Tuesday, 31 March 2009

They Call Him Cemetery

Dir: Giuliano Carnimeo


1971 was a crossroads year in the Italian Western cycle. With the most creative and successful years apparently behind it the recent large scale success of the first Trinity film seemed to offer new hope for the genre. But the Trinity formula was a very different animal to that of its predecessors. It took a genre already well swathed in irony and led it across a dangerous line into open parody. It was a step which attracted a large new audience but also alienated many existing fans for whom extended fist fights and obtuse clowning was everything they didn't want in a western. However, the Trinity Express was far too powerful a train to ignore and more and more films followed its style over the ensuing couple of years. Some embracing its comedic style whole heartedly, others borrowing some of its lighter elements and enmeshing them in a less parodic way. Giuliano Carnimeo's They Call Him Cemetery is a film which, although occasionally flirting a little too much with the comedy elements, maintains a balance between irony and parody as successfully as any. Walking the line skillfully between the two and delivering an enjoyable adventure film which offers an opportunity for a great screen relationship between two of the genres favourite sons; Gianni Garko and William Berger.

The McIntire brothers return home after an eastern upbringing to find their crippled father and his fellow ranchers under the grip of local racketeers who are bleeding them for protection money under threat of violence. The brothers, full of moral fury but ill equipped for a town addicted to the gun, confront the bad guys and make themselves targets for the mysterious gang leader who keeps his face covered and enlists the services of a paid gunman to eliminate the new trouble makers. Unbeknownst to all, another gunman has arrived. A stranger who seems to have the welfare of the brothers at heart and who is an old and respected acquaintance of the racketeer's newly hired man. The two gunmen spar around each other, attempting to serve their own purposes without coming into open conflict or transgressing their 'professional code'. Eventually, their torn loyalties can lead them in only one direction and when the brothers discover the racketeer's true identity and where he has stashed all his ill gotten gains a showdown is inevitable. But who will win out and where will the dollars end up?

Garko had already extended the ironical boundaries of the western with his Bond-like, almost supernatural, characterisation of Sartana; first under the direction of Gianfranco Parolini and then Giuliano Carnimeo. With Cemetery much of the look and feel of that successful series was maintained. The ultra cool hero, an element of mystery to be solved, uncanny and seemingly effortless shooting ability all show Sartana's influence but adjustments were also made to accommodate a generally lighter tone and allow for more comedic elements. The two 'greenhorn' McIntire brothers are the most obvious insertions which deviate from the previous formula. The plot of the film primarily follows their quest to rid their father of his racketeering adversaries. Garko's character, although central to the film, is merely the vehicle to their accomplishing this task; bailing them out of trouble, teaching them to shoot and generally watching over them like a guardian angel. Sartana would never have allowed anyone else to dominate one of his narratives quite so obviously. But there is also large amounts of screen time dedicated to the two Mexican servants of the McIntires and it is often through them that the increased comedy elements are generated

This increased comedic content in the film is its one real weakness. Although given a lighter tone from the very outset (an effective scene which includes a sharpshooting Granny and a baby pacified by sucking on a bullet) when Garko's character arrives the 'whacky' sound effects and silly ear slapping he gives a menacing bad guy threaten to send the film over the edge into irretrievable territory. This is a step too far for a Garko character and for a while I was concerned that there was no way back. But, luckily, from then on the line is maintained far more skillfully. Garko's role is centred far more on his relationship and rivalry with his fellow gunman, Duke, while the comedy is contained more fittingly with the Mexican sidekicks and incompetant but well meaning McIntire boys. This separation allows a far better balance to be maintained and facilitates one of the most satisfying elements of the film. The chemistry and rivalry which develops between Garko and Berger.

Cemetery, according to Carnimeo, is a character at once similar to Sartana yet different because he has a social component. Whereas Sartana was always chasing the loot for his own purposes Cemetery has less selfish motives and, ultimately, is acting on behalf of the down trodden in the story. Duke, on the other hand, represents the more traditional, self serving spaghetti figure and this, along with the characters' mutual respect and competitive spirit creates a good natured tension which both actors exploit splendidly. The world weary pair are always composed yet always scheming and looking to outwit each other while simultaneously avoiding a direct confrontation out of an obvious affection felt for each other. Garko summed it up best in an interview when he said that "you get the impression that these two characters already left a great tradition of Italo-Westerns behind." Which, of course, they had. Both in their characters and as actors. This is a great pairing and, for me, is one of Berger's very best performances. Playing the mercenary Duke with a deceptive air of charismatic boredom through which a surprising level of humanity shines. Make no mistake, this is Garko's starring vehicle but Berger completely steals the show.'

It's also worth noting that Bruno Nicolai's score is of the very highest order too. A catchy, yet haunting theme runs through the whole score and proves to be as effective for rousing as well as poignant scenes. And there are plenty of both of these as Carnimeo guides us through a skillful mix of moods as the story unfolds. The rest of the cast perform ably. There are cameo appearances for genre favourites Franco Ressel, Nello Pazzafini, Rick Boyd and Ivano Staccioli (all of whom are always welcome) while the two McIntire brothers are handled well enough by British unknowns Chris Chittel and John Fordyce. British viewers may well recognise Chittel however, as he has been a long standing regular on popular soap opera Emmerdale for some years, playing the character Eric Pollard.
Altogether, Carnimeo delivers a very solid mix. Working with a good script from Enzo Barboni, the creator of the Trinity films, and utilising the talents of his two leading men admirably he weaves a successful blend based on a predominantly light hearted palette without getting too lost in open comedy or slapstick. He loses his footing at times but recovers well and the end result is an enjoyable if undemanding ride. If you like your spaghettis on the lighter side this is a must see. And even if you are more a fan of the darker sort (which I certainly am) this may well be the film which softens your position a little.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

$10,000 Blood Money

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.