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.