Wednesday 30 September 2009

The Wrath of God

Dir: Alberto Cardone


A man is working at clearing vegetation in a field when another steps up behind him. The camera starts at the man's black boots and rises slowly to the gunbelt strapped to his thigh. The Colt pistol is removed from the holster and loaded by the anonymous man and in so doing some stamped lettering can be read on the side of the weapon. It reads "Made in Italy". I have no idea if this was an oversight on the part of the filmmakers or a deliberate inclusion designed to entertain the observant viewer. Either way it pleased me enough for me to approach the rest of The Wrath of God (for it is the opening of this film which I have just described) with a smile on my face and a forgiving nature in my heart. Any film with that kind of beginning is goning to get brownie points from me no matter what. Thankfully, the rest of the movie didn't disappoint.

Mike (Brett Halsey) returns home in order to leave his gunfighting days behind him and settle down on a farm with his old sweetheart but things do not go as planned. Finding Jane murdered, Mike is set upon and left for dead by her seven killers who also steal his life savings of $10,000; all in $50 dollar bills. They leave only seven dollars and Mike vows to track down every man, paying him back with a solitary dollar and death.

A Spaghetti fan of any length of time will recognise some pretty familiar conventions here. In fact it would be fair to say that pretty much every element of this film is derivative of others in the genre; from the revenge for the murdered sweetheart motive to the episodic 'picking off' of each villain structure to the 'surprise' chief villain reveal at the end. Even the seven dollars left behind by the murderous gang was used before. In fact by Cardone himself in Seven Dollars on the Red. But despite it's recycled nature this is a thoroughly satisfying film and is a credit to all involved. Cardone directs competently despite a clearly restricted budget, Mario Pacheco shoots the film with some flair and the cast play their parts well, maintaining a consistant mood and overcoming any of the film's more glaring flaws. And flaws there most certainly are. Looming large among them is the weak ending which, althogh crafted as a surprise, is anything but. Being so predictable as to be almost an offense to the audience's intelligence. I won't give details here just in case, by some stretch of possibility, someone doesn't get it while watching but, in reality, I could probably reveal all without risk of being accused of any major spoilers. Equally strange, although far less important, is a scene in which Halsey has a duel with one of the bad guys in a pitch dark room. In this scene we are not only asked to accept the use of luminous paint as an acceptable device but, more bizarrely, get to watch as the defeated bandit jumps out of the room at Halsey despite having just been defeated by a bullet in the forehead!

The fact that such sloppy lapses did not dull my enjoyment of the film in any great way speaks volumes for the quality on show for the rest of the picture. Halsey is at his coolest and plays a great hero with quintessential style while always looking magnificent. Anthony Steffen should have taken note. This is how to wear a hat! Not to mention a very fetching black serape and a rather natty waistcoat. He also carries off the action sequences with skill and is believable in a dramatic sense while wisely keeping his lines to a minimum. Of the seven, or rather eight bad guys involved Wayde Preston and the ever dependable Fernando Sancho are the stand outs while Cardone shows his deft touch with a fight scene in the excellent one on one knife fight in the desert between Halsey and Franco Fantasia. A scene which uses an overhead POV really effectively and challenges Cardone's other great fight scene, the finale of Seven Dollars on the Red featuring Fernando Sancho and a baling hook, for tension and style.

All in all this is a very solid and satisfying slice of Spaghetti pie. Its failings of plot, predictability, occasional lapses in logic and highly formulaic structure are more than made up for by its sound direction, interesting photography and solid acting performances. Not to mention an effective score written by and featuring the delightful trumpet playing of Michele Lacerenza, veteran of the Dollars films of Leone. The film is a fine example of good genre film making. It delivers what the viewer wants with more style than the budget would seem to allow and leaves with one a sense of satisfaction in having enjoyed an hour and a half of good quality fun. This is what Cardone is good at. He was no master in the Leone or Corbucci mould but he made good qualty, enjoyable films and always seemed to do the best possible with the resources he was given. I like Cardone's films and Wrath of God sits comfortably among his clutch of highly recommendable works.

Unfortunately I do not know of an official english friendly release of this film. I was lucky enough to view an excellent fan dub which used what looks like the Italian Eagle Pictures release as its source and added english subs. It is a film well worth an english language release. In fact, what would be even better would be an Alberto Cardone box set featuring all of this director's very enjoyable westerns. Now there is a project for Koch Media to consider.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Sonny and Jed

Dir: Sergio Corbucci


The Spaghetti Western genre has always been known for its violence. Sometimes it would be fair to say it has been notorious for it. And Sergio Corbucci has always been at the forefront in terms of pushing the boundaries of good taste in this area. In its time Corbucci's most famous film, Django, was banned because of its graphic ear cutting, whipping and wanton slaying of countless extras. Physical brutality, or the imminent and constant threat of it, is a regular ingredient in this genre and became as much a part of its make up as horses, big hats and Mexican peons. But never, to my knowledge, was there such an emotionally violent film made during the entire cycle as Sonny and Jed.

Sonny dreams of an exciting life as an outlaw and when notoriuous bandit Jed Tregado crosses her path in need of help she thinks her chance has come to make some money and change her life forever. Her life certainly is changed but not neccesarily for the better. Tregado proves himself to be every bit as mean as his reputation and by attaching herself to him Sonny embarks on a roller coaster journey of abuse, murder and mayhem where money is won and lost but her search for love is ever ongoing and ultimately futile.

Sonny and Jed despite its western trappings is the story of a disfunctional, co dependent relationship between two people who are plagued by their own base instincts, self loathing and deep desire to have and be something better. Sonny longs to be loved yet the man she chooses gives her nothing but abuse, both verbal and physical, from their first encounter. Jed lives by his own admission "like an animal"; caring for no one and taking what he wants when he wants it but, on occasion, he shows himself to capable of better sentiments despite himself. Together they expose both the best and the worst in each other but can never quite escape their own failings and weaknesses. This is not an easy film to watch. If you are hoping for some classic Corbucci action you will be largely disappointed as the gunfights and explosions are sporadic and appear only after long periods of bickering between the two protagonists. If you are hoping for a tale of love in adversity with a happy resolution you will be equally disappointed. The happy scenes (of which there are some) are far outweighed by the miserable and ugly ones and the unhealthy relationship between the two miserable individuals weighs as heavy on us as it does them. It is a gruelling ride for all concerned and that includes the viewer. I admit to being on the verge of switching it off on more than one occasion. But, ultimately, I was glad I stuck with it. It may not be a western tale in the conventional sense but it is a story worth telling. I know some people lose patience with the film as they become increasingly irritated by the abusive nature of Jed and the pathetic willingness of Sonny to be abused and I can understand that view. It is hard to warm to either character but, for me, it is this uncompromising nature of the characters which is the film's greatest strength. In stories such as these we always hope for some form of revelation on the part of the protagonists which will change their behaviour. Or, failing that, a nasty come uppance for the dominant, abusive partner. But, in reality, life is rarely that straight forward. Sonny constantly comes back to Jed. And in so doing she both encourages his abusive behaviour and is a constant reminder to him of his own weakness. At the same time she elicits moments of tenderness from him and reinforces her own inner sense that she is not worthy of anything better.

This is harrowing stuff and I believe works on an emotional level rarely attempted in any genre films, let alone a western. And its success is largely due to the strong performances of Tomas Milian and Susan George in the eponymous roles. Milian is the Marmite of actors. People tend to love him or hate him and this role will likely do nothing to change anyone's preset opinions. I believe he does a great job here, inhabiting Jed in true 'method' fashion but if you are prone to find his style annoying this one will probably only reinforce your dislike. Likewise with Susan George. In the 1970s she made a number of films where she portrayed unlikeable, petulant characters and for some she became synonymous with these features. Although Sonny I think is a little more sympathetic in nature she is not an easy character to feel great sympathy for either but here I think it is a great credit to her abilities as an actress that she carries off the role without compromise. It is also to her and Corbucci's credit that despite her obvious good looks she is never used here simply as eye candy. She gives a real performance and the film is all the better for it.

Sonny and Jed will not be everyone's cup of tea. It is a difficult film to like and it is certainly not a film I would recommend to anyone looking for a couple of hours of escapist fun. But it is a well made film and considering it was made at a time when Corbucci was seeming to lose his way it doesn't exhibit any of the sloppiness the great man was occasionally prone to. It benefits from some solid acting and an uncompromising approach. Just don't be fooled by Milian's beret. Companeros this most definitely is not.