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.