Friday 29 May 2009

Those Dirty Dogs

Dir: Giuseppe Rosati


1973 was not exactly a stellar year in the history of the Italian western. It was a time when the genre was genuinely breathing its last gasps and those films which were still being made in the western cycle were predominantly leaning heavily towards parody and pastiche. This was post Trinity time and there was precious little being made of any great note. Consequently, I approached Those Dirty Dogs with some understandable trepidation. But the opening scenes were promising. The film opens with a massacre, followed by the carrying off of a female hostage. Stephen Boyd rides in, closely followed by Giannio Garko as a koran reading bounty hunter. Maybe this was going to buck the trend and prove to be an 'old school' spaghetti. One where the themes would be dark and the actor's stubble even darker. Maybe this would be the film from '73 which proved that all was not silly bar room brawls and prat falls. Then again, maybe not.

To be fair, before I go off and list all the ways in which the film fails, I should say that Those Dirty Dogs is by no means a terrible film. In some ways it is quite enjoyable. It just isn't as good as it could be and, moreover, can't quite seem to make up its mind as to what it wants to be. This, for my mind, is a greater sin and merely adds to my sense of disappointment when I should be coming away feeling much better.

As mentioned above, the opening scenes and the introduction of the key protagonists set a darkish, if slightly ironic, mood. Garko's character, Korano, is somewhat offbeat with his sun umbrella and arabic holy book but he is offered as an essentially serious character. Likewise, Stephen Boyd and his companions show no suggestions of parody at this stage. This continues for some time. The uneasy alliance between Garko and Boyd is established and the conflicting interests of their relationship (military on the one side, mercenary on the other) are laid out. So far so good and all seems to be shaping up for an interesting ride. Then, as if the producers couldn't help themselves in a post Trinity world, a fist fight looms and the next thing you know Boyd has performed a double handed ear slap on a dumb faced adversary accompanied by a twanging spring sound effect. Oh dear. The ensuing extended brawl embodies everything that went wrong with the genre in its latter period and takes the film down an ill-judged path which it cannot survive with its integrity intact. From this moment on we see-saw with little concern for consistancy between a serious narrative and a spoof and the viewer is left wondering what, if anything, were the people responsible thinking?

Let me make myself clear. I am not a great fan of parody westerns but, when handled correctly, they can be entertaining. There is nothing wrong with a comedy western if that is what the film makers set out to make. They may not be everyone's cup of tea but in the right hands are harmless fun. But you can't have your cake and eat it. If you are going for laughs don't include a threat of torture or expect me to engage in a serious story thread. It needs to be one thing or the other or at least play the middle ground without venturing too far in either direction. The makers Those Dirty Dogs appear to have been unable to decide which way to go and the end result, despite its potential, is unsatisfying whichever way you cut it.

I'll give two examples as to what I mean. The film opens with a massacre carried out by Angel Sanchez (Simon Andreu) and his men. Sanchez is clearly a nasty piece of work and is played strictly straight in this regard. But Sanchez is not the big boss. He works for General Lopez and it is this ultimate leader who Stephen Boyd has been sent to tackle. Yet when we meet the Generalisimo he turns out to be a strutting buffoon of a man who is neither menacing nor in any way believable as a genuine threat to anyone. The scenes which include him are cringe worthy and undermine everything the narrative is built around. Not only that but despite their obvious intention they are just not funny either. Why they included him at all is beyond my comprehension. Sanchez would have sufficed perfectly well as the prime villain and, indeed, by the film's climax it is he who becomes the main antagonist to Boyd whereas Lopez is killed off almost in passing and without any real focus. Secondly, despite the nonsense surrounding Lopez and the Trinityesque fist fights we are brought to an abrupt about face in a scene where a woman is interrogated by Boyd to find out the whereabouts of the bandit gang. In a film which has become increasingly parodic in style seeing this woman's dress front violently ripped open by the supposed hero is genuinely alarming and in complete contrast to the pervading atmosphere to this point. Boyd then goes on to threaten the bare breasted woman with a blade, promising torture if she doesn't offer up the information he wants. Where in heck did this come from? It's almost like a scene from a different film. Moreover, it is quickly followed by the woman throwing herself at her attacker, offering herself willingly, whereby Boyd becomes the embarrassed and overcome victim who we are expected to laugh at. It's like the whole film is exhibiting more mood swings than a pre menstrual bipolar teenager. This particular scene is also just plain ill judged. Without it I could probably have watched it with my kids and the silliness would have been absorbed a little easier. With it and family viewing is out of the question. Moreover, it undermines the character of the main protagonists and left me feeling confused and just a little bit dirty. In fact the scene is so badly devised and poorly executed that it sticks out in the mind throughout the rest of the movie; casting a shadow that obscures, for me, what merits the film genuinely has.

And, despite all my complaints, the film does have some merits. Garko is always likable and his character of Korano, if somewhat underdeveloped, is entertaining and has some real potential to be exploited further. To be honest I find it hard not to enjoy anything that Garko appears in to some degree and it has to be said that he carries off his part faultlessly. Fans of the Sartana franchise will also probably enjoy his unconventional use of the umbrella; using it as a hidden gun to mow down his adversaries with bondlike precision. Simon Andreu is fine as the mexican bandit and although Harry Baird doesn't bring much to the table he does what is required of him well enough. Stephen Boyd is also good value for the most part and although this is not his best performance by a long chalk his very presence is a bonus. He even sings and co writes the theme song; a ditty that will stay with you for days afterwards. I still can't get it out of my head no matter how hard I try. In fact the music in general is probably one of the films undeniable strengths. Nico Fidenco delivers an excellent score which really deserves to hang on to a better all round film.

In many ways it is probably the film's strengths and potentials that throw its weaknesses and failings into a greater spotlight for me. This shouldn't be such a poor and disappointing movie. It has a number of good ingredients and, in parts, works well enough to suggest it could have been a pretty decent film. But its ill judged character and plot decisions and, above all, its inconsistancy and inability to decide what kind of film it wants to be leaves me feeling short changed. A pity as I wanted to like this film much more but, in the end, I just couldn't.

Monday 4 May 2009

I Want Him Dead

Dir: Paolo Bianchini


Clayton, (Craig Hill) a former scout for the Confederacy, seeks revenge after his sister is raped and murdered by local bad guy Jack Blood (Jose Manuel Martin). His search for Blood is complicated by the fact that the villain works for a ruthless capitalist named Mellek (Andrea Bosic) who has plans to prolong the civil war for his own economic ends by assassinating two generals who are meeting to discuss peace terms. Jack Blood is the man Mellek appoints to carry out these assassinations and Clayton's pursuit of him leads him into deeper and more difficult waters as the two plot lines converge.

I Want Him Dead, considered by many to be Craig Hill's best Spaghetti Western, is nothing if not an interesting mix. The direction is sometimes inspired and at other times sloppy. It enjoys a good cast who offer some solid work but are occasionally under utilised. It has two plots for the price of one but somehow doesn't mesh them successfully enough. Yet despite its various failings it manages to stay consistantly interesting and is, ultimately, a Spaghetti well worth seeing.

The opening scene, before the credits, is a perfect example of the film's strengths and weaknesses. Clayton and his sister are riding through the desert. As they sit around their fire in the evening a seemingly riderless horse runs towards them. In a series of jump cuts using reflections, close ups and depth of field so profound it gives an almost fish eye effect Clayton becomes aware of impending danger and then dispatches two assailants with explosive and clinical skill. This opening sequence is carried off with consumate flair and skill but goes completely unexplained in the ensuing narrative. It stands alone as an inexplicable episode that has no obvious connection with anything else in the film but sets a mood which carries the viewer onwards wanting more. Unfortunately, it also sets a standard which is not always lived up to as the film continues and with the bar set this high every drop in quality becomes held in greater focus. This is a pity as the film is, in general, an enjoyable piece. It just lacks consistancy.

On the positive side, it genuinely is one of Craig Hill's better spaghettis. I would personally rank it alongside A Taste of Killing as my personal favourite of his. His pale eyed, steely look (a kind of cross between Franco Nero and Terence Hill) is perfectly suited to this tale of intrigue and revenge. A vehicle which requires him to do what he is best at; stay quiet and look cool. A feat he achieves successfully despite a questionable choice of hat. A straw woven object which he struggles to keep on his head while riding on occasion. In all seriousness, Hill plays his part well and benefits from the accompanying performances of the ever reliable Jose Manuel Martin as the main villain and the impressive Lea Massari, who carries off the part of the downtrodden but resilient captive servant girl with an effective balance of strength and vulnerability. In fact, in many ways Massari's is the stand out performance of the film. Her acting is impressive and she brings a genuine lift to every scene she is in. Jose Manuel Martin is always good value of course but I couldn't help but feel that in a role as central as this one for him he could of been used a bit more and his villainy expressed a shade more often. After his initial, almost casual rape and murder of Hill's sister (commited offscreen) he becomes little more than a worried looking fugitive. He is far better suited to the role of a fox than a rabbit.

Part of the problem here is that I Want Him Dead is actually two stories in one. The first is the straight forward revenge tale of Hill pursuing his sister's attackers. But this is eventually overlapped by the parallel plot of Mellek's greed driven assassination plan. And although this remains effectively a sub plot it gradually becomes more and more central. Martin's character is the link between the two plot lines and, consequently, this should make his role stronger. However, what happens is the two strands never really converge effectively and so the power of his character is diminished and lost a little. This is a pity as Martin is a gift to any film of this type and the opportunity was there to marry the two stories with greater impact. As it is, they come together in the showdown between Martin and Hill at the moment the assassination is supposed to take place but quickly split again; with the other gang members and Mellek having a denouement of their own, quite separate from that of our hero and villain. This lack of cohesion doesn't grate so much as to ruin the film but it certainly is an opportunity missed and, for me, is another example of how the film misses out on being truly outstanding.

That said, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film on the whole. The strengths of the lead players are more than enough to carry the viewer happily through the narrative despite any of its faults and the camera work, framing and composition of Bianchini and director of photography, Ricardo Andreu, are, at times, outstanding. Indeed, the film is visually nothing short of excellent and offers some truly memorable shots which, in tandem with Nico Fidenco's solid score, give it some much needed weight.

I Want Him Dead is, I think, best described as a mixed bag and your response to it is likely to be driven strongly by the preset convictions you bring with you. If you are a Craig Hill fan you are likely to see this as an excellent example of what he was capable of when given the right vehicle. If a Jose Manuel Martin fan you are just as likely to come away with mixed feelings; nice to see him in a larger role, sad to see him ultimately under utilised. If you are easily swayed by strong visual composition and effective framing this film will ring all your bells. If sloppy editing puts you off, those ringing bells will be dulled somewhat. And if, like me, you fall into all those camps, you may well come away from the film feeling an equal sense of satisfaction and disappointment. A film with some genuinely memorable moments, let down on occasion by easily avoided lapses. On balance though, a pretty decent spaghetti. By no means perfect but well worth an hour and a half of anyone's time and one which I have no trouble in recommending.