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.