Thursday 12 November 2020

Cowards Don't Pray

Dir: Mario Siciliano 


Mario Siciliano directed three westerns amongst a variety of other genre efforts.  Two were only memorable for their lack of quality.  Cowards Don't Pray is a different beast entirely and proved that with the right material and cast Siciliano was capable of much more.  Sadly, he never made another film of this quality but I'm happy to cut him some slack. Making one good one was hard enough and Cowards Don't Pray is a good one.

Bryan (Gianni Garko) comes home from the war only to have Yankee vigilantes invade his home, brutalise his wife and leave him for dead.  He is taken in by Daniel, another veteran (Ivan Rassimov), and the two team up along with Daniel's younger brother Robert (Jerry Wilson) and head west.  But Bryan has been deeply effected by his experience and has developed a new found dark side that leads him away from his moralistic friend and into a more lawless and violent future.  Inevitably, their paths cross again and their differences can only be settled with blood.

With Ernesto Gastaldi working on the script and Gianni Garko playing one of the leads I guess it shouldn't come as such a surprise that Cowards Don't Pray is a good film and yet somehow I can't shake off the feeling that it is far better than it has any right to be.  Gastaldi and Garko aside, a film which is far greater than the sum of its parts.  Siciliano not only never made another spaghetti western of this quality before or after, he never directed a better film, period.  And yet the direction is assured here and constantly features interesting visual decisions while keeping the narrative flowing throughout.  Similarly, the cinematographer, Gino Santini and composer Gianni Marchetti are far from household names even among the closed world of Italian movie fandom but their work here is excellent.  And everyone else is right on their game, from bit parters to secondary leads.  No one seems to put a foot wrong.

The story is a good one if somewhat formulaic and pays a hefty debt to the Pat Garret and Billy the Kid legend as it goes on but at it's heart is a straightforward revenge flick with the added quality of a friendship gone bad and the tragedy of a character traumatised by experience who lurches to the dark side as he loses his grip on his sanity.  Garko is excellent here.  Although never averse to taking risks as an actor he is playing largely against type and manages to evoke the sympathy for his character required to elevate the piece from action drama to tragedy.  Bryan always does the bad thing but we sense the good buried within him and root for his redemption even when we doubt it will ever be possible.

There are also some stand out and memorable scenes here which more than make up for the occasional clunky dialogue.  The opening scene is a good one and sets the whole premise up well.  And the closing sequence in the railway tunnel is first class, delivering a tense action finale with the emotional release the film deserves and the characters need. I could have done without the two staged shoot out competitions which both felt unfittingly contrived but they were well enough played out and are rare slips in an otherwise sure footed narrative.

I've been on a bit of a Gianni Garko kick of late, watching all his films together over the past two weeks.  Although he will be forever thought of as Sartana, a character he made his own in four very entertaining films, he also gave some excellent performances in other films and few (if any) are better than this one.  $10,000 for a Massacre is in my view the best western he ever made but Cowards Don't Pray runs it a good second and may well be his best performance of all.

The version of the film I watched is included in the 4 film Italowestern Enzyklopadie DVD box set from Koch Media.  The picture and sound quality is excellent throughout.

Friday 24 July 2020

Little Rita of the West

Dir:  Ferdinando Baldi


The Italians went mad for westerns in the mid 1960s and they took many shapes and forms.  There were traditional style westerns attempting to mimic the American originals and others brazenly stamping a new, European style on the genre. There followed many, many clones, some better than others, all attempting to ride on the coat tails of the most successful.  For a short period of time everyone in the Italian film industry was looking to get in on the act. The prolific comedy duo of Franco and Ciccio were making spoof westerns as early as 1965 and there were an assortment of western treatments to all kinds of stories from Shakespeare to Greek tragedy, from whodunnits to heist capers.  It's no surprise then that the west became a vehicle for a pop star or two and, in the case of Little Rita of the West, a full blown musical. Or to be more accurate, a "musicarello".  That is to say, a romantic comedy featuring a pop star and filled with pop songs.  In the UK or America these would probably feature someone like Cliff Richard or Elvis.  In Italy they had Gianni Morandi and Rita Pavone.

Pavone was the little girl with the big voice in the 60s Italian pop scene and had massive success at home and abroad.  Off the back of this an opportunity to appear in films was unsurprising and her success on screen was also significant.  Also, unsurprising is that it was in the Musicarello sub genre that her films were created so it is perhaps as a Musicarello, as much as a spaghetti western, that we should probably judge Little Rita of the West. 

Little Rita is the fastest straight shooter in the west and spends her time battling assorted ne'er do wells to take their ill-gotten gold and pass it on to her friend Chief Silly Bull who intends freeing the world from the evil of white men's greed by destroying all the gold he can.  The said ne'er do wells are immediately familiar to any spaghetti fan from previous hit films from the genre.  There's Ringo (actually a clone of the Man with No Name) and Django (complete with coffin, machine gun and damaged hands) and both are dispatched in comic fashion by our diminutive heroine.  These confrontations are played strictly for laughs but are well choreographed replays from previous films and director Ferdinando Baldi shows his action filmmaker chops to good effect at times.  But this is a Musicarello so there has to be a love interest and that is supplied by blue eyed Mario Girotti, playing Blackie/Black Stan/Black Star (take your pick depending on which dub you watch) under his soon to become famous anglicised stage name of Terence Hill.  This was the first time Hill used this name but he kept it for his next two films, both westerns, and the success of these led him to keep it permanently.  In fact he only appeared under his original name once more and that was later the same year in another Musicarello with Pavone, Il Feldmarescialla.

In fact Hill is badly underused here, especially considering he is the romantic lead, but I guess it's reasonable to allow they didn't yet know quite what an asset they had on their hands. Up to this point he had been playing supporting roles in a variety of projects.  Most regularly in some of the German Karl May westerns but also in other genres.  In fact his previous role before this one was in another musicarello directed by Baldi, Io non protesto, io amo with Caterina Caselli. Hill's career would explode later in this same year with his first teaming with Bud Spencer in Giuseppe Colizzi's God Forgives... I Don't! and things would never be the same again.

The rest of the cast is strong with Fernando Sancho as the ubiquitous Mexican bandit, Gordon Mitchell as the somewhat absurd Indian chief, Kirk Morris and Enzo Di Natale as Ringo and Django respectively and Lucio Dalla as the comic sidekick Fritz.  Pavone's manager and future husband Teddy Reno also gets a look in as the cowardly sheriff always looking for a quiet life, one of the genuinely funniest parts and one he plays well.

A good musicarello relies on good songs though and I have to say in this area I think the quality is patchy.  There are a couple of songs which are really catchy (the theme song over the credits is one for sure) and the ballad in the middle of the film is also nice and fits well but some others didn't quite hit the mark for me.  Possibly the western setting was part of the problem as it's hard to force in a contemporary pop song in typical musicarello fashion when the backdrop is 19th century America.  As a result some of the songs seem to try to be Broadway musical style but don't quite get it right. The choreography is ok and the dancers are all fine but somehow the theme just doesn't quite fit for me.

Baldi was a fine director and worked successfully in many different genres including a couple of musicals.  Moreover his biggest box office successes were with comedies but, for me, his talents were best suited to the straight western and although Little Rita was apparently one of his favourite films to make it can hardly be considered his best whichever way you look at it.

For all that the film has certainly grown on me over the years with frequent viewings but it is neither one of the best musicarellos or the best westerns.  In a way it suffers from trying to be two things at once and succeeds only in diminishing its appeal as either.  It has its moments and is genuinely funny at times.  Pavone is also charming, looking for all the world like a real life Jessie from Toy Story 2, and was a big talent with a big voice.  But sometimes the box office tells its own story and this was her lowest performing film by far, with numbers well below those reached by the "Zanzara" films made with Lina Wertmuller.

So not a great musicarello or western but a slightly uncomfortable hybrid of both.  Yet despite all that its various strong points somehow combine to make a very watchable and diverting film which raises a smile and gets your foot tapping.  Well, it did mine anyway.  And I guess that's all you can really ask of a comedy western musical, right?

For the purposes of this review I watched two different DVD releases with different language dubs.  The English language dub on the Italian Alan Young DVD release is actually the one I prefer as the humour comes across better in English for me.  But the Italian dub with English subtitles on the Japanese Imagica disc has the benefit of subtitles for the songs which are in Italian on either dub.  As in most musicals the songs help tell the story so if you don't understand what is being sung you are losing some useful information.  A mixture of the two would be great but the Imagica disc also includes some nice interviews with Pavone, her husband Teddy Reno and Ferdinando Baldi so is probably the better release if you can get it.

Friday 3 July 2020

One Silver Dollar

Dir:  Giorgio Ferroni


1965 was the year when the western went from being a curiosity to a phenomenon in Italy.  Leone's A Fistful of Dollars had shown in the previous year that an Italian take on the genre could be very popular.  In '65 his For a Few Dollars More blew the lid off and took over 3 billion lire at the domestic box office.  This was far and away the biggest grossing domestic film in Italy that year but it was in very good company, with all five of the top grossing domestic productions that year being westerns.  It was also the year in which the Italian film industry discovered they could have big success in the genre with home grown talent because the other four of those five top grossing films starred the same local actor, Giuliano Gemma.  Gemma became a superstar in Italy that year and became synonymous with the character of Ringo used in the title of two of his best known films, A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo.  Both Ringo films did great business in 1965 but Gemma's top grossing film of that year, and the film second only to For a Few Dollars More in domestic box office revenue was neither of those.  It was One Silver Dollar.

Still unsure of the bankability of home grown talent in such a quintessentially American genre as the western, Italian producers had been routinely creating pseudonyms for key personnel in order to give the impression that their films were "the real thing".  So Gemma was billed as Montgomery Wood in his first three westerns.  It quickly became apparent that this was unnecessary however and by the end of the year he was using his own name.  For One Silver Dollar then, his second western, he appears as Montgomery Wood while fellow Italian starlet Ida Galli is Evelyn Stewart and director Giorgio Ferroni is Kelvin Jakson Paget!

In A Pistol for Ringo Gemma had played a cynical, self-seeking character whose morals are cloudy at best.  A trickster looking to feather his own nest by positioning himself between the good guys and bad guys and playing them against each other to his own advantage. The following year he would play a similar role in Arizona Colt but for the most part Gemma would be cast as a hero with clear morals trying to clear his name or win back what had been stolen from him.  These were the roles that fit his image best and it was in One Silver Dollar that this image was first set.

Demobbed from the Confederate army at the end of the civil war Gary O'Hara (Gemma) heads home to his wife in Virginia while his brother sets off west to leave persecution behind him and seek his fortune.  Gary soon follows while arranging for his wife to do the same once the farm is sold.  Sadly, the west is as full of the old North/South divisions as anywhere and the brothers find themselves unknowingly pitted against each other by the unscrupulous town boss.  Gary kills his brother and is left for dead himself but survives and soon returns to set things straight.

If you like Gemma, and I do, there's a lot to like about One Silver Dollar.  It showcases his affable charm and athleticism in a good balance of melodrama and action; allowing plenty of space for well choreographed fight scenes and some fancy gun play.  It is decidedly traditional American in style but this suits Gemma's persona well.  He was never the type to play "squinting Clint" kinds of roles.  The wronged hero was always a better fit and so this film fits him like a glove.  Some of his trademark athletic tricks were still yet to surface but there is plenty of leaping onto horses and throwing himself around to enjoy and give hints as to what was to come in later films.  Ferroni's direction is also solid and his partnership with writer and assistant director Giorgio Stegano was clearly a fruitful one.  Marco Giusti states in his Dizionario del Western All'Italiana that the pair worked very much as a team and that the film feels as much Stegani's as Ferroni's.  Either way, its was a partnership which suited Gemma well and the pair worked together or separately with Gemma on three more westerns over the next couple of years, all following a similar style.  The score by Gianni Ferrio is also excellent with the theme tune a haunting, low key affair that stays with you for a long time after the film has finished.  This proved to be the beginning of another long association as Ferrio went on to score a total of seven Gemma westerns.

The supporting cast all do a fine job without any stand out performances.  Ida Galli covers all three bases required of her in a typically undemanding role for a woman in an Italian western, she looks pretty, in love and frightened with equal reliability but is never asked to do more sadly.  Nello Pazzafini plays the heavy henchman well in what was to become a regular part for him in many other Gemma westerns and the town boss and shady sheriff are played effectively if somewhat unmemorably by Pierre Cressoy and Franco Fantasia.

Un Dollaro Bucato showed that not all Italian westerns had to follow Leone's path to be successful.  It was a decidedly traditional western in style and had an uncompromisingly moral hero at its centre.  It was family friendly yet still enjoyable for the slightly more cynical viewer and is just a plain old enjoyable western.  Moreover, it was shot entirely in Italy and clearly had a restricted budget.

It also showed that in Giuliano Gemma Italy had a real star who could out-perform almost any other overseas actor at the domestic box office on a regular basis.  It was not until the emergence of Franco Nero that anyone came close to his popularity at home and not until the tag team of Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer that it was surpassed.  You can't discuss the genre without mentioning Gemma and One Silver Dollar is still one of his best.

For this review I watched the Japanese Imagica DVD from one of their Macaroni Western box sets.  It offers the film in Italian and English with English and Japanese subtitles.  The picture and sound is uniformly good although some of the scenes set at dusk are a little dark and difficult to make out.  It also includes an interview with Gemma in Italian with Japanese subs.  As always, some English subs for these interviews would have been nice.

Friday 26 June 2020

Minnesota Clay

Dir: Sergio Corbucci


Sergio Corbucci and Cameron Mitchell had both already made westerns in 1964.  Both had been attempts to re-create the traditional American style of the form and both had been disappointing efforts.  But something was obviously in the air in 1964 Italy. Sergio Leone made the game changing Fistful of Dollars and with Minnesota Clay some of the tropes which would become familiar and distinct in the Spaghetti Western were simultaneously starting to show their faces.  Corbucci's film is far more flawed than Leone's but there's enough good stuff going on to raise it above the average and give clear hints of what was to come from the second great Sergio.

If Massacre at Grand Canyon is difficult to identify with the Corbucci style of subsequent years then Minnesota Clay is a notable progression for the director and it's unsurprising that it was with this film that he felt confident enough to use his own name on the credits.  Indeed he was the first Italian director to do so with a western. This was a film he was obviously proud to be associated with.  It was a personal project that he helped write and develop as well as direct and it shows.  It is not, however, without some significant flaws, and it is due to these that Fistful of Dollars became the film which revolutionised the European western not Minnesota Clay.

To begin with the eponymous character of Clay himself lacks the sex appeal of the ultra cool anti hero from Leone's film.  He is older, more straight forwardly honest and driven by a sense of justice and paternal duty. The secondary characters are mostly weaker also, with the juvenile Andy bordering on the irritating.  Presumably the age of the protagonist led them to believe they needed a younger love interest going on.  They were wrong. The prime villain of the piece, Sheriff Fox is fine and Fernando Sancho as the Mexican bandit leader (of course) is good but a little under utilised.  Finally, the score is OK but far from memorable.

So, with it's faults acknowledged up front, let's concentrate on its strengths.  Because it has plenty and some of them, perversely, are the same elements I just highlighted as its weaknesses.

First up is the central character, Clay.  Yes, he's old and a bit stodgy and lacking in the cool quota but he has a key element which gives him a much higher level of interest; he is going blind. The handicapped protagonist would become a repeated feature in Corbucci's films, from the mute Silence in The Great Silence to the mangled hands of the eponymous hero in the final scenes of Django these handicaps remain memorable and well placed. (The blind gunman would also be taken a step further some years later of course in Ferdinando Baldi's Blindman, a Spaghetti take on the Zatoichi blind samurai saga)

The addition of a disability to an otherwise uncannily skillful gunfighter adds a crucially needed complication and obstacle for the hero and allows for a heightened sense of danger and tension as the narrative unfolds.  The best gunfighter in the west coming home to exact revenge quickly becomes a tale of one-sided slaughter.  The weakened gunfighter racing against time and the odds makes for much better drama.  Good direction is still required and thankfully Corbucci is on point here, particularly in the climax of the film as Clay uses the advantage of night and his heightened sense of hearing to battle the gang of hoods sent to get him and finally face down the evil sheriff.  This final section of the film is by far the strongest and Corbucci elects to drop the previously mentioned music almost completely; playing the tense cat and mouse scenes in near silence.  In a genre that became rightly lionised for its magnificent marriage of music and visuals these tense but quiet scenes are memorable and very effective.  They are also really well lit, using the darkness, shadows and sporadic beams of light to atmospheric advantage. These quiet scenes also work to avoid one of the other weaknesses of the film, namely its sometimes clunky dialogue.  Frankly, as the film moves further on and the characters talk less, the better the whole thing gets.

In fact, it's almost as if Corbucci was settling in to his own Italian style as the narrative progressed.  In many ways the film seems to start off like a traditional U.S western copy and gradually shrugs off its conventional cocoon and emerges almost fully morphed into its Spaghetti form.  Yet, bizarrely, it is right at this moment where it seems the Italians lost their nerve because there are two very different endings to this film and it is the Italian released one that is the most contrived and least satisfying.  For the sake of spoiler avoidance I won't go into details but suffice to say if you want a happy ending watch the Italian version.  If you want the better ending watch it in English.

Alex Cox described this film in his book 10,000 Ways to Die as "part-American, part-Italian, often bad, sometimes brilliant" and I think that pretty much sums it up.  It's not a film I would include in any top 20 list but it is definitely one that I would consider above average and has plenty to enjoy.  It's also a film of interest just to see the beginnings of an aesthetic that would be fully fledged in the coming year or so and the blossoming of a director who would go on to be one of the greats of the genre.  Whichever way you approach it, it is recommended viewing.

For the purposes of this review I watched the Japanese Imagica DVD release which comes a s part of one of their Macaroni Western box sets.  Despite it's age it still has probably the best image quality of any release currently available and has Italian or English audio with Japanese or English subtitle options.  It uses the full length Italian ending which I watched for the sake of interest but I would always recommending skipping the happy add-on in future.  

Wednesday 10 June 2020

7 Women for the MacGregors

Dir: Franco Giraldi


With 7 Guns for the MacGregors one of the highest grossing westerns in Italy during 1966 and the project sold successfully in America it should come as no surprise that a sequel was rapidly planned and put into production as soon as possible.  It should also come as no surprise that the sequel followed very similar lines to the original and was, for the most part, less successful.

Picking up almost directly where the first film left off we follow the MacGregor boys as they hunt down the stolen family gold which was taken by bandits during the eldest son's engagement shindig.  Things are complicated by the jealousy of the fiance and the occasional threat to the daughters of family friend Donovan until the final showdown is finally reached and an all out fight for the treasure can ensue.

Despite the success of the first film, it's star, Robert Woods, declined the offer to be involved in the sequel. Apparently Woods didn't enjoy working with female co-star Agata Flori who he found unprofessional.  This was a touchy subject as Flori was the girlfriend (and later wife) of one of the producers, Dario Sabatello, so Woods bowed out.  This was probably a wise move on his part as a quick glance at Flori's filmography shows that nearly all her film appearances were in projects produced by Sabatello. I suspect this would not have been a battle Woods could have won.  So in his place as Gregor MacGregor we have fellow American actor and future regular of daytime soap Another World, David Bailey.  Whether he enjoyed working with Flori any more than Woods had we'll never know but this did turn out to be his one and only Italian western.

In truth, Bailey is fine in the role but lacked the screen presence to really stamp anything onto it. Not that he has a great deal to work with here. The film is clearly not constructed with the characters particularly in mind.  It is a series of action sequences strung together one after the other with a loose plot designed to give some semblance of reason why we get from one to the other.  In many ways this was a facet of the first film.  With the sequel they just ratcheted it up another gear.  We already had a large family of rambunctious Scots boys riding, shooting and fighting all over the place.  Now we have more of the same plus a large family of Irish females thrown in to dilute things even further.  Not that the girls have any real importance to the thing.  Despite the common title, the seven women are not necessarily for the MacGregors at all and are really only there to pretty things up on occasion.  Apart from an opening scene barn dance and a potential kidnapping by the bandits they hardly feature at all.  For once, the UK release title of Up the MacGregors! is the most accurate.

In essence it is clear the film was made with the message "more of the same please". But, as with so many sequels before and since, this brief often proves much harder to accomplish successfully than you might think. Even with something as lightweight and undemanding as this. The first film was similarly full of all out action sequences played in a largely light-hearted mood but it benefited from a couple of stand out scenes which gave it a bit more focus. This one really doesn't have any.  There's potential here to utilise the female characters much more but it's not developed.  Even the music is lifted straight from the first film with the only change coming from re-hashed use of elements from an even older Morricone soundtrack; that of A Fistful of Dollars.  It sounds great of course but it's just plain lazy.

So what they have done is take an action-packed but largely light-weight original and tried to make it even more action-packed and even more light-weight.  The result is inevitable.  A weaker copy of the original which is inoffensive and entertaining to a point but, ultimately, disappointing.

Contemporary audiences obviously thought so too.  7 Women didn't do half the business that 7 Guns did which, with an even bigger budget being spent, meant that another sequel was never going to happen.  No great loss really.  Two MacGregor films were probably enough.

The only available DVD release of this film that I am aware of (and the one which I viewed) is the Ripley Home Video edition from Italy.  It presents the film very nicely in English and Italian and the picture quality does real justice to the cinematography of Allejandro Ulloa; one of the real highlights of the film.  It also features an interview with director Franco Giraldi which also has English subtitles.  An unexpected bonus for an Italian release.  Finally, the extras include some outtakes of scenes which suggest that Spanish character actor Jose Manuel Martin was originally lined up to play the bandit leader Maldonado instead of Leo Anchoriz. And with a hunchback too. Why that didn't eventuate I haven't been able to discover but I can't help but think the film would have benefited from his always stellar presence.

Friday 5 June 2020

7 Guns for the MacGregors

Dir: Franco Giraldi 


In a pre-Trinity Spaghetti Western world comedies were a lot less common. They still existed (the Franco and Ciccio films are obvious examples) but, more often than not, filmmakers who wanted to veer away from the prevailing Leone-esque model just chose to approach the genre with a lighter tone; mixing action/adventure elements with comedic moments. 7 Guns for the MacGregors is a perfect example of this approach and highlights the positives and negatives inherent in the choice. It's also a good example of how, even with light-hearted intentions, Italian filmmakers of the day just couldn't help but drift into darker territory when telling a western story. 

In this largely family friendly romp we have six MacGregor brothers (the seventh is wounded early on and left at home) setting off to sell the family horse herd for maximum return in the town of Las Mesas. On arrival they find a town run by a Mexican bandit who, through his hired officers, steal the livestock and throw the boys in jail. This doesn't sit well with the feisty MacGregors and it isn't long before they have broken out and set upon a scheme to hit the bad guys where it hurts through a process of infiltration and preemptive robberies. 

The first thing that struck me when watching 7 Guns for the MacGregors was that it obviously enjoyed a decent budget in comparison to many other Spaghetti Westerns. It has a big cast, the action sequences are on a pretty grand scale and there's a train in it; a dead giveaway when judging whether a film of this type had any money behind it. The second thing that struck was that most of that money seemed to be funnelled into those grand action sequences and that is not a bad thing when you are making an action/adventure film. In movies like this the story and script are of limited importance and a well staged mass attack on a moving train can divert attention away from a lot of other weaknesses. Character study is light here to say the least but who cares once the town water tower gets blown up. Dialogue a bit clunky? What the hell, there's 20 bandits on horseback chasing a train! 

What I learned subsequent to my first viewing of the film over a decade ago is that, whatever the budget, corners were cut in terms of safety and as a result a number of the cast suffered some substantial injuries and one legend of the genre came within inches of losing his life. During the shooting of the train robbery Fernando Sancho, playing Miguel one of the bandit lieutenants, climbs on top of the moving train and stands up just as it passes over an iron bridge. The bridge has girders fixed above and Sancho's head comes within a whisker of colliding with the first one as he stands up. Watching him duck suddenly just before impact is a hairy moment to watch but clearly no thought was given to cutting it out and you can't blame Sancho if he didn't fancy re-shooting it. In fairness, it does add a sense of real danger to an already exciting sequence. It brings to mind a similar incident in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when a train footplate almost takes Eli Wallach's head off as he is crouching by the trackside. The fact that stuntmen weren't used in either of these scenes beggars belief today. The absence of a suitably sized stuntman, along with poor health and safety practice, also led to lead actor Robert Woods sustaining a bad back injury during the film's gripping finale fight scene on a water wheel. With no stand-in of the right size (Woods is six foot five) the star was forced to do most of his own stunts and poor communication led the wheel to be unexpectedly stopped suddenly, sending Woods flying onto his back. To his credit the American actor carried on and the only clue to his painful condition is when he fails in another scene to successfully leap over a horse's rump and into the saddle in one go. He lands halfway and just about hangs on but the director thought it looked more realistic and duly kept it in anyway. 

Not that there was a lack of stuntmen in general on the set. Most of the MacGregor brothers were stuntmen turned actors including Roberto Dell'Aqua, Nazareno Zamperla and Paolo Magalotti. This is not a bad thing in a film so big on action and results in a high level of physicality well executed. This is one of the film's strengths but there are more. To begin with the cast is strong. Robert Woods suits the role of smiling hero Gregor MacGregor well, Leo Anchoriz and Fernando Sancho are always good value in Mexican bandit roles and the bevy of other familiar faces include George Rigaud, Victor Israel, Cris Huerta and Antonio Molino Rojo. Perla Cristal and Agata Flori add some glamour and the score from Morricone includes a good rousing anthemic theme as well as a slightly less pleasing pseudo Scottish bit. This is a light-hearted action/adventure picture pure and simple and it delivers on those terms pretty well. The water wheel fight scene is a standout and will stick in the memory. The large scale action sequences are well executed and the comedy never quite crosses the line into pastiche which is always a blessing. 

But it also flirts with a dark side. In particular, there is a scene quite early on where a former ally of the bandit leader is brutally executed with fire for the entertainment of the gang. There is nothing too graphic in a Fulci kind of way but the very fact that someone is repeatedly dragged through a fire and seen engulfed in flames seems a little strong in a film which would otherwise be straightforward family fare. It's a good scene. I'm just not sure it fits here. This is certainly not a facet unique to this film. I've seen it elsewhere in the genre and often wondered what the thinking was behind it. Were they adding grit to keep the young adult male audience happy at the time? Or did they just not see it as anything over the top for any Italian audience? Kids or otherwise. Maybe they just couldn't help themselves.

What can be said for sure is that director Franco Giraldi showed a repeated tendency for this in his westerns. He made four westerns in three years of which this was the first and three out of the four balanced on the same line to various degrees. This film and its sequel, 7 Women for the MacGregors followed similar lines while the film he made in between, Sugar Colt, is possibly the most extreme case; jumping at once from dead serious to slapstick comedy. Only his fourth western, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die is a straight forward drama without comedic elements. In fairness to Giraldi, for the most part, he pulls this balance off successfully in all of them to one degree or another and is never short of entertaining. 

Is this a Spaghetti Western I would recommend then? Certainly. As long as you are not looking for something in the gritty heavyweight line this film has plenty to enjoy. There are a couple of standout scenes and plenty of action and sometimes that is all you need when sitting down to watch an escapist film. It was certainly successful enough in its time to sire a sequel and was in fact the biggest grossing film Robert Woods had during his time in Europe so it obviously hit the right spot with its contemporary audience. 

Just leave your cynical hat behind and Up the MacGregors!

I watched this film on an Italian DVD release from Ripley Home Video.  Picture quality is pretty good and both Italian and English audio tracks are offered but no subtitles unfortunately.  The English dub slips out of sync for a period early in the film but rights itself before too long.  This is a fault on all copies of this release as far as I'm aware and, at time of writing, is the only English friendly DVD release of the film globally.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

The Specialists

Dir: Sergio Corbucci


Famed gunman Hud returns to Blackstone City in search of answers and revenge after his brother is shot and lynched following a robbery on the local bank. Was his brother guilty? What happened to all the stolen money? And what the hell are these hippies doing in the 19th century American west? Safe to say only two of those three questions get in any way answered during this, Sergio Corbucci's weirdest western.

Shot amongst the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy this film draws immediate comparisons with Corbucci's earlier, and perhaps best western, The Great Silence. Although visually The Specialists is predominantly green and The Great Silence is white, the snow capped mountains and alpine locations give an immediate feeling of similarity in look and feel. But the parallels run much further. A prime example would be the slightly comic and ineffectual sheriff and the evil banker who are not only key characters in both films but actually share the same names; Gideon for the sheriff and Pollicutt for the banker. In the case of the banker there is an interesting switch of gender with the beautiful Francoise Fabian standing in for regular bad guy Luigi Pistilli but this hardly lessens the obviousness of repetition. Corbucci of course was not averse to repeating himself. The Mercenary and Vamos a Matar Compañeros being the most obvious examples of this. In The Specialists however, they appear more as some kind of generic shorthand rather than an attempt to make the same film twice.

The Specialists is almost a patchwork of elements and tropes seen elsewhere in the genre. The protagonist's chain mail vest reminds us immediately of The Man with No Name's iron breastplate in Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars while the corrupt and cowardly townsfolk hiding dirty secrets could have been lifted straight from Giulio Questi's Django Kill! or even Corbucci's own Navajo Joe. In addition, the construct of having the hidden loot exposed by the rays of the rising sun is so often used it is almost a cliche. The same trick was used in the very same year in J. Lee Thompson's American western MacKenna's Gold but can be dated back as far as Jules Verne's 1864 novel, Journey to the centre of the Earth. All this adds up to a sense that Corbucci was running out of inspiration with the conventional western. He is clearly going over old ground here and there is a feeling that he is going through the motions to a certain degree.

But then repetition and familiarity are at the core of what genre means and when it's done well we really don't mind a bit. When we sit down to watch a western, or any other genre film for that matter, we expect to be reminded of what has gone before. In fact we demand it. What makes us sit up though is when the envelope of familiarity is pushed just a little bit. When the conventions are stretched a touch and some questions are asked. This is how a genre grows and remains relevant for a contemporary audience. It was his ability to do this in previous westerns such as Django and The Great Silence that set Corbucci on a pedestal close to Sergio Leone in this genre. Does he push it again here?

Well, yes and no.

The most obvious veering away from the expected here is with the central position given in the film to a group of hippies. Anachronistically dropped into a 19th century setting they are a jarring statement that this is a film from the 1960s and bring with them a political message aimed squarely at the contemporary audience. And it is something of a heavy handed message at that. Corbucci was on record as saying he had nothing but contempt for the hippy movement post 1968 as he felt they lacked courage and conviction to take real action and effect real change. It comes as little surprise then that the band of hippy youngsters existing on the fringe of Blackstone City in this film are shown in a uniformly bad light. They are vilified by everyone in the town and are humiliated at every opportunity; from the opening scene to the finale. The film's protagonist has no more time for them than the Sheriff or corrupt townspeople and even when they seem to have found their moment it is taken from them in quick fashion. If society is corrupt and needs clearing out then old school leftist Corbucci certainly doesn't see the hippy generation as up to the job.

And it is this somewhat jaded attitude which seems to pervade the whole film. Corbucci visits familiar territory with competence but seems tired of it. He injects a new, contemporary element and then rejects it. He composes one of his wildest and bravest climaxes with society's failings laid bare (literally) and then winds up with the most cliched closing shot of the hero riding off into a massive sunset. Albeit, a clearly Italian, not American one. It's as if he is putting the pieces together as well as always but his heart isn't in it anymore.

This wasn't Corbucci's last western although it often feels like it should be. He went on to make a few more. Two very good ones and one unforgivably awful. But this was his last "conventional" western. If we can call it that given its sporadic weirdness. At it's worst it lacks inspiration but at it's best still offers plenty to enjoy. The location is beautiful if somewhat non-american in look. The Alpine setting made me think of Switzerland as much as anywhere and I half expected Heidi to come running up the hills ringing a cowbell at any moment. The action sequences are as good as you'd expect from the maestro. The cast, even non actor pop idol Johnny Halliday, are uniformly solid. The appearance of always excellent Mario Adorf as the Mexican bandit Diablo is particularly welcome if all too brief. The climax in the street with all the townsfolk laid bare is truly memorable and Angelo Lavagnino's theme music is surprisingly light and catchy. All of which adds up to a couple of hours pretty well spent.

Truth is, The Specialists is a pretty good spaghetti western. It's just not classic Corbucci.

Footnote: For the purposes of this review I watched Eureka's recent UK BluRay release which was excellent. It has had some criticism amongst fans who were expecting a full English soundtrack which was not delivered but, in truth, I would recommend watching the film in either French or Italian anyway. Both of which are available with their respective subtitles on this release. Just make sure you align them properly as, in true Spaghetti tradition, the scripts are different in the various languages. This is most important in Mario Adorf's final moments where his dying words are complete opposites in the French and Italian dubs.

Thursday 21 May 2020

A Woman for Ringo (Dos Pistolas Gemelas)

Dir: Rafael Romero Marchent


During the second half of the 1960s the western had become so popular in European cinema that producers in Italy and Spain were falling over themselves to make more. For those of us who love them this meant that a plethora of titles playing along the lines set out by Sergio Leone would be produced; enough to keep us happy to this very day. Films full of grit and passion, blood and vengeance, anti-heroes and bandits, coveted gold and random acts of violence. All played out to rousing, super-cool musical soundtracks. In short, everything we wanted then and still love today in our cinematic western fantasy worlds. But it also meant that every popular European performer during these years would almost inevitably be dropped into the western genre at some point if their ambitions lay in a film career. Singers, dancers and comedians all wound up plonked on a horse and let loose in Almeria or Elios Studios' western town whether they belonged there or not. In Italy a prime example of this was Rita Pavone making Little Rita of the West. In Spain we got Dos Pistolas Gemelas with Pilar and Emilia Bayona.

Pili y Mili, as they were known professionally, were a product of the "Niños Prodigios" tradition of Spanish popular culture. Child stars who enjoyed wide popularity for their singing and dancing on television, records and in films. The Bayona sisters had the advantage of being slightly older than some when they broke through (their first film was made in 1963 when they were 16) as well as the added gimmick of their being identical twins. As a result, their films tended to be assorted variations on the "Parent Trap" scenario where two identical sisters fool various folk around them in order to achieve their, usually romantic, goals. Dos Pistolas Gemelas, their fourth film, falls into this category smoothly while also utilising the tried and trusted western narrative of an evil land-grabber trying to force them off their land.

I start this review with all this context because it strikes me that without it the job of analysing or assessing the film fairly is impossible. Looked at strictly as a Spaghetti (or possibly Paella) Western it is tame and unimaginative. If you're looking for a film with all the attributes I listed in the opening paragraph you will be sorely disappointed here. True, there are a couple of familiar Spaghetti faces on show, Luis Induni as the Sheriff being an obvious case in point. It is also largely shot in Almeria and uses Carlo Simi's western town from For a Few Dollars More so the locations are spot on. But gritty it is not. The story and characters are traditional. As is the music largely. The opening credits even seem to lift the theme directly from Alfred Newman's How the West Was Won. Not sure how they got away with that. The romantic leads are clean-cut, the girls are pure and pretty and the outcome is all a bit predictable from the start.

But surely if we judge it strictly as a Spaghetti Western we are missing the point. This is designed to be family entertainment and showcase the talents and attractions of its lead female stars to its target audience. A target audience different to that which enjoyed Django and the like. On those terms, it's actually quite enjoyable and manages to mix its romance and musical interludes pretty seamlessly into the western narrative without diluting it too badly or descending into the sort of slapstick humour that marred so many of the latter entries of the genre post Trinity. Sure there's an unnecessary bar room brawl but that is mainly included to set up the girls' quite impressive can-can routine. And as the story heats up the action scenes in the final quarter are pretty good.

What really intrigues me is what the Italian audience made of the film on its initial release as the title used there was Una Donna per Ringo (A Woman for Ringo) and, as we've seen, the film centres around two women, not one. Moreover, just for good measure, there's no one called Ringo either and although Sean Flynn is billed as the star he is strictly a supporting player in reality, acting as the love interest of one of the girls. Of course, throwing in a Ringo or Django into a title willy-nilly was nothing new in those times and Sean Flynn may have been better known in Italy due to his father, Errol but the title and accompanying poster is misleading in the extreme.

As a result, I much prefer to use the Spanish title which translates as Two Twin Pistols and fits the film much better.

When all is said and done this is not a film that will wind up in any Spaghetti Western fan's Top 100 let alone Top 20 but it achieves pretty well what it sets out to do. It clips along well enough, tells a decent if somewhat predictable story and lets its stars shine to their best advantage. The Bayona twins are genuinely likeable and the whole thing is surprisingly entertaining even for this old cynic. There are a couple of scenes which don't sit so well, the spanking nonsense being primary among these but I can forgive it these brief failings. It's directed well if unimaginatively by Rafael Romero Marchent which is less than you'd expect from the prolific Spanish helmsman who went on to give such films in the genre as Garringo, Awkward Hands and One Against One...No Mercy.

There is an Italian DVD release of which you can find details at the Spaghetti Western Database here but the version I saw was a Spanish TV broadcast with fansubs.

Tuesday 19 May 2020


Dir: Carlo Lizzani


The sole survivor of a genocidal massacre, a young Requiescant is taken in by a devoutly religious family and raised alongside their daughter Princy, travelling the west in a covered wagon. When Princy leaves to pursue a life of glamour on the stage Requiescant sets out to find her and soon discovers he has a natural talent with a pistol. Finding Princy has been lured into a world of forced prostitution he tries to rescue her and comes face to face with the perpetrator of his family's slaughter.

Requiescant was Carlo Lizzani's second and final western and instantly appears a more personal project for him than The Hills Run Red, released the previous year. The earlier film has a much more classical American western feel to it and Lizzani's credit is solely as director. In contrast, on Requiescant he acted as producer too and collaborated with friends who shared his left wing politics to make a film which allowed him to explore themes closer to home. Lizzani is on record as saying the film acted as a metaphor for land reform issues in the south of Italy and the parallels are clear as the Mexicans are looked down on and ill-treated by their northern masters (albeit these masters are Southern in their American context) and the denouement suggests an ongoing struggle rather than a clear-cut happy ending.

Metaphors however, are all very well but the question for the viewer is more clear. Does the film work in and of itself as a western and as a piece of cinematic entertainment? Happily, the answer for me is yes, albeit with some reservations.

First among the film's strengths is the performance of Mark Damon in the role of Confederate aristocrat George Bellow Ferguson. Damon made a career in Italian westerns playing clean-cut, gun-slinging heroes armed with a gleaming set of teeth as well as unerring pistols but here he is offered the opportunity to play against type and the result is something of a revelation. Pale-faced and Gothic, there are traces of his days in the Edgar Alan Poe films of Roger Corman. Given full rein to unleash Ferguson's egotism and megalomania he is a tour de force, quickly becoming the most memorable element of the film. Ferguson is supremely confident in his own supremacy. He speaks with the calmness of someone convinced of the indisputable 'rightness' of his philosophy and opinions. When this 'rightness' is challenged or exposed however, he descends rapidly into histrionic rage and the facade of his confidence is exposed. All this makes for a fine, if somewhat obvious villain and his scenes are some of the most enjoyable in the film.

But the central focus of the film is, of course, the eponymous Requiescant and this character is somewhat more problematic. Lou Castel is fine in the part and embodies the mix of innocence and determination required. It is the character itself which is the main problem. In a left wing metaphor for the struggle of the down-trodden against powerful autocrats it is odd to have a protagonist who is offered essentially as the hand of God, sent to liberate the people. How else can a bible reading, corpse blessing hero who never learns to shoot but has a simply miraculous gift for it be described? Requiescant's uncanny skill at shooting surprises him as much as anyone else and he seems to glide through the film simply accepting it as an unfathomable reality however at odds it is with everything else about him. In every other way it is his innate clumsiness which stands forth. He is continuously dropping his hat or fumbling with something. His pistol is worn slung knee-high on a rope belt and turned so far back as to be behind rather than beside him. And yet, when the need arises, he is able to outdraw anyone in the blinking of an eye. Even in a genre as full of unbelievable gun skills as the Spaghetti Western Requiescant stands out as exceptional. And yet, call me naive if you like, as the story unfolds I found myself forgiving this failing and just going with it. Because, for all its faults, (and there are plenty more) the film is an ultimately enjoyable one with some truly standout scenes.

Primary among these for me is the showdown with blonde bad guy (and obvious love interest for Ferguson) Dean Light and Requiescant played out as a shooting/hanging game in the saloon. The game is a nice twist on the gun duel and allows for a build up of tension against the ticking clock as well as an effective climax skilfully handled with the twitching feet of the loser a nice alternative to the usual death throw theatrics. Likewise, the final showdown with Ferguson shows Lizzani to be an inventive and satisfying orchestrator of generic requirements.

To sum up, I can only say that Requiescant is patchy but ultimately enjoyable. It clearly suffers from a restricted budget. The opening scenes with fake cactus and a plaster and cardboard looking Aztec fortress in a gravel pit being a prime example. The central conceipt of the young hero's inexplicable prowess with a gun is difficult to swallow and the script in places is poor. But it's strengths eventually overcome these failings. The performances of the principles are all strong and the set pieces are all handled well by Lizzani. We also get a unique appearance in the genre from Pier Paolo Passolini, some strong if all too brief performances from the female characters including one from Mark Damon's future wife, Barbara Frey and another from ever reliable Luisa Baratto. Add to this a strong score from the great Riz Ortolani and the overall package is undoubtedly strong enough to keep all but the most unforgiving genre fan plenty to enjoy.

I've seen this film numerous times but most recently via the Arrow BluRay release and I can only recommend this release highly as the best possible option. The picture and sound quality is superb and the extra features which include interviews with Lizzani and Lou Castel interesting and informative. For info and links for all DVD and BluRay releases of this film in your region see the dedicated page at the Spaghetti Western Database here.