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.

1 comment:

Chris Casey said...

Excellent review, companero!
I agree with every single point.