Sunday 28 February 2010

Arizona Colt Returns

Dir: Sergio Martino


The Spaghetti Western genre is littered with pseudo sequels; films which purport to be a follow up to a previously successful one but which, in reality, have no official attachment, only a purloined character or name in the title. So it will come as no surprise that Arizona Colt Returns bares little resemblance to its 1966 predecessor. What is a surprise is that the makers did try to make at least a passing attempt at linking this story with Michele Lupo's original and despite some obvious failings wound up making a reasonably watchable film.

Arizona (Anthony Steffen) and his friend Double Whiskey (Roberto Camardiel) are living outside the town of Blackstone living off the gifts of food and booze provided by local landlord, Moreno. All is nice and easy for the pair until Keene (Aldo Sanbrell) pays a local drunk to testify that Arizona has robbed a stagecoach. Arizona is arrested and hanged but cheats the hangman and escapes. Meanwhile, Keene attacks Moreno's ranch and makes off with the old man's gold as well as his daughter (Rosalba Neri). Moreno offers Arizona a reward to retrieve the girl. He refuses but after Whiskey is captured and tortured by Keene and his gang our hero changes his mind and sets off to put things right. He tracks down the gang and finds the girl but there are more tribulations and surprises afoot and Arizona needs all his skills plus a little help from a pretty barmaid before the game is up.

As I said, the makers of this film did at least make an effort to make links between this film and the original. Just not many. The similarities are short and sweet.

1. The lead character has the same name and maintains his catch phrase of "I'll have to think about that".

2. His sidekick is called Whiskey, provides comic relief and is played by the versatile character actor Roberto Camardiel.

3. Rosalba Neri is in it.

And that's about it. Not a great deal really but, to be fair, a lot more than many 'sequels' of the time managed. Its differences are, of course, far more numerous and so I decided to approach the film, not as a continuation of the original, but as a completely different animal so as to better be able to judge it on its own merits. This proved to be an easy task and one I'd receommend to anyone looking to get the maximum enjoyment from the film.

To begin with Anthony Steffen, fond of him though I am, is no Giuliano Gemma. So accepting Steffen as the same character as the original was always a non starter and it was an automatic reaction to consider this as just another stock Steffen part. One of his big hat rather than little hat ones obviously as it doesn't take long before we get that slow 'looking up from under the hat brim' shot that we all know and love from Tony's many westerns. Approaching the film in this way meant it started paying dividends for me right off the bat rather than being constantly compared to a film which is a personal favourite and which it was never likely to match. It also meant that I started judging it based on what I expect from a good Steffen flick and in those terms it performs pretty well. Apart from the aforementioned 'look from under hat brim' shot we are also treated to the high action quota expected from any Steffen vehicle and, of course, the obligatory 'roll and shoot' moment without which no Steffen film is complete. In fact, the anticipation for the 'roll and shoot' proved to be one of the great pleasures of the film for me and one which the director wisely held out on as long as possible to add that heightened sense of delayed gratification to the patient viewer.

The cast in general is also a big plus for this film. Steffen aside (he is, I accept, an actor not to everyone's taste) we have Aldo Sanbrell getting a decent size part for a change as the chief bad guy and the ever welcome Raf Baldassarre as his right hand man. There is, as mentioned above Roberto Camardiel in a reprise of his role as Arizona's drunken sidekick and the divine Rosalba Neri as the kidnapped daughter of local bigwig Moreno, played by the equally welcome Jose Manuel Martin; an actor whose mention on the opening credits of any film immediately increases my likelihood of enjoyment a hundred fold. For the most part these fine bunch of Spaghetti regulars live up to expectations too. In fact it is only the under utilisation of Miss Neri and the over utilisation of Camardiel that left me disappointed in any way. Neri was often given marginal roles in these films when her greater presence would have been a clear benefit so this comes as no surprise. Camardiel though, is a very versatile actor who can bring a lot to any film he appears in but who tended to split his appearances between wide eyed villains and burly comic relief parts. This is one of the latter and does not show Roberto at his best. For that see his homosexual bandit leader in Django Kill!. Here he is largely irritating and it was noticeable to me that the film got off to a slow start as a result of his domination of the first reel but got much better by the half way mark when his character is wounded and bedridden and Steffen sets off alone to sort things out. At this point the action kicks in proper and we get the pseudo serious film we had been hoping for.

It's also worth noting that it is around the same time that Bruno Nicolai's score markedly improves. For some reason a theme song was written and utilised throughout the film that can only be described and toe curlingly cringeworthy. This is a song which would have even been rejected for the Luxembourg entry for the Eurovision song contest and, in fact, sounds like that is where it may have originated. Any song that has the following lyrics deserves nothing less than an acid bath death. Consider:

I guess I gotta get my gun,
I guess I gotta shoot someone,
Bang bang, Hey yippee yippee ay.

But that's not the half of it. We then get the chorus:

Beng bang bing bang
Bong bang bing bang
Beng bang giddy up eeyay. (repeat)

You get the point. And it needs to be stated that anyone with a weak constitution should consider avoiding this film for this song alone. But if you are made of hardier stuff and can get past this musical monstrosity there is definitely pleasure to be had.

The film has other faults of course. Some of the plot makes no sense whatsoever. Arizona's immediate falling in love with the barmaid, pretty as she is, is one case in point but this is irrelevant stuff really. The film is short and sweet (coming in at under an hour and a half) and delivers some pleasing set pieces while clipping along at a steady pace. In truth, I wasn't expecting anything nearly as entertaining as it turned out to be and Sergio Martino is to be complemented on a decent effort in what was his first of only two westerns. It's certainly not a film that will ever threaten to disrupt the cannon of 'greats' in the genre but I, for one, have sat through much, much worse. Even with that god awful song.

The version I saw was the Koch Media German release which, as always, benefits from a beautiful widescreen picture with Italian audio and English subs. One or two short scenes seem to be of inferior picture quality but overall it is an excellent release of a reasonable film.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

The Hellbenders

Dir: Sergio Corbucci


Sergio Corbucci was always something of an enigmatic director. Lauded and sanctified as one the holy trinity 'three Sergios' on the basis of his masterpieces he was also guilty of almost unforgiveable sloppiness at times and has as many bad films to his name as good. Films such as Django, The Great Silence and The Mercenary became seminal texts in the Spaghetti Western genre; innovative, extreme and stylish while Massacre at Grand Canyon, Johnny Oro and The White, The Yellow and the Black were almost equally memorable for their uninspired direction, patchiness or plain bad taste. The Hellbenders, a film from the middle of Corbucci's affair with the western, falls somewhere in the middle; an overall solid film which sometimes exhibits the director's best attributes, while other times not seeming like a Corbucci film at all.

Colonel Jonas (Joseph Cotton) assisted by his three sons and an alcoholic prostitute attacks an army convoy transporting a million dollars in bank notes. Leaving all the guards dead the gang then set off for home across the border, the whore, Kitty (Maria Martin) posing as a grieving widow and the money stashed away in a coffin in a regimental coach. Jonas plans to use the money to reignite the Confederacy and start the war all over again. But despite the initial success of their robbery things start to become more and more difficult for the group as they make their way slowly across country. To begin with Kitty, never reliable in the first place, attempts to run off and is killed by one of the sons. Then, after tricking another woman into filling the fake widow's boots (and mourning dress) they are faced with a continual stream of obstacles; an army troop, a posse, Mexican bandits, even some townsfolk who turn out to have known the soldier whose dead body they are pretending to transport, and eventually, inevitably, all comes to a head just as they come into sight of the Hondo River; the final barrier between them and freedom.

In many ways The Hellbenders resembles an American western as much as an Italian one and I can't help but wonder if this is as a result of the input of producer Albert Band; an Italian American whose real name was Alfredo Antonini but whose films were always geared to be more attractive to the U.S market. Aside from a couple of Steve Reeves Peplums Band produced five westerns in europe. All starred American lead actors and in some cases the supporting parts too were carried by names from across the Atlantic. Presumably this tactic gave his westerns a more 'authentic' look in Europe and a more palatable taste in the States. Whatever the reasons, for the most part Band's westerns maintained a pretty decent standard. In fact, arguably his weakest effort was the one he made previously with Corbucci, Massacre at Grande Canyon. It is also said that Band's technique as producer was particularly 'hands on' (he sometimes directed his own films in fact) and that Corbucci struggled in both collaborations to put his own stamp on either film. The truth is probably impossible to know but The Hellbenders is certainly an unlikely example of the director's work coming as it does close after his ground breaking Django and just before two of his greatest efforts, The Great Silence and The Mercenary; none of which resemble this film very much.

That is not to say that The Hellbenders is a poor film. On the contrary, it is a good story well told and featuring some excellent elements. It just doesn't obviously fit with the above titles. It is also not to say that the film has nothing about it which suggests Corbucci's influence because, in parts, it clearly does. The strong female role of Claire, excellently played by the impressive Brazilian actress Norma Bengell, is just what you might expect from the director. His films often feature such a character and this has always stood out in a genre that is overtly male dominated. But there is a distinct lack of brutality on show and at this time in his career it was Corbucci who was pushing boundaries in that area. There is also, for large parts of the film, a distinct lack of action and this is possibly the least Corbucci like element in the whole film. The second Sergio's films were far from being clones of each other but you could usually bank on a fair dose of running around and shooting when sitting down in front of any of them. The Hellbenders, in stark contrast, is positively sedate and although there is action in key scenes the real focus of the film is the slowly unfolding journey taken by its protagonists and the constantly building tension as the family get ever closer to the border while their chances of success get increasingly tenuous.

At the centre of this dramatic tension is the dysfunctional family unit led blindly by Jonas towards a goal that only he really believes in. His sons, each personifying a different vice (greed and lust in the case of Jeff and Nat, jealousy in the case of both of them) are lost both to him and his cause but he is too proud and arrogant to see it. This part is perfect for and perfectly portrayed by Joseph Cotton in his best Spaghetti appearance. His straight back and constantly pained expression convey beautifully the repressed anguish of a man sensing the collapse of an edifice he has built his life around but not wishing to acknowledge the fact and this characterisation is one of the lasting strengths of the film. As is Ennio Morricone's haunting Death of the South theme played mournfully on the trumpet; a theme so effective it was subsequently reused in other westerns in an attempt to add gravitas to lesser products.

The Hellbenders is a good film. It is easily downgraded because of some of the other work produced by its celebrated director but to be fair to it, in comparrison to its companions in the genre as a whole it is certainly deserving of a place in the upper tier. It is well constructed, has some nice set pieces spaced throughout its length and delivers a satisfying, while still somewhat ambiguous ending. That makes it a film to be recommended in my book and one which I tend to enjoy more with every viewing.

The DVD I most recently watched of this was the Region 1 Anchor Bay release which was a stark improvement on the previous fullscreen Mill Creek copy I had. The film, like most others, benefits greatly from its proper widescreen aspect ratio and allows its 'bigger canvas' to become more evident.