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.