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.