Saturday, 17 July 2010

Apocalypse Joe


Dir: Leopoldo Savona


1970


Joe Clifford, a trigger happy wannabe Shakespearian actor, inherits a gold mine from his uncle and sets out to take possession. On arriving at the mine he finds it has been taken over by a local bully called Berg who apparently acquired the deeds just before Joe's uncle met a sad and 'accidental' death over the edge of a local cliff. Joe is unconvinced and sets out to find the truth and reclaim what is rightfully his.

Also known as A Man Called Joe Clifford the title of Apocalypse Joe fits the content of this film much better as Clifford, played by Anthony Steffen, the genre's most prolific leading man, is something of a one man apocalypse. The bullets fly and the corpses mount up in a dizzying display and it is clear that the whole flick is designed as a non stop action fest featuring every possible Steffen action cliche along with a whole lot more. As such it finds a lot of fans amongst Steffen buffs but does it warrant its popularity? Well I like Steffen too. You pretty much know what you are going to get when his name is over the titles of a picture and although he was never likely to win any awards as an actor he usually delivers in his own way. But I like a little more than just shooting in my westerns so I'm going to try and evaluate this film on a little wider basis than its body count.

To begin with I have to say that I approach the film in a positive way from the get go as one of my favourite Steffen films, Killer Kid, was also made with director Leopoldo Savona so I know they can produce good work together. I must also say though that Savona's westerns are a mixed bag; some good, some not so great. But on the whole he was a solid director from what I call the second tier of the genre; working on middling budgets with actors such as Steffen, Richard Harrison, Mark Damon and the like, well known names but not really big stars. Killer Kid, for me, was a perfect vehicle for Steffen. A decent story enhanced by lots of great action set pieces and an opportunity for Steffen to act a bit too. It also features a grandstand performance from Fernando Sancho of course but then any film would benefit from that. But it is also a consistent film which starts well and keeps getting better. Apocalypse Joe, unfortunately, despite having some very good elements, doesn't manage to hold that same level of quality throughout.

For example, Steffen's character, Joe Clifford, seems to be two people at once. To begin with he is a frustrated actor, coming across as quite juvenile and frightened of his aunt. Very un-Steffen like. But by the time he arrives at his inherited mine he has transformed into the usual taciturn, steely eyed ruthless hard man we are more familiar with. His frustrated actor persona resurfaces occasionally when he dons a series of disguises to outwit his enemies but, on the whole, we never really believe that that's who he is. Joe Clifford, the young wannabe thespian has all but disappeared with explanation. This may be just as well as accepting Steffen as a Shakespearian actor is stretches belief somewhat and maybe as the film progressed those concerned realised it and reverted to type. Either way, it is a failing and when judging the film as a whole it does let it down. For me, though it does allow for some nice ideas to be explored, it would have been better left out altogether because once we get into the meat of the film, namely the action, it really gets going and is a genuine treat for fans of Steffen at his 'roll and shoot' best.

Because, at heart, this is a pure action fest; designed, it would seem, to display every possible gunfighting set piece they could think up. We don't just get Tony rolling and shooting we get him diving and shooting, hanging and shooting, jumping and shooting, dropping and shooting and every other conceivable, or inconceivable, combination physical exertion plus shooting. And when he can't get to his hapless opponents Tony uses a bit of ingenuity to bring them to him. In a memorable set piece, my favourite from the film, he pushes a bundle of wood from the roof he is perched on down onto a loose floor board below, creating a see saw that fires the bad guy standing on the other end into the air where our man dispatches him with a single shot without breaking a sweat. Marvelous stuff and it reflects what this film is really all about. Lots of opportunity for Steffen to let fly while everyone's tongues are firmly set in cheeks without ever stepping over the line into open parody. This, I believe, is the film's greatest strength and credit is due to those concerned that this line between action and comedy is maintained expertly throughout. It would have been very easy to descend into buffoonery in this film but they resist the temptation without ever taking themselves seriously for a moment.

The film has other strengths too though. First among which is the excellent music score from the great Bruno Nicolai which remains one of the most memorable features of the picture. We also get Eduardo Fajardo as the principle bad guy which is always a bonus altough I have to say he was somewhat underused. For example, during the final shootout, which last some 30 minutes in total (a full third of the entire film) Fajardo is merely placed on a balcony shouting instructions while his army of minions are slaughtered one by one. He is still there by the climax and his eventual demise is surprisingly unimaginative. In fact, it is decidedly anti climactic and really doesn't fit with the bonanza of varied comeuppances which precede it.

And this is symptomatic of the film's failings. There are a number of lost opportunities in the film which, had they been dealt with better, could have raised the film to a more memorable level. A prime example of this is the opening scene. Steffen looks into camera holding a human skull and quotes the famous line from Hamlet, "To be, or not to be" and then proceeds to perform a soliloquy in front of a western street audience climaxing with him gunning down five burly looking men in the front row with a pistol hidden in the skull. Sounds good. But apart from the opening line everything else is played silent and covered by the opening credits while Nicolai's theme plays over the top. Now, as I said before, Nicolai's music is one of the film's best features but used in this way it completely ruins the possible tension of what could have been a great scene. Why not play it out straight and have the credits and music follow straight after? That way you would get two for one highlights before the film is even ten minutes old.

For me, it is missed opportunities like this that stop the film reaching its full potential and mean that, for all its positives, it remains a good Steffen flick but not a great one. Certainly better than many but not matching his very best. If you are a Steffen fan though you are sure to enjoy it. I must say that I did a lot more this time around than on my first viewing some time ago. Perhaps I missed some of its charm last time or perhaps I am just warming more and more to Steffen in general. I'm not sure. But it is certainly worthy of a watch for any Spaghetti fan if only to see Tony in a dress and togged up ludicrously in a viking helmet as Macbeth. Just don't expect too much Shakespeare.

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