Saturday 28 February 2009

In a Colt's Shadow

Dir: Giovanni Grimaldi


In the early days of the Italian Western cycle there were a number of films which leaned heavily on the previous American style. Most films produced in 1963 and 64 fell into this category but after the success of Fistful of Dollars the distinctive 'Spaghetti' styling we have come to enjoy began to develop and the productions which followed in 1965 and 66 were influenced as much by Leone and Corbucci as by their U.S predecessors. But the manner of the traditional U.S western still cast a long shadow during these transition years and a number of films from around this time showed an equal bias between their American and European roots. In a Colt's Shadow is a perfect example of this duality; a western which pays equal homage to the godfathers of both camps: Sergio Leone and John Ford.

Two pistoleros, Steve Blaine (Stephen Forsyth) and Duke Buchanan (Conrado San Martin) rid a Mexican village of their bandit oppressors but in the gun battle Duke is seriously wounded. He gives his share of their fee to his younger partner but, knowing that Blaine intends to marry his daughter and retire to a farm, stipulates that he must stay away from the girl or face his wrath. Blaine ignores the older man's instructions and sets out for a new life with Duke's daughter (Anna Maria Pollani) in tow. Unfortunately, they wind up in a town run by two corrupt bankers; Jackson (Franco Ressel) and Burns (Franco Lantieri) and Blaine is forced to use the gun he had hoped to put away for good. Moreover, once Duke recovers and hears of the young love birds plans he sets out to catch up with them and make Blaine pay for his defiance.

As mentioned above, In a Colt's Shadow has much of its look and feel in the older American style and, to begin with at least, this does not do it any favours. I'm a big fan of U.S westerns but when their style is simply aped it rarely comes off without appearing corny and false. The opening dialogue in this film between the two pistoleros for example is painfully wordy and wooden and the viewer could easily be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the film would be as clunky. And in fact in some scenes this proves to be so. But as the story progresses the 'Italian-ness' of the piece forces its way through. For all the hero's stiff conventionality the villains in this movie are pure Spaghetti and the action scenes and final showdown are superbly executed with a flair and vigour rarely seen in Hollywood films of the period. What results is a real hybrid with overt nods in the direction of both styles.

Giovanni Grimaldi was principally a writer rather than a director so it is not surprising that his style behind the camera is somewhat derivative in its nature but his cinematic quotes, though obvious, are quite pleasurable to behold and are well crafted and integrated into the narrative. The opening door of the ranch house, shot from the interior to reveal a stark black frame around a figure bathed in bright exterior light is lifted straight from John Ford's The Searchers but an interesting twist is added by the inclusion of violence in the frame. A shot that is repeated for good measure with two gunmen instead of one a little later. He makes an equally overt reference to Leone's style however in the final showdown scene where the build up is drawn out, squeezing every last drop of expectation possible from the increasing tension. Unfortunately, much of this good work is undermined by a somewhat syrupy ending but when considered as a whole it's a pretty solid piece. The visuals are good, which could well be the work of cinematographer Stelvio Massi as much as Grimaldi, and the score from Nico Fidenco fits well.

But the element which struck me most was the interesting cast. The film's lead, Canadian actor Stephen Forsyth, was possibly the least interesting on show. Although in real life he is an intriguing figure. After making around a dozen films in Italy including a few unexceptional westerns and the more celebrated Hatchet for a Honeymoon with Mario Bava, he moved to New York and carved out a career for himself as a multi media artist. Working as photographer, actor, musician, poet, choreographer and performance and video artist. Difficult to imagine from his somewhat one dimensional performance here that he was so multi faceted. Thankfully though, he is playing opposite a plethora of stalwart Spaghetti baddies in this film and they provide some wonderfully eccentric moments. Franco Ressel, a firm favourite of mine, offers perhaps the most compelling performance. A tight wound ball of arrogance, sadism and conceit he explodes at one stage in a magnificent torrent of rage and unleashed frustration, whipping frantically with a switch at an inanimate wooden post like some demented and ill equipped lumberjack. Franco Lantieri, as Ressel's business partner, is similarly psychotic. Manically sensitive about his wooden right hand, he shows equally unhealthy levels of spitefulness and cowardice. The former when in a position of advantage, the latter when his one good hand is under threat. I love this kind of pantomime villainy and in the context of this storyline it works perfectly. Adding much needed colour to an otherwise fairly pedestrian plotline.

Conrado San Martin plays the less featured but equally important role of Duke Buchanan with a solid level of stoic flair. A veteran of a bucket load of Spanish and Italian films, San Martin worked in just about every genre imaginable. Medieval adventures, Peplums, Eurospies, as well as a handful of Spaghettis, he also featured in a couple of Spanish Horror pieces for Jess Franco. He also made a few films with Sergio Leone. Appearing uncredited in both Once Upon a Time in the West and Fistful of Dynamite but also in a featured role in Leone's first film as director, The Colossus of Rhodes. Such experience shows through in his largely understated performance and despite the poor level of dialogue he has to work with (judging by the english dub at least) he carries off his part well and I would like to have seen more of him.

As for the female performers, well Anna Maria Pollani is not given much to work with. Her role as romantic squeeze and disobedient daughter is unfortunately more passive than it could have been but the void is more than filled by the bad girl of the piece played by Helga Line. Her saloon girl, Fabienne, is treacherous, conniving and self seeking so Miss Line has a much better role to get her teeth into and she does a fine job. Although I must say things could have been improved even further had her part been filled by Rosalba Neri. An unfair slight on Helga perhaps, but I can't help but fantasize.

In general terms I think it is fair to say that In a Colt's Shadow is something of a mixed bag. An American style western but with strong spaghetti flavour; a well staged action film which is sometimes too wordy and sickly cliched; a largely derivative styled genre piece with some genuinely well crafted visuals. It is all these things and more. But I think, for me, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses and helped along by some strong performances in key roles and some genuinely impressive stunt work during its excellent action sequences I found it to be a good example of the earlier stages of the Italian Western cycle and a film I thoroughly enjoyed as a result.

The version I watched of this film was the excellent Imagica edition. Very nice widescreen picture which really showed the film's visual style off at its best. Certainly the recommended edition if you can get it or a copy thereof.

Thursday 5 February 2009

The Challenge of McKenna

Dir: Leon Klimovsky


A drifter happens across a recently hung man and a distraught young woman as he rides through the country alone. He buries the man and takes the woman to a local ranch where he discovers that she is the ranch owner's daughter and that Dad was responsible for the hanging; his unsubtle way of fending off an enamored suitor he disapproved of. At first the drifter signs on to work at the ranch but he quickly falls out with the owner, Don Diego and his spiteful son, Chris and wanders into town instead. Here he meets up with a beautiful saloon keeper, falls even further foul of Chris and winds up rediscovering the dangerous passion of his unhappy past. Something that can only lead to more blood and tears as Don Diego and son see him as an increasing threat to their local supremacy.

On the surface, the above synopsis could easily describe any one of a number of genre features which aspire to nothing more than a bit of melodrama interspersed with periodic action sequences leading up to a showdown. The characters of megalomaniac patriarch, spoilt psychotic son, whore with a heart of gold and drifter compelled to intervene are by no means unique and the basic storyline is equally common. But first impressions can be deceptive and The Challenge of McKenna is far from a run of the mill horse opera. Beneath the standard plot structure and stock characters lies a genuine attempt to explore some deeper emotive issues and along the way it leans heavily on philosophy, scripture and poetry. Not something which can often be boasted by even the most lofty examples of the genre, let alone by a low budget, studio and gravel pit confined production directed by a man better known as a 'journeyman' than an artist.

This is possibly unfair on the director as Leon Klimovsky, although becoming better known for his lower end genre work, began his career in Argentina adapting literary titles for film such as Dostoyevsky's The Player and Ernesto Sabato's El Tunel. He always insisted that he had set out to make art films but had ended up making commercial ones. So perhaps The Challenge of McKenna is an example of what Klimovsky was capable of when given the opportunity. Then again, maybe not. As with many of these films, actual authorship is difficult to place. In a business climate of co productions where a quota of names from a particular nationality was essential to secure funding it is not always safe to attribute work to someone purely because of the credit list. Klimovsky's name is, for example, the one credited for A Few Dollars For Django despite the fact that Enzo G. Castellari is known to have directed much of that film. What confuses matters further is the appearance in the credits as writer of fellow director Edoardo Mulargia. Mulargia did occasionally write for films he didn't direct but at this time in his career that was rare. And lastly, just to muddy the waters further, it was claimed in Variety at the time of the film's production that the story was supplied by star John Ireland and British screenwriter Wolf Mankiwitz while Robert Woods has claimed that he and Ireland were responsible for directing most of the dramatic scenes themselves as Klimovsky said very little to the actors throughout the film. I am not claiming anything specific in regard to the actual credits due on this film. I just can't be sure of anything. But I do think there is probably more to be discovered about the film's actual authors and that we should probably be cautious in accepting the credits as given. One thing is for certain. Whoever was responsible, The Challenge of McKenna is a success due to a very good script well filmed.

Indeed it is the quality of the script that lingers with the viewer long after the closing scenes. Full of excellent one liners and interwoven with poetic quotes and religious allusions it exhibits genuine depth and resonance. It also allows the characters to show themselves through their dialogue beautifully without getting bogged down in lengthy speeches. One of the best examples of this is when Chris (Robert Woods), Don Diego's villainous son, is discussing with Ed, a neighbouring ranch owner, the possibility of marrying his sister if he has sufficient money. Ed is horrified at the idea that Chris would sell his sister. To which Chris replies "Me? I'd give the Bitch away." In one brief exchange we understand fully that Chris is not only nasty but jealous of his father's attention and that his father covets wealth and power above all else. We also learn that Robert Woods, in the right circumstance, makes a terrific spaghetti villain. As the film unfolds Woods grovels, rages, bites his nails with cannibalistic intensity and generally overacts to a wonderful degree. He also laughs maniacally, caresses his own face like some demented Richard the Third caricature and shows a truly unhealthy attraction to his sister. This is what I like to see in my spaghetti bad guys. Full on, unhinged villainy and Woods shows himself to be well suited to the type. Roberto Camardiel was, of course, more familiar than Woods with the heavy role and he is his usual excellent self as the patriarch Don Diego. Camardiel often alternated between villainous and light relief character parts but, for me, he is at his best in this sort of mean Mexican role.

At the same time, John Ireland fills the role of the drifter, Jones, perfectly too. Ireland played his share of villains over a long career but was always best, in my opinion, as the steady if troubled individual trying to live decently in challenging circumstances. This is the part he plays here. Jones (he is never called McKenna in the english language version of the film I have) is an intriguing mix of embittered loner and affable moralist. In western movie terms, a kind of cross between a James Stewart and a Randolph Scott character; at once searching for himself while running away from a bitter past. He is clearly the moral compass of the piece, his burying of the hanged man and instruction to the livery stable owner to "Give my horse 50 cents worth of feed and a kind word" establishes that very early on. Yet his character retains a certain ambiguity throughout and often resembles a film noir anti hero in his actions and cynicism. His enigmatic persona is accentuated even further by his repeated use of poetry quotes to answer personal questions directed at him throughout the film. But these quotes actually reveal more about his motivations than is immediately obvious. Shelley's Ode to the West Wind and Thompson's The Hound of Heaven illustrate Jones' rejection of God and the deity's reluctance to let him go so easily. Shelley was an outspoken atheist, Thompson's poem centres on the tenaciousness of faith and man's inability to escape it. Heady stuff for a low budget western.

The film does have its failings however and these, despite his excellent performance on the whole, are primarily centred around John Ireland. Or more specifically, his age. Although he plays his multi layered character very well, his love affair with Maggie the saloon owner is difficult to accept. Ireland was pushing sixty at the time and looks old enough to be the beautiful Annabella Incontrera's father. A sound actor he may have been, a romantic lead he patently was not. Moreover, it is clear that Ireland was also too old to handle his own fight scenes. A fact made all too obvious by the stunt double used, who even from behind appears twenty years younger. (This is a lesson worth noting for all film makers actually. If you are going to substitute an actor with a stunt double don't place them in the extreme foreground of the shot. Stevie Wonder with a bag over his head will be able to spot it.)

But these things aside, The Challenge of the McKennas is a very good example of a low budget film which punches well above its weight. All the cast are due praise, the soundtrack works well without being a classic, the themes are well played out and thought provoking and, above all, some of the dialogue and one liners are truly memorable. I could list a number of excellent quotes but perhaps the closing lines best exemplify the quality and down beat nature of the script. While pleading with Jones not to leave her, Maggies says: "You can't kill our love!" to which he replies: "I'm a human being, made in the image of God. I can kill anything I like." Excellent.

Unfortunately I am unaware of any current DVD release of this film. The copy I have is an old ex rental VHS whose fullscreen picture does not do it justice. However, the strengths of the film overcome this , along with its aforementioned weaknesses, and I would recommend it as worth watching in whatever format you can get hold of. Most certainly a hidden gem for my money.