Thursday 31 January 2008

Texas Adios

Dir: Ferdinando Baldi


Burt Sullivan, hard nosed sheriff of a tough border town, throws in his job and travels south in search of the man who killed his father many years prior. All he knows is the man's general whereabouts and his name, Cisco Delgado. As a taciturn loner it is no surprise that Sullivan intends to travel solo but he is soon accompanied by his young brother Jim who is equally determined to find their father's killer and join in the search for revenge. On arriving in Mexico the two quickly discover that Delgado is a feared and wealthy man who rules the region with a fist of iron (not to mention a branding iron) and that there is more to be faced than their father's nemesis. The local peasants are in desperate need of help and Delgado has some information that will stop the brothers dead in their tracks.

Texas Adios was Franco Nero's third and last western of 1966 after the ground breaking Django and family fun titled Massacre Time. After these genre classics he jetted off to America to shoot the musical, Camelot of all things. Thankfully, his time in America was not over extended and he returned to europe to continue his career as the king of the spaghetti western. As such Texas Adios can be seen as the last of Nero's first wave of westerns. As his career progressed he tended to play a variety of types but in these earlier ventures he stuck strictly to the strong, silent type of hero/anti hero roles. Texas Adios is a typical example.

Burt Sullivan is a rigid, mostly moral character. His guns work only in the line of duty or strict purpose. To begin with as sheriff, later in search of revenge for his lost father and eventually in defense of the uprising townspeople who are brutalised by the evil Delgado. There is no money or bounty being sort here. No personal gain. And as such he is a less ironic or cynical character than many spaghetti hero figures. Certainly less pragmatic. For Sullivan his course is clear and his code unwavering. As such, he tends to resemble more the traditional U.S. western hero figure; standing firm in his beliefs and 'doing what a man has to do' throughout the story. Having said that, he is no 'white hat' hero. He kills ruthlessly, beats his opponents without mercy and ignores any brutality or injustice he sees that does not directly relate to his immediate mission. He even allows his brother to take a beating before taking on the attacker himself after young Jim is knocked unconscious.

Another element of 'classic' styling is in the music score from Anton Garcia Abril. A score which starts off in a very traditional U.S fashion but which shifts to much more spaghetti style as the film progresses. It appears that the mexican border acts as a stylistic as well as geographic boundary in this film. Once crossed we are in far more familiar spaghetti territory.

As a result of some of the more traditional elements Texas Adios is often considered more influenced by the american style than most spaghettis and Nero himself has admitted that this was his most classical western role. Certainly it does have a more classic feel to much of it but the regularity and excessive levels of violence on show here keeps this very much in the eurowestern camp as far as I'm concerned.

The presence of Nero is plenty enough reason for this film to feel like a proper spaghetti of course but, just to add weight to that feeling, the other cast members are firmly rooted in the genre from the old world side of the Atlantic. Jim is played by regular fresh faced youngster Alberto Dell'Acqua (under the strange pseudo of Cole Kitosch), mean man Delgado is Jose Suarez (who also starred in another spaghetti with a family melodrama twist, The Forgotten Pistolero) and the noble lawyer who leads the towns folk against Suarez is genre favourite Luigi Pistilli. Good enough for me.

But just to add a bit more to the pot, we have scene stealer Livio Lorenzon as the town's drunken and corrupt alcalde. A man so destroyed by Delgado's evil power that he drowns himself in liquor and executes the big man's opponents as if they were mice caught in a trap. His manic laughter as he watches another peasant bite the dust is gloriously over the top. As is his technique of signalling another salvo of executioner's bullets by popping the cork on his liquor flask. All this followed by his defiant statement of "That is how I do things!" Brilliant. Fernando Sancho himself would have been proud!

It would be easy to scan the previous few paragraphs and dismiss Texas Adios as just another mindless revenge flick with cardboard cut out characters and no challenges whatsoever, but that would be a rash and unfair categorisation. Certainly, the film follows a certain predictable line to a large extent but, despite their cartoonish exterior, its characters have some surprising depths which makes the whole thing a lot more enjoyable. In particular the darker characters are exposed as having far more human facets than is first evident. The alcalde, for example, for all his brutish mugging and heartless bloodletting is ultimately shown to be a victim himself. A defeated shell of a previously moral man rather than a wholly wicked one. Likewise, Delgado, although personifying self centred evil thoughout the film also has his more complex side exposed; showing a human being oscillating between defiance and shame for his own behaviour. A man who, despite his litany of sins, still craves the love and respect of a son.

But before we get too carried away with sentimentality we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this is a shoot 'em up western at heart and there is plenty of punch ups, gunfights and horses collapsing under ambush fire to keep us all happy. Nero carries the lead well as usual and although this wouldn't be the greatest film he ever appeared in it will pass a pleasurable hour and a half for anyone with a taste for westerns with a pasta edge to them. I certainly enjoyed it. But then I'm easier than a one coloured rubic's cube in such matters.

Footnote: If you can, I would advise watching this film in italian with english subtitles. (both available on the Blue Underground DVD) The english dub voice for Nero's character really doesn't do him justice.

Sunday 27 January 2008

A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die

Dir: Franco Giraldi


Clay McCord (Alex Cord) is an outlaw with a problem. Pursued by the law wherever he goes he is also beginning to suffer increasing spasmic fits which paralyse his shooting arm. Aware that this will increase his vulnerability to danger and also afraid that it is the onset of epilepsy (a condition which led to the death of his father) McCord sets out, first in search of a doctor, then in search of the amnesty being offered by the Governer (Robert Ryan) for all outlaws in the territory. Meanwhile, the marshall of the town where the amnesty is to be handed out (Arthur Kennedy) is doing his utmost to keep any outlaws from getting in to town to gain their freedom. McCord takes refuge in an outlaw colony called Escondido situated just outside of town, takes up with a beautiful girl named Laurinda (Nicoleta Machiavelli) and awaits his chance to reach his goal while his disability becomes increasingly troublesome.

A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die is a gritty, unforgiving tale of desperate people taking desperate actions in a world devoid of pity or mercy. McCord is shown to be a product of a tragic childhood, scarred by the cruelty of others and the loss of his father to a debilitating disease. The marshall, Colby, despite being a strong figure of the word of law, is shown to be filled with prejudice and cynicism. And the outlaw chief of Escondido, played by Mario Brega, is just plain mean.

So far, so good then. Sounds like a recipe for a satisfyingly bleak spaghetti full of violence and downbeat sensibilities. And in truth this is a pretty good film of its type. The mood is sombre throughout, helped by an almost gothic, Mahleresque score from Carlo Rustichelli unlike any other italian western I can think of, and there is no shortage of drama and action. What is more, it boasts an excellent cast; all of whom carry their parts very well.

The three headline actors are all first rate and, being american, add a sense of the U.S to an otherwise strictly european style western. Arthur Kennedy in particular is such a stalwart of classic 50s american westerns that it is almost disorientating to find him surrounded by such a glut of familar spaghetti faces. And there really is a glut of them. Despite most being uncredited there is a genuine plethora of genre regulars on show in this film. In fact it can be quite good fun playing spot the bit part actor while watching it. The scenes in Escondido are particularly crammed with familiar faces and during the course of the film I was happily surprised at the unexpected appearance of Aldo Sambrell, Jose Manuel Martin, Francisco Sanz, Alberto Dell'Acqua and Spartaco Conversi as well as some others including the ubiquitous Lorenzo Robledo. This alone makes the film worth watching for my part. But if this wasn't enough, we are also blessed by the presence of the ever beautiful Nicoletta Machiavelli, filling her role with just the right mix of bravery and vulnerability. Miss Machiavelli, for me, is one of the top three female spaghetti stars (along with Rosalba Neri and Nieves Navarro) and always brings a touch of class to any film she is connected with.

Alex Cord also makes a pretty good impression in his only spaghetti outing; combining sultry moodiness with a competent display of emotion and fear during his seizures. This combination of strength and weakness is something I really enjoy seeing in a spaghetti western. The hero figure hanging on to what is left of his skill and power while a crippling disability gradually destroys him is a compelling mix and one used to good effect in a number of westerns of both Euro and U.S variety. From the consumptive decay of Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine to the creeping blindness of Minnesota Clay there is a litany of tragic heroes littering the shootouts of the west and adding genuine drama to the genre. A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die is another to add to the list.

Unfortunately, however, there are some down sides to the film which detract from its overall power and stop me rating it as one of the best. Primary among these faults is the poor and eratic editing which cause the film to appear jumpy and uncohesive in parts. The opening sequences in particular are jumpy to say the least and it gets the film off to a poor start which it struggles to overcome even though things improve as it goes along. How much of this is the fault of the film's editor, Alberto Gallitti, is debatable as it was obvious to me that the version of the film I saw (though boasting a very good print and sound quality) had some major chunks cut out from it. This was confirmed by the varying lengths of the film I have seen documented for varying releases. So it is probably unfair to blame the original film makers for this problem but it does, unfortunately, take the edge off of what is otherwise a very good film.

Giraldi's direction also, while competent, really doesn't grab the attention and leave a lasting impression and this is a shame. There is ample opportunity in this flick to really make a splash and apart from the odd scene, it is never really taken advantage of. I'm afraid that this is a common criticism I have with Giraldi, whose films commonly feature very good qualities but lack the consistency necessary to elevate them above the average.

That being said, however, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die is still a film I would recommend as its pluses defininitely outweigh its minuses and it is still an above average, solid 3 star film. And in any case, it's got Nicoletta Machiavelli in it. What more do you want?

Saturday 5 January 2008

Johnny Hamlet

Dir: Enzo G. Castellari


Originally a project devised by Sergio Corbucci, this retelling of Shakespeare's classic was handed to Castellari when Corbucci's time was blocked up with other commitments. Castellari grabbed the chance with both hands and aided by a script adapted by Tito Carpi and Francesco Scardamaglia set about turning the idea into a truly memorable mix of art and action.

Shakespeare's original story is adhered to reasonably closely with the young Hamlet (Johnny played by Andrea Giordana) returning home after a two year absence to discover his father dead and his mother newly married to his uncle. Understandably disturbed by this state of affairs and highly suspicious of his uncle's role in the death of his father, Johnny sets about getting to the bottom of the intrigue and seeking revenge. Character names are adapted from the original too, with Guild and Ros appearing as Uncle Claude's henchmen, Horaz as Johnny's old friend and Gertrude and Ophelia as mother and young squeeze respectively. The travelling acting troupe is also utilised and it is through them that quotes from the bard himself are used to introduce the piece while Johnny lies dreaming on a Gulf Coast beach, on his way back to the family ranch of El Senor.

This could easily sound trite and overly contrived but Castellari turns in one of his best directorial performances within the western genre and produces a genuinely striking film. There are a number of scenes which could be lifted straight from an art film of the period; combining creative and experimental visual stylings with inner monologues and drama. But this is always interweaved with the conventions expected from a western. Action, fist fights and shootouts are never far away and keep the whole thing moving along at a fair clip. In fact these elements are easy to fit into this classic tale as the story of Hamlet is full of intrigue, murder and duels (altough admittedly more swordplay than gunplay) and if anything the body count is lower in Castellari's version than in Shakespeare's.

Giordana's portrayal of the angst ridden hero is competant and effective but Horst Frank (his usual wicked self as Uncle Claude) upstages the central character more often than not; Combining his icy, blue eyed restraint with bouts of animated megalomania. Gilbert Roland is probably the weakest of the three male leads but does enough in his role of Johnny's old friend, Horaz to avoid embarrassment while Francoise Pevost brings just the right amount of melodramatic tension to the role of the misguided mother.

The music score from Francesco De Masi is also a winner and offers an effective mix of mood creating tones, rousing chords and classic sixties theme song (Find the Man) utilising the excellent voice of Maurizio Graf of Return of Ringo fame.

But it is Castellari's use of innovative camera angles and visual styling that really sticks with you here. The first graveyard scene, where Johnny returns to discover his father's death and hears his voice from beyond the grave is magificently shot at a disorientating angle with the use of a slowly turning wheel. There are a lot of directors with far loftier reputations who would be understandably proud if this piece of creative filmmaking were their own and it is lasting proof that genre cinema can often throw up the most surprising results despite (if not because of) the framework they work within. Johnny Hamlet is certainly a case in point here. It is first and foremost a western; an action film. But this doesn't stop it from pushing its boundaries and extending its range to include truly artistic elements which allow it to work on far more levels than might be expected.

Another good example of that is the parallels clearly made between the figures of Johnny and his mother with those of Jesus and Mary. Catholic Christian imagery is a recurring element in many italian westerns; unsurprising given the theological background of its creators as well as its target domestic audience. But here the imagery is starkly unavoidable. Once his father's persecutors have been exposed Johnny is literally crucified and left to die. His mother, mortally wounded, makes her way to the site of his torture and lies prostrate beneath his cross, bleeding and seeking forgiveness for her sins. Johnny then defies death and returns to clear the ranch of the evil that has overtaken it, eradicating the perpetrators of wickedness and causing the source of avarice (gold dust) to be swept away in a cleansing breeze.

Heady stuff. And all done with a solid shoot out at the end too. Excellent!

On the surface, if suggested to a neutral, I suspect the idea of a Shakespeare tragedy retold as a western by italians would not instill great confidence in a satisfying outcome. But anyone lucky enough to get hold of a copy of Johnny Hamlet (Koch Media have released an excellent copy on DVD available from amazon in germany) will be able to testify that it can actually be the recipe for some first class cinema. This really is a little known gem and deserves far wider recognition. See it if you can.

Footnote: If you decide to invest in a copy of this film be warned that the usual title jumble will face you when searching for it. Although known as Johnny Hamlet in the english speaking world this film was originally released in Italy as Quella Sporca Storia Nel West. The Koch Media DVD released in germany goes under the title of Django, Die Tottengraber Warten Schon. Go figure.