Thursday 31 December 2009

Hate Thy Neighbour

Dir: Ferdinando Baldi


Bill Dakota and his wife are gunned down in broad daylight by bad guy Gary Stevens (George Eastman) who is after the map to a goldmine the hapless Dakota is carrying. Stevens rides off with the map, leaving Dakota's young son alive. The boy is taken in by Dakota's brother Ken, (Spiros Focás) who then leaves him with his sweetheart Peggy (Nicoletta Machiavelli) while he sets off after the villain in search of revenge. Meanwhile, Stevens has teamed up with sadistic big shot Chris Malone (Horst Frank) south of the border but is double crossed by him and tortured for his share of the map. At this point Ken catches up with the pair and a series of to-ing and fro-ing, crossing and double crossing ensues before the dead brother is avenged and the map is finally retrieved.

Hate Thy Neighbour benefits from an excellent cast. Eastman is first rate as the mean and grinning heavy while Horst Frank is even more at home as the white suited, high mannered sadist. Between them they provide a double whammy of bad guys and revel in the mean spirited shenanigans that unfold throughout the film. Frank, in particular, is memorable as a pseudo Roman emperor type figure; pitting his Mexican peons against each other in fights to the death armed with only a small wicker arm shield and a two pronged baling hook. These scenes are excellent and are the ones you will remember most when the film has faded to black. But perhaps this abundance of heavies is also one of the film's greatest weaknesses. Because the film's hero, and it does have one, is so overshadowed by the size of Eastman and Frank's characters that he is practically lost in the process and despite having just finished watching this movie I am hard pressed to remember much about him. Not even what he looks like. This is unfortunate, as Spiros Focás is not a bad actor. Indeed he has had a long and successful career in Italy and his homeland Greece and even on occasion in America. The problem is he doesn't seem so well suited to the western genre and his part is not given enough dominance in the plot to allow him room to shine through. On the contrary. Despite the familiar plot devices on show in the film they are, on occasion, turned on their head to focus on the villains; especially Eastman.

For example, there is a long sequence in which Eastman is captured by Frank and beaten, then hung upside down over a pit of snakes to try and get him to give up his half of the map. This is a scene usually set aside for the hero to play. Overcoming such adversity before returning to defeat the bad guy. But our hero here gets no such opportunity. Rather, we have one bad guy torturing another. The result is we lose interest in the hero and find ourselves becoming attached to the least sadistic of the two villains. Maybe a nice idea but for this to work Eastman's character needs to be allowed to develop; have some form of arc and then perhaps either reform or come to a tragic end. (preferably the latter) But what we get is no change at all and no room for the hero to make a claim for the foreground of the movie. He doesn't even get to kill his brother's murderer in the end. I won't give anything away for those who haven't seen it but, suffice to say, for a story based around the tried and trusted plot motive of 'revenge for a slaughtered family' the ending fails to satisfy what the audience would naturally expect.

In light of all this I can't help but categorise Hate Thy Neighbour as a film of lost opportunities. As I said before, the cast is good. As well as Eastman and Frank we are treated to the presence of Nicoletta Machiavelli, one of the genre's favourite female players. But again, she is not given enough to do to make a real impact and her character is left to inhabit the periphery for the most part. This is a double shame as Machiavelli was not only an asset to be seen as much as possible but was also at her best when allowed to play a more forceful character. Her role in Navajo Joe always springs to mind in this aspect, where, although her character is clearly subordinate to that of Burt Reynolds, it is often she who is driving the plot forward.

All this is not to say that Hate Thy Neighbour doesn't have its charms or its qualities. It is an entertaining film throughout and Baldi's undoubted skills shine through from time to time. Also, although the two villain device detracts from the role of the hero and, thereby, unsettles the balance of the piece they are both great fun to watch in action. And the aforementioned gladiatorial fight scenes with the hooks are an excellent device, somewhat reminiscient of the final duel in Seven Dollars on the Red between Anthony Steffen and Fernando Sancho where Sancho wields a hook in a similar fashion.

But, in the end, I came away feeling that this film falls into the 'in-betweenie' category of Ferdinando Baldi's westerns. Nowhere near the heights he reached with Forgotten Pistolero, or even Blindman but better than the dross of the Carambolas or the failed, if entertaining, attempt at a musical in Rita of the West. Rather this film sits amongst the middle ground of films like Texas Adios or the more flawed outings with Tony Anthony, Get Mean or Comin' at Ya! It's a decent enough ride and a pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half but one which had the potential to be a lot, lot better.

The version of this film I watched was the excellent Koch Media release. It has a crystal clear picture quality and English audio, the language option I would opt for as the actors, for the most part, all seem to be speaking it in the film despite their various nationalities. My only gripe with the release from Koch is that the extra interview included with Baldi and Eastman does not have any English subtitles; only German and I would have loved to hear what these two genre stalwarts had to say. This is a recurring lapse on the part of Koch who otherwise are exemplary in their releases and very English friendly with a product designed principally for the German market. But I understand they are finally putting such things to rights with their upcoming release of The Mercenary. Viva Koch Media!