Monday 31 August 2009

$1000 on the Black

Dir: Alberto Cardone


In 1966 Alberto Cardone made two westerns with titles connected with the game of roulette. Seven Dollars on the Red and $1000 on the Black. In the crazy and unpredictable world of Spaghetti Western titles it should come as no surprise that neither of these films had anything to do with roulette in any way whatsoever. Both films also starred Anthony Steffen and, as all fans know, predicting the quality of a Steffen film is far more problematic. In a career that included dozens of Spaghettis and spanned the full time frame of the cycle Steffen's style stayed consistant but the quality of his films certainly did not. Seven Dollars on the Red proved to be one of Steffen's better outings. If anything, $1000 on the Black, is even better. Although, in truth, much of the film's appeal resides in the performance of his co star, the excellent Gianni Garko.

Johnny Liston returns from twelve years of imprisonment for a crime he didn't commit to find his brother, Sartana, their home town and surrounding area with his band of hoodlums. What's more, Sartana has taken Johnny's erstwhile sweetheart, Manuela, as his woman and spends all his free time when he is not extorting cash from the local townsfolk beating her or whipping her mute brother, Jerry. Johnny rescues local beauty Joselita Rogers from the clutches of some banditos but she shuns him when she discovers his identity as it was for the murder of her father that Johnny was convicted. Johnny is appalled by his brother's reign of terror and sets out to thwart his activities but gets no support, either from the townsfolk or his embittered mother who dotes on Sartana and vilifies Johnny for being 'weak'. Twisted family loyalties ensure that neither brother will openly attack the other but they struggle against each other until their mother's death when all bets are off and a showdown is inevitable.

Alex Cox, in his recent book, described $1000 on the Black as "visually fantastical, with no concession to that dull and deadly notion, 'realism'." For me Cox hits the nail on the head in terms of what makes this film appealing. It has melodrama in big heaped spoonfuls, a bad guy who is deliciously bad, a good guy we can root for and a mad, embittered matriarch in a big house whose malicious influence pervades all. All this acted with an unmistakeable relish in the Italian style where the term 'less is more' is never remotely considered. Everyone involved contributes their part here but, as mentioned above, Gianni Garko as the evil brother Sartana is very much first among equals.

This is not the Sartana character which became synoymous with Garko in the years to come but a very different animal. Psychotic, sadistic and Oedipal this Sartana is a whip wielding nut case who loves his mother and hates everyone else and whose blonde, blue eyed good looks are in stark contrast to his pseudo Mexican bandit persona. Garko plays the role well and proves beyond doubt that he was one of the few Spaghetti stars who was capable of inhabiting any character he chose. A true actor, he is as convincing here as the heavy as he was in any of his more usual good guy parts and his passionate, exuberant approach to this particular role works as a great foil to Anthony Steffen's stone faced hero. The two make a very effective pairing and between them create an absorbing spectacle. Steffen is...well...Steffen, and that's just fine. He does what is required and the part suits his style well. Tony was never a man who was going to challenge anyone in the acting stakes so it is not surprising that he is upstaged by Garko here but he performs well and brings sufficient steel to his character. He also performs his action scenes with his usual skill. This is where Steffen is at his best and he doesn't disappoint.

$1000 on the Black is also a film which features s few decent parts for women. Erika Blanc plays the feisty bereaved daughter with a good deal of strength while Angelica Ott offers contrast in her portrayal of the abused and downtrodden Manuela. But the stand out role among the girls goes to the older woman of the piece, Carla Calo, as Rhonda Liston, the embittered mother of Johnny and Sartana. Hard faced and even harder hearted, Manuela is at the centre of all that the boys do; goading Johnny into action, encouraging Sartana's brutality, despising the townsfolk for their hypocrisy. Her tortured soul hangs over the entire town and everyone in it and it is only through her ultimate death that the inevitable blood letting can begin between the brothers. Only once her influence is removed that they feel free to settle the score for good.

This is all pure melodrama laid on with a thick brush and is deliciously over the top. As Cox said, there is no attempt at realism and we are grateful for it. From the ridiculous pseudo Aztec fortress which serves as Sartana's headquarters to the implausability of no one ever suspecting the clearly shifty Judge Woods of being in cahoots with the villain this film doesn't even try to be believable. It's just a big old larger than life bundle of nonsense played straight and with gusto. And it is the strength of performance that makes the whole thing work. It's a film which never takes itself too seriously but never plays for laughs either so the viewer can jump into the emotional rollercoaster of the story, hold on through all the action and get off at the end exhausted and smiling from the fun of the ride. No one cares if the guns used are correct for the period. Or even what the actual period is. We certainly don't give a damn about what on earth those Aztec carvings are doing on a fort in the U.S. Why should we? They look cool and that's enough. Let's not even start to ask why the Mexican girl, Manuela has a brother called Jerry. It can only divert attention away from the fact that this film is a blast from start to finish. One that doesn't tax the analytical mind overly but which has enough depth to give it some bite. It doesn't challenge the best in the genre in terms of overall quality in any area but it is unwaveringly entertaining and that, surely, is more than enough.

Thursday 20 August 2009


Dir: Cesari Canevari


An outlaw is rescued from the hangman's noose by a band of Mexican bandits but once safely out of town our bad guy murders his saviours and holes up with a couple of old partners in a ghost town and plans a stagecoach robbery. They are joined there by one of the partner's girlfriend and an element of sexual tension is added as all the boys take a shine to her. During the stagecoach job the previously rescued outlaw is knocked off and the remaining villains go back to the ghost town to lay low for a while. During this time one of them hides the loot to keep everyone's hands out of it and a pacifist drifter and recently widowed woman arrive in the town by chance. Nastiness ensues and things are complicated further by the discovery that an old woman has been living in the ghost town all along; dreaming of rebuilding it to its former glory and figuring the stashed loot will go some way to financing her plans. All eventually comes to a head when the drifter escapes from his ropes with the aid of his loyal and somewhat aggressive horse and our original bad guy shows up, alive after all, to claim the loot for himself.

Sound familiar? Well if you, like me, had recently enjoyed the pleasures of an earlier spaghetti entitled Kill the Wicked, it certainly will do as this plotline is identical in practically every way. What's more, if you check the scriptwriter credits on both films you'll find they were both written by the same guy, Mino Roli. So he managed to sell the same story for two separate films. Nice move. But then nothing surprises me too much with Spaghettis. Or Italian genre films in general to be honest. The question really, I guess, is does the second film offer anything better or at least sufficiently different from the first. And the answer to that, for me at any rate, is yes...and no.

For all its similarities of plot and character, Matalo! is most definitely a very different film to Kill the Wicked. In fact it is very different to just about any other Spaghetti Western I can think of. Predominantly because, in an era of psychodelia, this film is the one which offers the most overt marriage of Western and Hippie conventions. In short, it's something of a trip. Only with big hats and horses.

The first thing which you are struck by is that for the first forty five minutes; a full half of the entire film, no one (apart from some initial mutterings from a priest) is seen to speak. That is not to say there is no dialogue. But that no one is ever shown speaking. Either the character speaking has their back turned to camera, or they are in a long shot or, often, are offscreen altogether. Apparently Canevari intended to eliminate all dialogue from the film except for the single order, Matalo!, which makes up the title. He doesn't manage quite that level of silence but the dialogue proper only really kicks off once Lou Castel's pacifist boomerang wielding character arrives in town. This change comes as quite a jolt after so long with few words and makes the film somewhat disjointed as a result. I would have prefered to see them stick with the largely silent approach. Apart from anything else, little is actually said of any real consequence. Only the explaination of why old Mrs Benson is still in town needs any clarifying words. The rest would work just fine in pantomime. In fact, for me, it is this lack of follow through which is the film's biggest fault. Strange to say, for a film that is as whacky as this in many ways I don't think it is quite whacky enough. I felt like it went to the edge and then pulled back rather than commiting itself fully. So that despite all the acid rock music and boomerangs it still kept a cautionary and somewhat unconfident hand on convention. A perfect case in point is the use of a misplaced and ill judged voice over injected briefly into the scenes between the outlaw's escape from the hanging and his arrival in the ghost town hide out. This provides nothing. It merely, detracts from the mood which has been deliberately constructed and comes across as something of a cinematic cop out. As if they were afraid we would all be a bit too confused by this point.

On its plus side there are some strong visual performances on show. Corrado Pani looks great as the principal bad guy, Bart. There is a Kinskiesque quality about Pani here. Not just in his facial resemblance but also in the barely controled menace that lies underneath it. (Although to be fair Pani is a little more attractive than Klaus and tends to smile a bit more.) His sniffing the burnt powder smell from his gun after firing is a nice, creepy touch and his heavy lidded, slack lipped look contrasts well to the hair trigger violent nature of his character. It's a pity Pani didn't make more westerns. He could have become a favourite. Luis Davila also played his part well as the more conventional bandit, Phil. In fact, of the three main male protagonist it is Lou Castel, the top billed and better known of all who probably shines the least. It doesn't help that he isn't introduced until the film is fully half way done. The other characters have had time to establish themselves by the time he eventually shows up. But his is also something of a flaky, weak character who spends most of his time crawling around or getting beaten up. And by the time he is ready to take on the villains (courtesy of his aforementioned and more active thinking horse rather than any activity of his own) I had frankly lost interest in him. Things were not helped when he started flinging boomerangs about. I'm sure it sounded like a good idea at the time. Indeed Castel has said it was the factor in the script which attracted him to the role. But in truth it is a bridge too far. Watching gang member Ted (Antonio Salines) hiding around a corner only to be struck down (repeatedly!) by a series of flimsy whirling sticks was, I suspect, far more painful for me than it was for him.

There are more positives however. Visually, the film is always interesting, with Julio Ortas' cinematography showing why he was Mario Caiano's camera chief of choice on so many of his better looking films. His unusual use of focus, or lack thereof, is particularly striking and the film has a genuinely unique look and feel as a result. The score, for all its anachronistic acid rock style works pretty well I think and adds to the atmosphere; injecting a contemporary menace to the piece. Wailing, fuzz boxed guitar solos and driving drums all help create a chaotic soup of unhinged anarchy and I couldn't help but think of Charles Manson's ghost town while watching this. Especially when considering the seemingly hypnotic, charismatic attraction some of the females feel for Bart, a character easily paralleled with the notorious hippie mass murderer. One woman kills herself because of him early on despite him clearly being responsible for her husband's death and then Mary, (Claudia Gravy) the murderous girlfriend of Phil, kills and double crosses on his behalf; risking everything and ultimately giving her life as a result of her devotion to him. Gravy is another big credit for the film I believe. She exudes sex throughout and brings a level of tension and frustration into the ghost town scenes which can be cut with a knife and gives some much needed interest to these sequences. But she also shows a believable vulnerability in her attachment to Bart and this balance in her character makes her role work all the better. She also looked so great in her log fringed hippie, pseudo indian gear that its anachronistic nature became irrelevant. Not something that could be said for Lou Castel's paisley patterned jacket. Although, to be fair, perhaps Miss Gravy's physical charms make me more forgiving in this area.

Matalo! is, if nothing else, an interesting oddity. Its hippie score, fashions and sensibility make it a memorable piece to be sure. But, these factors aside, it is not that great a western. It has positive elements for sure. But if I'm honest and compare it to its identically plotted predecesor, I would have to say the earlier film, Kill the Wicked, is the better, more tightly crafted one. The sixties gimmickery and boomerang silliness, on the whole, detracts rather than adds to the core themes and storyline. In short, Canevari just doesn't get the mix quite right. He goes too far in some ways and not far enough in others in his genre bending and the end result falls short in both areas as a consequence. It could be categorised by some as one of those films that you either love or hate. Tom Betts famously hates it. But, on reflection, this isn't the case for me. I fall well and truly between both camps. I enjoyed it on the whole. Felt it had some real strong qualities in parts but felt a little let down overall by some of its failings. It's well worth seeing for all that. But for me, if I'm in the mood for a whacky Spaghetti ride on the fringes of Bizarreville, I'll stick to Django Kill!

The version I watched of Matalo! was the Wild East edition. The picture and audio quality are not quite in the Koch Media league but it is very watchable none the less, is well worth getting and includes an interesting little interview with Lou Castel to boot. Their tongue in cheek dedication of the film to Tom Betts is also a nice little in joke which raised a smile for me.