Dir: Romolo Guerrieri
If someone were to ask you to sum up the characteristics of the Spaghetti Western genre, the elements which differentiate it from the classic Western, you would probably include the following factors.
1. An increased level of cynicism and calculated violence.
2. A heightened use of music to illustrate character and drama.
3. A seemingly amoral 'anti hero' protagonist driven by greed or vengeance.
4. An acute sense of 'cool' in its main characters which borders on the fetishistic.
5. Heavily stylised visual composition drawing on the iconic geography and symbols of the west.
6. An undercurrent of religious and sexual tension which lies obvious but undiscussed.
If you were to look for a film which encompasses all of the above to such a degree that you could almost be forgiven for thinking it was designed as the perfect example of the genre you need look no further than Romolo Guerrieri's $10,000 Blood Money. On the surface a simple story of a bounty hunter's quest to pull in a villain worthy of the title's price but in reality a film which offers so much more and during its dramatic journey subverts the image of the western hero more than any film I can recall. It also happens, in my opinion, to be one of the finest italian westerns ever made.
Django (Gianni Garko) is a bounty killer, and a particularly ruthless and mercenary one at that. He is only interested in the money and he always brings his men in dead. Recently released convict Manuel Vasquez (Claudio Camaso) raises his interest as he goes on a crime spree but, in a show of extreme cynicism, Django opts to wait before going after him as he believes he will commit more crimes and therefore be worth more money if given a little more time. At the story's outset Vasquez is worth only $3,000. Django sets his target at $10,000. Then, and only then, will he make his move. This price is eventually reached after Vasquez kidnaps the daughter of local rancher Mendoza and the old patron offers to double the $5000 reward being offered by the state. This comes at the same time that Django is on the verge of quitting the profession and leaving with the lovely saloon owner Mijanou (Loredana Nusciak). He succumbs to his greed and, despite her telling him she will be gone in six days, he leaves her in search of Vasquez. After a number of twists during which Django teams up with Vasquez in pursuit of even more money, the bounty killer and prey have their final and inevitable showdown in a desolate and windswept ghost town.
£10,000 Blood Money is crammed full of issues one could discuss but seeing as though this is a review and not a doctoral thesis I will limit myself to the two most obvious and subversive in the context of the western genre; of both the classical and Spaghetti persuasion.
To begin with, in a field of popular cinema well known for its violence and killings this film is possibly the most murderous. That is not to say it has an inordinately high body count. There are countless films which boast more general carnage. What I mean is that in the case of all the deaths shown in this film every one of them is cold blooded. It is a convention of the genre that the hero at least, even if he kills with seeming unfeeling willingness, will confront his adversaries in some form of open conflict. Usually he will wait for his opponent to go for his gun first or will react to being fired on or threatened in some way. In £10,000 Blood Money its main protagonist does neither. He fires from dark alleyways or behind door frames. He kills when they are unready and often unarmed. What's more, he will pump a few extra bullets in their defenseless carcasses just to make sure. This kind of callous if logical approach to killing is usually the strict domain of the villain in these films. The hero, however amoral he may seem, will usually conform to the accepted code and allow his opponents the opportunity to be overwhelmed by his superior speed and skill with a pistol. In this film Django offers nothing of the kind and, as such, Mijanou's accusation that his "profession is paid murder" is only too accurate. Faced with such a 'hero' the villain is obviously not to be outdone. Vasquez kills with equal impunity but perhaps the only real differentiation between the two is the relish he appears to take in it. In fact, when the story calls for a crime of real resonance to motivate the drama it is not a killing at all but the abduction of a woman with all its implied connotations which takes the fore. When Vasquez wants to really hurt the man he blames for sending him to prison he takes his daughter, sneering at the father "Don't want me for a son in law? Don't worry, I won't marry her."
It is of course not surprising that no weddings are planned. Not least because there is an elephant in the room throughout the entire film; dominating almost every scene yet never being spoken of. That elephant is the obvious sexual tension at work between the two male protagonists. A tension which would probably only be relieved by a fishing trip or two up Brokeback Mountain. In a genre filled with simmering masculinity it is not difficult to find homo erotic references if one should choose to. But it is less common to see such obvious, albeit unspoken inferences threaded throughout a western the way this one does. In one of the very first scenes of the film Django and Vasquez pass each other in the desert riding in opposite directions. They eye each other silently as their paths cross. Evaluating each other as adversaries? Possibly. Indulging in a subverted male gaze? Just as likely, as ensuing scenes suggest more and more overtly. At one point the two men choose hand to hand combat over gunplay and after exhausting themselves physically slump happily onto the hay covered floor like two spent lovers. And just in case all this is not enough there is a particularly memorable scene where Vasquez grabs Loredana Nusciak by the face and plants a big lusty kiss on her lips only to slowly lift his eyes while doing it and gaze heavy lidded at Django. Whew! And in leather trousers too.
What is important here is not the gay references per se but the fact that the characters' actions, in particular Django's, are driven by this latent and seething sexual tension to the point where at one point it seems as though the bounty killer will give up his prize. It is only when Vasquez betrays his trust and murders the departing Mijanou that Django regains his resolve, pursuing the bandit finally out of vengeance rather than greed. It is also worthy of note that despite all these gays suggestions no one is played in any way camp. Nor is their implied sexuality offered as an obvious manifestation of wickedness as in Django Kill! or Requiescant or a myriad of other films where the villain's homosexuality is shown as an example of his twisted character. Here it is just a theme to be explored and left for the viewer to react to in whichever way they choose.
This film plays with so many of the conventions of the western genre that I came away from it feeling like I'd been slapped around. The subversion of every moral code usually to be found even in the most gritty of spaghettis, the undermining of even the most ambiguous of anti heroes, the sheer callousness of all the central male characters' actions. And all done with such style and skill and in such a thoughtful fashion. I couldn't help but suspect that $10,000 Blood Money might just be one of the most important films of the genre. A second viewing only strengthened my conviction. All of the above elements would be enough on their own to make it a worthy film for anyone's attention. But in addition we are offered a 'Patty Hearst' twist, an inversion of male /female roles (when was the last time you heard a male lead in a western ask his departing girlfriend to "take me with you"?) and a hero who's lust for money is shown as an unhealthy addiction which he can't kick. Anything else? Oh yes, there's the excellent score from Nora Orlandi which uses the Theremin (or something which sounds damn like it) and bell chimes to skillfully illustrate character and set a mood of eery melancholy throughout, a great script from Ernesto Gastaldi and masterful direction by Guerrieri who pieces the whole thing together with subtlety and style. Add to that some beautiful cinematography by Federico Zanni wonderfully lit and composed and you have a total package that I would recommend to anyone and everyone. It also features the marvelous Fernando Sancho and so much eye make up lathered onto Garko and Camaso you could be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was sponsored by Max Factor.
I had known of this film for many years and heard good things about it but for one reason or another had never got around to seeing it until just recently. It was well worth the wait. Not just because of how much I enjoyed the film itself but also because it proved that despite 30 odd years of being a fan and some two hundred spaghettis viewed, there are still jewels out there for me to discover. Long may it continue.