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.