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.