Sunday 24 February 2008

Days of Violence

Dir: Alfonso Brescia


Writing a review of a film which is really good or really bad is a pretty easy process. The film offers plenty of scope to discuss its strengths or weaknesses as they are clear to see and give obvious strands to follow. You start typing and the next thing you know you are the other side of a thousand words and the thing is done. The biggest challenge is knowing when to shut up and bring the thing to a close. But what do you do when the film you are discussing doesn't offer any obvious highs or lows for you to focus on? How do you write an interesting review of a film which is just OK? Nothing more or less?

Days of Violence offered me just such a challenge. It is neither brilliant nor rubbish. It is just alright in almost every way. And that makes for tough reviewing. But, on consideration, I have come to think that maybe it is its very middle of the roadness which is its most interesting quality. Here is a film which epitomises the average Spaghetti. It never reaches the heights of the classic films of Leone, Sollima or Corbucci. But it equally never sinks to the depths of the worst slapstick comedy or Ed Wood hilarity sometimes reached by genre hacks such as Demofilo Fidani. It's just a bog standard revenge flick with a decent cast, ably directed which offers the Spaghetti fan an hour and a half fix of escapist fun. When viewed in that way, Days of Violence is a pretty good film.

Josh (Johs?) Lee lives and works with his brother and sister in law on the Evans ranch and is in love with the owner's daughter Christine. It is the time of the civil war and Missouri, where this story takes place, is being occupied by Union soldiers. The local commanding officer, Captain Clifford, is a corrupt opportunist who is using the situation and his position of power to grab wealth and influence for himself in the region and with the help of his murderous henchman Hank he targets the Evans ranch as a likely source of personal gain. On the pretense of searching for Rebel soldiers he searches the ranch and in the ensuing argument Josh's brother and sister in law are killed. Josh then joins the local renegades and soon becomes a wanted man. During this time Christine has been sent away to Jackson for safety but on her return after the war's end she finds Josh gone and Clifford set up as a local bigwig. Josh returns to find Christine and Clifford betrothed and all hell breaks loose.
This story, based around the 'revenge for a murdered family' plot has a few extra strands to keep it interesting and is embellished by the roles of Mr Evans, a wheelchair bound obsessive who is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of his beloved ranch, and Butch, the renegade leader who turns out to be more a bandit than a patriot. It also has a pretty strong romantic element between Josh and Christine that runs throughout the film and this is quite unusual in a Spaghetti: Traditionally a genre high on violence and low on love. And it works well here. Peter Lee Lawrence is believable in the romantic lead and he carries off the grittier side reasonably well too while Beba Loncar gives Christine the right level of innocence mixed with intelligence.

Indeed the cast as a whole carry off their parts in just the fashion you would hope for and it is good to see an ensemble of genre regulars like this given decent sized roles to work with. Luigi Vannucchi makes a welcome appearance after his sound work in Johnny Yuma and Andrea Bosic is just as unpleasant as Old Man Evans as he was as Murray in Day of Anger. The only disappointment is that the wonderful Rosalba Neri gets so underutilised as Lizzy the doomed sister in law. We could have done with a lot more from her here as she always adds a hint of gothic melodrama to everything she appears in and if there is a criticism I feel is warranted in this film it is that it sometimes appears a little flat and could do with some spice added to the mix.

That is not to say that Brescia does a poor job with direction here. On the contrary, it is solid work from a director not ranked as anything like the best in the field. Rather that it could have been done with a bit more inventiveness or flair. Which is a pity, as there are moments that show real promise but they are rarely followed though. A good example is the very first shot in the film where we see Neri coming out of the ranch house in the background, framed in the foreground by an extreme close up of Hank's boot on a tree stump. A moment later a knife drops into shot and sticks, upright in the stump. The sense of menace and tension is immediate and sets up the ensuing attack on Lizzy perfectly. But this is an idea in isolation. As the film progresses we rarely get close to such economic and effective composition again. A pity, as it is shots like this that make these films so distinctive and memorable. Equally, the score fails to really deliver any impact. Bruno Nicolai has a fine pedigree and has produced some excellent scores but this one, while adequate, fails to excite.

But, as I said at the very beginning, there is nothing in this film that you could label as bad. Even its poorer elements are not without merit. And it does have some pretty solid pluses. Its problem is that it doesn't do anything exceptional, which, in reality, is not such a big crime. If it weren't for middle of the road films like this the truly great ones would have nothing to stand out from. And it does enough things well enough to keep this viewer engaged sufficiently throughout. And as such, it is a perfect example of its type. There were hundreds of italian westerns made in a ten or so year period between 1964 and 1974 and the vast majority were happy to settle for being just OK. There was a market for such things which these films catered for admirably. And they still do.

As a result, I enjoyed this run of the mill italian oater. Not enough to gush about it, but enough to put it back on the shelf with the conviction that I will be watching it again before too long. It ain't great, but it's good enough.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Day of Anger

Dir: Tonino Valerii


Watching a movie on the strength of the name of the lead actor can be a problematic decision. There are some actors who are relatively safe bets and others who are distinctly more eratic in their choices and performances. Lee Van Cleef falls squarely into the latter camp. As much as I am a lifelong fan of his it has to be admitted that for every classic like The Big Gundown or For a Few Dollars More there are an equal number of turkeys like Bad Man's River and Captain Apache. Thankfully, Day of Anger is no turkey. It features the real deal Van Cleef, complete with gunsight eyes and without any dodgy hair pieces. It also features Giuliana Gemma in fine form and one of the best theme tunes you'll ever hear. All in all, this one is a winner.

The story is a straight forward one. Downtrodden town outcast Scott Mary, (Gemma) pushed around and belittled by the mean spirited elders of Clifton, dreams of getting a pistol and commanding respect from his persecutors. When charismatic gunman Frank Talby (Van Cleef) rides into town he shows some kindness to the youngster and soon takes him on as a pupil/partner as he strives to obtain his own revenge on the same town elders. It transpires that these pillars of the community are not quite as honest and upstanding as they would appear and Talby sets about demanding the $50,000 from them which he is owed by their criminal associate, Wild Jack. Talby soon commands a position of wealth and power in the town but the elders are not ready to give up so easy. What unfolds is a morality tale, of mixed loyalties, two mentors and a poisoned chalice; where Scott finds his revenge but loses his innocence.

Van Cleef is at his very best in this film where both sides of his screen persona are allowed to cohabit the same character. Talby is at once the wise father figure a la Colonel Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More and the self serving villain of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He exhibits kindness and ruthlessness in equal portions and the viewer is left guessing to the end which way his instincts will lead him.

Gemma's wide eyed youthfulness is also used to its best advantage here and his performance is second only to his one in Return of Ringo for me; taking us on a journey from innocence to anger to disillusionment during the course of the film.

Comparisons have been made in the past between the storyline of Day of Anger and that of Star Wars and it is easy to see why. The age old themes of pupil and mentor, of a young hero learning to use his natural skills in order to step into manhood, are similar to those at the heart of Lucas' film. The similarities are even more striking when the added dimension of young hero being tempted by a dark path and the power it promises is added; along with the ultimate showdown when he needs to defeat his father figure in order to free himself from the shackles of that temptation. It is possible that Lucas was influenced by Day of Anger when constructing Star Wars (he has stated he was a spaghetti western fan) but it is more likely that both films share a common origin; that of classic mythology where stories of this sort have been told for generations.

And it may well be this universal theme element that makes Day of Anger such a satisfying movie. It is not overly complicated. It is not especially innovative. In fact, it is not outstanding in most areas. But it does work on just about every level you could ask for to a sufficient degree to make its repeated viewing a real pleasure and a regular favourite among fans of the genre.

One area where it is undoubtedly outstanding however, is in its musical score. Or more specifically in its theme tune. This theme, composed by the great Riz Ortolani, is a once heard never forgotten masterpiece of screaming brass, twanging stratocaster and driving rhythm and is used to great effect throughout the film but is particularly memorable during the rotoscope opening credits. I confess I often pop my DVD of this film into the player just to relive the opening when I need a lift. In my opinion it should be available on prescription.

But the music is not it's only treasure. There is a great duel scene where Van Cleef faces his opponent while charging hell for leather at each other on horseback with muzzle loading rifles. There is an excellent cameo from Al Muloch as Wild Jack, Talby's grubby and surly former partner. And there is a well played finale where all the lessons Scott has learned from Talby are retold and used as the young man faces up to his old mentor.

Any way you cut it, this is a Spaghetti with enough to keep anyone happy. Valerii's direction is sound if not inspired, the cast is solid and in good form, the story is satisfying and the music is top drawer. The only down side is that despite it being a regular favourite of most fans it still hasn't had a proper DVD release in europe and the only U.S edition (an excellent widescreen version from Wild East) is now out of print. If you are lucky you may still be able to pick up a copy from an online distributor or maybe a second hand copy on ebay but this film should undoubtedly be more readily available than that. Here's hoping whoever owns the rights to this classic decide to get their arse into gear and give it an official release soon. It certainly deserves it.

Monday 11 February 2008

Cemetery Without Crosses

Dir: Robert Hossein


I enjoy genre films. I enjoy entering the mythological world they inhabit and watching familiar characters playing out familiar stories with familiar themes. These familiarities are central to my enjoyment and it is essential for me that the creator of any genre film understands the conventions and icons which feed this sense of familiarity. Playing within the rules, but doing it well, and with a little flair, is what I demand from a genre film maker. And if they can deliver that they will invariably get a thumbs up from me and a repeat viewing. (Maybe even a good review) But familiarity, as we all know, can breed contempt and so it is equally important that the familiar is spiced on occasion with a hint of the unexpected or the exceptional. Something which will add to my pleasure without deviating too far from the path I like to follow. Now, there are many films which satisfy the former of these requirements but fulfilling the latter is not so common. It is a relatively easy matter to mimic the successful work of others and serve up a dish which is enjoyable without being memorable. But it is only every now and again a film comes along which ticks all the boxes expected of it but which offers itself in such a distinctively different way and asks such distinctively different questions of its audience that it stands apart from its genre cousins like a frog does from a tadpole. Cemetery Without Crosses is just such a film.

Consider the familiarities. There is a bullying, patriarchal family forcing neighbours from their land and building a mammoth empire for themselves while ruthlessly eliminating anyone in their way. There is a second family, victimised and downtrodden by the former, who want revenge for the brutal killing of one of their own. There is a town, policed by a corrupt lawman, and populated by people filled with fear who are unwilling to stand up to the patriarch boss. And finally, there is a taciturn lone gunman, called upon to exact the revenge the victimised family cannot manage on their own. Here’s a storyline we’ve seen countless times in westerns, both American and European, over the years and which can provide an entertaining, if somewhat predictable narrative. But, if you have popped Cemetery Without Crosses into the old machine and are settling down to witness another conventional revenge flick, you will be mightily, and pleasantly, surprised.

To begin with this film takes the minimalist dialogue of the average eurowestern to its ultimate extreme. There is so little talking that when I watched it recently it was fully ten minutes before I realised I had the DVD on the wrong language setting. Long swathes of it are played as a silent movie, with only music and skilful direction used to move the story forward and communicate drama and emotion. This ‘silent film’ approach is far from parody however. Rather, Hossein uses subtle visual techniques and the skills of his actors to maintain a level of emotional intensity rarely seen in a film from this genre. The lead character, Manuel the gunfighter (played by Hossein himself), is shown to be a man of complex motivations, acting against his better judgement, wracked with doubts and regrets. No cardboard cut out hero here despite his exaggerated gun skills. This is a real man with real emotions facing a looming disaster with resignation and pain.

Maria (Michele Mercier), widow of the slaughtered Ben Caine and ex lover of Manuel, is equally three dimensional. Exhibiting equal quantities of despair and determination, she fills the screen with her stoic suffering. What is more, in a welcome break from spaghetti tradition, she is not here merely to pretty the place up. So often female characters in the genre are relegated to vamp or victim; rarely being allowed to exert more than a superfluous influence on the heart of the proceedings. But here she is the driving force behind the narrative and a character of central importance.

Lastly, the theme of revenge, while at the heart of the story, is questioned and approached from a very different angle to the average western. Manuel states early in the piece that ‘Vengeance never ends’ and his words prove to be prophetic as each action causes an escalated reaction and the brutality from all sides spirals out of control.

Cemetery Without Crosses then is not your average spaghetti. This could be largely due to its being as much a French film as an Italian one. Despite its co production status and bevy of genre regulars amongst the bit players and supporting cast, the primary personnel on this feature are predominantly French from director to actors to musical composer. This undoubtedly has an effect on the feel and style of the film and, despite my deep love of the Italian way in such things, I have to say it is refreshing to see this variation. Hossein does an outstanding job as actor /director and the music score, penned by his brother Andre, helps at every turn; first with a driving theme, then with poignant solo guitar. On top of all this, the sets are inspired; juxtaposing the ranch house full of plenty at the Rogers family estate with the meagre cabin of the Caines and the isolated, almost surreal ghost town home of Manuel.

All these facets make this film stand out from most of its contemporaries but that is not to say it doesn’t contain all the attributes you would expect from a western of this period. It is gritty, sombre and violent, with fist fights and plenty of gunplay. There are bad guys and good guys, although the lines are a little blurred and there is enough pace and action on the whole to keep the most impatient action fan happy. There is even, I’m delighted to say, a role (if fleeting) for Lorenzo Robledo; a face that always makes a true spaghetti fan feel right at home. What's more, it's a role where he avoids getting killed or tortured too. And you don't see that very often.

The real difference here, and the reason this film sits among some of the genre’s best, is the level of subtlety it allows itself and the questions it asks us. The characters are allowed to express real emotions (albeit silently) and the themes at play in the seemingly familiar storyline are given just enough of a twist to make us think. It is still a western and an action film. But it is a thoughtful action film; with genuine drama. And that’s a pretty good and welcome combination.

Monday 4 February 2008


Dir: Ferdinando Baldi


"I want my 50 women!"

Any film which has this line as a recurring statement from its central protagonist is going to earn itself some brownie points from me before it even starts and the fact that it also pretty much sums up the entire plot of the film in five words makes the job of a reviewer all the easier. It is a line which Tony Anthony (as the eponymous Blindman) repeats to every character he encounters who stands between him and the half century of females who have been taken from him and, for a man with no sight, he shows admirable focus on this issue throughout.

Aided only by his seeing eye horse (a seemingly ludicrous idea that works surprisingly well) and a winchester complete with fixed bayonet Blindman goes in pursuit of the aforementioned women who he has been contracted to deliver as mail order brides to a mining settlement. As the story continues he shows himself to be very resourceful in this quest and yet surprisingly trusting considering that his original partner, Skunk, has already double crossed him and passed on the women to evil bandit Domingo (Lloyd Battista) and his equally nasty siblings Candy (Ringo Starr) and Sweet Mama (Magda Konopka). Domingo, in turn, tricks him into releasing Candy from capture by substituting 50 old women for the new brides while, later, the Mexican General he befriends (Raf Baldassarre) swindles him out of the women again by gagging them all to keep them quiet. Why on earth anyone would trust a character played by Raf Baldassarre with anything, let alone 50 women, is beyond explaination.

Tony Anthony is clearly the lead here but this film was largely financed as a vehicle for Ringo Starr (fresh from the break up of the Beatles) to try out his acting muscles. Allen Klein, business manager of the Beatles at the time of their break up was the money behind Blindman (as well as three other spaghettis starring Tony Anthony) and this outing was put together by him with Ringo in mind. As a result, despite his having strictly a supporting role in the film, it is Mr Starr who shares top billing with Anthony rather than Lloyd Battista who has the far bigger part. Ringo went on to make some very good appearances in films, most notably in That'll Be The Day where he played a Liverpudlian fairground Teddy Boy. In truth, that part was perfect for the likeable ex drummer while playing a mexican bandit was probably a little out of his range. He certainly looks the part alright, with his long lanky hair and beard, but somehow he never quite convinces and it is just as well that, despite his billing, the film never really depends on his performance. No, what stays in the mind with this film, over and above the novelty value of the blind protagonist and the ex Beatle, are the women. And, more to the point, the way they are depicted.

For a film with fifty women at its heart you might expect a central role for at least one of them. But the truth is that apart from Sweet Mama and Pilar (a local girl who is helped by Blindman) the females are here strictly as objects of man's desire; both within the text of the film itself and amongst the target audience.

The fact is that Blindman is very much a film of its time and 1971 was a time when the boundaries of censorship in regard to nudity on screen were being drastically relaxed for the first time. As a result, film makers in europe and the U.S. were very much pushing those boundaries whenever possible and no chance of a bare pair of breasts being shown, in whatever context, was allowed to pass by. And with 50 women hanging around the set of Blindman the result was fairly predictable. There are more naked women on show here than in the municipal baths changing rooms after an aquarobics class. Dresses are torn, bodices are ripped and at one point all 50 of them stand around naked in a laundry being slooshed down with buckets!

So, strictly one for the boys I'm afraid in that regard. But it would be unfair to judge the whole film by its shortcomings (or highlights, depending on your point of view) in one area and especially as these were pretty typical of its time. In fact, let's be honest, the Spaghetti Western genre as a whole is not exactly a hotbed of feminist ideology. No, the better question would be, does the film stand up well enough for what it is? And the answer to that question is clearly, yes, it does.

Baldi's direction is to his usual solid if not exceptional standards. The score from Cipriani is good and fitting of the general feel of the film. The cast play their roles uniformly well and there is just the right level of irony and tongue placed firmly in cheek to a lot of the proceedings while never stepping over the line into outright comedy which would definitely have been a mistake. Rather the dominant tone is gritty and rather brutal (if a little indulgant) and the viewer has plenty to enjoy from start to finish.

Indeed, it was strong enough to have spawned a sequel and the suggestion that one was planned is evident by the nature of the film's ending. However, apparently the contact lenses worn by Tony Anthony to give him his sightless eyes appearance caused him so much discomfort (even weeks after shooting was completed) that he flatly refused to do it. A pity. I for one would have gladly sat through another installment of this. 50 naked women or not.