Sunday 30 December 2007

El Puro

Dir: Edoardo Mulargia


Every now and again I discover a film I haven't seen before and know nothing about. This is always a pleasure, no matter how good or bad the film turns out to be. But if the film turns out to be a winner this pleasure is all the greater. I can happily report that El Puro was just such a pleasure; and a surprising one at that.

Edoardo Mulargia's reputation as a director is not exactly sparkling and I have never been a big Robert Woods fan (the star of this piece) so I wasn't expecting a great deal when I sat down to view this one but some friends had recommended it so I wanted to give it a try. What I found was a genuinely interesting film; leisurely paced, disturbing in some spots and full of surprising twists on the genre conventions without straying too far from what we want from a western. The editing was a bit jumpy in places, but on the whole, this is a well made and compelling film.

To begin with, Woods' eponymous character, despite being the central anti hero of the piece is portrayed as something of a pathetic figure. Chronically alcoholic and fearing death at every turn, he is lying low in a sleepy border town, just trying to avoid the inevitable gunmen who seek to make a reputation from killing the once feared gunfighter. He accepts humiliation and beatings and drinks himself into a stupour rather than bring attention to himself and it is only the saloon girl, Rosie, who shows him any kindness. Having recognised him as El Puro, she takes him into her room, cares for him and plans for a future together once she has saved enough money to set them up.

Meanwhile, escaped convict and vicious gang leader Gypsy arrives in the area with his band of killers, child molestors and 'degenerates', looking for El Puro. Unaware that the former gunman is now a pathetic, drunken recluse Gypsy is haunted by his former reputation and is gripped by an all consuming desire to kill his adversary, collect the $10,000 bounty still on his head and take the territory for his own. Gypsy is a psychopathic figure slightly reminiscent of Indio from For a Few Dollars More and his gang are a genuinely nasty bunch, as is shown very early on when Tim (Mario Brega) rapes a young girl and strangles her grandfather during a short drinks stop on their way to find El Puro. No room for ambiguity there. The ensuing drama follows Gypsy's pursuit of his prey, Rosie's sacrifice to protect her man and El Puro's redemption as he faces the gang to avenge Rosie's death.

A straightforward story on the surface but don't be fooled. El Puro offers some genuine surprises in content and holds the interest of the viewer throughout despite its obviously meagre budget.

The cast here all serve up excellent performances. As I mentioned earlier, I am not a big fan of Robert Woods as a rule. Much of his work falls into the category of 'lesser' films and I have never really warmed to his style but he outdoes himself here and turns in a genuinely convincing portrayal of the worn out anti hero; racked with fear, hiding behind a haze of booze in order to survive his pathetic existance. This is his best work, in my opinion, and raises him in my estimation in one swoop.

Marco Fiorini (billed here bizarrely as Ashburn Hamilton Jr) in his only Spaghetti Western I am aware of, is also convincing as the psycho baddie Gypsy. Exhibiting just the right mix of coldness and mania to keep the character compelling. Too bad he didn't make more. He shows real promise in the genre here.

Rosalba Neri is, as always, excellent as the tragic Rosie. Her statuesque beauty commands every scene she is in and she is as effective here playing the part of the 'warm hearted whore' as she is in her more familiar 'vamp' roles. Her savage and bloody death scene in this film has to be one of the most disturbing I can remember. Not as gory as some, but truly graphic in its brutality it is this scene which highlights the twisted pychosis of Gypsy and his men above all others.

This truly is a film about tortured souls and despite its violence and gunplay is based heavily around the pyschological struggles of its protagonists as much as around their actions. El Puro's emotional outpourings to Rosie early in the film set his stall out very clearly and remain as an undercurrent to everything we see from him as the story unfolds. Equally, it is not just Gypsy's brutal acts or the acts of his cohorts that mark him as gripped by evil but rather the way he responds to these actions. Glorying in their depravity; elated by it. One thing is for sure; there are no laughs in this one.

There is a nice musical score though, served up by the wonderful Alessandro Alessandroni. You suspect he was given the brief of supplying something 'Morriconiesque' in a Dollars Trilogy vein and he duly delivered with a theme tune that is a clear mix of Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It works though and is catchy enough to have me whistling it to myself days after watching the film.

Unfortunately, getting hold of a copy of El Puro is not an easy thing. The only current DVD release I am aware of is a french edition with no english options in either dub or subtitles. I relied on the generosity of a friend to supply me with a burned copy from an old VHS release. The picture and sound quality of which were ok without being very good. (not fullscreen but still a bit cropped on each side) But I would urge anyone to try and seek it out if you can. It most definitely falls into the category of 'hidden gem' and will reward those who can track it down.

Sunday 23 December 2007

No Room to Die

Dir: Sergio Garrone


Illegal migrants crammed into wagons, exploited on arrival in their new home and abandoned to die when the risks of smuggling them become too high are all too common realities in current news stories so it is a little strange and unsettling to see these same images and themes at the heart of a genre film from almost 40 years ago. But that is the case with No Room to Die and it gives the film real resonance for a contemporary audience. Resonance it needs because in some other ways the film fails to live up to its sum parts.

Starring Anthony Steffen, William Berger and Nicoletta Machiavelli and featuring the director's brother Riccardo as the key villain and Mario Brega as the hero's sidekick this picture has a number of ingredients which should allow it to succeed without too much effort. The director too is very capable and all in all the setting is right for a first class bit of Spaghetti fun. But although it works in parts and is certainly not a bad effort, this is ultimately a film which doesn't quite punch its weight.

It certainly doesn't lack action. On the contrary, there is an almost constant stream of gunplay throughout and the body count at the end verges on the outlandish. William Berger's six barreled shotgun goes someway to ensure this, while the ruthlessness of the people smuggling gang and the efficiency of Steffen's bounty killer character add more fuel to the bloodletting fire. It also doesn't lack creativity on the visual front. Sergio Garrone was a director who relished the chance to play with framing and camera angles and his work on this film is always interesting. The music score does, however, leave something to be desired and I think its failings in No Room to Die highlight an interesting point about the implicit pleasures of this genre in general.

The Spaghetti Western is a very particular sub genre. It shares many conventions with its traditional American cousin; geographical and historic setting, themes, a mythological nature, big hats, horses, six guns etc etc. But it also has more specific conventions within this wider range which help us identify it as of european rather than American origin and these conventions play an equally important role in satisfying our expectations when we sit down to enjoy any particular film. Large among these specific conventions is a rousing and stylised music score.

The iconic scores of Ennio Morricone are the most obvious examples of 'typical' Spaghetti Western themes but, in truth, there are a number of other composers who contributed excellent scores to a large number of films and whose combined work helped create the sound of the Spaghetti western as we think of it. Composers like Bacalov, Nicolai, Giombini, De Masi and a host of others all played a huge part in making the films they worked on a success while collectively creating a body of work distinctively connected to this genre. In fact it is fair to say that you will not find a single quality film from the Spaghetti Western genre that does not have an outstanding score as part of its appeal. Take a look at any fan's top 20 Spaghettis and I guarantee you will find 20 great scores playing their part in the choice.

This is not so surprising when you consider the parallels between the Spaghetti Western genre and its italian cousin, opera. The operatic tradition in italy is very strong and its conventions influenced heavily the nation's cinema. Motifs for individual characters are used commonly in the same way they are in opera and you don't need to be a major afficionado of the genre to recognise that large parts of the drama is framed within a musical backdrop rather than within an extended dialogue. Music is like a central character in these films and when the music is under par, the wider film suffers badly.

This, I believe, is the main problem with No Room to Die. Vasco and Mancuso's score just doesn't make the grade. It swings between kitsch melodramatic chords announcing moments of menace in almost comic book fashion and instantly forgetable background musings which add nothing to the drama at all. This, when combined with Garrone's genuinely inventive visual style is a real disappointment and detracts from the film's effectiveness to a large degree. A great pity, because the film does have some real positives on offer which, if given better embellishment, could have resulted in a pretty good film all round.

Foremost among the positives is William Berger's performance as the preacher / bounty killer whose enigmatic character is at the centre of the drama throughout. Steffen gets top billing but this is definitely Berger's show. His cold haughtiness is perfect here and well contrasted in moments of ruthless cruelty and violence. This is Berger at his best and the audience is never totally sure as to his motives or loyalties until the very end.

Nicoletta Machiavelli is also excellent here, playing the strong and moral female lead, ultimately at the mercy of the violent men she is surrounded by but never consumed by fear of them or broken by their barbarity. Machiavelli often appeared in this fashion in Spaghetti Westerns (her role in Navajo Joe springs to mind) and as such she is something of a rarity in a genre where women are often portrayed as victims or vamps. Her mix of beauty and strength are used in No Room to Die as a lynchpin of morality around which the male protagonists circle in their struggle to overcome each other and, as such, she is a key figure in the piece.

Ultimately then, No Room to Die is a film with some excellent features which is let down by a couple of major failings. It is decent fun on the whole, and I'd recommend it to committed fans, but it could have been so much better and is more memorable for what is missing than for what is on show.

Saturday 15 December 2007

Once Upon a Time in the West

Dir: Sergio Leone


How do you begin to review a film of this magnitude? In a way, to discuss it in the same terms as other Spaghetti Westerns (love them though I do) is almost a nonsensical endeavour. Certainly it was directed and written by Italians, shot in Almeria and Rome and contains many of the conventions we expect from a eurowestern. But to compare it to the average western produced in europe in the 60's and 70's is like equating a weasel with a race horse. They both have 4 legs and a tail but they are very different animals.

Let me make it clear that I do not mean to denigrate the average Spaghetti Western. It is merely that Once Upon a Time in the West is an opus of such magnitude, on such a scale that it defies comparison to almost anything, let alone a low budget action picture. No, this film is something else entirely.

By 1968, when the film was made, Sergio Leone's reputation was firmly established. The financial and popular success of his three 'Dollar' films had made him the toast of the italian film industry and gained him admirers all around the world. As a result, the time was ripe for him to extend his wings and gain the substantial backing he required to realise his dream and make the western he had always wanted to. Not just another action fest, but a filmic fairy story. An homage to all the westerns and western film makers he had loved for so long. At the same time, he could step away from the genre, having said everything he wanted say in it.

This extra funding allowed him to cast actors he had always wanted but could never afford before. Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson were all luxury items. It also allowed him to shoot some footage in the U.S. Something unthinkable a couple of years earlier. But mostly it allowed him the freedom to work on a canvas far larger than anything attempted in a european western before or since. And it is here that the real contrast between this film and other Spaghettis becomes apparent. At close to 3 hours in length, and with a storyline which includes greed, revenge and the end of the frontier, this is an epic in every sense.

At it's core Once Upon a Time in the West is a film about change; of changing times and its protagonists ability, or inability, to change with them. Harmonica (Bronson), Frank (Fonda) and Cheyenne (Robards) are all men of the old order of the west. Their time has passed and although Frank attempts to create a new place for himself in the business world of the crippled Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) it is clear that there is no place for any of them in the new civilised society that is rising in the wake of the railroad. Their characters can only help the transition of the west. They cannot survive in it. Jill (Cardinale), however, finds the opportunity for a fresh start as she reinvents herself in the changing new world and is offered as an example of a clean face born of dirty roots.

For me though this film will always be memorable for its individual scenes which stand as iconic examples of how to shoot a great western. The opening scene in particular, which runs for something like 11 minutes with no more than a handful of lines of dialogue, is akin to a filmic short story. From the moment that Woody Strode enters the station ticket office with Jack Elam and Al Mulock we are in for a cinematic treat of peerless visual framing and masterfully used sound effects. For a film maker acclaimed for his marriage of music and pictures Leone doesn't use a single note of music in this opening scene. Yet the sound effects of dripping water, squeaking windmill and buzzing fly create an atmosphere and build tension in a way that even the genius Morricone would struggle to match. If you never actually watch this film throughout, do yourself a favour and watch this opening 11 minutes anyway. It is a mini masterpiece.

But it is by no means the only memorable scene in the film. The murder of the McBains family, the entry of Cheyenne in the isolated bar room and the final shootout between Frank and Harmonica are all great scenes and act as high points in a magnificent production.

So is this the perfect western? Well, no, not really. It is a wonderful film and has many magnificent qualities but it also has one unavoidable flaw. In allowing himself the freedom to paint on a bigger canvas without the budgetary constraints he had always faced in the past Leone was always going to be faced with the dilemma of balancing that freedom with the correct level of self discipline. In films, as in all artforms, more is not neccesary best. There is a value in tightness and succinctness. A value often forced on an artist working in a commercial genre environment but one which is often helped by the very nature of that clear framework. Leone, sadly, could have benefitted from such a restraint. Brilliant though it is, Once Upon a Time in the West, as a western, could move along at a brisker pace and would probably have benefitted from being at least twenty minutes shorter.

Now this criticism is difficult for me to give. This is, without doubt, one of my favourite films of all time. I have watched it repeatedly over the years and always with absolute delight. But it is still not my favourite Spaghetti Western and the reason is its length, pace and more sentimental tone. As an example of the genre I believe both The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More are better westerns. They are tighter and more stirring and ultimately more satisfying. But, as I suggested at the very beginning of this review, I feel it is almost unfair to compare Once Upon a Time in the West with other genre films. It is in so many ways a different article. More of an epic than an action adventure. More of a work of art than a commercial piece of cinema. On those terms it is peerless and a masterpiece not be missed. A film that doesn't so much set the benchmark for a genre as for film making in general.

Saturday 8 December 2007

Johnny Yuma

Dir: Romolo Guerrieri


Johnny Yuma has all the ingredients of a Spaghetti Western which could go either way. What I mean is, it has some solid components and some which are not so dependable and, without seeing it you could be forgiven for expecting something of a dud. Happily, it's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses and Johnny Yuma winds up being a thoroughly enjoyable genre piece that serves up some truly memorable offerings.

Money hungry Samantha Felton connives with her brother Pedro to murder her husband in order to get her hands on his ranching empire only to discover that he has left everything to his nephew, Johnny. She decides to hire her ex lover, and ruthless bounty killer, Carradine to get rid of the unwanted heir. Meanwhile, Johnny arrives in town, discovers the plan against him, forms a mutual respect for Carradine and sets out to find the hidden will which would scupper Mrs Felton's evil plans.

Mark Damon plays the eponemous lead and despite his unsettling resemblance to Englebert Humperdinck he carries the role pretty well. Damon is probably no one's favourite spaghetti star. Not that he is particularly bad in anything; he just doesn't impress greatly in anything. But he does enough here and offers a reasonable contrast to the other male leads around him.

Foremost amongst these is Lawrence Dobkin, an american actor better known for his work on radio prior to this film and who went on to be a regular face on various TV shows in the states. Dobkin, again, is not an obvious choice for the chess playing killer Carradine, yet he fills the role with genuine dignity and adds a level of integrity to the piece. Cold and ruthless in his job while simultaneously carrying a tortured broken heart from his previous experience with the cruel but beautiful Samantha, Carradine is a multi layered character and Dobkin plays him with just the right amount of distance. The fact that he reminded me of a Gerry Anderson puppet in appearance at times was only slightly off putting and in a way strangely comforting.

But the real star of this film is undoubtedly Rosalba Neri. In this, her first western outing, Miss Neri exhibits all the sultry deviousness she would make a career of in ensuing films and steals the spotlight from everyone else in the picture. Her character, Samantha Felton, exudes equal measures of evil and voluptuous sexuality to the point where no male in her vicinity is immune from her powers of seduction. She proves to be Carradine's achiles heal but Johnny is also tempted and there is implicit evidence that she holds some incestuous grip on her brother Pedro also. An early scene where he traces his fingers across her exposed cleavage tells us all we need to know here. For heaven's sake, even her pet parrot gets overheated watching her undress for her bath!

Neri is the centre point of this film; driving the plot at every turn with her scheming and affecting most of the lead characters' motivations throughout. She also adds a gothic flavour to the piece. Austere beauty surrounded by candelabra and flintlock pistols, there is an element of Edgar Allan Poe to her scenes despite the western setting of the story.

But this is a western and there is enough action and gunplay to keep any fan of the genre happy. In fact sometimes there is almost too much. The body count in this film is almost outrageous. The final shootout with Pedro for example includes the death of no less than 24 henchmen! Luckily, it is played out so well that it manages to maintain our interest and deliver all the elements a showdown should.

Director Guerrieri must take credit for this. Although on occasion he flirts with semi comedic elements which threaten to lose touch with the films dark core he manages to keep Johnny Yuma firmly on track while offering an impressive mix of visual framing and dramatic tension. the latter of which is crucial for the film to work as a whole. The developing relationship between Yuma and Carradine is particularly well handled; each man acting as foil and counterpoint to each other.

The film also benefits from an excellent score by Nora Orlandi; one of the few female composers who worked in the genre. In fact, the theme song, although a trifle on the cheesy side to say the least, is one of the most memorable ever. A song which, once heard, will stay in your head for days after. But the theme song, though dominant, is only one element of the score. Skillfully using the operatic technique of themes for each character, the overall musical influence on the film is significant and one of the films real triumphs.

It would be wrong to pretend that Johnny Yuma is an important spaghetti western. Its significance does not rank alongside the films of Leone or Sollima or Corbucci. It wasn't an influential film. Nor is it ever likely to be. Indeed it is unlikely to be found in any fan's top twenty list (apart from maybe mine). But it is an excellent example of how a good genre film can be made from unexceptional ingredients. True, Rosalba Neri went on to prove herself a genre stalwart and the other personel were all solid professionals. But these ingredients could just as easily have gone to waste and Johnny Yuma would have become just another, slightly rubbish picture. Thankfully that is not the case. It turned out to be some of the best work any of them were ever involved in and, as a result, is a film I highly recommend.

Saturday 24 November 2007

Sometimes Life is Tough, Eh Providence?

Dir: Giulio Petroni


Comedy westerns are two words I usually link with two other words. Wide and berth. I like comedies and I like westerns but for some reason it is rare for the two to marry well together into a worthwhile end product. There are exceptions of course. Blazing Saddles obviously bucked the trend. While, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Maverick and Shanghai Noon were all passable. But, on the whole, it is fair to say that comedy westerns do not feature largely in my 'all time favourite film' lists. What is more is that if it's fair to say I don't like comedy westerns very much, then it is equally fair to say that I dislike Italian comedy westerns most of all. Again there are exceptions. I do like the Trinity films. Both of the real ones anyway. But after that I've always found the brutish slapstick of italian comedy westerns to be the lowest form in the genre. So that is regular Spaghetti Western, good. Comedy Spaghetti Western, very,very bad.

Therefore, it is understandable that I approached Sometimes Life is Tough, Eh Providence? with some trepidation. It appeared to tick all the boxes that would repel me; including the great Tomas Milian dressed up like some bizarre Charlie Chaplin figure complete with moustache, oversized bowler hat and umbrella. Amazingly, I was pleasantly surprised.
How could this be? Are my tastes changing? Or am I just going soft?
The truth is neither. My tastes haven't changed a bit and I've always been soft, so no reason to expect any different reaction to normal. No, the fact is Sometimes Life is Tough, Eh Providenzia? is just a pretty decent comic film which highlights the versatility of the very talented people responsible for making it. The fact that it is also an italian western turns out to be just a bonus.
First among these versatile and talented people is, of course, Tomas Milian who had shown glimpses of comic ability in films such as Companeros and Run Man Run but who is still surprisingly good in this completely comic role. The Chaplinesque appearance could really have worked against him; setting our expectations of his physical clowning too high for him to live up to. But his dexterity, timing and posture are remarkably effective and rather than appearing as a poor copy of Chaplin he manages to present the character of Providence with true Chaplin qualities. The scene at the billiard table in particular stands out as an excellent example of his ability to merge physical manoeuvring with a true sense of the absurd. His leaning back while using his foot to bridge the cue was perfect.
Second is the direction of Giulio Petroni. Again, Petroni had shown himself to be a director from the higher echelons of the Spaghetti Western ranks; having been responsible for such winning titles as Death Rides a Horse and Tepepa. But his ability to handle comedy was still unproved and his skill in this department is another pleasant surprise. You get the genuine feeling that he allowed Milian the space and freedom to experiment with the character of Providence. To flex his comic muscles if you like. He also worked with a pretty funny script which, although decidedly silly, never descends into buffoonery.
There is also the bonus of a Morricone score; catchy rather than stirring or truly memorable in this case, but still effective for all that. And finally, it is clear that the budget was reasonable; allowing for decent sets as well as set pieces.
But I think the real key to enjoying this film is to approach it in the right way. When we talk of Spaghetti Westerns in general we are talking about gritty, adult action films. Westerns with a european sensibility and harder edge than their american counterparts. But with a film like this, where comedy is the only feature to speak of, it is important to take it for what it is and go along for the ride. If you are expecting the Tomas Milian of Django Kill or the Giulio Petroni of Death Rides a Horse you will be disappointed. This is a family film, complete with clowning and silliness, not a hard nosed revenge flick with showdowns and slaughter. In fact it is noticeable that there is very little shooting at all in this film and certainly no deaths as a result of it. Gregg Palmer's hulking 'Hurricane Kid' character sticks strictly to Bud Spencer type brawling while Milian relies on his guile or the afore mentioned umbrella to dispatch his adversaries. Even the bad guys don't shoot much, and rarely hit anything when they do.
So I sat and watched this one with my kids and they laughed out loud the whole way through. And that was a real pleasure for me. As not only do I enjoy seeing them enjoy themselves, but I also get a self centred satisfaction from seeing them enjoy a western. I grew up watching westerns on TV all the time and it was that which made me such a lifelong fan of the genre. So whenever I can get them sucked in to liking them too I figure I have scored a small, pathetic, somewhat self obsessed victory in the war to make them just a bit more like me.
And for that, if nothing else, Providence gets my undiluted seal of approval.

Sunday 18 November 2007


Dir: Tinto Brass


There are a number of Spaghetti Westerns made by and featuring artists with little or no experience of the genre where their lack of understanding for its conventions result in a disappointing mishmash. Rapidly increasing popularity of eurowesterns led to bandwagon jumping from all sides and many directors and actors chanced their arm in the genre only to fail and withdraw. Thankfully, that is not the case with Yankee. Although this is Brass' sole venture into the Spaghetti Western field he produced a film who's look and feel is right at home in the genre.
Yankee, (played by Philippe Leroy in his first western) is a bounty killer who decides to take on a bandit chief and his henchmen when he realises the prices on all their heads adds up to a tidy sum. The bandit, El Grande Concho, is lord of the entire region and resides like a king at court in an abandoned church surrounded by his entourage of philosopher, painter, fortune teller and soldiers; robbing and murdering anyone who ventures into his territory. Add to this a shipment of gold big enough to make them all rich beyond their dreams and the stage is set for gunplay, intrigue and cruelty as the lone gunman sets his wits and skills against the might of the megalomaniac leader.
Leroy does a sound job as the eponomous anti hero but the scene stealer here is Adolfo Celi, better known for his portrayal of Spectre agent Emile Largo in the 1965 Bond film Thunderball . His combination of physical presence and exuberant cruelty make El Grande Concho a truly memorable screen villain. In fact, in many ways Concho is very much like a Bond villain. Arrogant and confident in his own power, he plays with Yankee after capturing him at one point in the film and chooses to keep him tied to a star wheel rather than merely kill him which would have been more sensible. Parallels with Austin Powers and Dr Evil spring to mind at these points but it doesn't matter. The tone is right for the film and the pantomime villain nature of the character satisfies all our genre requirements.
What is equally satisfying is Tinto Brass' excellent visual style. Interesting and original framing combined with rapid fire editing results in a truly memorable end product where tension is built skillfully and the viewer is never bored. Ultra close ups 'a la Leone' are given an original twist by showing only half a face; concentrating on only one eye rather than two. Points of view are switched to above and below while tense scenes shot on location are often entwined with flashes of obviously staged, interior shots of faces, coins, guns etc. As a result there is a self reflexive feel to the final product; making the viewer aware of the constructed nature of the film without disengaging from the world of its narrative. Considering Brass' reputation is based usually around his highly erotic films such as Caligula and Salon Kitty, I was pleasantly surprised by his consumate skill behind the camera and his ability to find interesting variations on how to shoot in this genre without losing touch with its essentials.
The soundtrack from Nino Rosso is based around a single theme tune but its catchy nature and the variating ways in which it is used makes it effective without being outstanding. It's a tune which sticks with you though, so don't be surprised if you are still whistling it a few days after watching the film. I was.
Yankee is one of those Spaghettis that are not widely known of outside the hardcore enthusiast circles but it is a film well worth tracking down. Thankfully, this is not so hard now as it has had a recent DVD release in Germany by Koch Media which includes an italian language version with english subtitles. (The english subs are not mentioned on the cover but they are there none the less) This is a first class DVD release with excellent picture quality and crystal clear sound and makes Yankee a pleasure to watch. Moreover, because of the beauty of the internet it is easily acquired online wherever you may live.
I am a firm believer that a clear widescreen picture makes even the most mediocre film more enjoyable, so when you have a good quality film (which Yankee is) to start with you really can't go wrong.
Highly recommended for fans of the genre.

Saturday 3 November 2007

The Mercenary

The Mercenary

Dir: Sergio Corbucci


As I have said before in previous reviews, Sergio Corbucci, while being one of the very best directors in the Spaghetti Western genre, suffers from an unfortunate lack of consistency in his work. At his best he has been responsible for some true classics, at his worst for some decent but run of the mill films. The Mercenary, although not in my opinion his greatest film, is one of his better efforts.

The Mercenary is a Mexican Revolution western and, as such, follows the usual storyline of money chasing outsider teaming up with local bandit/revolutionary against wicked Federales. Franco Nero is excellent as usual as the Mercenary himself, this time a Polish national with a penchant for striking matches against an hilarious array of surfaces; from a hanging man's boots to a prostitute's cleavage. Nero's portrayal is economic but perfect for the money grabbing cynic, balancing the lighter, comedic side of the character with equal doses of detached ruthlessness. The mexican lead is performed here by Tony Musante, in sadly his only Spaghetti Western outing, while the two main villains are played by genre stalwart Eduardo Fajardo and the ever nasty Jack Palance. Finishing off the leading cast is Giovanna Ralli as the female revolutionary, idealogical conscience and love interest, Columba.

Corbucci's other mexican revolution western was Companeros made 2 years later and the two films, although very similar in many ways, make an interesting comparison. As the earlier film, The Mercenary has a slightly more serious tone and, without wishing to give the ending away, offers a more upbeat, optimistic conclusion; suggesting a positive future for the revolution and its activists. This reflects the optimimism of its time. Released in 1968, with student uprisings and revolutionary fervour in the air throughout europe, Corbucci could be forgiven for expecting positive change and offering that scenario in his movie. By 1970, when Companeros was released, that optimism had proved unfounded and the conclusion of that film is far more resigned and fatalistic; ending with a suicidal, if heroic, act of self sacrifice.

But, despite the revolutionary setting and storyline, the political context is a small feature of this film on the whole. Primarily this is a guns blazing action movie and it is here that Corbucci is at his best. No one did action better that Corbucci and in The Mercenary he had ample room to flex his muscles and let rip. From full pitched battle scenes to pigsty brawls and bullring showdowns he handles them all here with an expertise that influenced the action genre for decades to come. You only need to see Franco Nero wielding a machine gun, cartridge straps slung around his neck, body count mounting all around him to see exactly where Rambo was born. Explosions, canon fire, horses crashing all over place and a car full of dynamite, Corbucci had fun with this one but with his 'blood on the flower' showdown scene between Musante and Palance, he also reminded us that he was a master at creating striking symbolic moments among the mayhem.

For a director who became notorious for the violence in his films Corbucci also shows notable restraint in this film when it came to moments of cold, personal brutality; deliberately averting the camera from the horror and therefore heightening it in an impersonal and more chilling fashion. This is shown to particular effect in the scenes where Jack Palance's character, Curly, directs his henchmen to dish out some nastiness or other to a helpless victim only for the camera to follow Curly away from the scene, riding casually in a circle around the gruesome action, only returning to view the resulting bloodshed after the deed is complete. In this way we witness but do not see a sickening beating with a rock from the riverbed, and a pitchfork impaling while a similar technique is used to suggest the imminent castration of a traitor to the revolution ; this time ordered by the hero of the piece, Tony Musante.

Corbucci is also well known as one of the few directors of Spaghetti Westerns who actively encouraged and developed central roles for women in his films. The Mercenary is no exception. Giovanna Ralli's Columba is a major catalyst for action in this movie without ever descending to the role of vamp or hooker. She is the voice of revolutionary idealism and conscience and even masterminds the final rescue strategy for Nero and Musante. As a father of daughters, I am personally grateful to Corbucci for such positive female roles. Not only does it show a certain maturity it also means my girls may be able to watch these films without feeling totally alienated. Let's face it, Spaghetti Westerns are not exactly a hotbed of positive feminism. We have to acknowledge the pluses when we see them.

Finally, it is impossible to discuss the merits of this film without mentioning the outstanding musical score delivered by Ennio Morricone. Regular readers of my reviews may well be getting sick of my constant gushing about the contributions the maestro made to so many films and it would be reasonable to suspect that his work couldn't really be always that great. But the truth is it was. And his work on this film is a perfect example of how his ability to compose a number of themes for a single project, each reflecting a different character or mood, could lift even the most ordinary scene to an emotionally uplifting or dramatic one. In a creative discipline that boasts some of the most magificently gifted composers of the 20th century, by which I mean music for film, Morricone stands alone. Why there aren't statues of him in every town square is beyond me.

The Mercenary, despite all its many qualities, is not my favourite Corbucci western. That place is taken by The Great Silence, a film I shall be reviewing shortly. But it is the favourite of many spaghetti fans and is certainly one of Corbucci's better efforts. It could be used as a masterclass on how to make an action picture and, above all, is a lot of fun from start to finish.

Sunday 21 October 2007

Django Kill!...If you Live, Shoot

Djang Kill!...If You Live, Shoot


Dir: Giulio Questi

Before I start, I would just like to make it clear that the following synopsis is not the result of a drug fueled lost weekend on my part. Unbelievable as it may seem, this really is what the film contains.

Clawing his way out from a mass grave, Tomas Milian is rescued and healed by two Indian medicine men who, having discovered his bag of gold dust, make golden bullets for him which are apparently the right things to use when killing one's enemies in revenge. They do this on the proviso that Milian will tell them what lies beyond death and advise them what they can expect to find in the happy hunting grounds.

Milian's character had been betrayed by his gringo gang members after a big robbery of army gold and shot and left for dead along with his mexican colleagues in the mass grave previously mentioned. Armed now with his golden bullets he travels to the nearest town where he expects the villains to have fled. On arriving however, he discovers all but one already hanged by the local townspeople and the stolen gold disappeared. The only survivor is the treacherous gang leader who is holed up in a local store. Milian flushes him out and guns him down.

The stolen gold has been hidden away by two corrupt local officials, the saloon owner and the alderman, and they intend to keep it for themselves. Meanwhile, the local baddie (played by Roberto Camardial) has heard tell of the gold and rides in to town with his band of black shirted homosexual 'muchachos' in order to claim it for himself. Finding the only man who may know of its whereabouts (Milian's treacherous enemy) dying in the street he orders his doctor to operate on the man and keep him alive. The doctor starts to operate and quickly discovers a golden bullet in the man's torso. Cue a gold seeking frenzy from the attending townspeople; ripping the unfortunate patient's body apart in search of more golden bullets. One of the best lines in the film follows this scene when the doctor is apologising to Camardial for letting his patient die. "I'm sorry", he insists, "It is just that I have spent my whole life searching for gold and that man is full of it!"

The film then progresses as a tale of two masters with Milian switching between Camardial and the corrupt townsmen as they wrangle with each other over the gold. Eventually, Camardial kidnaps the saloonkeeper's son and takes him back to his hacienda for a 'party' with his muchachos. Cue open shirts, lingering looks and banana eating. (I kid you not) Camardial sends word to the boy's father that if he doesn't hand over the gold his son will die. This quickly becomes a mute point as after the 'party' the boy commits suicide.

Meanwhile, the corrupt townsmen fall out and the alderman kills the saloon keeper. He then recruits Milian's character to protect him from Camardial, offering him the wife he keeps locked in the attic as some sort of sweetener.

All, unsurprisingly, ends badly. Milian blows up the muchachos with dynamite and then dispatches Camardial who was busy killing his own pet parrot for talking too much. Meanwhile, the mad wife sets fire to her husband's house and during the ensuing blaze the alderman tries to retrieve his hidden gold only to be smothered by its molten mass and sent to a painful, if shiny death.

Milian rides off into the sunset.

Now that is not the kind of synopsis you'll hear every day.

Django Kill is often cited as the most violent of all spaghetti westerns. It is, undoubtedly, violent in places but, in reality, no more than many others of the genre. What it does have is some explicit scenes of quite gratuitous bloodletting (in particular the operating table scene and the later scalping of one of the indian medicine men) and this is probably where its notoriety stems from. Indeed, these scenes were cut from the original film and only re inserted later when the climate for censorship was somewhat more forgiving. Even then, these scenes were only ever included in the italian version of the film. No english dub was ever recorded for these eliminated scenes and, as a result, recent english language versions which have them included again can only switch to italian during the scenes concerned. Having said all this, outside of these isolated scenes the film is genuinely no more violent than many other films from this period.

What can be said, with reasonable certainty, is that it is one of the weirdest westerns ever made. Black shirted homosexual henchmen, a drunken parrot who doesn't just mimic but genuinely speaks, a hero who climbs out of a grave at the opening of the film, a mad woman in the attic and body full of golden bullets is just the beginning. There's also a wicked stepmother, some grave robbing and no real explaination as to how Milian's character survived being riddled with bullets in the first place. In fact the whole narrative sweeps along with little cohesion and an almost halucinagenic quality. All in all then, it sounds a bit rubbish.

Not in the least.

Django Kill is a wild and whacky ride through a sixties nightmare but it is never dull. Rather, it is its very weirdness that keeps you hanging on and, above all, smiling as the trip takes more and more bizarre turns. The characters that populate this town from hell are all played way over the top but it is absolutely right that they should. This is not a piece for underplayed subtleties. It is a no holds barred free for all where the only limits were in the budget. Once Upon a Time in the West it most surely is not. But, man, it sure is a lot of fun. And it is safe to say that they really don't make 'em like this anymore.

Friday 5 October 2007

Face to Face

Face to Face


Dir: Sergio Sollima

Spaghetti Westerns have the reputation among many non fans of being simplistic, ultra violent actionfests devoid of any depth or moral code. And while, in many cases that is a reasonably accurate if somewhat harsh description, there are a number of films in the genre which defy such categorization. The films of Sergio Sollima always stand as shining examples of what the genre could deliver in terms of character development and thought provoking narrative and Face to Face is probably his most accomplished film in those terms.

Don't get me wrong. This film is still full of violence and brutality. But what makes it stand out is that the violence and brutality are not simply sensationalised events staged to add excitement to the story; rather they are at the very core of the story itself. The central theme of the narrative.

Face to Face follows the meeting and development of two diametrically opposed characters, thrown together by fate, who shine contrasting lights on each others strengths and weaknesses and ultimately influence life altering changes in one another. A mild mannered history professor from Boston, Brad Fletcher (played by Gian Maria Volonte) moves to Texas for his health where he encounters ruthless outlaw Beauregard Bennett (Tomas Milian) and becomes entangled in the rough and violent life of the bandit. To begin with Fletcher is the voice of moral reason in a wild environment but as time goes on the educated easterner becomes increasingly seduced by the wild life of the outlaw and the power of the gun. Realising that his intellect and education give him an added advantage when combined with ruthless violence and blind ambition. An advantage which ultimately leads him to take control of the outlaw community and dream of crimes on a grander scale than Bennett could ever conceive. Meanwhile, Bennett himself undergoes changes and discovers a new level of morality and conscience as the story progresses.

Throughout this transition the theme of violence and how it is used and excused by different elements of society is constant. Early on in their relationship Bennett is showing Fletcher how to shoot a pistol, something the professor had never done before but which he gains an instant affinity for. However, when faced with shooting a living target, initially a rabbit, instead of an inanimate target Fletcher balks and declines to pull the trigger. Bennett is confused by this resistance and asks: "Didn't you ever eat rabbit back east"? To which Fletcher replies "Yes of course, although we have someone else do the killing for us so we don't think about it."

But Fletcher is only too aware of the false civility he has been living with. That brutality exists throughout human society but that some are more shielded from it than others. He also quickly becomes aware of the dangers inherent in engaging in violent activity at first hand. Not just in a physical sense, but also on a more intellectual and pyschological level. As he says to Bennett "Out here in the west it's difficult to distinguish the instinct for survival from the lust to aquire power."

Bennett is clearly represented as a character who lives in a violent world and uses violence instinctively in order to survive and make a place for himself with the attributes he has available to him. Fletcher, on the other hand, becomes a man who is seduced by the power of violence and begins to use it to achieve intellectualised goals. Personifying in the process the clinical cruelty of political and military brutality.

There is a key scene towards the latter stages of the film which highlights this very clearly. A Pinkerton agent called Wallace has been sent to infiltrate Fletcher's gang but he is immediately exposed and taken captive by Fletcher who proceeds to torture him. He does this, so he tells the hapless agent, "because it is good for morale." Wallace is played by none other than my old favourite Lorenzo Robledo, a professional victim in this genre who appeared in countless pictures but usually only for long enough to be gunned down, knifed or beaten to a pulp by someone or other. In this case good old Lorenzo is lashed to a wooden cross and beaten before being executed by Fletcher in a chillingly detached fashion. But before his inevitable demise his character has an important interchange with Fletcher in which the newly power crazed villain explains his thinking and the reality of how violence is perceived on a larger social level. He says: "One violent soul alone is an outlaw. A hundred is a gang. But they are an army at a hundred thousand. That is the point. Beyond the confines that limit the outlaw and individual, criminal violence by masses of men is called history!" He then calmly signals for a gun and proceeds to murder the helpless agent, explaining: "Reasons of state Wallace. You studied history so you know what I mean. Not out of hate, but with compassion."

This idea of brutality being acceptable when perpetrated by larger organised forces is also highlighted when the gang of vigilantes organised by the local ranchers to clear out Fletcher's camp set out to collect the bounties set on the heads of every man, woman and child in the settlement. This gang, led by a former outlaw friend of Bennett's proceed to murder not only with impunity but with semi official backing. A final example of violence being condoned when perpetrated by those on the 'right' side.

This highly political and thought provoking narrative is superbly scripted by Sollima himself along with the wonderful Sergio Donati who also collaborated with the director on The Big Gundown as well as with Leone on For a Few Dollars More and
Once Upon a Time in the West. It also benefits from a spectacularly discordant score by Ennio Morricone. Genuinely one of his very best and most memorable works.

The characters are also expertly portrayed by a premier cast. Volonte and Milian were both theatre trained actors who brought a commitment to their craft as well as almost manic levels of intensity to every film they worked on. Both, possibly because of their theatrical background, have a propensity to overact at times but in this project they are both surprisingly understated. In particular, Volonte gives one of his finest performances, although I have to admit to enjoying him most when he is in full out, over the top mode.

The supporting cast, always an important feature of any Spaghetti Western, is led by William Berger as Pinkerton agent Charley Siringo and also includes Aldo Sambrell, Gianni Rizzo, the lovely Linda Veras and of course the afore mentioned Lorenzo Robledo. A stellar line up of genre favourites if ever I saw one.

Ultimately Face to Face works because it is a good story, played by good actors and led by a good director. But it really stands out from the crowd because it is an action film with a real point, in which characters are allowed to develop and change. Moreover it is an action film which sends you home thinking seriously about the use of violence not only in the film but in the wider world around us all.

Sunday 30 September 2007

Navajo Joe

Navajoe Joe


Dir: Sergio Corbucci

The three most respected directors in the Spaghetti Western genre are pretty much universally accepted to be the three Sergios. That is: Leone, Sollima and Corbucci. These three film makers are responsible for most of the 'canon' films of the genre and are, quite rightly, held up as the masters of the Spaghetti Western form. I heartily agree with this categorisation but would add one small, but important footnote. That being that two of the above Sergios can be relied on to have produced a consistantly high standard of work, whereas one of them, although responsible for some truly great films has a decidedly hit and miss record in the genre. That Sergio would be Mr Corbucci and Navajo Joe, in my opinion, is most definitely one of his misses.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Navajo Joe is a bad film as such. Just that, based on the high standard Corbucci has set in some of his other work, this film is sub par. It's OK, just not that great. And that is probably the rub when it comes to Corbucci's lesser works. When a director has created classics such as Django and The Great Silence it is inevitable that anything that fails to match those high standards will appear even worse than other directors work by comparrison. If Demofilo Fidani had directed Navajo Joe I might well consider it his masterpiece. The fact is I expect more from Corbucci.

Having said that, there are some genuine merits to the film including some worthy performances from genre stalwarts who rarely fail to deliver. Aldo Sambrell, as Duncan, is suitably nasty as the central villain, a role he can always be relied on to play with smouldering relish. Likewise, Fernando Rey is equally reliable as the saintly priest, Brother Jonathan, while Nicoletta Machiavelli is as lovely as always in the role of Estella, a character who is unusually pivotal for a woman in a Spaghetti Western. In addition, Navajo Joe stands as one of the few films featuring Lorenzo Robledo in which the genre journeyman lives through most of the picture, dying only ten minutes before the end. Possibly a record for the oft slaughtered bit part player who has come to a sticky and brutal end within five minutes of appearing in more Spaghetti Oaters than I can count.

But for me, the film is more memorable for the things that don't quite work rather than the things that do. Burt Reynolds as the title character, for instance, just doesn't quite gel in the role for me and never looks really comfortable in the part. This could, of course, be down to the terrible black toupe he wears throughout the film but considering the number of equally unconvincing hairpieces he has sported throughout his career without ever showing any significant embarrassment I suspect not. Rather, he was just a bad fit. The wrong actor for the role and if he is to be believed in numerous interviews a man who hated the whole process of making this film. In fact he has been quoted as saying that making Navajo Joe was the worst experience of his professional life. All I can say is, if that is true, he should try and get out more.

But it is not just Reynolds that disappoints here. Amazingly, the maestro, Ennio Morricone also turns in a rare below par effort in the musical score. It is relatively rousing and by no means bad but really not of the quality we expect from the great man. Using the pseudo Native American pastiche sound which he employs in this film frankly smacks of laziness. A man going through the motions and turning in a score to order rather than bringing something genuinely inspirational to the table.

What we do get, however, is plenty of action and violence; the sort of stuff Corbucci can always be relied on to deliver in spades and there is enough of this to send most fans away reasonably happy without being overwhelmed. The story thumps along with equal measures of revenge for slaughtered family and stolen bank money themes. It even has some interesting nods to racism and prejudice issues. The problem is I want more from Corbucci than that. He was a director responsible for genuine innovations in the genre and he was capable of creating haunting moods in his films that few others could match. As a result, when I sit down in front of a Corbucci film I expect to go away with something lasting; something substantial. But in reality, for every masterpiece he created he also created a run of the mill, bog standard action flick where the only thing really memorable is a bit of gory violence. The fact that this is one of the shortest reviews I have ever written tells you how little of worth I found in Navajo Joe.

That being said, I must emphasise that a below par Corbucci film is still better than most others offered by lesser directors so by all means don't be put off by my less than enthusiastic review. Just don't expect a masterpiece. You won't find it here.

Wednesday 12 September 2007

The Return of Ringo

The Return of Ringo


Dir: Duccio Tessari

The only 'official' sequel to Tessari's very popular A Pistol For Ringo, also starring Giuliano Gemma, this film is a loose re telling of the ancient greek story of The Odyssey. Gemma, as Montgomery Brown, plays the Odysseus / Ulysses role, returning from the civil war where he was presumed to have died to find his house over run by bandits and his wife engaged to one of the leaders, Paco Fuentes, played by the always devilish George Martin. In an attempt to discover if his wife, Hally, has remained faithful he dyes his hair and takes on the disguise of a mestizo peasant, gradually gaining access to his old home and learning in the process that he has a daughter who is being used by Paco as a hold on Hally in order to make her compliant in his desrire to marry her.

Based around this classic structure The Return of Ringo enjoys a mixture of elements not often seen successfully combined in Spaghetti Westerns. Equal quantities of action and romance are allowed for in this slow burning revenge plot along with some genuinely funny moments and touching melodrama. Gemma is superb in the central role, showing a depth to his acting talent not often called on in some of his other westerns. His portrayal of Brown, while still allowing for all the action hero elements you would expect, is filled with levels of anguish, self doubt and emotional pain. All of which he carries off skillfully.

But Gemma is not alone. He is aided admirably, as in the previous Ringo film, by a supporting cast that reads like a veritable who's who of the genre. The aforementioned George Martin brings all his usual plastic haired nastiness to the role of Paco while Fernando Sancho, a stalwart of countless spaghettis, plays his brother Esteban with all the rotund viciousness we have come to expect and Antonio Casas portrays the defeated, drunken sheriff with quiet despair. Add to this the incomparable sexiness of Nieves Navarro as the sultry bar girl Rosita and the icy beauty of Lorella de Luca playing Brown's wife Hally and the outcome could hardly be anything but quality genre fare.

But there is one final element to this mix which, I believe, lifts this film above anything the cast alone could achieve and that is the magnificent score by the genius, Ennio Morricone. Regular readers of these reviews will no doubt be saying "Oh God, not gushing about Morricone again" but I'm afraid it is impossible to review this film honestly without mentioning the immense impact Morricone's music makes on it. Consisting of one theme song utilised in a variety of ways at different points throughout the film the music here plays a serious starring role in the picture. It first appears as a straight song sung by Maurizio Graf over the opening titles then reappears as a heart wrenchingly emotional orchestral piece during moments of heightened melodrama and romance. The action sequences utilise it in a more tense fashion while its origin is disclosed in the tinkling notes eminating from a family heirloom music box.

Heard alone and in isolation from the drama of the film this theme tune may not carry the same weight as other, more iconic Morricone compositions. But in a cinema, at volume and when skillfully intertwined with the storyline it becomes one of the most memorable works of his career in my opinion. Having said that, I freely admit to being a sucker for such things and am easily manipulated by a skillful director bent on carrying me along to a highly charged crescendo. So maybe in this instance, under the clever hands of Tessari and Morricone I have been seduced into accepting their admittedly contrived construction; Swallowing big heaps of corn and sentimentality with gusto I am very possibly the victim of overt manipulation. But you know what? I couldn't care less. I lap it up and come back for more. I don't care how corny it may be, I am genuinely stirred by this film and would recommend it to any but the most cynical.

In fact a recent experience of mine, watching this film at the Venice Film Festival in a cinema with a mixed audience, though one heavily populated by young film students, reconfirmed my belief that it has universal appeal. At the final climax, when the Fuentes' are defeated and Gemma and de Luca are reunited in a romantic clinch, the music crashed into a resounding finale and the entire house broke into spontaneous applause, cheering and whistling in appreciation. Magnificent!

But how can something so obvious, sentimental and contrived cause such an effect on intelligent and well educated people? Adult people who should know better.

Because we love it, that's why. Because that is what genres are for. Building you up with expectation for something that you can see coming a mile off but which you know you will really enjoy and then delivering it with style. It is the repetition of generic conventions with stylistic tweakings that makes these films so satisfying. Of course, it is possible to play with and even subvert these conventions (The Great Silence is a perfect example of how it can be done successfully) but for the most part it is the film makers duty to play within the rules and when he does it well...Oh boy, it is unbeatable.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

The Big Gundown

The Big Gundown

Dir: Sergio Sollima


As a proud member of the Spaghetti Western Database forum I always give a rating on the site for every Spaghetti I watch. The ratings take the form of a simple 1-5 stars and until now my system has always been straight forward. 1 and 2 stars are awarded for awful or under par films, 3 stars are for solid, run of the mill, enjoyable fare, 4 stars are for the very good and 5 stars are strictly for Leone. This system is based on the fact that as much as I enjoy films such as Django, The Grand Duel and others, the work of Sergio Leone defies comparrison and acts as a benchmark for excellence. No matter how good a film is it is unlikely to ever achieve the overall brilliance of the maestro and, as such, 4 stars is as much as you can get from me. To put it in a nutshell, there is Leone, then there is everybody else.

That system has just changed.

After years of trying, I finally got to see The Big Gundown (La Resa Dei Conti) and all bets are off. True, I have had the very good fortune of viewing this film on a big screen, with surround sound, in Italian (with english subtitles I hasten to add) at the Venice Film Festival so it would be fair to say the setting has been ideal to say the least. But I can honestly say that if the film hadn't been up to scratch none of the above advantages would have helped it. I also saw Navajo Joe at this festival and although I enjoyed it I wouldn't rank it as one of the better films in the genre. No, in reality The Big Gundown didn't need any help. It is a wonderful film from start to finish and is a testament to what can be achieved in genre film making with the right personel and the right approach. It is, in short, a 5 star film.

As it dawned on me that this was the case while I was watching the film I began to try and pinpoint exactly why it was making such an impression on me. There are, as you would expect, a number of reasons.

Sergio Sollima's direction is, of course, excellent. He employs stunning visuals without quite reaching the extreme style of Leone. Using instead thoughful framing that helps to heighten the tension of the story while always remaining interesting and innovative. But Sollima also outshines Leone in one key area which helps lift this film to its high level. His characters are genuinely multi dimensional and are shown to develop along with the storyline.

Now to be honest, as much as I love Spaghetti Westerns, character development (a key element in most adult drama of any worth) is not a feature commonly displayed. And Sergio Leone's films, as brilliant as they are, are no exceptions. They are memorable for their striking imagery, expert matching of visuals and soundtrack and their tight as a drum action sequences. His characters, however enjoyable, tend to be the same people at the closing credits as they were at the opening. They are cool but not neccesarily complex.

The Big Gundown is a different animal entirely. Of course we still have the exagerated gunplay, or knife play in this case, that we all love. And Lee Van Cleef's steely, gunsight eyes are just as piercing as ever. But during the course of this story his character, Jonathan Corbett, is forced to question his own actions and motives and ultimately to change his course. And the reason for this turnabout is the gradual uncloaking of his adversary's persona. A persona brilliantly portrayed by the ever dependable Tomas Milian.

Regular readers of these reviews will already know that I am a big Milian fan but I do not hesitate in saying that this is his finest work in the genre by far. His Cuchillo is both amusing and touching; showing a real depth of character rarely seen in genre films in general, let alone Spaghetti Westerns in particular. He plays the lovable rogue to perfection; never allowing his inner sadness to travel far from his face even when laughing in the those of his adversaries.

Credit must also go in no small part to Sergio Donati who penned the screenplay for laying out the framework for Milian and Van Cleef to play on and for Sollima to interpret. Donati has a long and illustrious list of writing credits in this genre to be proud of from For a Few Dollars More to A Fistful of Dynamite and Face to Face. The Big Gundown could easily be his best.

And last but not least, there is the spectacular soundtrack from Ennio Morricone; proving once again that he is the absolute master of the Spaghetti Western musical score. Driving, moving and dramatic his music here never fails to match the mood of the action and story and propel the audience into the world of the characters. The man is without peers.

So, you might ask yourself, if this film is so good, why has it taken a Spaghetti Western fan as committed as me so long to get around to seeing it?

The answer is simple. I have known of its reputation and wanted to see it for many years but have been constantly frustrated by the fact that it has had no DVD or video release in any english speaking market. It has never to my knowledge shown up on TV in the UK or been screened at any rerun cinemas. This, in spite of the fact that it appears in every top ten Spaghetti list ever published and is lauded by any fan who has ever seen it. And still to this day, no company has seen fit to give it life outside of Germany and Japan where it is offered for sale at prices which prohibit any normal mortal from being able to purchase it without selling at least one of their offspring into white slavery. In fact, I would still be ignorant to its wonders if I had not been lucky enough to wrangle this trip to Venice in order to see it. This, in my opinion, is a travesty of cultural justice of the highest order and should be raised in parliament at the very least.

But in the meantime, take my advice. Whether you have to beg, steal or pirate it. You have to see this film. It truly is one of the all time best and can stand shoulder to shoulder with almost any of Leone's work. And you can't get a greater recommendation from me than that.

Monday 27 August 2007

7 Dollars on the Red

7 Dollars on the Red

Dir: Alberto Cardone


Here's an easy test for you.

Get yourself a copy of 7 Dollars on the Red (Called '7 Dollars to Kill' in some places), watch it and then analyse how you feel about it.

If you are not a devoted convert to the spaghetti western genre you will probably be astounded by the gaping holes in the plot, the laughable continuity and the jumpy, fragmented nature of the narrative. The poor editing will be blaringly obvious and the fact that the story takes place over a span of twenty years yet some of the lead characters don't age a day will cause a double take from you of Tom and Jerry proportions. (Anthony Steffen's character not only doesn't age much, he also doesn't change his clothes in twenty years!) All these things will add up for the non convert and leave you with a general impression of crapness.

If, on the other hand, you are a deep down, unshakeable fan of the spaghetti western you will dwell on the moody, downbeat final showdown and the gutsy, hook flailing duel between the hero and the bandit chief. You will have a sense that the soundtrack by Francesco de Masi was top notch and probably worthy of a soundtrack purchase at some point soon. You will delight in the over the top mugging of Fernando Sancho and feel that the wooden, almost botox induced visage of Anthony Steffen suited the lead character perfectly. Plot holes, continuity gaffs and jumpy editing will be embraced like a naughty but loveable child.

A simple test, but infalible.

In fact there is probably a quicker and easier way to test which of these two camps you fit into. If you know how to get hold of a copy of this film without the help of a private detective and not only know who Anthony Steffen actually is but look forward to his plank like acting style then you are undoubtedly a true spaghetti geek and as a result, a lifelong soulmate of mine.

7 Dollars on the Red is a perfect example of the bread and butter euro western of the 1960's that helped swell the number of these films into the hundreds. In fact, as a product of 1966 it can count itself among a mind boggling litter of about seventy all released in that bumper year. It is unremarkable in most senses but a solid and satisfying revenge flick for all that and well worth a viewing.

At it's core this is a simple 'revenge for a murdered wife' story with the added element of a stolen child to add to the mix. Steffen spends the majority of the film wandering the west in search of the evil bandit chief (Fernando Sancho) who was guilty of these crimes while Sancho raises the child as his own son, ensuring that the final showdown has the added angst ridden element of father facing son. But the real treasures of this film are to be found in its key personel.

Anthony Steffen is not exactly a household name for most people. You can consider yourself a pretty big movie buff in general yet be forgiven for never having heard of him, let alone seen any of his films. But for the experienced spaghetti fan he is a familiar and welcome face. A veteran of the genre, Steffen, or Antonio De Teffe if we are going to be pedantic, starred in something like 25 european westerns during the ten peak years of 1965-1975. Not graced with prodigious acting skills he nonetheless had the right look and feel to carry off most of his taciturn roles with teeth gritted, steely eyed aplomb and is a fond favourite with most us. 7 Dollars on the Red is a typical example. Meanwhile, Fernando Sancho is his usual self throughout, sporting an enormous sombrero and playing the pantomime villain with the gusto we have come to expect.

For those unfamiliar with Sancho, but old enough to remember the British all in wrestlers of the 1960's and 70's, think of Steve Logan (arch nemesis of Mick Mcmanus and co)in a big hat, speaking spanish and you've got the general idea. Long, greasy hair lying lankly across his contorted, blustering features with an ample waistline and a mean streak as wide as 43 bus; I have seen this guy play this role so many times it is difficult to imagine that he had a real life off screen. The idea of his wearing slacks and a roll neck sweater (he must of done, everyone did) and chatting with friends over coffee in an urban cafe is impossible. I'm sure he was just kept in a props trunk between pictures and rolled out whenever he was needed. Anyhow, he is on top form in 7 Dollars on the Red; Gunning down all and sundry with a cavalier air, slapping women around for the hell of it and and generally cheating, stealing and killing his way through an hour and a half with absolute abandon.

On top of all this is some adequate if not brilliant directing from Alberto Cardone and an above average musical score from Francesco de Masi which adds up to an all round decent piece of work. It is no masterpiece, without doubt. But for the initiated, and maybe the keen novice too, it is 96 minutes of pure escapist pleasure.

Sunday 19 August 2007

Four of the Apocalypse

Four of the Apocalypse


Dir: Lucio Fulci

By the mid seventies the spaghetti western was coming to the very end of its cycle. From the highly influential work of the mid sixties and the inevitable barage of bandwagon jumpers that followed, through the mature works from the end of that decade with their heightened political awareness and then on to the pastiche and comedy westerns of the early seventies the genre had pretty much run its course and was being overtaken in the popularity stakes by the crime film. Getting a western made by this time was not as easy as it had been. Many of the western sets were now in semi ruin and financing was less forthcoming as returns and popularity dwindled. As a result the films which were made during this time often stand out in the memory although not always for the best reasons.

But when they were done right the eurowesterns of the late period could be as good as any. Mannaja and Keoma from 1977 and 1976 respectively were prime examples of solid revenge flicks from this period and show there was still mileage to be had from the genre in the right hands. Soundtracks, although very different from their sixties predecesors, were just as memorable and the camerawork which reflected the bleaker tones of the period could be just as evocative. But the times were different and the film which possibly reflected this shift best was Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse.

Fulci made a few westerns during his career but will be far better remembered for his other exploitation films where he became notorious for his use of excessive violence and sexual cruelty. In Four of the Apocalypse he served up a fair portion of this but also showed he could offer much more besides; intertwining disturbing scenes of sadism and gore with ones of genuine warmth and subtlety. It is a difficult film to categorize for this reason. On the one hand it features some of the most disturbing violence seen in the genre, on the other it attemts to go deeper into the pyschology of its characters than any other italian western I can think of.

At the heart of this film is the rambling, episodic journey taken by four lost souls; a card sharp, a pregnant whore, a drunk and a madman as they escape from the murderous vigilantes of Salt Flat and head for a new start 200 miles across the desert. Along the way they meet the very best and worst humanity has to offer and are faced with the extremes of nature, from searing desert sun to torrential rain and deep snow. And through the trials of their journey each character finds a form of redemption; an escape of sorts from their limbo of suffering. Although for some, sadly, this comes only in death.

Central to this journey is the redemptive qualities shown as available in a group as opposed to solitary and self centred living. Each of the four are seen as flawed but show honour and forgiveness to each other within their unit as they travel. They also encounter two seperate communities, a travelling religious group and an isolated all male mining town who both offer generosity and warmth. Even Bud, the madman who sees dead people finds a sort of peace in a ghost town and its graveyard along the way.

In opposition to this communal harmony is the figure of Chaco, a sadistic bandit they encounter in the desert and who personifies malice and cruelty in its extreme. From his random slaughter of any wildlife that crosses his path to the systematic torture and murder of a pursuing sheriff and the rape of Bunny, the pregnant teenage whore of the group, Chaco oozes menace and evil. A Charles Manson, devil like figure; at first charismatic and appealing to some of the group, he quickly turns predator and tormentor, exploiting the weaknesses of the four as he goes.

Tomas Milian's portrayal of Chaco is the most powerful in the film. His evil persona hangs over the entire picture although in reality he only appears for two relatively short periods. His knifelike stare, framed by the two crosses painted under his eyes, burns through the screen; the intensity of his malice following you after the picture's end like a spectre. This is Milian at his method acting best. Inhabiting the part; making it all too real for the viewer.

But if Milian is king here the other roles are played with more than adequate skill. Michael J. Pollard is disturbingly effective as Clem the drunk, while Fabio Testi's handling of the central protagonist role of Stubby Preston the vain and slick card sharp is solid enough. Less is asked of Harry Baird (Bud) and Lynn Frederick (Bunny) but they fill the roles respectably and each leaves their own mark on the film.

So why, if I see so much depth in this film, is it predominantly recalled by most solely for its violence?

I suspect the answer lies in the extremes the violence reaches and it is here that, for me, Fulci lets himself and the film down. When a film contains scenes of rape, murder, skinning alive, torture, drug taking and cannibalism it is hard to focus the attention on issues of community and redemption. The prolonged section towards the end of the film where the birth of Bunny's child brings warmth and a sense of wonder to an isolated group of hard drinking miners is quickly overshadowed by an image of a man with half his buttocks eaten away.

This, I believe, is a real shame and ultimately detracts from the film's quality. It is almost as if Fulci was trying to make a different sort of film but just couldn't help himself. Allowing his own demons to dominate the story in much the same way that Chaco infiltrates and corrupts the group of four. But for better or worse, these demons do dominate the film and although I believe it has some great moments it is an ultimately confused end product as a result. It is certainly a film I would recommend, as its strengths generally outweigh its weaknesses, but it doesn't fully develop its potential and as a result cannot be included amongst the very best of the genre.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Vamos a Matar, Compañeros!

Vamos a Matar, Compañeros!

Dir: Sergio Corbucci


Ok, first things first. Is this really a western?
This is an argument that has gone back and forth for a long time when regarding films set around the mexican revolution and tends to split people into one of two camps.
Camp 1 says: Yes, it's a western because it shares so many conventions with westerns.
Camp 2 says: It can't be a western because it's not set in the U.S. frontier and it takes place in the 20th century.

For the record, I think both camps have reasonable arguments on their side and I have struggled over the years to decide 100% what camp I belong in. Fundamentally, I've always believed westerns should be set on the U.S. frontier and in the 19th century but the frontier has always included Mexico and if we are true to the whole 19th century thing then films such as The Wild Bunch, A Bullet For The General and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all of a sudden can no longer be considered westerns. Now they are a few babies I am not willing to throw out with any bath water. On the other hand, it is also true that mexican revolutionary pictures do share a lot of conventions with the traditional western. The struggle between the needs of the individual and those of the community, the corruption of power and the general melieu of lawlessness are all common themes in both western and revolutionary movies. Plus there's a whole load of horses, shooting and banditry. But revolutionary movies also invariably feature motor cars of some sort (an anathema in a western for my money)and the soldiers (even U.S. cavalry soldiers)wear kharki not blue and surely that's not right. So what's the answer?

Ultimately, I guess it has to be the decision of the individual but for me, after much deliberation, the mexican revolutionary film gets a special inclusion pass. Fundamentally, despite the 20th century elements which trouble me, revolutionary movies have enough in common for me to make allowances. What's more is there are just too many damn good films I am not willing to let go of which I would be forced to exclude if I got too pedantic.

So there you have it, Vamos a Matar, Compañeros! is a western. If you don't like it, sue me.

What is not in question is this; Vamos a Matar, Compañeros! is a great film. Period.

Tomas Milian as Vasco, the reluctant revolutionary, and Franco Nero as Yodlaf Petersen, the money grabbing foreigner give some of the best performances of their careers and the supporting cast of Fernando Rey, Jack Palance and Jose Bodalo add everything you would expect from such seasoned character actors.

The plot is a fairly familiar one for revolutionary movies. A mexican becomes reluctantly embroiled in the revolution while being thrown together with a cynical foreigner who is doing his best to take advantage of the turmoil and line his own pockets. They are both sent across the border into the U.S. (see, I told you it was a western) in order to rescue revolutionary leader Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) and bring him back to the camp of General Mongo, a rival revolutionary leader and self serving bandit. The twist comes when Professor Xantos' pacifist idealism begins to affect Vasco, causing him to re evaluate his position in the struggle and the loyalties he had felt up to now.

The film is still, above all else, an action adventure and despite the sympathy shown for the professor's ideals boasts an impressive body count helped along in no small way by a machine gun wielding Franco Nero. But this is a much gentler example of director Sergio Corbucci's work. Gone is the darkness of Django and The Great Silence to be replaced by a semi humurous tone with a thought provocing political undercurrent. And his actors respond with relish. Nero is excellent as the blue eyed swede, showing he can play on a lighter canvas just as well as on a dark one, while Milian is perfect as the simple mexican. Intimating with nothing more than a furrowed brow or twinkling eye the hidden depths of his characters personality.

Add to all this one of the catchiest theme tunes ever written by Ennio Morricone and this has to be an all round winner. Vamos a Matar, Compañeros! often appears in Spaghetti fans' top ten lists and it's easy to see why. It is 2 hours of out and out viewing pleasure in anyone's language. Whether you think it's a real western or not.

Monday 6 August 2007

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Dir: Sergio Leone


The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was the final film of the triumvirate known as the Dollars Trilogy. In reality these films are not connected in themselves except by the creative teaming that brought them to fruition. They are lumped together because they were all directed by Sergio Leone and starred Clint Eastwood in his 'Man With No Name' persona. The fact that The Man With No Name is clearly named in each of the three films, and with a different name in each at that, is also seemingly irelevant. Never mind. What is important is that all three films are masterpieces of the genre and that this one is as good as any.

Made on a much higher budget than its predecesors and composed on a truly grand scale, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly set a standard for european westerns (and westerns in general if truth be told)that has rarely been matched let alone surpassed. It features all of the wonderful visual imagery one would expect from a Leone film along with a soundtrack from Ennio Morricone which has become etched into the international moviegoers psyche. That undulating whistle with its 'wah wah wah' response is possibly the most recognisable theme in film history and instantly conjures up images of dusty standoffs, squinting eyes and nasty little cheroots. It is, unquestionably, one of the most iconic movie soundtracks ever written.

But a masterful soundtrack is only effective if it is married to an equally masterful film. So what makes this film so good? What is it that elevates it above the average and holds its place so solidly in the canon of classic movies?

To begin with there is an inspired cast. Eastwood by this time had honed his laconicly cynical anti hero into a work of art. He needs only to appear and utter one economic line (as he does in his first scene in this movie) and we are gripped and thrilled by his presence. Secondly, and hot on the heels of his success in For A Few Dollars More, we have Lee Van Cleef. This time reverting to his pre spaghetti persona of all out bad guy; a role his gunsight eyes made him ideal for. And lastly, the trio is completed by the wonderful Eli Wallach, who's brilliant characterisation of Tuco steals the film from under the noses of his higher profile co-stars.

Set during the civil war, the film is structured as basically a caper movie, with the three protagonists all vying for a chance to get their hands on a $200,000 gold shipment stolen from the U.S Cavalry by an outlaw travelling under the name of Bill Carson. Tuco and Blondie (Eastwood) come across Carson and each gains a vital piece of information as to the gold's whereabouts before the outlaw passes away. Teaming up in an unholy and untrusting alliance the two set off for the cemetary in Sand Hill where the gold is buried. Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) is hot on their trail and equally determined to uncover the treasure for himself. The two partners journey across the arid landscape in an almost picaresque fashion, overcoming a number of hardships and setbacks as well as their own lack of trust in each other until finally they find the gold only to discover that Angel Eyes has found it too. So ensues a three way stand off, complete with sharply intercut ultra close ups and rousing music which brings the story to a head and sends us all home happy and satisfied.

But that is merely the synopsis. What actually makes this film great is its mixture of well choreographed action with a genuine depth of character in its protagonists that is often missing from films of this type. Van Cleef's character is probably the most one dimensional of the three, exhibiting evil at every turn. Eastwood, despite his seemingly unwavering cynicism is shown to have equal levels of ruthlessness and compassion while Eli Wallach's Tuco is shown from all sides. Equal part amoral outlaw to equal part ignorant buffoon to equal part sentimental victim of his environment. Tuco is a likeable rogue who we know is not going to win, and who we equally know doesn't deserve to, but we can't help hoping he does. It would be fair to say that although Clint Eastwood gets top billing this is Eli Wallach's movie.

The film also benefits from an excellent script and some truly funny dialogue. Eastwood's dry one liners offset Wallach's earthy idiocy and combine to create an effective double act which serves up some great comedy moments. It is a film that leaves you smiling at its humour as much as thrilled by its action and that is a sure sign of a caper movie done well.

On top of all these elements sits the direction of Leone. His ability to compose images that strike you in the forehead and stay with you for days after was never so obvious as in this film. Given the luxury of a larger budget he paints on a larger canvas and the pictures are sublime. Although at times he dances a little close with his penchant for overdoing a scene; of drawing out the tension a little too far; he constructs in this film a masterclass in generic film making. A blueprint for how to make a modern western.

With his next film, Once Upon a Time in The West, it could be argued (if somewhat harshly)that Leone allowed his excesses to overrule his better judgement. Extending his canvas even further this film would be equally hailed as a masterpiece and criticised for being over long. In his previous film, For A Few Dollars More, he found a perfect length but sketched his characters in less depth. Only Van Cleef's Colonel Mortimer is given any back story of note. But in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly he struck a balance that defined his reputation for all time.

It is no coincidence that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the one film non spaghetti western fans can cite. It is a winning film in anyone's language and worthy of a place in the canon of all time great movies. if you haven't seen this film yet, shame on you! Go and see it now. You can thank me later.