Thursday 29 January 2009

Fury of Johnny KIdd

Dir: Gianni Puccini


The Western has plundered the works of William Shakespeare regularly through the years. Possibly more than any other genre. And many of its most celebrated auteurs have had a go at adapting the bard's works into a sagebrush setting. Anthony Mann, William Wellman, Delmer Daves and Edward Dmytryk are good examples of how it was done in America and of course Enzo G. Castellari's Johnny Hamlet is a prime case in Spaghettiland. It's not surprising then that when communist intellectual Gianni Puccini decided to have a crack at an oater he should fall back on Old Bill's work to use as a starting point. This was a smart move as the tragic themes and characters which have helped keep Shakespeare's works so relevant and vibrant to this day fit the western genre like a glove and provide any film maker with a happy balance of action and drama to work with. This raw material still has to be used thoughtfully of course to make it interesting and that is what sorts out the men from the boys. Happily, Puccini does so capably here and Fury of Johnny Kidd proves to be a real pleasure as a result.

Romeo and Juliet is the play being adapted in this instance, with the Mexican and Gringo families of the Mounters and Campos filling in for the Montagues and Capulets of the original. The main principles of the storyline remain intact for the most part; The two families ongoing hatred and antagonism of each other manifests itself in murder and ambush during which both sides show themselves as bereft of any sense of restraint or mercy. The Campos, and in particular the eldest son Rodrigo (Peter Martell) are seen to be particularly ruthless in their endeavours and they are also aided by the complicit assistance of the local sheriff (Piero Lulli). Meanwhile Johnny Mounter, (Peter Lee Lawrence playing the Romeo part), meets Giulietta Campos (Cristina Galbo) while robbing a stagecoach with his one handed friend Lefty (Andres Mejuto) and takes an instant shine to her. They are expecting the coach to be carrying some treasure belonging to The Camposes and while they don't find any loot the beautiful young maid qualifies as far as Johnny is concerned. The pair meet up again during a raid Johnny makes on the Campos' ranch during which Senor Campos announces his daughter's betrothal to Sheriff Cooper. Giulietta is none too pleased with this arrangement and once an opportune and secret clinch takes place with young Johnny the couples' mutual infatuation is complete and their minds made up to be together. On learning of this the local saloon girl Roselyn (Maria Cuadra), who has enjoyed a previous brief encounter with our handsome hero, blows their story to Rodrigo in a fit of jealousy. Johnny is subsequently captured and jailed but Roselyn takes pity and affords his escape; sacrificing her own life in the process. The stage is now set for a final showdown as Johnny attempts to free Giulietta from her father's house and the Mounters embark on an all out assault on their enemy's stronghold. In Shakespeare's original of course the young couple's love is doomed by circumstance and the depth of their families' animosity. They can be together only in death. Will this retelling in the arena of popular cinema allow such a tragic denouement?

As in all good adaptations Puccini and his scriptwriters Bruno Baratti and Maria del Carmen Martinez Roman use the original text as a general structure but are not chained to it slavishly. The central themes and characters are maintained but they are happy to adjust things and play around with ideas in order to construct something fresh from the material. Retelling the same story in different costumes is not enough to make it interesting and it is no surprise that Puccini and his team are clearly set on making the story their own and embellishing it with some quirky twists and nuances. And quirky twists there certainly are. For a start the bond between Sheriff Cooper and Rodrigo Campos has homo erotic overtones that even my pathetically inadequate gaydar could pick up on. This is an unspoken element but the flashback image of them shooting at each other while Rodrigo is lying on a bed and the resultant relic of the bond which now exists between them (two bullets wedged point to point together in a bizarre and obviously phallic symbol), makes this abundantly clear even if, thankfully, the two men are not portrayed as anything other than fiercely masculine in any other context.

The character of Roselyn is also utilised cleverly. Instead of the old flame merely refered to in the original play as a girl who resists Romeo's advances, she is introduced here as a significantly more ardent rival for our young man's affections. She is thereby able to play the pivotal role of rejected lover, exposing the couple to Giulietta's family while also offering a tragic 'whore with a heart' figure that Westerns like so well. Moreover, as the saloon singer, she sets up the purveying mood of the entire film with her haunting lament of "La Muerte Esta Con Nosotros" ("Death is With Us"); by far the most effective saloon song I have ever heard in a Western. No skirt twirling and thigh slapping in this one. The song oozes a sense of tragic resignation and introduces Death himself as a character as present in the film as either Romeo or Giulietta. His presence purveys every scene and, uniquely to my knowledge, he finally appears in person at the end of the closing bloodbath, complete with skeleton face, cooly picking off any wounded survivors with cruel precision.

---- Spoiler Alert ----

And that denouement I mentioned earlier? Well no, Puccini takes a different tack on this altogether. The original play ends with the understanding that the purity of Romeo and Juliet's love could not survive amidst the deep rooted, blind prejudice and hatred of their families. Shakespeare chose to kill off his young lovers to symbolise this impasse. Puccini takes a different tack entirely on the scenario, choosing rather to kill off everyone else (literally) in order to put an end to the madness and allow a new beginning based on love. It is both a more positive and a more gruesome conclusion but one which I think works well within the context of the piece and the Spaghetti genre itself.

Fury of Johnny Kidd is an impressive film for a director who only made one western. Puccini's tragic death aged only 54 the following year meant that we will never know if it was a feat he could have repeated. What we can say is that he assembled an impressive creative team for this film and, as a result, it offers more than the average oater of its time while still delivering a satisfying genre feast. Cinematographer Mario Montuori (later to work on Ciak Moll and Forgotten Pistolero) produces some great work here, with some beautifully constructed visuals and the aforementioned scriptwork of Baratti and Martinez Roman means the dialogue is by and large free from some of the cornball excesses all too common at the time. Gianni Amelio's contribution as assistant director is always difficult to guage but his later celebrated career would suggest he didn't do any harm and his similar role on Giulio Questi's Django Kill suggests that he was a very useful player in the team. Gino Peguri's score is effective and, in places, memorable but for me was damaged by the unneccesary use a sort of sliding stylophone effect at times.

Finally, the cast was a good one and used very well. For me this is one of Lawrences best performances, almost the perfect part for his looks and screen persona. He is convincing as the young romantic hero and in hindsight bears an uncanny resemblance to Leonardo Di Caprio who was to play Romeo in a more recent and well known version of the story. Lawrence also enjoys an obvious chemistry with Cristina Galbo and it is interesting to note that the couple were actually married a couple of years after meeting on the set of this film. Galbo is fine as Giulietta but her thunder is stolen in the female stakes by Maria Cuadra who is both sexier and more effective in the role of Roselyn. Piero Lulli is perfect in the role of Sheriff Cooper with his mad blue eyes while Peter Martell is given carte blanche to play Rodrigo with as much open shirted, virile abandon as he liked.

In total Fury of Johnny Kidd is a very solid slice of spaghetti pie and a first rate adaptation of this Shakespearian tale. Everyone involved does a creditable job and the end result should please any of us who enjoy their pasta with a classical flavour.

The version I watched of this was the first class recent release from Koch Media who continue to bless us with excellent presentations of previously hard to find films. The italian audio and english subs are nice and should satisfy anyone but the most subtitle-phobic while the picture quality was clear and vivid and in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Monday 5 January 2009

Killer Kid

Dir. Leopoldo Savona


Approaching an Anthony Steffen film is, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, like opening a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. Granted, the likelihood of a masterpiece is pretty slim but outside of that there is an equal possibilty of uncovering anything from a solid genre piece to an all out action fest to a turkey the size of an aircraft carrier. Most, to be fair, fall somewhere in the middle of all these options. But, on occasion, our Tony managed to get himself involved in a pretty decent film or two and Killer Kid for my money is one of his very best.

Now before we get carried away let me make myself clear. I am not about to suggest that Killer Kid is a Spaghetti Western of the very highest order. This is not a film which threatens to usurp the most celebrated works from their well deserved pedestals in any way. It has a number of shortcomings which are far too obvious for that. But it has a number of genuine merits too and in the grand balance of things it's a pretty good film by any standards. And I do mean by any standards. By Anthony Steffen standards it's verging on Citizen Kane.

Killer Kid (Steffen) escapes from a Yankee jail and heads south of the border where he becomes involved in the struggles of a band of revolutionaries, their gun runners and the Federale troops led by Ramirez (Ken Wood) who are ruthlessly tracking them in search of their elderly intellectual leader, The Saint (Howard Nelson Rubien). The waters are muddied by the self interests of one of the revolutionaries, Vilar (Fernando Sancho) and a smouldering romance which perculates between Steffen and the Saint's beautiful niece, Mercedes, played by Luisa Baratto. Loyalties are complicated and the story takes a few twists and turns before the final battle between revolutionaries and federales settles things for good although, predictably, at the expense of some central figures.

The most obvious first note when discussing this film is its Mexican Revolution setting. Somewhat grandiosely it announces its dedication to the Mexican people in an opening credits statement and the general sentiments of the plot are certainly sympathetic to the revolutionaries but the hero here is a gringo and his alignment with the downtrodden only comes when his own mission is safeguarded and complete. In truth this opening statement seems more than a little hollow for a film which is clearly never meant to be anything more than entertainment. But that not withstanding, there are genuine attempts I think to allow the characters more depth and layers than many of the action oriented westerns made during this cycle (and certainly in many of Steffen's other films) so I'm happy to make allowances. Besides it is obvious that Savona and producer Sergio Garrone were doing their upmost to make a quality film with a very restrictive budget and their achievement is to be applauded. For example, this is a Zapata western made entirely in Italy. No scorching iconic Almerian landscape to help set the mood here. Just an italian quarry and the backlots of Elios Studios and Cinecitta. This would normally jar but I found myself almost being fooled on occasion and the fact that the cheap locations went more or less unnoticed was a good indication for me that there was enough good stuff going on to keep me focused on the story.

In prime position among this 'good stuff' for me was the tour de force performance delivered by the wonderful Fernando Sancho. If you're a Sancho fan, and I most certainly am, then Killer Kid offers everything you could want from the big man and more. He leers and blusters, simpers and shouts, he struts and cowers. In fact he mugs unashamedly through the whole thing and garnishes it with outlandish laughter and elaborate moustache stroking. No one could overact with such relish like Fernando and the character of Vilar gives him full rein to shine in every direction. In the early stages of the film he gets to be untrustworthy and sadistic. As the stories unfolds, power hungry and ruthless. Then, and this is where he strays from the norm, by the end he shows a softer, more vulnerable side and is ultimately redeemed. This final character development was a welcome change and a credit to Sergio Garrone who, according to Marco Giusti, was likely the lone scriptwriter here despite the joint credit with Savona and co producer Ottavio Poggi. I always enjoy Sancho as a bad guy but equally enjoy his less regular appearances in more sympathetic roles so this film offers the best of both worlds.

But despite Sancho's show stealing this is obviously a vehicle for Anthony Steffen and I have to say that although I am not one of his biggest fans he aquits himself very ably here and shows how, with the right script, he could be a very effective leading man. We get all the usual 'roll and shoots' of course and the other standard Steffen stuff but his character goes on a genuine inner journey of sorts and his chemistry with Luisa Baratto is sufficient to make the love interest both engaging and believable. His loyalty dilemma is played with equal competence and the conclusion of the film shows him making an interesting shift. I won't discuss this further in order to avoid spoilers but suffice it to say that although not entirely unexpected I thought it added a more thoughtful closure than many of Steffen's other westerns.

On the down side, there was some decidedly jumpy editing and I was more than a little confused as to which Mexican Revolution the film was set around. The bolt action rifles and Federale uniforms of the Mexican troops would suggest the 20th century conflict but the U.S army officers are decked up in bright blue a la the Seventh Cavalry from the 1860s or 70s so maybe it was meant to be based around the Juarez thing. In truth, this is of no matter. As has often been said, expecting verisimilitude in an Italian western is something of a fool's errand and I for one was happy to smile and let it go. It may damage the film's ability to be taken seriously as an historical narrative but outside of the aforementioned dedication to the people of Mexico this film has few such pretentions and settles for being a thoroughly entertaining action flick with just enough character depth to keep it interesting and enough qualities in its cast, script and understated music score to make it well worth the purchase price for any Spaghetti fan.