all then, it would be fair to sum up the whole affair as derivative. It certainly is anything but groundbreaking or original but it would be wrong to dismiss it completely on those terms. There are many very good spaghettis that get most of their ideas from previous productions. It is pretty much par for the course in genre film making and always has been. Cjamango should be judged then for what it is. And, on those terms, despite a few faults, it's not half bad.

Much of the film's charm can be attributed to Ivan Rassimov. This was his first lead role, in anything as far as I can tell not just in a Spaghetti, but he carries it off with real confidence and is already exhibiting the qualities that would go on to cement him as a firm favourite among genre film fans. Rassimov does the strong, taciturn type well and is athletic enough to be convincing in an action role. It is unfortunate however, that his performance is somewhat spoiled by an illfitting english dubbed voice. Cjamango is not the first film to suffer from such a fate (Django springs to mind) but it is always a shame when an otherwise solid performance gets lessened in this way and makes you wonder who was in charge of casting the voice actors on some of these films. The guy who does the voice for Rassimov sounds about twenty years older.

The film also benefits from a solid supporting cast with the always reliable Pierro Lulli and Livio Lorenzon delivering bad guy bravura with consumate ease and Helene Chanel providing the kind of mussed up, smouldering beauty we all like in such pictures. Chanel made a handful of Spaghettis but, unfortunately, most were of the Franco and Ciccio comedy variety. Outside of this film her only other Spaghetti of note was Killer Caliber .32, one of Peter Lee Lawrence's better westerns. On the down side we are also put through the ordeal of suffering the appearance of a 'cute kid' character played by Giusva Fioravanti. It's not that young Master Fioravanti does a bad job it's just that I disagree in principle with the inclusion of such characters in any way shape or form. For my money Leone had the right idea in Once Upon a Time in the West when Frank wiped out the cute red headed McBain kids before the story even got properly started. Not that I've got anything against children in reality. I've got a bunch of them and love them all to bits. I just don't think they belong in films like these where they invariably are given awful high pitched dubbed voices and bring nothing to the story except an overdose of sentimentality. I don't mind a fair helping of corn with my spaghetti but I tend to gag on too much syrup. In Cjamango the youngster provides the hero with the chance to show he is a full on white hatted good guy which, I guess, is ok. But I can't help but feel that once this was established the director missed a golden opportunity in not having the kid blown up with dynamite when he had the chance. In one of those strange coincidences that you couldn't make up the scene where the youngster is strapped to dynamite has an eery reflection in real life as the child actor later grew into a covicted terrorist, jointly responsible for the bombing of Bologna Station in 1980 where some 85 people died. Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes.

Cute kid not withstanding, most of the film is pretty solid, if not outstanding. It is probably best described as one of those films which is unlikely to over impress but is a decent enough picture which gives enough rewards to merit the time spent watching it. Mulargia's direction is ok but the film does seem to jump around somewhat, giving me the impression it was rushed through the editing process. But this is a minor criticism. As I said earlier, the film has no great pretentions to anything loftier than an entertaining programme filler and that's what it delivers on. It did reasonably good box office business in its day too; surprisingly squeezing into the top 20 Spaghetti Western box office performers back in 1967 and posting numbers similar to those of Requiescant and $10,000 Dollars Blood Money. These latter two films have stood the test of time somewhat better than Cjamango it must be said but with Koch Media's good looking new release now available you could do a lot worse with any spare hour and a half you may find yourself with.

The aforementioned Koch Media release was the one I saw the film on and it is of the sort of standard in terms of picture and sound quality which we have come to expect from this excellent German company. 2.35:1 ratio with Italian, German and English audio options plus some nice extras which unfortunately only have italian audio with german subs. Well worth the purchase price though for any fan.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


Dir: Giovanni Grimaldi


1966 was a time when the spaghetti western was really finding its feet and the style we have come to know and love was becoming engrained in the genre. The pseudo american style was being well and truly left behind and the mediterranean sensibilities that have become synonymous with these films was now firmly established. Starblack then, comes as something of an anachronism. Its look and feel is not just traditional in style but harks back well beyond the 50s heyday of the american B western to an even more simplistic time and plays more like a serial or 'poverty row' film of the 1940s. And yet, like so many spaghettis, just when you think you've got it categorised there's a sting that leaves you wondering.

Johnny Blyth (Robert Woods) and his deaf and dumb sidekick return to Johnny's home town to discover that his father has died and a ruthless banker come saloon owner (Franco Lantieri) is now controlling the town and squeezing the financial life out of all and sundry. Meanwhile a masked vigilante known only as Starblack is thwarting the town boss' nefarious activities and has become a Robin Hood figure to the local people. Johnny, although a popular fellow, has a reputation as something of a coward and when his uncle, who has subsequently married his widowed mother, advises him to avoid any trouble it seems like advice that Johnny can take relatively easily. However, Johnny soon discovers that his father's death was not caused by the accidental means he was first told of but rather by a bullet in the head and so he begins his own investigation into who was responsible. So who is the real killer? And who is that masked man? No prizes for guessing right on either count. This movie is nothing if not predictable in plot development. It is in its mix of styles where the real surprises occur.

From the very beginning of the opening credits sequence you know you are in for a very different ride with this movie than you would expect from a spaghetti western. Starblack, sporting a full face mask (no simple eye covering a la Zorro or the Lone Ranger for this guy), turns up in the nick of time in a series of vignettes showing the local ranchers being terrorised by bad guys. He saves the day, sends the bad guys packing (either back into town or into an early grave) and is lauded with doe eyed wonder by the happy recipients of his valour. In one vignette a grateful woman gazes at him adoringly, clutches her hands to her chest and sighs "Starblack" like some lovesick school girl. The corn syrup is ladeled on so thick here you can almost feel your liver going fatty and it would be understandale to think you had popped the wrong movie into your machine. This can't be an italian western from 1966. The guy in the mask is clearly going to turn out to be 'Crash' Corrigan or Buster Crabbe or some well groomed smiling cowboy who will be doing a song for us before the third reel. Well, you would be wrong. About the first bit anyway. Our hero, amazingly, does get to do a song. But I'll get to that later. The story proper opens and the style continues. When Robert Woods rides into town he has a sidekick in tow and immediately runs into a suspect character who lets us all know he is no good by slapping folks around and generally acting the bully. Woods, moreover, is so well groomed and smiling he could pass for Woody out of Toy Story and is wearing enough brylcreem in his hair to lube the suspension of your car. He goes on to meet up with an ornery old local rancher (Gabby Hayes anyone?) and his beautiful daughter and, just for good measure, shows us all that he is devoted to his mother. Phew! All we need now is for Smiley Burnette to show up and the package will be complete.

But wait. The next thing you know a different flavour is added to the mix and this time it's pure pasta. Despite the clean cut image of our heroes, events take a genuine turn towards the nasty. I've seen a lot of old forties poverty row westerns and, in spite of my admittedly derisive tone above, I really enjoy them. They have a nostalgic value for me as reminders of my childhood visits to the saturday morning pictures and early sixties kid's TV. And in all the movies I have seen of this type I do not remember once a villain getting his hands pinned to a door frame with knives so as to leave him hanging in a state of crucifixion. Johnny Mack Brown or Bob Steele would have cuffed the fellow sternly around the ear not given him a ready made stigmata. This is the twist in Starblack's tail. This is where the 60s italian sensibility comes in. And this is where the whole film takes on a more interesting tone. The juxtaposition of the two elements makes for an interesting experience in that you never quite know which way the film is going to turn next.

Nowhere is this exhibited more obviously than in the scene about two thirds of the way through when Woods, who has been toting a guitar around ominously for much of the picture, finally launches into song in pure Roy Rogers style. This is not such an odd thing for Woods the actor; he made his living singing long before he ever went in to movies, but is genuinely incongruous in a spaghetti western. A genre where you are much more likely to see the leading man get someone in the eye with a knife. But wait, come movie's end the bad guy's eyesight is impaired in just such a fashion!

The key element here is that the overlying style of this film is not just traditional, it is old time hokey traditional. And according to Marco Giusti this was exactly what Grimaldi was after. There have been many spaghettis, especially from the early period of 1963-65, which bore close resemblance to their american predecesors. But this movie harks back much further and therefore its cocktail of hokum and nastiness is something quite unique. As a result, I found it an enjoyable ride but I am well aware that this is not a serving of spaghetti that will be to everyone's taste. The old time style, the romantic subplot, the singing cowboy will all be elements which will put many off who like their westerns strictly downbeat and gritty. This is understandable but a pity as Starblack, when taken on its own terms, is an entertaining and interesting entry into the genre. It's certainly not a fantastic film but it is odd enough, and to be fair, well crafted enough, to be worth a look.

Unfortunately, like so many, this film does not enjoy a good quality DVD release and I suspect won't be getting one soon. Spaghetti westerns have marginal enough appeal as it is without narrowing the potential audience down further by going down the Gene Autry route. But I'd like to see it get one anyway and we can always live in hope.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

My Name is Pecos

Dir: Maurizio Lucidi


Skilled pistolero, Pecos Martinez, (Robert Woods) rides into the village of Houston and sets about clearing it of outlaws. But his motives prove to have revenge as their source. This was Martinez's birthplace and he has returned to settle a score with gang leader Clain (Pier Paolo Capponi). Clain, however, is preoccupied with retrieving the loot from a recent robbery which has been stolen from him by one of his own men and a local towns person whose identity he has yet to uncover. The hunt for the loot and Pecos'vengeance quest become inevitably combined and the only outcome is more bloodshed.

Robert Woods' movies are something like Forrest Gumps' box of chocolates. You never know what you might get. More than any other leading man appearing in Spaghetti Westerns I can think of Woods constantly varied his roles and the types of characters he played. Willing to play villains as well as heroes, light weight parts as well as dark dramatic ones and chance his arm as a latino rather than stick to the safe ground of the laconic American. It is this risk taking which makes his films most interesting and, it must be said, of varying success. When you take chances things don't always come out as you'd hoped and this is the case with some of Woods films. However, it also means that when things do work out they stand out all the more. Films such as Black Jack, El Puro and Challenge of the McKennas spring to mind in this instance. And I believe My Name is Pecos can be added to that list of films where Woods took a chance and it paid off.

By 1966 there had been a whole bunch of westerns made in europe and the Spaghetti style had been pretty well formulated. It differed in a number of ways from the american original but one element remained pretty constant. The hero figure, even if not as obviously white hatted as his earlier U.S equivelant, was still almost universally anglo saxon in origin. Mexicans, for the most part, were still predominantly sidekicks, victims or villains. The gunslinging protagonist, however subject his morals or motivations might be in these new mediterranean versions of the genre, was still cut from a racial template set out and stuck to for many years. In My Name is Pecos that template is adjusted. Pecos Martinez may have most of the attributes of a western hero (fast and accurate with his gun, slow talking yet quick witted, unwaveringly driven to eliminate the bad guys) but his racial make up sets him distinctly apart from the crowd. As his name suggests this avenging gunslinger is no W.A.S.P. He is proudly mexican.

In fact the racial inversion of types extends to most of the cast. This includes not only the principle heavy, Clain, but all his gang. No Ninos, Indios or Pacos here. Strictly Steves, Jacks and Slims. And the secondary villain, Morton the bible wielding undertaker, beautifully played by Umberto Raho, as well as the corrupt and cowardly saloon owner; all are white american. While the saloon girl who helps the hero is not only Mexican but, in a further inversion of expected types, not a whore. Of course, I'm not suggesting that all characters in previous westerns had completely and slavishly conformed to the norms of the genre. But I do believe that My Name is Pecos marked a radical shift. Pecos is not a Mexican hero a la Don Cesar Guzman in The Implacable Three who was essentially an hidalgo landowner or Cuchillo from The Big Gundown who is a knife throwing petty criminal. He is an avenging gunslinger who holds the moral high ground and cleans up the town. The independent man of strength and honour who the weak and helpless townspeople look to and depend on for salvation. In a different era and with a different face he could have been played by Gary Cooper. It is this that makes the characters racial make up so marked. He is playing a role traditionally set only for a white american but he is overtly mexican. As if to state his place even clearer he announces in the saloon "I don't like whiskey. I drink tequila!"

But for all the interest this role reversal might have it would be of no import if the film itself failed to engage. Thankfully, this is not a one trick pony. Pecos proves to be an enjoyable character and the story moves along with all the attributes you could ask for from a cleaning up a bad town/revenge western. Lucidi's direction is competent if not inspired, the script is decent and the acting, from some individuals in particular, is excellent. For a six foot four caucasian from Colorado Woods inhabits the body of Martinez with surprising ease. Elaborately taped eyes notwithstanding (I'm really not sure why it was felt neccesary to pin his eyes up in such a painful looking fashion) he convinces as the embittered hero and the taciturn nature of the character allows him to underplay the part. Something which shows Woods at his strongest. The rest of the cast perform well also. Luigi Casellato as Eddie the saloon owner plays an interesting mix of greed and fear but comes across as a man at odds with his deeper morals trying to make his way in a dangerous and amoral environment. While Umberto Raho's Morton is a delightfully slimy individual; combining religious words with treacherous and wicked deeds in a truly enjoyable manner. We even get the old pistol in the bible routine for good measure.

My Name is Pecos is a solid spaghetti which combines all the conventions required in a film of this type with an interesting twist in the angle of the racial make up of the key personel. And this, for me, is what good genre filmmaking is all about. It delivers what I expect but tweaks the boundaries a little to keep it interesting. It's not Citizen Kane. Nor does it try to be. It's a fun action drama with some interesting characters well played which features some tension and the required amount of blood letting leading up to a showdown at the end. Frankly, that's pretty much all I ask from a western and as a consequence I came away from this one satisfied and happy.

The version of this film I watched came from the Brazilian release. It has a reasonably clean picture and english audio but is unfortunately full frame. As a result some of the visual impact of the film was reduced. It would be nice to see this in its correct aspect ratio and I believe it is a film which deserves a better release. Recommended.

Thursday, 25 June 2009


Dir: Antonio Margheriti


Antonio Margheriti did most of his best work as director on gothic horror films like The Castle of Blood and Long Hair of Death so it is probably no surprise that the best of his half dozen westerns were those which borrowed most heavily from that genre. And God Said to Cain is, for me, his masterpiece but Vengeance has remained a firm personal favourite for some years too and a recent re viewing of it has only reinforced it in my pantheon of solid Spaghetti Westerns which never fail to satisfy.

After his friend Ricky (Albert Dell'Aqua) is pulled limb from limb by their former criminal cohorts angry hardman Rocco (Richard Harrison) seeks revenge by tracking down each of the five guilty parties. With each one dispatched he tosses a piece of the rope used to murder his friend on the corpses. He knows the identity of three of the killers but in searching for the last two is faced with a disappointing surprise. Another of his old partners (Claudio Camaso) who he thought had perished in their last job turns out to be not only alive but leading the gang and responsible for Ricky's agonising murder. The stage is set for a final showdown where only death will clean old wounds. Along the way Rocco saves and takes on a luscious redheaded saloon girl (Spela Rozin) and is followed step by step by a Pinkerton agent who is as keen to recover the stolen $30,000 as Harrison is to avenge his friend.

On the surface this synopsis doesn't obviously suggest a gothic quality. It's a bog standard revenge story set out in an episodic kind of structure allowing for a handful of separate vignettes which show each of the five villains being tracked down and knocked off. But, as in his next western, And God Said to Cain, Margheriti's approach injects a completely different feel from your average revenge flick and it is this approach, in combination with some excellent performances from the main actors and a well utilised score, which elevates this film above the sum of its basic parts.

To begin with the director's choice of camera angles throughout gives the entire piece a slightly out of kilter look. The opening scene showing Ricky's tormented death utilises a high set camera looking directly down on the victim. This not only allows for a fine composition around the star shape created by the five ropes extending from the victims outstretched extremities it also accentuates his isolation and desperation. It's a simple technique but one which works well and gets the whole story off on a grim and stylistic footing. Later, and as the story unfolds, this eery atmosphere is continued and enhanced by Margheriti's repeated use of extreme low camera angles. Simple transition shots of men standing outside or entering a saloon take on an exentuatedly sinister air as the camera looks up at them from ground level; making the figures, buildings and sky all appear ominous and overbearing. This is genre film making 101. Simple and cost effective techniques which give an unsettling sense of gravitas to an otherwise unremarkable scene. Despite his later reputation and preference for explosive action sequences this, for my money, was where Margheriti excelled. His great talent was in creating atmosphere and drawing the most value from any particular set up. This is illustrated most obviously here in the climactic showdown sequence in the sulphur mine at the film's conclusion. In this scene the cat and mouse pursuit through the mine's tunnels, lit by flickering torch flames, is played out for a full fifteen minutes and is an exercise in the creation and elongation of suspense and mood leading up to a well timed violent conclusion.

All this horror genre technique is utilised effectively throughout Vengeance but it is fused even more strongly into the narrative once the character of Mendoza (Claudio Camaso) appears on screen. Dressed in a short cape and battered top hat, face plastered with dust and carrying a walking stick Mendoza appears more like the head witch doctor of a voodoo cult than a mexican outlaw. But his appearance fits the mood of the film perfectly and Camaso plays the role with an exuberant intensity which is a joy to behold. Camaso had magnificent screen presence in everything he did and his performance here is no exception. Lurching from brooding silence to manic laughter his portrayal of the treacherous genius with a penchant for sulphur and cruelty dominates the memory and his dust coated face grinning maniacally leaves a lasting image. What is more, his intense facial contortions act as a great contrast to Richard Harrison's stoic, unchanging expression. Rocco is a man on a mission and nothing can divert him from his quest. As such, Harrison's stoney faced approach is perfect for the part. Harrison's career spanned the full cycle of the spaghetti western; appearing in some of the very earliest pre Leone films and hanging in there during the 1970s as the genre lost its appeal and quality. As such his movies are nothing if not of varying value. For the most part though he remained a solid performer throughout and occasionally was involved in a project which offered him something to work with and in which he could show what he was really capable of. In my opinion Vengeance is just such a project and remains one of the best examples of his work.

As if all this weren't enough, the supporting cast which contains Margheriti regular Luciano Pigozzi, flaming redhead Spela Rozin and stalwart bad guys Freddy Unger and Lucio De Santis all add extra quality to the mix and the score from Carlo Savina is subtly and effectively used.
All in all Vengeance is an excellent example of a late sixties spaghetti western. Building on the stylistic experimentations of the preceding years and avoiding the parodic excesses that were to come it has a solid balance of action, drama and suspense. Dialogue is kept wisely to a minimum and fist fights, when they appear, are marked by acts of nastiness like dragging spurs across a man's throat rather than Bud Spencer-like punches to the top of the head accompanied by breaking spring sound effects. This is how spaghetti westerns should be. Dark, moody, and melodramatic with some flourishes of absurdly clever gun and knife play for good measure. I liked this movie the first time I saw it and I still find it presses all the right buttons in what I enjoy in the genre. Margheriti was a very capable director whose better work, I think, is often under valued because of the quantity of ordinary to poor films that he also produced during a long and varied career. It is true he didn't always get it right. As a 'working' director operating in just about every genre possible in Italian commercial cinema this is not surprising. But when he did get it right, as he did here and to an even greater degree in And God Said to Cain he proved that he was one of the most capable directors of his time.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Those Dirty Dogs

Dir: Giuseppe Rosati


1973 was not exactly a stellar year in the history of the Italian western. It was a time when the genre was genuinely breathing its last gasps and those films which were still being made in the western cycle were predominantly leaning heavily towards parody and pastiche. This was post Trinity time and there was precious little being made of any great note. Consequently, I approached Those Dirty Dogs with some understandable trepidation. But the opening scenes were promising. The film opens with a massacre, followed by the carrying off of a female hostage. Stephen Boyd rides in, closely followed by Giannio Garko as a koran reading bounty hunter. Maybe this was going to buck the trend and prove to be an 'old school' spaghetti. One where the themes would be dark and the actor's stubble even darker. Maybe this would be the film from '73 which proved that all was not silly bar room brawls and prat falls. Then again, maybe not.

To be fair, before I go off and list all the ways in which the film fails, I should say that Those Dirty Dogs is by no means a terrible film. In some ways it is quite enjoyable. It just isn't as good as it could be and, moreover, can't quite seem to make up its mind as to what it wants to be. This, for my mind, is a greater sin and merely adds to my sense of disappointment when I should be coming away feeling much better.

As mentioned above, the opening scenes and the introduction of the key protagonists set a darkish, if slightly ironic, mood. Garko's character, Korano, is somewhat offbeat with his sun umbrella and arabic holy book but he is offered as an essentially serious character. Likewise, Stephen Boyd and his companions show no suggestions of parody at this stage. This continues for some time. The uneasy alliance between Garko and Boyd is established and the conflicting interests of their relationship (military on the one side, mercenary on the other) are laid out. So far so good and all seems to be shaping up for an interesting ride. Then, as if the producers couldn't help themselves in a post Trinity world, a fist fight looms and the next thing you know Boyd has performed a double handed ear slap on a dumb faced adversary accompanied by a twanging spring sound effect. Oh dear. The ensuing extended brawl embodies everything that went wrong with the genre in its latter period and takes the film down an ill-judged path which it cannot survive with its integrity intact. From this moment on we see-saw with little concern for consistancy between a serious narrative and a spoof and the viewer is left wondering what, if anything, were the people responsible thinking?

Let me make myself clear. I am not a great fan of parody westerns but, when handled correctly, they can be entertaining. There is nothing wrong with a comedy western if that is what the film makers set out to make. They may not be everyone's cup of tea but in the right hands are harmless fun. But you can't have your cake and eat it. If you are going for laughs don't include a threat of torture or expect me to engage in a serious story thread. It needs to be one thing or the other or at least play the middle ground without venturing too far in either direction. The makers Those Dirty Dogs appear to have been unable to decide which way to go and the end result, despite its potential, is unsatisfying whichever way you cut it.

I'll give two examples as to what I mean. The film opens with a massacre carried out by Angel Sanchez (Simon Andreu) and his men. Sanchez is clearly a nasty piece of work and is played strictly straight in this regard. But Sanchez is not the big boss. He works for General Lopez and it is this ultimate leader who Stephen Boyd has been sent to tackle. Yet when we meet the Generalisimo he turns out to be a strutting buffoon of a man who is neither menacing nor in any way believable as a genuine threat to anyone. The scenes which include him are cringe worthy and undermine everything the narrative is built around. Not only that but despite their obvious intention they are just not funny either. Why they included him at all is beyond my comprehension. Sanchez would have sufficed perfectly well as the prime villain and, indeed, by the film's climax it is he who becomes the main antagonist to Boyd whereas Lopez is killed off almost in passing and without any real focus. Secondly, despite the nonsense surrounding Lopez and the Trinityesque fist fights we are brought to an abrupt about face in a scene where a woman is interrogated by Boyd to find out the whereabouts of the bandit gang. In a film which has become increasingly parodic in style seeing this woman's dress front violently ripped open by the supposed hero is genuinely alarming and in complete contrast to the pervading atmosphere to this point. Boyd then goes on to threaten the bare breasted woman with a blade, promising torture if she doesn't offer up the information he wants. Where in heck did this come from? It's almost like a scene from a different film. Moreover, it is quickly followed by the woman throwing herself at her attacker, offering herself willingly, whereby Boyd becomes the embarrassed and overcome victim who we are expected to laugh at. It's like the whole film is exhibiting more mood swings than a pre menstrual bipolar teenager. This particular scene is also just plain ill judged. Without it I could probably have watched it with my kids and the silliness would have been absorbed a little easier. With it and family viewing is out of the question. Moreover, it undermines the character of the main protagonists and left me feeling confused and just a little bit dirty. In fact the scene is so badly devised and poorly executed that it sticks out in the mind throughout the rest of the movie; casting a shadow that obscures, for me, what merits the film genuinely has.

And, despite all my complaints, the film does have some merits. Garko is always likable and his character of Korano, if somewhat underdeveloped, is entertaining and has some real potential to be exploited further. To be honest I find it hard not to enjoy anything that Garko appears in to some degree and it has to be said that he carries off his part faultlessly. Fans of the Sartana franchise will also probably enjoy his unconventional use of the umbrella; using it as a hidden gun to mow down his adversaries with bondlike precision. Simon Andreu is fine as the mexican bandit and although Harry Baird doesn't bring much to the table he does what is required of him well enough. Stephen Boyd is also good value for the most part and although this is not his best performance by a long chalk his very presence is a bonus. He even sings and co writes the theme song; a ditty that will stay with you for days afterwards. I still can't get it out of my head no matter how hard I try. In fact the music in general is probably one of the films undeniable strengths. Nico Fidenco delivers an excellent score which really deserves to hang on to a better all round film.

In many ways it is probably the film's strengths and potentials that throw its weaknesses and failings into a greater spotlight for me. This shouldn't be such a poor and disappointing movie. It has a number of good ingredients and, in parts, works well enough to suggest it could have been a pretty decent film. But its ill judged character and plot decisions and, above all, its inconsistancy and inability to decide what kind of film it wants to be leaves me feeling short changed. A pity as I wanted to like this film much more but, in the end, I just couldn't.

Monday, 4 May 2009

I Want Him Dead

Dir: Paolo Bianchini


Clayton, (Craig Hill) a former scout for the Confederacy, seeks revenge after his sister is raped and murdered by local bad guy Jack Blood (Jose Manuel Martin). His search for Blood is complicated by the fact that the villain works for a ruthless capitalist named Mellek (Andrea Bosic) who has plans to prolong the civil war for his own economic ends by assassinating two generals who are meeting to discuss peace terms. Jack Blood is the man Mellek appoints to carry out these assassinations and Clayton's pursuit of him leads him into deeper and more difficult waters as the two plot lines converge.

I Want Him Dead, considered by many to be Craig Hill's best Spaghetti Western, is nothing if not an interesting mix. The direction is sometimes inspired and at other times sloppy. It enjoys a good cast who offer some solid work but are occasionally under utilised. It has two plots for the price of one but somehow doesn't mesh them successfully enough. Yet despite its various failings it manages to stay consistantly interesting and is, ultimately, a Spaghetti well worth seeing.

The opening scene, before the credits, is a perfect example of the film's strengths and weaknesses. Clayton and his sister are riding through the desert. As they sit around their fire in the evening a seemingly riderless horse runs towards them. In a series of jump cuts using reflections, close ups and depth of field so profound it gives an almost fish eye effect Clayton becomes aware of impending danger and then dispatches two assailants with explosive and clinical skill. This opening sequence is carried off with consumate flair and skill but goes completely unexplained in the ensuing narrative. It stands alone as an inexplicable episode that has no obvious connection with anything else in the film but sets a mood which carries the viewer onwards wanting more. Unfortunately, it also sets a standard which is not always lived up to as the film continues and with the bar set this high every drop in quality becomes held in greater focus. This is a pity as the film is, in general, an enjoyable piece. It just lacks consistancy.

On the positive side, it genuinely is one of Craig Hill's better spaghettis. I would personally rank it alongside A Taste of Killing as my personal favourite of his. His pale eyed, steely look (a kind of cross between Franco Nero and Terence Hill) is perfectly suited to this tale of intrigue and revenge. A vehicle which requires him to do what he is best at; stay quiet and look cool. A feat he achieves successfully despite a questionable choice of hat. A straw woven object which he struggles to keep on his head while riding on occasion. In all seriousness, Hill plays his part well and benefits from the accompanying performances of the ever reliable Jose Manuel Martin as the main villain and the impressive Lea Massari, who carries off the part of the downtrodden but resilient captive servant girl with an effective balance of strength and vulnerability. In fact, in many ways Massari's is the stand out performance of the film. Her acting is impressive and she brings a genuine lift to every scene she is in. Jose Manuel Martin is always good value of course but I couldn't help but feel that in a role as central as this one for him he could of been used a bit more and his villainy expressed a shade more often. After his initial, almost casual rape and murder of Hill's sister (commited offscreen) he becomes little more than a worried looking fugitive. He is far better suited to the role of a fox than a rabbit.

Part of the problem here is that I Want Him Dead is actually two stories in one. The first is the straight forward revenge tale of Hill pursuing his sister's attackers. But this is eventually overlapped by the parallel plot of Mellek's greed driven assassination plan. And although this remains effectively a sub plot it gradually becomes more and more central. Martin's character is the link between the two plot lines and, consequently, this should make his role stronger. However, what happens is the two strands never really converge effectively and so the power of his character is diminished and lost a little. This is a pity as Martin is a gift to any film of this type and the opportunity was there to marry the two stories with greater impact. As it is, they come together in the showdown between Martin and Hill at the moment the assassination is supposed to take place but quickly split again; with the other gang members and Mellek having a denouement of their own, quite separate from that of our hero and villain. This lack of cohesion doesn't grate so much as to ruin the film but it certainly is an opportunity missed and, for me, is another example of how the film misses out on being truly outstanding.

That said, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film on the whole. The strengths of the lead players are more than enough to carry the viewer happily through the narrative despite any of its faults and the camera work, framing and composition of Bianchini and director of photography, Ricardo Andreu, are, at times, outstanding. Indeed, the film is visually nothing short of excellent and offers some truly memorable shots which, in tandem with Nico Fidenco's solid score, give it some much needed weight.

I Want Him Dead is, I think, best described as a mixed bag and your response to it is likely to be driven strongly by the preset convictions you bring with you. If you are a Craig Hill fan you are likely to see this as an excellent example of what he was capable of when given the right vehicle. If a Jose Manuel Martin fan you are just as likely to come away with mixed feelings; nice to see him in a larger role, sad to see him ultimately under utilised. If you are easily swayed by strong visual composition and effective framing this film will ring all your bells. If sloppy editing puts you off, those ringing bells will be dulled somewhat. And if, like me, you fall into all those camps, you may well come away from the film feeling an equal sense of satisfaction and disappointment. A film with some genuinely memorable moments, let down on occasion by easily avoided lapses. On balance though, a pretty decent spaghetti. By no means perfect but well worth an hour and a half of anyone's time and one which I have no trouble in recommending.