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.