Saturday 28 July 2007

Sugar Colt

Sugar Colt


Dir: Franco Giraldi

If ever there was a film that couldn't make up its mind what it wanted to be that film has to be Sugar Colt.

From its dramatic and violent opening with haunting almost funereal music you would assume that you were in for a couple of hours of hard nosed gun play and vengeance. But no sooner have the opening credits disappeared than we are apparently in a different movie. The character of Sugar Colt is introduced as a kind of Simon Templar figure, playing up to the girls and establishing himself as a skilful but strictly light hearted detective. Once this is established, Colt's old boss is gunned down in the street, swinging the mood back to the dark side only for it to swing back just as quick when Colt sets off for the town of Snake Valley to solve the mystery of the missing cavalry officers which led to his boss' death.

The movie is only 15 minutes old and I'm already confused!

What compounds this continual lurching from one mood to another is the totally disjointed music score provided by Luis Enrique Bacalov. Bacalov is one of the musical masters of the genre and his work on this film is up to his usual high standard; providing two catchy and evocative themes that recur throughout the film. The problem is that one is the aforementioned funereal solo trumpet number while the other is a pre Trinity, yet Trinityesque piccolo trill which clearly denotes a tongue firmly held in cheek. What results is a Jekyll and Hyde product that is impossible to nail down in one direction or another.

Now, as my previous readers will know, I have no problem with a spaghetti western that rides the middle ground between drama and comedy. When done properly this approach suits the campness of sixties italian genre films perfectly. One word will suffice to describe how this can all work to everyone's satisfaction. Sabata. However, what Sabata and films of its ilk do well is maintain a constant mood of kitsch action. The characters are all a bit larger than life and the drama never goes much beyond the melo variety. Any Gun Can Play, Enzo Castellari's caper film of 1968, follows a similar pattern and works almost as well. But for some reason Giraldi never allows Sugar Colt to settle in this territory and the film loses out as a result.

This is a real pity as the film has many ingredients which could pay off handsomely. Hunt Powers, who plays Colt, carries the part well. If truth be told, the film's oscilating style shows that he could have played the role equally effectively straight or for laughs. Looking somewhat like a shorter, big eared George Clooney he is genuinely convincing both as the awkward doctor, who's persona he adopts to work under cover in Snake Valley, or the dynamic Sugar Colt. Although he would go on to find noteriety in the films of the genre's favourite hack, Demofilo Fidani, Powers shows in this film that he had real potential.

But the film benefits from even more positive assets than this. It also boasts the lovely Soledad Miranda as the beauty he wins over during his stay in Snake Valley, as well as the capable cinematography of Alejandro Ulloa. Both are personel worthy of note. And once you add all that to the marvelous Bacalov it is clear that you have a recipe which should delight any palate.

So why doesn't it work?

I'm afraid the blame must lie with Giraldi. His record in the genre shows more than one film that suffers from this unhappy mix of comedy and drama. His McGregor films (Seven Guns For the McGregors and Up the McGregors!) are similar examples and are also films which are ultimately not bad, in fact they are very good in parts. They are just not as good as they could be. And that, unfortunately, sums up Sugar Colt. Not a bad film by any means. With a good if disjointed score and a capable cast it is most definately worth a viewing. Indeed it is quite pleasurable in parts. It's just not as good as it could be. And that is a real shame.

Monday 23 July 2007


Dir: Gianfranco Parolini

Every now and again something comes along that has no business being wonderful but somehow or other manages to do it with seeming effortlessness. Sabata is a prime example of such an entity.
Its sum parts are decent but by no means over promising. It enjoys a good cast but not one of constant quality, it was made by a competent but by no means highly acclaimed director and it has a score by a composer who is rarely spoken of with the hallowed tones of Morricone or Bacalov. Yet this film is a joy from start to finish and manages to bring out the very best of everyone involved. It never ceases to lift my mood when I watch it, or even think about it if I’m honest, and in my opinion should be available on prescription for anyone suffering from clinical depression. Its theme tune alone is enough to instil a general atmosphere of bonhomie and I have been known to spontaneously instigate a conga line after hearing no more than the opening few bars.
Is there any sense to this?
Not even a little bit. Sabata is no more than a competent caper picture; almost Bondesque with its gadgetry and gimmicks. It has about as much depth as a plastic paddling pool and is far from being the best work of anyone involved. Yet for some indefinable reason it is a treasure of the first magnitude.
But wait a minute. Maybe the reasons it works are more obvious than it would at first seem. Let’s consider the factors. For starters it stars Lee Van Cleef and is made in 1969. The second fact is critical here. Van Cleef appeared in some of the very greatest spaghettis and, in equal quantity, some absolute horrors. But these can be easily separated by decade. Put simply, 1960’s good, 1970’s bad. The Grand Duel of 1972 is the obvious exception which proves the rule. Apart from that classic all of Van Cleef’s 1970’s outings are at best poor. Captain Apache, Bad Man’s River, God’s Gun; all bear witness to Van Cleef’s inability to avoid a turkey in the later decade. For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Day of Anger, The Big Gundown all bear equal witness to his inability to put a foot wrong in the earlier one. By this code Sabata was sure to succeed.
Secondly, Gianfranco Parolini, the film’s director, was hot from Sartana (probably his best western) and was yet to become bogged down in the succession of ill advised pastiche pieces which blighted his later work. Thirdly, the film boasted a supporting cast that could always be counted on for good value and who became genre stalwarts as their careers progressed. First among these would be the ever entertaining William Berger whose hippyesque character, Banjo, would act as an ideal foil for Van Cleef’s ‘gunsight eyed’ protagonist. But of equal value is Franco Ressel, the campest bad guy in the west who sported one of the most outrageous comb overs seen on film. Throw in Pedro Sanchez and Gianni Rizzo and things are beginning to build up.
Indeed, add all of these elements to the aforementioned jamboree of a music score and we are faced with a veritable cornucopia of genre goodies. What was I thinking before? This film couldn’t miss!
Of course there are some who are not swayed by the obvious merits of this film. There are spaghetti fans for who are instantly wary of anything which leans toward the lighter side of angst ridden vengeance: and for good reason. As these films got lighter so, more often than not, they got sillier and less satisfying. Also, as the genre ran its course from stylish action to slapstick comedy, there were a number of examples that were neither one thing nor the other. Yet although it would be fair to say that Sabata falls into the latter category, it never suffers from the ‘neither fish nor fowl’ syndrome and manages to maintain an admirable balance. A balance which, for me, became the benchmark for all similar fare that followed.
So do yourself a favour. Climb aboard the Kitsch express that is Sabata and enjoy the ride!

Monday 16 July 2007


Dir: Sergio Corbucci
Date: 1966

From the very beginning of Django’s opening credits you know you are in for a very different western experience.

The overpowering mood from the outset is sombre, dirty, almost gothic. The theme song, though wonderfully kitsch, is a lament; a melancholy overture to the litany of misery and brutality about to unfold. Django, his dark clad form weighed down by the saddle he carries on his shoulders and the coffin he drags behind him through the muddy trail, struggles on foot into a town filled with an aura of forbidding desolation. Even Clint Eastwood’s solitary amble into San Miguel astride a mule in Fistful of Dollars looks jaunty by comparison.

The symbolism seems clear. Django trails death behind him wherever he goes; unable to escape its weighty burden. As if he and death had melded into some kind of walking spectre, inseperable, inevitable. Indeed when asked if there was anyone in the coffin his reply is simply "Yeah, his name is Django."

If Leone introduced a new kind of anti hero in A Fistful of Dollars, Corbucci introduced a new kind of violence in Django. Excessive both in its quantity as well as its sadistic nature violence is a constant in this film. The plot, such as it is, often appears merely as a vehicle to link one exhibition of brutality with another. The opening scene finds Django happening upon a woman being whipped by a gang of Mexican Bandits. These bandits are set upon and gunned down by a second gang of outlaws, ominously sporting Ku Klux Klan type headgear, who rather than save the girl set about preparing to burn her on a cross. It is at this point that Django intervenes and dispatches the outlaws with his pistol. The film is five minutes old and the body count is already at nine. It escalates from there.

Indeed, once Django's machine gun is aired the bloodlust reaches epic proportions. Entire armies of men are cut down with ruthless efficiency while individuals, including ultimately Django himself, continue to be brutalised to envelope pushing levels.

Yet despite this seemingly mindless level of violence Django is far from being a mindless film. Rather, the brutality is offered as a manifestation of an underlying, all pervading sense of horror. A living hell where the sins of men, and women, are paid for ad infinitum. A limbo state where Django is imprisoned, acting as both avenging angel and sacrificial lamb.

Just before the film's bloody climax Django and Maria, while attempting to escape from the town and the pursuing bandit gang, arrive at a broken down rope bridge across a quicksand pit. This bridge looms with signicance for Django. Like a path out of Hades. He urges her to take the wagon through another pass to safety while refusing to go with her himself. "This time I've got to face that bridge." The bridge, however, remains an uncrossable barrier. With Django's stolen gold disappearing into the depths of the quicksand, his chance of a new life, of forgetting that he was ever Django are also swallowed up and lost.

For a film made on a very low budget, with no real script to speak of shot on a dilapidated set Django is a testament to the possibility for a creative sum to be greater than its individual parts. It's failings, like the erratic character of its protagionist and a disjointed narrative structure, fail to dominate one's pervading memories of the film. Sergio Corbucci's direction, Luis Enrique Bacalov's inspired score and Franco Nero's sombre portrayal of the central character all combined to make Django one of the most influential and enduring examples of the Italian western. Inspiring along the way a dizzying array of pseudo sequels and rip offs which started appearing within a few months of its release and continued to appear for years after. Movies with no relation to the original, or even containing any character carrying the name, began to feature the word Django in the title in an attempt to benefit from its fame and noteriety. But more importantly, this haunting and ultra violent film proved that an italian western could be entertaining, influential and thought provoking without being made by Sergio Leone.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

A Fistful of Dollars

Dir: Sergio Leone
Date: 1964

A Fistful of Dollars was not the first western made in Europe by a long way. It was not even the first one made in Italy or Spain. But it was the film whose style and financial success lit the touch paper on a whole new sub genre which exploded into the sensibilities of sixties cinema goers. It also laid out the blue print by which a veritable tidal wave of band wagon jumpers were produced over the ensuing 10 years or so that was the lifespan of what became known as the ‘Spaghetti’ Western.
Moreover, the success of these films internationally breathed fresh vigour into a genre whose life in Hollywood seemed almost over. A genre which despite its long and high profile history had largely (John Wayne features excepted) retreated into the lower budget sanctuary of television.
So why should a low budget genre piece co produced with German, Italian and Spanish money, based largely on a Japanese Samurai film, shot in Spain and Italy by a novice director have such an impact and leave such a legacy? You need only to sit and watch the first few minutes of this film to have everything become lightning clear.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the story of Joe, a mule riding loner who rides into the sleepy township of San Miguel and sets about using an existing gang rivalry to line his own pockets and ultimately free the town of its bloodthirsty overlords. Clint Eastwood plays the character with extreme economy. Joe is a man of few words but these words tend to communicate more than their sum parts. Early in the piece, soon after he has arrived in town to an unfriendly welcome, Joe stands on the balcony of Silvanito’s cantina ruminating on the makeup of the town. “The Baxters on one side and the Rojos on the other and me in the middle. A man could get rich in a town like this”. So saying, the entire plotline of the film is laid out, with Joe playing one side against the other in turn until everyone is dead and his pockets are bulging.
Here was a new style of hero, as laconic and self reliant as his predecessors but with a cynicism and amorality that matched the contemporary mood of his 1960’s audience. A hero whose speed and skill with a gun had reached a new and exaggerated level of artistry, and who was happy to utilise them in as cold and mercenary fashion as his villainous adversaries. Far from wearing a traditional white hat, his was decidedly dirty. In short, he was cool.
But A Fistful of Dollars did far more than offer a new cynical anti hero into a flagging genre. It showcased a whole range of possibilities for new direction in soundtrack, direction and cinematography: a European approach to an American tradition.
It is obvious when viewing the films of Sergio Leone that he had a strong affection for the classic western films of his American predecessors and a clear understanding of their visual iconography. As a largely ‘visual’ director, that is to say a director who concentrated heavily on the image rather than the dialogue of a film, his generic sympathy led to striking and hugely satisfying pictures linking explosive action sequences. A combination which would be copied by many in the ensuing decade but never equalled. In particular, Leone’s tight framing and ultra close ups of lined, haggard faces (there are no pretty boys here) jump out of the screen leaving lasting impressions of grittiness, evil and greed. Boots, spurs and pistols, long standing dressings of the western genre are in Leone’s hands magnified before us into almost monastic icons. Triggering our responses with their placement. Playing us like pop culture Pavlov’s dogs, salivating with the expectation of the next showdown.
And running across all of this is the musical score of Ennio Morricone.
The soundtrack, along with those of the following ‘Dollar’ films has become iconic in itself. An eclectic mix of solo guitar and trumpet in combination with a variety of sounds from whistling and Jews harp to whip cracking and choral voice create a total that is both rooted in the 60’s and transcendent of time. It announces characters with almost operatic motifs and drives the mood and suspense of the narrative with themes that stay with you for days after.
All in all, A Fistful of Dollars deserves its place in cinema history. The combined genius of Leone’s comic book art visuals and Morricone’s piercingly emotive sounds set a lasting standard that has been rarely matched. The film perhaps lacks some of the depth that the following Leone masterpieces attained but on the other hand it can boast a tightness of pace that Leone eventually lost sight of as he strove for larger and larger canvases. It is as watchable today as it was 43 years ago and has lost nothing of its impact and style. If that is not the sign of a truly great piece of cinema I don’t know what is.
For a devotee of the Spaghetti Western genre, this is where it all begins.