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.