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 CompaƱeros 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.