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.

Friday 14 March 2008

The Bounty Killer

Dir: Eugenio martin


I have written before about good actors and directors whose work doesn't always maintain the same high standards that you expect from them. But with artists that are less well thought of you don't normally face this problem. As a rule of thumb, if someone is a bit second rate you can usually count on them to always be a bit second rate. The Bounty Killer directed by Eugenio Martin blows this theory out of the water.

My previous experience with Martin's work had been through Bad Man's River and Pancho Villa, two films from 1972 that did nothing for his reputation with me. On the contrary, they had set my mind firmly in the opinion that this was a lesser director churning out second rate films despite good casts. Bad Man's River in particular has the benefits of Lee Van Cleef, Gina Lollabrigida and James Mason and still manages to be a turkey while Pancho Villa, although better, is hardly a classic. Imagine my surprise then when The Bounty Killer not only showed signs of genuine quality but proved itself to be a tight, psychological oater of the highest calibre. In one swoop Eugenio Martin has transformed his reputation in my estimation.

The Plot is a relatively simple one. Bounty Hunter Luke Chilson (Richard Wyler) is trailing convicted bandit Jose Gomez (Tomas Milian) who has been assisted in his escape by a childhood friend (Ella Karin) from his village. Chilson's attempt to take Gomez back into custody is thwarted by the loyalty of the local people, all of whom remember Gomez fondly and believe he has been driven to banditry through injustice and persecution. However, as Gomez's friends descend on the settlement old friendships are tested and loyalties begin to unravel. Is Gomez really the man they think he is?

At the heart of this film is the central performance of Milian as the enigmatic bandit. Amazingly, this is the actor's first appearance in a western and it is a genuine tour de force. I couldn't help but be reminded of Brando in his quiet dominance of each scene. Subdued and understated, Milian's portrayal of Gomez suggests a tortured soul struggling with conflicting instincts. His face offers glimpses of inner monolgues and conversations going on that we never hear; only see the results of. But the overall impression is of a man committed to a path of self destruction; at once defiant and resigned to his fate. This is Milian at his very best and is a role which allows him to really flex his talent. When this happens you know you are in for a treat as he is without doubt the most gifted actor to regularly appear in the Spaghetti genre. There are a number of actors who look the part and who can handle the strong ,silent, hero type of role without breaking too much of a sweat but, for my money, Milian stands alone as a truly gifted actor who brings a completely different quality to the parts he plays. How he never became a major international star outside of europe is truly beyond me.

But, despite this clearly being a film dominated by Milian's performance it would be unfair to ignore the significant contributions by the rest of the cast and crew. Actors can't work without a script and this one is well constructed by Jose Gutierrez Maesso, James Donald Pringle and the directr, Eugenio Martin. Martin also handles the direction with real skill. His visual style may not be as flamboyant as some of his contemporaries but this film is always captivating to look at and his use of close ups, if more economic, never lacks impact. Milian's death scene, complete with dribbling, dirt encrusted mouth is a perfect example of this. Martin also keeps the story restricted to a few locations, in particular the tiny settlement, and this helps add a constant sense of claustrophobic tension to the entire piece. This is all assisted by the expert cinematography of future director Enzo Barboni and the fine musical score of Stelvio Cipriani.

The rest of the cast also bring solid work to the project. Richard Wyler carries the titular role effectively if without the level of ambiguity I would have liked, Ella Karin (or Helina Zalewska if you prefer) is convincing as the loyal girlfriend faced with a moral dilemma and Mario Brega gives possibly his career best performance as the town blacksmith whose actions in defense of Gomez come back to haunt him as time goes on. There is also, for the purest, a couple of very satisfying appearances from 'genre faces' Tito Garcia and Jose Canalejas as Gomez's gang members with suitably gritty and menacing visages. What more could you ask for except maybe Rosalba Neri smouldering in the background somewhere?

This then, is a first class spaghetti in anyone's book and well worth seeking out if you are able. It goes, of course, under a variety of titles depending on what part of the world you are in. The Ugly Ones, El Precio de un Hombre, even La Morte ti Seque...Ma non ha Fretta. But the easiest way to see it is to get the german Marketing Film release entitled Ohne Dollar Keinen Sarg which is pretty cheaply priced, has an english audio option and is available at among other places. Highly recommended to anyone, but essential viewing for any spaghetti fan.

Friday 7 March 2008

Bullets Don't Argue

(Le Pistole Non Discutono)

Dir: Mario Caiano


If you ever need an example of how much influence Sergio Leone had on the italian western a viewing of Bullets Don't Argue will tell you all you need to know. It's a competantly enough directed oater with a decent Morricone score and good central performances by all concerned, filmed in the same Almerian locations and at around the same time as A Fistful of Dollars. Leone was even involved in the pre production work. But this film is as different an animal to Leone's first western as a Bengal Tiger is to a badger. Why? Well, let me count the ways.

To begin with the lead character in Caiano's film is an old school western hero of 1940s B movie proportions. In fact Rod Cameron, the star of the picture, was a B movie actor of the 1940s and, as such, couldn't have cut a more different figure to Clint Eastwood in 1964 if he had painted himself blue. In his mid fifties and thick set, Cameron appears more like a kindly uncle than anything else and although he is clearly at home on a horse and carries out his fight scenes with a confidence born of long experience he never really inspires excitement at any point. If Eastwood's cheroot smoking Joe epitomised a new era of cool, Cameron remained the vanguard of the luke warm.

As you would expect with such an old school central character the story line of Bullets Don't Argue follows a similarly traditional line. Sheriff Pat Garrett (Cameron) pursues two bank robbing bandits across the border into Mexico intent on bringing them back to face justice for the killing of the two staff members unlucky enough to have recognised them during the raid. Identified as local brothers Billy and George Clayton (Angel Aranda and Horst Frank) the bandits are easy to locate but prove harder for Garrett to transport back, especially once the existence of the $30,000 swag comes to the attention of mexican gang leader Santero (Mimmo Palmara) and he and his men pursue the lawman and his prisoners across the desert. After a few twists and turns Garrett finally is forced to hold up at the ranch of a friendly young woman and the younger bandit brother gets the opportunity to redeem himself in the face of Santero's superior numbered forces. No signs of any pragmatic morals here. Garrett is a straight shooting upholder of truth, justice and the american way while key bad guys Santero and Billy Clayton are rotten to the core.

If this wasn't enough, the friendly young woman ranch owner (Vivi Bach) has a syrupy nice little brother called Mike who wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Leave it to Beaver and who gets rescued from the flaming ranch house by our hero when the rest of us are all baying for him to be left in there to burn!

No, make no mistake, this film is based so heavily on the traditional style U.S western that it even appears out of date compared to american oaters of the pre spaghetti period. And Caiano admits this openly himself. He set out to make a traditional western and used plot threads and ideas from a host of famous U.S westerns of the 1950s as he went along. The examples of this poaching are seemingly endless, from the Sheriff's ruined wedding day (High Noon) to his transportation of the bandit to justice (3.10 to Yuma). It even has the Cavalry charging in to save the day for Pete's sake and you won't see that too often in an italian western.

And it is this open mimicing of it's american counterparts that really sets this film apart from the eurowesterns that followed the success of Leone's films. Caiano is not trying to set any new styles here. He is openly attempting to make a western, in europe, that looks as much like an american film as possible. And, in that, he was pretty successful. I was brought up on american westerns just like this and I still love them. Bullets Don't Argue, in that context, is a success and it's 'saturday morning pictures' qualities afford it a certain nostalgic warmth. Indeed, this film could have been shown at the Leyton Odeon (my childhood local cinema) on any given saturday morning in the 1960s and been received with foot stamping enthusiasm by an army of scruffy, lolly stick throwing urchins just like me whose prefered cinematic diet was satisfied by just this kind of straightforward horse and gun fest. It is fun and formulaic. What it isn't is innovative. It is a film which looks squarely into the past and that is why its comparison with Leone's effort of the same year is so stark.

But for all its differences (and they really can't be overstated) Bullets Don't Argue still shows hints of a european style about to emerge. It is almost as if, despite all its best efforts to mask its european origins, they just can't help peeking through. Part of this is almost certainly due to the Almerian landscape and locations. Rod Cameron may be a middle aged vanguard of virtue with an expanded waistline but he still walks down the same streets in Los Albaricoques that Eastwood and Van Cleef would immortalise soon after. There is also the contributions of Carlo Simi (set design) and Morricone (musical score) which add more resonances of spaghettis to come and, lastly, there are one or two faces in the cast who would go on to become familiar favourites and stalwarts of the italian style westerns. First among these, undoubtedly, is Horst Frank. Although younger, thinner and with shorter hair than when he became more familiar to us in later films his icy stare and calous wickedness is proudly on show here and his performance as Billy, the terminally mean Clayton brother, is the strongest in the film. He swaggers around killing, slapping and stealing without a moment's hesitation and his glowering presence adds a real edge to this otherwise wholesome canvas. The only disappointment is that we are denied the pleasure of a final showdown between him and the hero. A real missed opportunity in my view but probably symptomatic of the film's more mainstream goals.

Fundamentally then, Bullets Don't Argue was proof that the italians could make an american western with acceptable skill and genre understanding if they chose to. This film ticks a whole lot of general boxes and is entertaining in its traditional style. Thankfully, however, this style was not to be the dominant influence on eurowesterns in the coming years. It would be the more innovative style of Leone and its more morally ambiguous characters that became the dominant and defining image of the western all'italiana. And we can all be grateful for that.