Saturday 6 December 2008

John il Bastardo

Dir: Armando Crispino


There were a number of reworkings of classic literature and mythology during the Italian Western cycle, from Odysseus to Orestes to Hamlet. These classic tales provided ready made dramas and heroes to a genre with a voracious appetite for new material. So it is no surprise that someone should adapt Don Juan, the quintessential anti hero tale into a western setting and John il Bastardo is the result.

Don Juan has become a character as synonomous with incorrigable philandering as Casanova and his story has been told and retold for generations. The most famous versions are probably Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, and Byron's epic poem but the story was first told by the Spanish 17th century dramatist, Tirso de Molina, in his play El Burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville), and it is around this story that all others (including John il Bastardo) are based. Tirso was a priest as well as a playwright and his play was both a morality tale and an expose of the hypocrisy in contemporary Spanish society. In particular it highlighted the ephemeral nature of the honour code which dominated 'polite' society in Spain at this time and the character of Don Juan, with his refusal to acknowledge the value of anything beyond his own base desires and pleasures, was used both as an illumination of an amoral society and its sacrificial scapegoat; paying for the sins he committed openly but which others were also guilty of in a more complicit sense.

In Crispino's western adaptation, Juan (John Richardson), or in this case John, is given a tortured past which provides him with both a source for the bitterness he feels towards society and a revenge motif to hang some of his nastiness on. A bastard in both senses of the word, it turns out John is the illegitimate son of Don Diego Tenorio (Claudio Gora), a wealthy Mexican landownwer and he sets out on a journey south of the border intending to usurp his half brother Francisco (Claudio Camaso) and take possession of his inheritance. Along the way, he deflowers a couple of Mormon lasses, a daliance which has lasting repercussions as their hired assassin Danite (Gordon Mitchell) pursues him as a result, and generally behaves in an arrogant and abhorent manner at every turn. His final come uppance is inevitable if a little bizarre and it appears obvious that the writers were struggling to shoe horn in the stone statue element that is central to the traditional denouement to the tale. They manage it, but only just. A summary sentence which could be used for the film as a whole.

John il Bastardo suffers from a major problem. Its central character is so lacking in any redeeming qualities that it is impossible to connect with him on any level. Arrogant and cruel, self pitying as well as self seeking and with a chip on his shoulder the size of small planet he transcends any acceptable parameters of an anti hero and stands squarely in the zone of unlikeable villain. This is not a cheeky rogue or loveable bad boy. He is mean spirited and vain and his anguished childhood and sense of himself as unjust victim does not convince us that we should care. Rather it increases his level of self obsession and drives another wedge between him and our sympathies. This is a shame and a missed opportunity as the character of Don Juan could have been ideal for a genre which lends itself more than any other to morally questionable anti heroes. If Crispino had made his protagonist just a little more likeable and his actions just a little less despicable a better balance could have been struck and the whole film could have worked in a more satisfying way. One of the keys to Tirso's original play is that Juan's 'victims' were usually just as guilty as he in some way or another but were more hypocritical about their behaviour. This allowed Juan's open amorality to appear almost honest. In John il Bastardo however, outside of John's own kin, and possibly Papa Buck and his oafish clan, there are simply victims who are used and betrayed. Not a good recipe for audience connection.

The film does have highlights however, amongst which the performance of Glauco Onorato as John's ever faithful if stupid manservant, Morenillo, stands out. Morenillo is introduced at the very beginning of the film as a gentle giant figure similar to Lenny from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and his awkwardness and embarrassment in the face of his master's predatory carnal activities show him as a softer soul than is suggested by his willingness to shoot and fight. Moreover, his unstinting loyalty to John in the face of insult and abuse marks him as one of the few honourable characters on show. All this is conveyed by Onorato skillfully and he brings a genuine human element to a largely inhuman scenario. Ex Bond girl Martine Beswick also performs well, instilling her portrayal of Dona Antonia, the unfaithful wife of John's brother Francisco, with a a believable mixture of icy distance and repressed passion while Claudio Camaso plays the sadistic and power hungry brother with all the neccesary creepiness. His unapologetic nastiness appears as appropriate here in contrast to that of his protagonist brother. Finally, Gordon Mitchell's black clad, pistol toting, avenging angel is worth the admission price alone although it would have been nice to see more of him than the two short scenes we are given.

So all is not lost, but, in general, this is a film marked by missed opportunities rather than a successful adaptation of a classic tale. Perhaps Crispino's inexperience as a director was the cause. This was his first outing in the directorial chair. Perhaps it was mistakes made during the script writing process. Certainly the character of John is ill considered and doesn't allow for anything like the level of audience engagement that is neccesary for the piece to work. But whatever the cause, it is a good example of how, even in a genre where moral ambiguity and mercenary actions are not merely acceptable but warmly enjoyed, it is possible to go too far. And that even for the fan who likes their westerns on the dark side with down beat endings and seemingly amoral characters there is a need for some level of emotional connection with the protagonist. Sadly, John il Bastardo doesn't offer us this and as a result we not only lose sympathy for the lead character we are ushered into the worst possible scenario for an audience. We simply stop caring.

Overall the film is worth seeing as an interest piece but my advice would be, if you want to see a good telling of the Don Juan myth, give this one a miss and see Tirso's play instead. The original in thsi instance is definitely the best.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Black Jack

Dir: Gianfranco Baldanello


Black Jack Murphy (Robert Woods) is the brains in an outfit of outlaws who rob the bank at Tusca City. All goes to plan with the heist but once the loot is safely obtained Jack's men lose no time in trying to double cross him. Wily Jack manages to outfox them at first and gets away with the cash but they soon catch up with him again and not only make off with the money but leave him crippled and carrying multiple causes for wanting revenge. This need for amends possesses Jack with an all consuming passion and he sets out to get even with each of his unfaithful former compadres but has his particular sights set on Indian Joe (Mimmo Palmara) and Sanchez (Rik Battaglia) who abused and killed his beloved sister.

All in all this is a pretty standard revenge themed plotline used in one variation or another in countless spaghettis during the cycle. The central protagonist, driven by a bitter need for retribution pursues and punishes those who have stolen his gold, murdered his family etc etc etc. It's such a common theme that it borders on cliche but every now and again a film comes along which seemingly follows the well trodden path only to offer something slightly different in its approach and, in so doing, elevates itself from the crowd and becomes a genuinely memorable entry into the genre. Black Jack is just such a film.

Gianfranco Baldanello's career is not exactly peppered with masterpeices. After working as assistant director on a number of peplums and pirate flicks, primarily under Luigi Capuano, he stepped up to the director's chair in 1965 to make 30 Winchesters for El Diablo. Over the next decade or so he dabbled in a few genres including spy films and comedies but primarily worked in westerns; an area that would account for around half of his total output. Black Jack, released in the boom year of 1968, is probably the high water mark of his career. On the face of it, there doesn't appear to be anything in the raw materials of the film to suggest it would achieve very much. A cast of lower tier actors and stuntmen, an obviously restricted budget and the aforementioned cliche plotline are not exactly inspirational. But to his credit, Baldonello, makes the best of what he has and crafts an excellent film from these modest component parts. Credit must also go to scriptwriter Luigi Ambrosini, whose story this is and whose take on the vengeance theme is far less predictable than is usual in such films. His central protagonist, Black Jack Murphy, is far from one dimensional and it is Jack's journey into obsession which is at the heart of the film's success.

Starting as a clever, almost suave anti hero type in the opening scenes of the film, Jack is transformed by his gang's betrayal into a bitter individual, twisted and crippled both physically and emotionally. He loses sight of all else in his life, shunning his devoted girlfriend for example, and pursuing revenge obsessively to the point of madness. After being shot in both legs and stabbed in the hand during a particularly vindictive scene Jack's physical impairments also make him an unusually disabled protagonist for a western. Hobbling with the aid of a stick through most of the film and unable to use a handgun his disabilities lead him to devise ways of defeating his enemies which no regular avenging hero would generally stoop to. Paying townspeople to mob one of the gang, tricking another gang member into shooting his own brother, kidnapping his nemisis' innocent daughter, these are not the actions of hero at all. Indeed, with his twisted physical appearance, single minded bitterness and cold blooded scheming Jack comes to resemble an almost Richard III type figure; his physical deformity mirroring his equally disfigured psyche.

Robert Woods plays this part well. For an actor who rarely exhibited any De Niro like qualities in his career he carries the duality of Jack effectively and shows that, with the right material, he could do more than just wear a hat. There are moments that don't quite gel, his manic laughter is a little overdone for instance, but on the whole I was carried along quite well and found any instances of 'overacting' quite fitting to the melodramatic nature of the story and the genre. I've always found Woods' career an interesting one. After early success in the reasonbly budgeted Seven Guns for the MacGregors his overall western filmography of some twenty odd titles boasts very little of note. Yet, every now and again he would be involved in something which would buck that trend. El Puro is an obvious case in point. Happily, Black Jack is another.

This film is far from being a masterpiece but it has enough qualities to make it thoroughly enjoyable and deserving of a place amongst the better examples of the genre. Its thoughful twist on the revenge theme, pyschological slant on the protagonist's character and skilfull mix of action and melodrama elevate it from the crowd and showcase the talents of those involved in their best light. Lallo Gori's score works well too, as do the settings, (I'm a sucker for a ghost town) and all in all this is a film worthy of a decent DVD release. Something it sadly lacks in an english language format.

Friday 3 October 2008

A Hole in the Forehead

Dir: Giuseppe Vari


It's always satisfying to see a film in which some of the lesser known names of the genre combine to show what they were capable of and A Hole in the Forehead is a perfect example of just such a happy teaming. Gritty and atmospheric with a haunting musical score, a charismatic lead and an opportunity for Robert Hundar to sport one of the biggest hats in cinematic history. What more could a fan ask for?

Gunman Bill Blood (Anthony Ghidra) arrives at a monastery where he is to meet Mexican bandit Murienda to learn of a scheme to track down a hidden fortune in gold. Murienda turns up dead but Blood takes a clue from his body, a playing card with part of the encoded information written on it which leads to the whereabouts of the loot. There are three such cards. The others held by two other bandits, one of whom, self styled General Monguja (Robert Hundar) is holed up with his gang not far away. Blood gets himself admitted to the bandit's camp and steals the second card before high tailing it back to the local tavern where he suspects he can find the third card. Sure enough, the third card has been left there by the final bandit, Garrincha, but our hero is soon set upon by Monguja's men and loses everything. With the help of a couple of women he has previously befriended however, he manages to escape and track down Monguja and the hidden treasure for a final showdown.

It has often been said that one of the key elements in the lasting popularity of Spaghetti Westerns is the music. The marriage between striking visual imagery and an evocative musical score was central to what good Spaghettis were all about. But Roberto Pregadio's score here does more than simply complement the film. It sets the tone entirely, evoking a melancholy that runs throughout the piece and remains the most memorable element of the entire picture; staying with the viewer days after the film has been seen. This is due mainly to an exquisite main theme which is played repeatedly throughout the drama in differing guises; from orchestral, to moody organ to the luxuriant classical guitar playing supplied by Mario Gangi. This theme often makes dialogue unnecessary. No back story is required here. Anthony Ghidra's world weary expression and the heart wrenching simplicity of the music implies all we need to know. And in a genre not renowned for it's brilliant scriptwriting this is always a bonus.

That is not to denigrate the work of screenwriter Adriano Bolzoni. His work with Corbucci on films such as The Mercenary and Minnesota Clay proved that he was capable of first class work (even if his subsequent descent into the mire of 'comedy' westerns left his overall reputation somewhat tarnished) and he supplies all that is required on this occasion too. It is merely to say that the music here is so strong that it allows for long scenes without dialogue which work perfectly. Likewise for Ghidra, with this score behind him he need only underplay at every opportunity and allow his face to hint at the hardened soul and broken heart which may lie beneath.

Robert Hundar, however, will stand for no such understatement in his characterisation of Monguja. Mad eyes and flashing teeth are the order of the day here as the long legged, terminal bad guy allows himself full rein to express the Mexican bandit's complete range of passions. And the contrast works well. With Ghidra's taciturn stoicism in stark relief to Hundar's larger than life mania. In fact the only thing bigger than Hundar's characterisation here is his hat. This gargantuan headwear is the size of a small family car and warrants the widescreen format just fit it all into one frame. And when you consider that Hundar is already a big unit without it I could only but wonder what it would have looked like on a little fellow like Tomas Milian. I think he could have moved into it with all his extended family and still had room for the occasional surprise visitor. Either way it is a fine example of the sort of sartorial get up a true Mexican bandito should sport and is worth the price of admission on its own.

But beyond the performances and the music the film is also visually well constructed. Vari tended towards the darker themes in his Spaghettis and despite his obviously low budgets does an admirable job at keeping most of it 'on the screen'. By which I mean that although it is clear that the cast and locations on this project were not obviously price laden the style and composition is very solid and is proof positive that such limitations needn't result in a poor quality end product. His direction shows no fear of taking its time and allowing the pace to amble contemplatively when neccesary. This approach costs nothing but compliments the overall sombre mood of the film and adds a sense of weight. Ghidra's face is dwelt on in tight close up again and again, making optimum use of his hang dog, expressionless visage to excellent effect. He also takes full advantage of the locations he has, in particular using the features of the monastery to add interest to his framing. Amerigo Gengarelli's camerawork goes no small way to assisting in this and his use of warm afternoon light in the opening sequence is also a great example of how it is possible to give a sense of quality without a Hollywood budget.
There is, of course, plenty of action too. Ghidra's facial expressions may not be working overtime but his shooting hand is no slouch. Quick on the draw and uncannily accurate it is the hero's trademark shot which leaves the hole in the forehead lifted for the title. In fact pretty much everyone he encounters in anger seems to wind up ventilated in this fashion. This would seem somewhat far fetched but, no matter. By this time I was already hooked in and ready to swallow almost anything. Besides, outlandish shooting skills are par for the course in Spaghettiland and a certain suspension of disbelief is required in this territory. There's some fisticuffs too for good measure, although thankfully no gratuitous bar room brawling and even a whipping but it is noticeable again that Vari doesn't stoop to endless riding or running around to fill in space. Everything is done at a measured pace and the film is all the better for it.

A Hole in the Forehead is a very solid genre entry which exhibits competent work in all areas. The music is the stand out but this alone would not merit its obvious value. It has its flaws without doubt but these are easily overlooked in its overall context and it is certainly worthy of the excellent quality DVD release it has been given by NEW. The picture quality is very nice and the only thing which lets it down for an english speaking audience is its german only audio option. It does have english subtitles but I'm afraid these are very poorly done and often make precious little sense. An english audio track or italian audio with accurate english subtitles would have made this release perfect but, as it is, it is still the best release available and well worth a purchase for any fan. My enjoyment certainly wasn't spoiled. On the contrary. I'm grateful to be able to see the film in such a clean wide format at all. If you haven't seen it yet, put it up on your list and do yourself a favour.

Sunday 31 August 2008

One After Another

Dir: Nick Nostro


There are a number of actors whose consistantly high performances are also matched by their consistantly wise choice of material. Whether through sound judgement or sound advice they manage to maintain, and often increase their reputaions through choosing one solid vehicle after another. Richard Harrison, sadly, is not one of those actors. His career is peppered with roles he really should have steered clear of and as a consequence his is a filmography with as many duds as hits. But occasionally he made good choices and in these films he proved himself to be a solid leading man with qualities which suited him to a number of action genres and particularly to the western. One After Another is not only one of his better choices, I would argue it is very possibly his best.

At first sight the ingredients don't look overly promising. Nick Nostro is not exactly a household name in the spaghetti western director stakes, the budget is clearly on the lower end of what was already a 'seat of the pants' genre and the rest of the cast (apart from a couple of stand out exceptions) doesn't inspire great hopes. But somehow from these modest roots a very solid piece manages to emerge which will reward any fan lucky enough to get hold of a copy of this often under rated film.

Town banker Jefferson (Jose Bodalo) outwits blackmailing local bandit chief Espartero (Jose Manuel Martin) by robbing his own bank and blaming the crime on the mexicans. Things are complicated by the arrival of Stan (Richard Harrison), a lone Pistolero with an unknown connection to Ross, a bank clerk murdered during the robbery. Jefferson seizes on the chance of getting Stan to wipe out the mexicans, thereby removing any evidence of his own guilt but things become even more convoluted once Stan enters the bandits village and learns that all is not as it seems. What follows is a constant stream of cross and double cross with large spoonfuls of revenge, cowardice and intrigue and a smattering of romance and melodrama for good measure culminating in Stan picking off Jefferson and his henchmen 'one after another'.

The twists and turns in this film are relentless to the point where you come to suspect that the creative team behind it decided to shoe horn every possible genre element into it they could. Evil town banker, Mexican bandits, a stolen fortune in gold, revenge for a murdered family member, a lone gunmen working between two warring factions, a vengeful woman and a cowardly, treacherous ex army officer who sold out his own men for his own personal gain. All of these items are seen in countless spaghettis throughout the period. To have them all working at once in one story and still have some room left for a couple of original touches too takes some doing and I take my hat off to them for managing it so well.

One of the original touches here is having the tough, taciturn gunman lead character wear glasses throughout the film. A spectacled pistolero is not a common sight. In fact I can't recall a single other film which features a four eyed tough guy hero of this type. But it works extremely well and allows for some moments of genuine wry humour. The scene early on when Stan is confronted by Jefferson's chief henchman in the saloon and loses his glasses after taking a number of cracks to the jaw is an excellent case in point. Obviously used to such occurances, our man reaches into his coat and unfolds, Colonel Mortimer style, a selection of replacement specs before choosing a pair and returning to the affray with eyesight restored. Gladly, the film does not rely on humour for its merits however. It is a gritty and action filled drama with all of the above mentioned elements keeping it moving along at a decent pace and if we are in any doubt that this is no parody western there is some torture and the massacre of women and children thrown in for good measure. But as in most good spaghettis there is an element of ironic and somewhat black humour underlying the piece which contrasts the violence and allows for a balance of light and shade.

As mentioned above, this film does not enjoy an obviously stellar cast but the three main protagonists all carry their parts very well and more than make up for the lack of other names. Jose Bodalo is excellent as usual as the cowardly and treacherous banker while Jose Manuel Martin makes the most of one of his rarer leading roles. Although not required to act out of type, he manages to combine menace with sentimentality in his portrayal of the Mexican bandit Escartero. Martin is always a welcome face for me and it is a shame he didn't get to play lengthier parts more often. He always added value to every film he appeared in for my money and was worthy of greater use.
But this is primarily Harrison's film of course and he carries it well. Never an actor of great range, the role of Stan suits him admirably and allows him to play to his strengths. Taciturn without being wooden, his character is an interesting mix of self serving loner and justice seeking avenger and his bespectacled look gives him an air of intelligence and vulnerability which contrasts well with his gun toting ruthlessness. This was an ideal mix for Harrison as his physical size and presence was offset by a slightly childlike face which I always felt hinted at a softer side to any character he played. It certainly works for him here. I like Harrison. Some of his films, Vengeance and Gunfight at Red Sands spring to mind, are excellent examples of solid spaghetti fare which he works very well in. But he was ultimately an actor who relied heavily on the work being done around him in order for him to shine. He was never an actor who was likely to transform a weak film into a classic merely by his presence or charisma the way the very best of his contemporaries were sometimes able to do. And he sometimes made poor decisions as to what films to make. (Acquasanta Joe springs to mind in this context) But he was a good genre actor and in the right vehicle could be excellent value. One After Another was just such a vehicle and it brought the best out of him.

The work of the creative team behind the camera is equally solid. The direction of Nostro is competant if not inspired and I certainly wish he had made a few more westerns in his shortish career. He is remembered more for his peplums with Dan Vadis or the couple of spy pictures he made but on the evidence shown in One After Another he could have contributed a lot more to the western genre if he had been more prolific. Likewise, the music delivered by Berto Pisano is catchy and effective if a bit derivative and hinted that he too might have been better remembered in the genre with a few more outings.

As an all round piece One After Another is a well constructed example of the genre. It is no masterpiece by any standards but it is well paced, full of action and has enough twists and turns to hold anyone but the severist critic's interest for its duration. It is gritty and on the dark side for the most part but its odd moments of humour work well and are in keeping with the film's general tone. If I were to aim a single criticism at it I would say it borrows most of its ideas from other works but all genre films do that to a certain extent (that's why they are considered part of a genre) and what it borrows it uses well. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend to all fans.

The version I saw of this film was a DVD-R obviously taken from the Japanese SPO release. A beautiful widescreen print if occasionally a little dark, it does the film proud.

Friday 8 August 2008


Dir: Michele Lupo


1977 didn't see the last of the Spaghetti Western but it was close enough. By this time production of westerns in Europe had slowed beyond a trickle to an occasional drip. The cycle had just about played itself out and its popularity in Italy had been overtaken by the crime and horror film in just the same way as it had in the rest of the world. Yet, in the face of this numerical decline, the quality of the product which did actually get made during this twilight period of the genre could be surprisingly good. Not all of it of course. There was some appalling rubbish churned out too (Kid Vengeance springs to mind). But considering the small number of westerns produced during these final few years the percentage of above average fare is quite an impressive one. Films such as Keoma, Mannaja and Four of the Apocalypse may not be from the very upper tier of the genre but they are certainly creditable affairs which gave proof there was still life in the old dog yet. California falls heavily into this category.

Set as the war between the states has just finished, California follows the story of a recently demobbed Confederate soldier, Michael Random, (not the character's real name but an alias he adopts from a popular tobacco brand) as he seeks a new start amongst the harsh realities of the post war nation. Bounty killers and veangeful, grieving families populate the roads, creating a perilous 'gauntlet' for the returning soldiers to run and after his young companion is killed, Random decides to head for the sanctuary of the boy's farm and family. All does not remain calm of course and when the bounty killers show up again Random's new sweetheart is taken hostage. Strapping on his guns again, the ex soldier is forced to embark on a new and more personal war as he seeks out the men who have taken his girl and attempt to bring her home safely.

The better of these twilight westerns were decidedly darker in tone and this film is no exception; undoubtedly Giuliano Gemma's most downbeat outing in the genre. In fact, for me, California has an almost post apocalyptic feel about it. From the opening scene we are consumed with mud, rain and misery. Random (Gemma) arrives at one ghost town after another, their decaying facades and caved in roofs signifying perhaps not only the desolation of a nation ripped apart by civil conflict but also the terminal condition of the western genre in Europe. The sets are so miserably dilapidated it is difficult to know if they were skillfully constructed that way for the purpose or just genuinely old and worn out, their useful days as western towns a melancholy memory. Whichever the truth, they are put to excellent use here, creating just the right backdrop of desolation and dispair for the story which unfolds around them. One of the towns even comes complete with craters in the street fresh from artillery bombardment which are readily put to use by our protagonist as pseudo open graves for two of his prey while a building on the verge of collapse is helped along with a well aimed bullet and becomes the direct cause of death for poor old Robert Hundar; a man who was killed in a number of ways during his long spell as resident bad guy in this genre but who I suspect was never knocked off by failing architecture before.

But the misery extends beyond the abandoned towns. At the farm where Random settles with his dead friend's family the sense of desolation is just as strong. In fact the whole film is shot in subdued light and colours to such an extent that even the lighter hearted scenes have a melacholy air. This is particularly noticeable during the scenes shot in Almeria; a landscape we are used to seeing in blinding sunlight and rich colours. All in all, not a mood you neccesarily expect from a Giuliano Gemma picture. Indeed, even the character Gemma plays, despite his kitten saving, girl rescuing heroics is decidely dirtier than is the norm for 'Bello Giuliano'. And I don't just mean the muddy uniform he wears. Gemma's fight scenes were always action packed and well choreographed. His background as an acrobat and stuntman meant that his natural athleticism and training made his physical abilities a strong asset which was usually taken advantage of. What is slightly different here is that we not only see his character fighting with energy and style but also with an unusually nasty edge. We don't just see punches and grappling but kicks and head butts. And I don't mean bullish, Bud Spencer type head butts driven at the stomach but, well aimed 'Glasgow Kiss' type head butts planted squarely into the face. One of his brawls (I won't say against whom in order to avoid a spoiler) also ends with a particularly vicious use of a lump of four by two with a nail in it. Not so much the pretty boy hero of the Ringo films or Adios Gringo here, but a far more jaded and ruthless character willing and able to get down and dirty.

Having said all that, the film eventually develops as time passes into a more traditional revenge themed tale and despite this angle being handled quite well it gives the impression of a certain disjointedness to the piece as a whole. Almost split into three separate phases the story starts as a tale of returning soldiers battling against forces of anarchy in a post war nightmare world, shifts to a love story as Gemma settles in to life on the farm with his friend's sister, and ends as a revenge and rescue flick as he sets out to save the girl and kill the bad guys. This variation in direction has put some fans off as an inconsistancy but I believe the changes follow more of a pattern than is perhaps obvious at face value. The middle section of the film which develops the love interest is setting up not just the rescue element but the idea of new hope. It is saying that perhaps life can be good and clean again and that it may still be possible to escape the war without too many scars. It offers the characters the promise of an unstained future. The events that follow, even the seemingly successful denouement, suggests that this hope is unrealistic. That even the 'victors' will have to carry their scars and live in a future that will always be tarnished to a large extent.

The cast here is very solid. Gemma carries the film largely of course and his previous work with Lupo in Arizona Colt and Ben and Charlie obviously allowed for a good understanding between actor and director. But main villain Raimund Harmstorf also plays his part well and brings some wide grinning nastiness to the role as long as a skillfully conveyed sense of tragedy in his characterisation of the bounty killer, Whitaker. Harmstorf is ably assisted in the bad guy department by the ever reliable Robert Hundar too and it was nice to see William Berger, although his role as the broken father grieving after his lost son keeps him fairly static throughout his part in the film. The young Prestons are competently covered by Paola and Miguel Bose and we even get a cameo from one of my favourite genre faces, Franco Ressel. There's a good, melancholy score from Gianni Ferrio too and although Alejandro Ulloa's cinematography is of the aforementioned subdued palette variety it fits the film well and is to his usual high standards.

The DVD release from NEW presents the film in a nice 16:9 ratio and offers English, German and Italian audio options. The quality of the transfer is up to their usual good standards although it is often only available at a somewhat hefty price. Mine was a lucky ebay purchase for which I am grateful as California is a very good example of the twilight spaghetti and a film well worth seeing for any fan of the genre.

Monday 28 July 2008


Dir: Giulio Petroni


The Revolutionary Westerns that became almost a sub genre during the italian western cycle produced some of the most interesting films of the era. A Bullet for the General, Companeros and The Mercenary are good examples of how the Mexican revolution provided a rich backdrop for the creative talents of the italian commercial cinema's best writers and directors. The tragic political and personal stories which the setting offered led to a more intellectual approach and an end result which was more thoughtful and thought provoking than the average shoot 'em up action flick. Tepepa is possibly the most thought provoking of them all.

Ostensibly this is a story of a Zapata-like revolutionary figure struggling to continue the revolution after Madero has become president but not fulfilled his election promises. Pursued by the army and police as a renegade Tepepa is under threat from all sides. Even the English doctor who saves him from the firing squad only does so in order to have the pleasure of killing him himself. An act he tries to accomplish throughout the film. But Tepepa the film is far more complex than a simple folk hero tale with some explosions and gun battles thrown in.

To begin with, the narrative style of the film is anything but straightforward. Interweaved with the forward progression of the story is a series of flashbacks, recounted memories and eyewitness reports which theoretically flesh out the back story leading up to the present but, in reality, only serve to cloud our ability to identify true events and character motivations. Like a novel with a series of unreliable narrators the film lures us in with one account only to undermind it with the next. Tepepa asks Madero to recall certain events in a letter he dictates to the president, the doctor sees his dead fiance in flashbacks to scenes we discover he never actually witnessed, Colonel Cascorro reads eyewitness reports which are just as likely to have been extracted through torture as freely given and, given the colonel's character, could simply be invented for his purposes. All of these versions of events conflict with each other and we are left grappling for grains of truth we can rely on in a vain attempt to identify the true heroes of the piece. In reality of course, there are none. All the characters here have their own prejudices and are driven by their own priorities. All insist they stand for the common good, but all, to some extent are merely self serving. All, ultimately, are corrupted by whatever level of power they gain and are blinded by their own unwavering view of what is most important.

This is also a story steeped in betrayal. A theme at the heart of the Mexican revolution. Madero is seen as a traitor to the revolution; failing to honour his promises and distancing himself after victory from the peasants who supported him. Choosing rather to ally himself with the army and police who had been their adversaries during the war. But the other characters here, be they central or peripheral, are equally prone to turning their backs on former comrades or making agreements with enemies in order to progress their own cause. Tepepa himself, despite his criticism of Madero, turns his back on Jose Torres' character once he sees he has lost both his hands and is therefore of no use to him and his struggle. Torres, in turn, betrays Tepepa for money to make a better life for his son. The doctor is at least consistant in betraying any trust Tepepa puts in him but we are still taken by surprise by his ultimate act as it betrays not just an individual but the hippocratic oath of his profession too. Finally, the doctor himself is also betrayed by the boy he thought he had befriended for the simple reason that "He didn't like Mexico."

Tepepa then, is not an easy film to watch. It demands more from its audience than simply following a hero through to a happy ending or merely enjoying an action packed ride through the Mexican revolution. Its characters are complex and unsympathetic to varying degrees. Those you are drawn to and wish to think the best of have their weaknesses exposed. And in so doing, shed a less damning light on their adversaries whom it is easy to despise. It is a film which plays with ideas of 'truth' and suggests that, as in Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when it conflicts with 'legend' it is the latter which will ultimately be more palatable.

The artistic personel here are all of the first order and at the top of their game. Petroni, a fine director responsible for the excellent Death Rides a Horse, produces probably the best work of his career here. Morricone's melancholy score is sublime and perfectly fitting for the tone of the film and Franco Solinas' script is proof that his equally meritous work on A Bullet for the General was no fluke. The casting together of Tomas Milian and Orson Welles, although apparently an extremely unhappy personal mix on set, proved fruitful for the viewer at least. Milian plays the charismatic Tepepa with consumate skill; winning us over despite the flaws his character exposes as the piece unfolds, while always maintaining a suggestion of cruelty hovering beneath the surface. For Welles the cruelty is open and unabashed. Although I sensed that the big man was somewhat going through the motions en route to a pay cheque, his slothful greasiness suits his character perfectly. John Steiner's Dr Price is equally well played with a fine combination of british haughtiness and seething, pyschotic rage.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, Tepepa does not have an english friendly international DVD release. The italian Mondo edition which I watched has english audio as an option but this soundtrack is not complete and it's repeated dropping out through the course of the film (some 15 minutes in total) is irritating and off putting for a film that demands your concentration. Unfortunately this is the only complete version of the film available that I am aware of and is therefore, though imperfect, the best option there is. I got over the sound drop outs by keeping the italian subtitles switched on throughout and piecing together what I could using my bad Spanish and the little Italian vocabulary I have picked up from film titles over the years. This is not ideal in any sense but a complete english soundtrack simply doesn't exist so, until some kind soul releases the film with complete english subtitles, it's all we have. And, in any form, this is a film which deserves to be seen.

Thursday 17 July 2008

The Road to Fort Alamo

Dir: Mario Bava


Mario Bava is far better known, and respected, for his Horror and Giallo films but he did make three westerns of which Road to Fort Alamo is the first, and some say, best. So Koch Media's recent release of this film has been gratefully received by italian genre film fans everywhere as we finally get the chance to judge for ourselves just how well the maestro of the macabre handled the horse opera.

The first thing that strikes you as the film unfolds is that, for such an innovative film maker, this is a very classical western in its style. 1964 was, of course, very much part of the 'early' period of italian westerns so it is hardly surprising that the Leone influence that shaped so much of the genre over the coming years was not in evidence here. In fact, the over riding influence in this film is clearly that of another, older, godfather of the western; John Ford. Parallels with Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy' abound. The arragont commanding officer who leads his men into danger because of his insistance on going by the book is lifted straight out of Fort Apache, but many other elements could be attributed to any number of Ford's films. The wise and experienced sergeant, the strong woman character travelling in the wagon, the wanted bandit redeeming himself in the face of danger for others; all of these are Fordisms and it is obvious that Bava's film was meant to reflect the great man's work. Unfortunately, Bava didn't have the benefit of Ford's landscape to work with nor, clearly, his budget. It's equally clear, however, that he also didn't share his natural affinity with the genre. That is not to say that Road to Fort Alamo is a bad film. I quite enjoyed it. But the piling up of elements from previous westerns does not equal a quality entry into the field.

Interestingly, some of those elements lifted from Ford's classic westerns, although common in american films up to this time, proved to be rare in the spaghetti genre that unfolded over the ensuing decade. Stories involving the U.S army battling against the threat of indian attacks are very thin on the ground. In fact, the bright blue and yellow cavalry uniforms and blazing red warpaint on show here are so unfamiliar to the spaghetti afficionado that they create an almost inverted originality. The same goes for the studio bound night time 'exterior' shots which were all clearly filmed on an Elios studio sound stage. These scenes have a strikingly lurid colour palette and lighting set up which gives them quite a pleasing, if unreal, ambience about them. This is also the case with the cave scenes, of which there are a number, and which suggested to me more of a Peplum feel than a western one.

Indeed, the peplum connection is quite strong in this film throughout. All the lead actors, Ken Clark, Jany Clair, Michel Lemoine and Alberto Cevenini had previously appeared in a number of sword and sandal epics and Bava himself of course had early experience during that particular cycle of italian commercial films. Clark, in particular, had a physique which probably suited him better for Peplums than Oaters but his previous experience in his native U.S.A in films such as The Proud Ones, The True Story of Jesse James and Delmer Daves' The Last Wagon shows that he was reasonably at home in the Western too. And he does a reasonable job here, as do the rest of the cast. Alberto Cevenini is perfectly fine in the Harry Carey Jr, younger sidekick type role, Michel Lemoine is suitably slimy as the psychopathic gang leader, Carson, and the flame haired Jany Clair plays the love interest with as much voluptuousness as you could ask for. It is also nice to see Gerard Herter in all his wickedness appear, although all too briefly and this time as a card sharp rather than his usual teutonic, nobleman officer.

Overall then, the film is probably best rated as a mixed bag. Unusaul in its strong adherence to old school american western cliches and bright colour palette, yet lacking in any real originality. Competently acted and directed but suffering with some awful continuity errors that not even its low budget can excuse. These are actually quite fun in their own way. My favourites being Ken Clark's black haired stunt double (Clark is a blonde) and the changing colour of horses as they ride in and out of shots. The musical score by Piero Umiliani is quite good but probably better suited to a 50s crime thriller with its use of staccato brass and tumbling violin riffs and the happy ending, though fitting with the tone of the piece, is a bit too predictable and trite. But despite all this, I found it entertaining throughout and would certainly recommend it to Bava completists and early italian western fans alike. In fact to anyone not averse to a bit of corn with their spaghetti.

Congratulations are due to our friends at Koch who have done a fine job on the DVD release as usual. The picture is beautifully clean for the most part which shows off the aforementioned bright colour scheme to perfection. It is in full 2.35:1 ratio with good sound quality and Italian and German audio with English subs available through your remote. My only criticism of the release is that the documentary featurette included, despite having all titles in English has only italian audio and german subs available. Looks like it would have been interesting if only I could understand what was being said.

Saturday 21 June 2008

Between God, the Devil and a Winchester

Dir: Marino Girolami


We've had Greek myths retold as spaghetti westerns (Return of Ringo), Shakespearean drama (Johnny Hamlet) and now here is Robert Louis Stevenson's 19th century adventure classic Treasure Island dressed up and repositioned in the badlands of the mexican border with wagons instead of ships and a plethora of bandits instead of pirates.

Surprisingly, this genre realignment works reasonably well in terms of setting and personel as the substitutions hold clear parallels with their originals. The desert stands in easily for the sea; its vastness, isolation and danger allow it to offer the same perilous and protracted journey. The bandits are an even easier fit. Swarthy, evil grinning cutthroats brandishing assorted weaponry and consumed by an all consuming lust for gold could be a fitting description for Raf Baldasarre and his cohorts just as easily as it could for a pirate hord. And if there is treasure buried it doesn't really matter where the geography of it is as long as its isolated and hard to get at.

Between God, the Devil and a Winchester manages to cover all these bases and stick reasonably close to the story and themes of Stevenson's original while populating the story with characters just different enough to add something new but similar enough to keep a firm grip on this children's favourite yarn. But therein lies the rub. This is a family adventure film. Something which spaghetti westerns really are not. As a result, although perfectly fine as a sunday afternoon time passer with your youngsters, this is not a film likely to successfully press the buttons of your average (or even not so average) spaghetti fan. For a start the central protagonist is a 10 year old boy and, as has been proved on more than one occasion, this is genre poison. Cute kids and spaghetti don't mix. Except perhaps with a garlic sauce and a nice chianti. Moreover, if the kid is being mentored and cared for by a pacifist priest in civvies with as much edge as a plastic butter knife you are doubly hindered in going anywhere other than syrup city and inevitably this is the destination of this film.

It's no one's fault really. The cast all do a reasonable job. Richard Harrison as the aforementioned plain clothes clergy does what is required of him, Robert Camardiel is reasonable value as the somewhat bizarrely named comic relief Uncle Pink. Even the kid plays his part with relative professionalism. It's just that the subject matter doesn't gel with the spaghetti sensibility and so we are left fundamentally unsatisfied. The problem is clear enough. In the cases cited above where older tales are retold in a western setting the stories were dark and full of gritty themes like revenge, incest, adultery and a loss of place. These are themes which lend themselves perfectly to the spaghetti style as they are the same ones at play in original stories throughout the genre. A bit of gold lust and treachery is all well and good but if it is played too light and tied up with an uplifting moral denouement someting is lost which no end of explosions and shoot outs can fix.

Gilbert Roland's character is a good example of what I mean. Obviously representing the Long John Silver role, Roland has an iron arm instead of a wooden leg but embodies the same mix of charm and baseness of the pirate captain. His charismatic untrustworthiness is a magnet to the boy and, on a surface level, leaves the viewer unsure as to which way he will ultimately turn. All so well and good, but, as a family adventure story with a firm moral position at its heart, it gradually becomes all too obvious which way he will finish up and the sacharine ending when it arrives undermines any pleasure we may have gained from him during the twists and turns of the story. Gilbert Roland always delivers a solid performance and adds a hint of class to anything he appears in. This is just as true here as elsewhere in his career. But solid and classy or not, he cannot inject more into the piece than the plot will allow and his qualities are inevitably undermined.

Ultimately then, this is a misguided film rather than a bad one. Treasure Island retold in the west probably sounded like a good idea when first suggested. A popular classic tale (out of copyright) involving treasure, bandits and double crossing seems to suggest plenty of opportunities for action and drama but, in reality, the idea was misplaced. Mythological or tragic dramas are far better suited to adaptation into this genre than adventure yarns. They are based around human weakness and passions, dark pyschological struggles where violence and revenge find a natural environment.

Of course there are plenty of lighter spaghetti westerns; films which don't delve too deeply into the darker sde of humanity. And some of these are very entertaining. But it's a difficult trick to pull off and I'm afraid Between God, the Devil and a Winchester just isn't special enough to really carry it off. It's not a bad film. It's not even a bad adaptation of Treasure Island. It just isn't good enough to overcome its weaknesses. If you have kids and want something for a rainy afternoon in front of the telly you could do worse. But you could do a lot better too.

Saturday 24 May 2008

Kill or Die

Dir: Tanio Boccia


A violin playing drifter arrives in town and becomes embroiled in the affairs of a pair of feuding families. His killing of the favourite youngest son of the wicked Griffith clan and his budding romance with the eldest daughter of the beleagured Drumonts means that things get a whole lot hotter before they are settled in a showdown at the wedding meant to bring the families together.

Responsible for a handful of Spaghettis, Tanio Boccia can best be described as a journeyman director. Reasonably capable but rarely inspired and usually shackled to a low budget, his work is unlikely to excite anyone looking for a hidden treasure in the genre. Kill or Die certainly fits this profile. Despite its gritty title this is a strictly pedestrian stroll through a conglomerate of cliches interspersed with some reasonable, if not overly invigorating action sequences. The story is based on the 'feuding ranchers' model and has a strong romantic element which gives it something of a traditional U.S western feel. The crusty old man for 'comic' relief and a clean cut younger brother learning how to be a man add to this ambience and then we have the hero's life saved by a cute looking dog for good measure. This may all work in a saturday matinee oater starring Bob Steele or Crash Corrigan but Spaghetti with syrup is a sickly combination and just tends to leave the consumer with a stomach ache and a bad taste in the mouth.

It is clear that the producers were attempting to recreate the success of the Giuliano Gemma films here. The main character turning out to be called Ringo is a clue but that happens in a lot of films from this period that are giving no more than a nod in the direction Tessari's classics. The clearer evidence that we are witnessing near plagiarism is the hero's repeated use of a catch phrase; in this case, "Maybe later, maybe later." This is an unmistakable attempt to mimic the style which had made the original Ringo films such domestic money spinners. Unfortunately, Rod Dana, although not overly bad, is no Giuliano Gemma and Tanio Boccia is definitely no Duccio Tessari. Neither has the panache of the originals and what we are left with is a second rate copy which fails to deliver on all fronts.

This is not to say that Kill or Die is a terrible film. It's just a bit ordinary and falls between the categories of 'decent' and 'so bad it's good', making the final product just a bit forgettable. In fact, it turned out to be so forgettable that, on sitting down to write this review, I realised I remembered practically nothing about it despite having viewed it only a short time ago. I had to watch the whole thing over again (not something I'd recommend to anyone else) in order to be able to write something accurate.

In looking for positives I could say that it is always good to see Andrea Bosic; in this case unusually cast as the honest sheriff. Gordon Mitchell also shows up in a short lived cameo as a black clad hired gun with just enough screen time to fit in a fist fight, a maniacal laugh and a bullet riddled death. Elina De Witt looks OK, if a bit insipid. And Rod Dana, although not up to the grade of the guy he's clearly trying to stand in for, does a reasonable job within the constarints made by the poor script.

On the down side, Rustichelli's score is weak, and badly used, Boccia's direction is no more than adequate and Alberto Farnese (as bad brother Chester) comes off like a pissed off lounge singer more than a mean cow punching killer. All in all, the best that can be said is that Kill or Die is a great title that is not lived up to by the film in general.

But what the heck, not every spaghetti western can be a classic and this one held just enough interest to keep me awake for an hour and a half without thinking about what might be for dinner or wondering what was happening on Gardener's World. And X Rated are to be applauded for putting out a nice quality DVD with english audio on a very clean widescreen print. It's just not a film I could highly recommend to anyone. Let's call it one for the completists among us.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Arizona Colt

Dir: Michele Lupo


Giuliano Gemma created a very successful career for himself during the mid sixties making a series of westerns that showcased his matinee idol looks, athleticism and ability to be gritty and ironic at the same time. These films succeeded, like no others, in marrying action and violence with a certain romanticism and dry humour and Gemma must take the lion's share of the credit as to why these films worked so well. Arizona Colt is one of his best.

Gordo Watch (Fernando Sancho), a bandit Chief in need of new recruits, attacks the local jail and carries off the inmates to his desert hide out. There they are given the choice of being branded (literally) into the gang or die. Arizona Colt, one of the freed men, outwits Gordo and escapes, telling the blustering outlaw he will "think about that". This becomes his catch phrase throughout as he weighs up each situation before exploiting it to his own advantage. On meeting Gordo's right hand man (Nello Pazzafini) on the stage into town, Colt stays quiet, even though he guesses that the town's bank is under threat. What he doesn't expect is that the popular saloon keeper's daughter, Dolores, (Rosalba Neri) will be murdered and that he would come under suspicion. However, once the bank has been robbed he offers Dolores' father a deal. He will bring back Dolores' killer for $500 as long as his other daughter, Jane, (Corrine Merchand) is handed over to him. Filled with a thirst for vengeance, Jane agrees, but when the killer is brought back with the help of the repenting drunken bandit, Whiskey, (Roberto Camardiel) the father (Andrea Bosic) understandably refuses to hand over his surviving daughter. The matter is resolved when Gordo comes back to town searching for his gold which Whiskey has secretly taken with him and Arizona squares off against the evil bandit leader.

A brief glance at this synopsis tells you one thing very quickly. Arizona Colt is far from being a hero in the traditional sense. He starts the film in jail, he soon declares himself a bounty killer by trade, he shows little or no regard for the general welfare of anyone but himself and even stoops as low as demanding a berieved man hands over his one remaining daughter in a trade for vengeance, making it quite clear that he doesn't mean to take the girl for the purpose of marriage. This is not the same avenging hero of Return of Ringo, or even the impressionable stray from Day of Anger. This character is harder edged and darker in tone and it is the dichotomy between his ruthless, mercenary actions and his clean cut good looks with kindly smile that creates a really interesting core to the film.

What is also obvious from a brief glance at the above synopsis is that this picture has a Spaghetti cast to die for. Fernando Sancho, Rosalba Neri, Roberto Camardiel, Nello Pazzafini, Andrea Bosic and, of course, Gemma himself; this lot line up like some kind of Eurowestern super group. But it doesn't even stop there. In the shadows you also find some of our favourite genre 'uglies'. Perenial bad guy Jose Manuel Martin is here and so is Jose Terron; a face once seen and never forgotten. The bottom line is that with all these gems on show this film would have to work very hard to disappoint and in Michele Lupo's capable, if not overly inspired hands, the result is all you could hope for. With everyone playing their part in a first rate package.

But first among equals here is most definitely Giuliano Gemma. It is easy to allow his boyish good looks to overshadow the fact that he was a very capable actor in these types of films. As I mentioned before, his ability to blend action hero, romantic lead and ruthless gunslinger into one role while simultaneously injecting a wry, ironic comic element with seemingly effortless flair is a skill unmatched by any other spaghetti actor outside of Clint Eastwood himself. And as such it is no surprise that he was such a popular actor in Italy during this period. In fact, in terms of box office success in westerns in his homeland Gemma outperformed every other single actor in the genre. His films consistantly made money throughout the cycle and, in Arizona Colt, it is easy to see why. All his strengths are on show, from acrobatic physical agility to comedic timing to gritty dramatic presence; Gemma exhibits it all here and it is hard not to be impressed.

Credit must also go to Michele Lupo of course, not just for his fine direction but also his contribution to an excellent script. The camera work of Francisco Marin and Guglielmo Mancori is also worthy of merit and the music score from Francesco De Masi is excellent.

All round then this is a top notch spaghetti made by a fantastic array of talent who all punch their weight. There are certain similarities here to the Ringo films (especially A Pistol for Ringo) but as mentioned before this one has a decidedly darker edge to it without ever being overly sombre. What's more is that it is readily available on DVD in a number of editions, although usually under it's U.S title 'The Man From Nowhere'.

Definitely not to be missed.

Saturday 26 April 2008

A Bullet for Sandoval

Dir: Julio Buchs


When reviewing a film like A Bullet for Sandoval it is impossible not to be diverted into a discussion of "When is a Spaghetti Western not a Spaghetti Western?" Because the answer in this case is clearly "When it is a Paella Western." That is to say, that despite it's inclusion and acceptance in the general canon of Spaghettis it is, in reality, better described by the Iberian label as it's heart, soul and major influencing factors are firmly based in Spain rather than Italy. In general terms this kind of hairsplitting is irrelevent, in my opinion. The Spaghetti / Euro Western genre has too many examples of cross over and confusion to allow oneself to be bogged down or restricted by pedantic pigeon holing. However, in the case of A Bullet for Sandoval the Hispanic influence is too strong to ignore.

To begin with, the primary personel of the film, from director and scriptwriters to the majority of the cast are all either spanish or latin american in origin. But also, the story is a tragedy in the true sense of the word and following very much the Spanish tradition of tragic drama. Two men are driven by pride and revenge and allow these passions to over rule their better judgements. They are both tragic figures in the traditional sense. That is, great men who fall due to a tragic weakness they are unable to overcome. Such men, in countless Spanish Golden Age dramas, can only find redemption in death and such is the case in A Bullet for Sandoval.

John Warner (George Hilton) is a soldier fighting with the Confederacy during the American Civil War. On discovering that his beloved Rosa is carrying his child and on the point of death he deserts and returns to his Cholera ridden home town to marry her before she dies in shame. In order to do this he must confront her father, Don Pedro Sandoval (Ernest Borgnine) a powerful rancher who despises Warner as a Gringo and has forbidden their marriage in the past. Warner arrives too late. His sweetheart has died in child birth and Don Pedro will not allow Warner to see her. Instead he gives him his baby son and tells him to take it away.

Accompanied by another deserter, Warner sets off with the baby but due to the Cholera epidemic they are turned away by everyone they meet on the road asking for help. Eventually the infant dies and Warner is turned into an embittered outlaw bent on exacting revenge on all who turned their back on him and his child. He embarks on a spree of attacks and retributions assisted by a group of desperadoes he has accumulated along the way until his path takes him, inevitably, and tragically, back to Sandoval.

George Hilton gives one of his better dramatic performances here in a film which quickly shows itself to be far more of a melodrama than an action flick. Despite its opening sequence which follows a Yankee soldier robbing the dead littered across a battlefield, the general tone, especially in the first half of the picture, is one of implicit rather than explicit violence. It is not until Warner's infant son dies and he turns into a cold hearted revenger that the real action is introduced and even here there is a clear policy on the part of the director to show the killer rather than the killed, the aftermath rather than the point of death. This is not an unwavering policy but time and again we see Warner and his men involved in shoot outs with various adversaries only for the camera to turn away before the victim falls and return a moment later to show the corpse or perhaps just his lifeless hand lying next to a dropped pistol. Indeed, the most obvious example of this is in the final scene in the corrida when Warner and his men face overwhelming odds in a 'Butch and Sundance' type denouement. However, it seems to have been applied to gunfights only. When Don Pedro meets his eventual and gorey end it is shown in prolonged detail. A point in the film which consequently stands out as shocking and deliberate in its intensity.

Ernest Borgnine's performance as the bullying pariarch is a solid one too and he exhibits the character's contrasting attributes well. Predominantly presented as stubborn and bitter, in the scene where he breaks down in a passionate lament to his deceased daughter, Don Pedro is also exposed as a man with hidden and tortured emotions. This was, in fact, Borgnine's only appearance in a european western. A pity, as his bear like appearance and ill tempered screen persona lent itself well to the genre and could have been utilised in a variety of roles. As he shows here, he was a good, and often underestimated actor too.

Other contibutors worthy of mention are Leo Anchoriz as the lapsed priest turned outlaw whose screen presence makes far more of the supporting role than would have appeared in the script. Gianni Ferrio who delivered a fine musical score and director Julio Buchs whose handling of key scenes was first class. I have read that italian Lucio Fulci was co director on this project but I am more willing to believe George Hilton who has insisted that Buchs was in charge throughout.

My one criticism of the film would be that it is somewhat episodic in nature. The story seems to jump ahead at times and some scenes arrive unexplained. However, I suspect that these failings are due more to the excessive cuts made to the DVD version of the film than to the original product delivered by Julio Buchs. Unfortunately, despite the version I saw being the best available that I am aware of it is so heavily cut that one of the central characters (Rosa, Sandoval's daughter and the person at the centre of his feud with Warner) does not appear at all despite the actress who played her, Annabella Incontrara, originally having prominant billing. Now I'm not as much of a purist as some on the subject of cuts made to films but it seems to me that it is impossible to take over 15 minutes from a film of under 2 hours without making a major impact. And to cut out a character so central to the drama would be laughable if it wasn't so annoying. It is to the film's credit that it remains so enjoyable despite this butchering.

All this not withstanding, A Bullet for Sandoval is a movie well worth viewing in any form. It is a film with a genuinely dramatic narrative which, in a genre often dominated by action for action's sake, is refreshing and worthy of support. It contains some truly memorable scenes, some of the central actors' best performances and will reward anyone who settles down in front of it. It is also a fine testament to the fact that good westerns made in europe were not just the bastion of the italians. The spanish were also capable of producing first class pieces and exhibit just as much of a national style as their Roman cousins.

But if there is a company out there in possession of an uncut print, do us all a favour and get it released. You will win the undying gratitude of a lot of fans.

Sunday 20 April 2008

A Stranger in Town

Dir: Luigi Vanzi


Also known as For a Dollar Between the Teeth (a title that links to an image near the end of the film) this was the first outing by Tony Anthony as The Stranger, a character based heavily on the Clint Eastwood persona from Leone's Dollar trilogy. Followed almost immediately by The Stranger Returns, later by the hybrid curiosity The Stranger in Japan and finally by the surreal Get Mean, this series varied largely in quality but the first two, at least, proved to be solid efforts that overcame the shackles of their largely derivative origins.

Arriving into a seemingly deserted mexican town the Stranger witnesses a massacre of soldiers by the bandit leader Aguila (Frank Wolff) and his men who then proceed to don the army uniforms themselves and await the arrival of a troop of U.S cavalry. Concluding that this act is a prelude to an attempt to steal the shipment of gold being delivered by the troop Stranger ingratiates himself into the bandit's gang and assists them to collect the gold without firing a single shot. This happy beginning to their relationship does not last of course and Stranger soon finds himself beaten and running for his life with only a single gold coin to show for his troubles. Our hero, or rather anti hero, is not about to settle for such an outcome however, and soon turns the tables on his treacherous co conspirators, takes back all the gold for himself and finally settles the score with Aguila, his right hand man (Raf Baldasarre) and their beautiful but wicked partner Maruja (Gia Sandri).

Anthony's Stranger, although clearly based on the Eastwood character is, happily, not an attempt at carbon copying. There are certainly similarities; in costume and taciturn nature, but this Stranger is more vulnerable than the hero of the Dollars films and relies as much on his wits as his guns. This makes for a more interesting character, and fits well with Anthony's more diminutive stature. Indeed, he spends much of the film getting the stuffing knocked out of him and even suffers the indignity of being whipped mercilessly by a sadistic and increasingly aroused woman. Not something you could imagine happening to our man Clint.

Meanwhile, just as Anthony is based on the man with no name from A Fistful of Dollars, the chief bad guy of the piece, Aguila is based equally on Gian Maria Volonte's Ramon from the same film. And like Volonte, Frank Wolff brings a satisfying serving of manic menace to the role and, by extension, to the picture as a whole. Wolff is a genre favourite with many spaghetti outings to his credit and he always brings a touch of quality to anything he appears in. He is particularly effective in the role of a heavy and he performs to his usual standards here. My only criticism would be that he is not given the freedom to extend the character a little further and make him even more compelling. His implied open, if twisted relationship with the trouser clad Maruja is only hinted at but could have yielded far more interest if allowed to be explored further. Likewise, Maruja herself could have been utilised more and injected even more nastiness into the mix. In particular, her sexual ambiguity and predelictions had great potential for further development, not to mention exploitation! Her dominatrix tendencies come as somewhat of a surprise out of left field but at least they are allowed to explode into life when she whips Stranger to a pulp and herself into a state of carnal frenzy. Her lesbian leanings, however, are only hinted at when she leads Chica upstairs and attends to her in a far softer, affectionate fashion. Here is a character with some intriguing contrasts who is largely wasted and could have offered much more than she is allowed.

The final two main characters are Corgo, Aguila's right hand man played by habitual bad guy Raf Baldasarre and Chica, an unfortunate young townswoman played by Jolanda Modio, who finds herself swept up into the drama and, as a result, becomes the victim of the attentions of both Aguila and Maruja before being saved and then left by the Stranger. Both these supporting roles are played well. Baldasarre is always good value and went on to appear in this film's sequel. While Modio manages to maintain her presence while remaining silent for the entire picture. As an attempt to make a more palatable spaghetti western for U.S audiences this film explicitly follows a 'minimal dialogue' approach throughout but poor old Jolanda must have been somewhat disappointed to find she had no lines at all!

This is by no means one the all time great examples of the genre but it is solidly made and the central actors all bring enough to the table to ensure that the film's simplicity does not turn into banality. It is ably enough directed by Luigi Vanzi (working under the Vance Lewis monicor) and the score from Benedetto Ghiglia works well, cementing the 60s cool feel about the picture while coming close enough to a Morriconesque sound to make it pleasing without stooping to plagiarism. The narrative is certainly somewhat slow paced but never to the point of being tedious. On the contrary, it kept me entertained throughout and despite a few inconsistancies (The Stranger using a sawn off shotgun like a sniper's rifle does stretch the credibility a jot) was a solid example of the genre.
I like Tony Anthony's vulnerable hard man persona. It is a good balance, probably best played out in Blindman, but equally effective here and allows his character to be both ruthless and likeable at the same time. He is cool but not invincible and as a result A Stranger in Town offers all the ingredients I expect from a spaghetti but doesn't fall into too many cliches.
Definitely recommended.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone

Dir: Enzo G. Castellari


Enzo G. Castellari is, first and foremost, a great director of action sequences. In Kill Them All and Come Back Alone he showcases this skill non stop for the entire duration of the film. Don't expect any character development or complex drama here. It is fighting, shooting and explosions all the way with the deepest thing on show being Chuck Connors' tan.

Clyde (Chuck Connors) is hired by a Confederate General to carry out a raid on a Union stronghold and steal the million dollars worth of gold coins hidden there amongst an arsenal of dynamite. Clyde recruits a troop of five unsavoury characters to assist him in his quest and with the occasional help of Captain Lynch (Frank Wolff) the gang set about infiltrating the fort, grabbing the treasure and making their escape. All, of course, does not go strictly to plan and the situation is not helped by the untrustworthiness of all concerned. Nor indeed by the order given by Lynch to Clyde in regards to how he should reward his men after the robbery is completed. This order is where the title of the film is derived from as Clyde is instructed to "Kill them all and come back alone."

The premise of the film is clearly based on The Dirty Dozen, a very successful american war film from the previous year except, in true italian genre cinema tradition, the budget is smaller so we get a kind of 'Dirty Half Dozen' instead. The principle is the same though; with each villainous member of the gang expert in a different sort of violent conduct. Bogard the strongman, Blade the knife thrower, Deker, the dynamite expert, Hoagy the gunman and Kid, the baby faced killer.

The cast, apart from Connors and Wolff, is almost entirely made up of stuntmen and from the opening sequence onwards it is clear why. This is one of the most relentless action fests I have ever seen. No one is called on to act much past the odd grimace and an eventual death scene and there is not the slightest pretense that anything more subtle than a fistfight will be required of any of the protagonists. A dizzying number of punches are thrown, buildings blown up and extras slaughtered and everyone clearly has more fun than a fat bloke in a chocolate factory. This is pure, unashamed escapism from start to finish and Castellari is certainly the man for the job.

However, too much action and not enough else can leave the viewer feeling a little empty after a while and this film most definitely could do with a jot more substance. Even Castellari's previous outing, Any Gun Can Play, no Chekhov drama by any stretch of the imagination, had enough twists and turns to keep you interested and give cause for the action. Kill Them All and Come Back Alone doesn't even attempt that much and ultimately the film becomes forgetable as a result. This is a pity as Castellari proved himself capable of handling deeper storylines with genuine skill in films such as Johnny Hamlet and Keoma and his creative skills behind the camera, with framing and composition, were significant in my opinion. But in this film, apart from the occasionally interesting camera angle, it is only Enzo's skills at directing and choreographing action sequences that is on show. All of which he does very well of course, probably as well as anyone in the business, but I for one would have prefered to have more meat on those action bones.

That is not to say that the film isn't entertaining enough in it's way. It is pretty decent fun and I certainly enjoyed it for what it is. What it is, however, is chewing gum for the eyes. The same flavour from start to finish and no substance. Nothing wrong with that of course, I just found myself hungry for something more satisfying after it had finished.

Saturday 29 March 2008

Duello Nel Texas

(Gunfight at Red Sands)

Dir: Ricardo Blasco


One of the very earliest (if not the earliest) films which can be described as a Spaghetti Western Duello Nel Texas is a very good example of how the european western was about to develop. The style is primarily influenced by the american westerns of the 1950s but this is no slavish carbon copy by any means. Rather, it is a mixture of source influences which vary from the american traditions of the genre to the southern european stylistics of its creators, all mixed up with a healthy dollop of comic book imagery for good measure.

Ricardo Martinez, also known as Gringo, returns home to Texas from fighting in the Mexican civil war and finds his adopted father murdered and family gold stash stolen. Gringo sets out to hunt down the killers and, as a result, crosses paths with Corbett, the local sheriff, Steadman, the saloon owner and two general no goods, Zeke and Kincaid Wilson. He also rekindles an old connection with Maria, the saloon owners partner which serves to complicate the proceedings even further. Eventually, with the help of his adopted brother and sister Manuel and Elisa, Gringo eliminates the parties responsible for the old man's death and faces off with the gang's leader in a textbook main street duel.

Ricardo Blasco (not even a household name in his own household) does a creditable job in the director's chair on this film although reports that Mario Caiano took responsibility for some of the direction makes it a little difficult to say how much each man should take credit for. The presence of Leone's cinematographer, Massimo Dallamano, behind the camera would also have added depth to the skill base and clouds the credit waters even further. Either way the film moves along at a good pace and there is a nice balance between action, drama and light relief with some effective framing at key moments. The final showdown between Gringo and Corbett is particularly well constructed and would fit easily into any post Leone western's format. Dramatically framed and drawn out to maximum effect with Giacomo Rossi Stuart performing almost grotesque death throws this is classic Spaghetti stuff.

Richard Harrison also performs to the top of his game and brings just the right level of presence and charisma to the role of Gringo. Harrison put in some good performances over the span of his considerable western career (Vengeance in particular springs to mind) but he is sadly remembered more for his poor films than his better ones. He is also, of course, remembered for turning down the lead in Fistful of Dollars and suggesting Clint Eastwood for a role which changed the whole face of westerns, not just in europe, but around the world. But forget all that, he brings something genuinely positive to Duello Nel Texas and he carries the film with real assurance.

That is not to say that Harrison is a one man band in the acting department here. Far from it. Giacomo Rossi Stuart plays the corrupt sherrif with some skill and Mikaela is almost Rosalba Neri like in her portrayal of Gringo's old squeeze, Maria. Her internal anguish and wrangling with the part she played in the events surrounding old man Martinez's death are handled with passion and complexity. It is also nice to see an early bit part for Aldo Sambrell as gang member, Garolo. A short lived part that ends in a violent death of course but then Aldo made such parts his stock in trade as the next few years unfurled.

Duello Nel Texas also boasts the first western score for musical maestro Ennio Morricone. Not one of his greatest by any means but it works well enough and the theme song, "A Gringo Like Me" reaches such high levels of cliched kitsch that it has become a veritable classic of its type. So corny that you can't help but love it.

This is by no means one of the great spaghettis of all time. But when compared to other films of the genre made prior to the explosive success of Fistful of Dollars it is a film of genuine quality and stands out as an example of what was just around the corner for european westerns. On the surface it appears to be constructed along traditional american western lines but with a little closer analysis it can be seen as very much a film with its heart in the mediterranean. Apart from the lead character all the good guys on show here are of latin descent. And even Gringo was raised by mexicans and defends their honour when insulted. The look and feel of the piece is also clearly a much closer cousin to that of the westerns all'italiana made in the next few years than anything created in the USA. There is a surprisingly large body count for such an early western too and some of the twitchy villainy of the Wilson brothers is reminiscant of Kinski at his nastiest.

Duello Nel Texas then, is worthy of a viewing for any fan of the genre but I will add a caveat of warning. I first saw this film as a fullscreen, public domain release under the U.S title of Gunfight at Red Sands and was generally underwhelmed by it. Seeing it more recently in a clear, widescreen version has made all the difference to my appreciation of the film. That is why I have reviewed it here under the italian title of Duello Nel Texas. The italian DVD release from RHV is well worth seeking out and rewards the viewer with a much better experience than that to be had from the cheaper U.S versions available.

Sunday 23 March 2008

The Implacable Three

Dir: Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent


One of the very first european westerns which could be included under the umbrella term 'Spaghetti', The Implacable Three was a Spanish-Italian co-production which featured a cavalcade of names which would become very familiar. From Fernando Sancho and Aldo Sambrell to Lorenzo Robledo and Robert Hundar this film is littered with faces and names synonomous with the genre. However, none of the above artists are italian and despite the musical contribution of Francesco de Masi and the co-writing of Mario Caiano, I would argue that this is far more of a Paella Western than a Spaghetti one.

Of course, being a film from 1963, a full year before the release of Leone's genre defining Fistful of Dollars, it would be unfair to judge The Implacable Three by its similarity or difference to the bulk of italian westerns made in the following decade. Very few 'pre Leone' eurowesterns bear much relation to their 'post Leone' cousins in style or content as the genre was so heavily influenced by the success, both international and domestic, of the great man's works. But I do feel it is fair to say that even the early films of this type show elements of their national origin and it is relatively easy to recognise these elements. Bullets Don't Argue shows definite signs of what is about to come in the italian western, while Pirates of the Mississippi is clearly a dominantly german film despite its italian co-production status. In the same way, The Implacable Three is, for me, a predominantly spanish western reflecting spanish traditions far more evidently than italian, or for that matter, american ones.

The story is a straightforward 'revenge for a slaughtered family' tale. Cesar Guzman (Geoffrey Horne) returns home to find his pregnant wife murdered and his house robbed. He sets out immediately to track down the men responsible and exact his revenge and is quickly joined by wandering gunman, Silveira (Paul Piaget) who takes up the quest because "without risk, life isn't worth living". The two are later joined by Silveira's great rival and 'best enemy' Abriles (Fernando Sancho) and together they gradually eliminate all of the gang and close in on the man who actually killed Guzman's wife. This journey eventually takes them back to Guzman's home town and a confrontation with evil town mayor Hopkins (Antonio Gradoli) and his chief henchman McCoy (Robert Hundar) before the mystery villain is finally revealed.

This plotline could fit any number of Spaghettis so why do I identify it particularly as a predominantly Spanish rather than Italian tale?

The key reason is that the main characters here fit very closely with the classic male personae of Spanish theatrical tradition. They are 'galanes'; hidalgos, whose motivating force is honour above all else, whether that be by way of revenge for familial damage or merely by confrontation in defense of their reputation and self image. Such characters populate a myriad of 'comedias' or plays from the spanish Golden Age and their speech and modus operandi became as much of a genre stereotype in the 17th century as the laconic cowboy's did in the 20th. They are a familiar and popular convention in spanish fiction and, I believe, an iberian audience would have recognised Guzman, Silveira and Abriles as such immediately.

In particular, Sancho's character Abriles, embodies this character type . Quick to anger, and rabid in the defense of his own honour Abriles divides his time equally between fighting and courting the target of his romantic affections, Lola, the saloon girl. It is true that Abriles is not a man of high social status as most galanes would be but his personal code and attitude towards life and honour are the same.

Of course, I am not suggesting that The Implacable Three is purely a spanish comedia in western clothes. It is clearly not. There are plenty of western genre conventions here beyond the costumes and setting. But it is equally clear that this is not a simple attempt to mimic an american western in the traditional Hollywood style either. For example, none of the three heroes are american. Even Silveira, despite his fair hair and obvious parallels to Owen Wister's Virginian ("Smile when you say that"), is introduced as a Portuguese. In this story only the villains have english names.

The source of this spanish dominant feeling is not difficult to locate. Despite the italian contributions to this film's production it's chief creative personel are all spanish in origin. The director, Joaquin Romero Marchent, his cinematographer Raphael Pacheco and two of the three screenwriters, Jose Mallorqui and Marchent again, were all spanish. As was the other musical contributer, Manuel Parada.

The film also appears to be of a completely different era. The style is not just old fashioned, it verges on the antiquated; resembling more a western from the 30s or 40s than one from the 1960s. And it is this outdated quality which is ultimately the film's undoing. The italian dominated films of the 1960s were and still are popular because of their modern and innovative style. They were films which, despite their adoption of a traditional genre, were all about the modern day and its ambiguous moralities. They injected a sense of 'cool' into a popular artform which was losing touch with its contemporary audience. The Implacable Three embodies everything that Leone and his contempories ultimately moved away from and as such it is one of the last of the dinosaurs; living long enough to see the new breed that would replace it.

Marchent's film does have its qualities, and for those of us who remember fondly the simpler western of old it can still entertain. But it is probably best seen as a sign of why change was about to happen than as a signpost of what form it would take.