Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

Traditional, Artsy, Genre-Within-Genre: A Little Something for Everyone

Western Dell’arte: The Obscure, The Good, and the Enjoyable

By: Tony Nash

(All opinions are those of the writer and do not reflect any professional status.)

When one thinks of the Italian Western, the names Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone immediately come to mind, and with good reason. The Dollars Trilogy offered new life to a genre of film that was slowly losing its luster due to changing audience tastes. New levels of violence, characters whose motives were never clear, bad guys and girls whose greed and machinations bordered on the sadistic and the harsh reality/ landscape of the American West/Frontier was something that brought interest and appeal to a generation faced with ever changing events. Now while Eastwood and Leone made it possible for others films of this type to get made, there were other writers and directors who added their own touches and niches to the genre that allowed it to progress for almost an entire decade. Sergio Corbucci, who is just as well known as Leone, fits into this category well, and is considered a genius in his own right, but there were other people and films that rise above the standard fare, but somehow fell through the cracks and need that push to receive similar acclaim.

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La Resa de Conti (aka The Settling of Accounts, The Big Gundown) ***** (1966)

Cast:

Lee Van Cleef: Jonathan “Colorado” Corbett

Tomas Milian: Manuel “Cuchillo” Sanchez

Walter Barnes: Brokston

Fernando Sancho: Captain Segura

Gerard Herter Captain-Baron von Schulenberg

Nieves Navarro: The Widow

Antonio Casas: Brother Smith & Wesson

Roberto Camardiel: Sheriff Jellicol

Angel del Pozo: Chet Miller

Maria Granada: Maria Sanchez

Written by: Sergio Sollima and Sergio Donati, from a story by Franco Solinas & Fernando Morandi

Directed by: Sergio Sollima

Synopsis: Bounty Hunter and occasional Lawman Jonathan Corbett is given the task to bring in Mexican bandit Cuchillo Sanchez, who has been accused of the rape and murder of a minor. As time progresses, the two men begin to respect each other’s talents and soon realize the peon is being set up to conceal someone’s dark secret.

While not exactly underappreciated or overlooked, for a long time this classic of the sub-genre had not until recently been seen in its original cut outside of Europe. The US cut took out crucial elements that further established characters and plot, thus taking away from a truly good story. Granted the depth of character and the slower paced story involving sexual deviancy and, to an extent, social injustice make this film deep, but Sollima blends his commentary with enough commercial storytelling that it appeals to both the general audience and audiences who like to pick out what the filmmaker used in terms of nuances. Sollima initially looked to show what happens when those in power who misuse it, persecute the underprivileged and poor as a means to hide their shameful deeds, but due to many Italian genre filmmakers being leftists, US producers automatically saw the film as anti-American, when it was really anti-corruption in business. The addition of the “who-dun-it” element into the film makes the plot more interesting, as the audience, much like Corbett, is curious to know why certain parties are intent on getting an otherwise low-level bandito.

The performances of Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, and Walter Barnes are the stand-outs of this film. Van Cleef, normally known for secondary and supporting roles, does well in one of his first lead roles in Italy. Saying himself he wasn’t a traditionally trained actor, Van Cleef does well with a slightly more complex character than what was the standard fare for American actors appearing in these films. While Eastwood’s ambiguous loner with little back-story who shot first and then put the pieces together became the standard type for future lead actors in Italian, the realization in the uncut film that Jonathan Corbett is an honorable man who is never quick to shoot is a breath of fresh air in otherwise out for himself characters. Tomas Milian, the quintessential character actor of Italian cinema, is at his best as the likable peon-thief Cuchillo. Milian’s Method training made his embodiment of the character all the more pleasing. The character became the first of the genre who wasn’t a gunslinger (he doesn’t even like holding guns!), wasn’t educated, and was an admitted criminal. What drew audiences to him were his quick thinking personality, cunning, wit, and street smarts, all of which allowed him to survive among many a gun-for-hire. Since most Italian Western heroes/anti-heroes were distant, the fact Cuchillo was relatable, and to a degree, sympathetic, audiences more openly rooted for him as his motives and drive were clear from the start. Walter Barnes, one of the earliest athletes turned actor is great as the slimy, contemptible, corrupt businessman Brokston. Like Van Cleef, Barnes wasn’t trained in the traditional sense as an actor, but he’s very believable in his role. Brokston, while always unscrupulous, wasn’t an immediate villain to start with, but his finding out a shattering secret that will destroy all his ventures has his greediness shining through and shows how little others means to him in his quest for money.

This cut above the rest Western may take a little more time to unfold and not necessarily has all the action the more B style Westerns are noted for, but believe this writer, the extra effort put forth by the director and writers makes this film all the more enjoyable. Plot driven and character rich, this film gives a little more to the viewer and has enough plot twists and betrayals to keep audiences glued to it.

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Une Corde, un Colt…(aka Cimitero Senza Croci, The Rope and the Colt, Cemetery Without Crosses) ***** (1968)

 Cast:

Michéle Mercier: Maria Caine (as Michele Mercier)

Robert Hossein: Manuel

Guido Lollobrigida: Thomas Caine (as Lee Burton)

Daniele Vargas: Will Rogers (as Daniel Vargas)

Serge Marquand: Larry Rogers

Pierre Hatet: Frank Rogers

Philippe Baronnet: Bud Rogers

Pierre Collet: Sheriff Ben

Michel Lemoine: Eli Caine

Anne-Marie Balin: Diana Rogers

Written by: Robert Hossein, Claude Desailly, & Dario Argento

Directed by: Robert Hossein

Synopsis: When her husband is forced into robbery, then murdered, by the land grabbing Rogers family, widow Maria Caine decides to take revenge on the thuggish father and sons. She seeks the help of her friend and ex-lover Manuel, a gunslinger whose trademark is a black glove on his gun hand. Initially intending to kidnap the Rogers daughter to humiliate the patriarch, things go badly when Maria’s brothers-in-law want in on the scheme.

What makes this Euro-Western unique is that it’s a French Western instead of an Italian Western. While more known under its Italian title, filmed in Almeria Spain, and widely seen in the Italian language, the cast and crew were predominately French. Robert Hossein weaves a simple tale of love and revenge into a visually stunning minimalist format that uses the landscape and actors faces & movement to tell the story, only necessary dialogue used (glances often tell more than words).  The stark imagery, brooding characters, and plot go near well into Greek Tragedy in the vein of Sophocles and Euripides. Why this classic, great film is not more well known than it is lies within a specific reason. Made in 1968 when the Zapata Westerns, Westerns about the Mexican Revolution, that highly hinted at Leftist policies, were being made and college students were rioting against the Vietnam War and Governments, actor filmmaker Hossein infuriated his more politically active compatriots by not doing any kind of hidden commentary on any of the current issues at the time in his film. By “not playing the game” Hossein’s very well made film was pushed to the side in favor of other more radical, boundary pushing fare, including Westerns. Despite the setbacks, the film has managed to gain cult status among fans and is now a part of the canon of great Italian Westerns.

What makes the film a standout work are actors Robert Hossein and Michéle Mercier. Hossein stated years later in interviews that part of his concept behind the film was to help friend Mercier break away from the type casting brought about by her hit role as Angelique, a series of films she made with Hossein as her love interest. Mercier truly shines in her role as Maria, and it really is a shame she was unable to secure more roles with similar or more depth. She portrays Maria as a woman who had to dig and claw her way through a man’s world to secure anything she can call her own, and has the look of someone whose rough existence has left her visibly weary and dulled. The Rogers family’s destroying of her dream with her husband is the last straw for this proud woman. Hossein himself, normally known for his leading man status, and slimy, unscrupulous, even psychotic, villains, proved with flying colors his range as an actor with a truly compelling performance as the loner Manuel. A man clearly haunted by his past as a killer, Manuel would seemingly rather live a quiet, unassuming existence in an abandoned ghost town then to pick up his six-shooter again. It is only his love and devotion to Maria that he decides to go back to his gun for hire days, in spite of telling her that revenge will bring her nothing but misery.

While definitely a darker take on the genre (though certainly not as dark as Corbucci’s Il Grande Silenzio), with its broken characters and unglamorous story, it’s still interesting and entertaining enough to take a closer look at.

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I Giorni dell’ira (aka Day of Anger) **** 1/2 (1967)

Cast:

Guiliano Gemma: Scott Mary

Lee Van Cleef: Frank Talby

Walter Rilla: Murph Allan Short

José Calvo: Blind Bill (as Pepe Calvo)

Al Mulock: Wild Jack

Lukas Ammann: Judge Cutcher

Andrea Bosic: Abel Murray

Ennio Balbo: Turner the Banker

Benito Stefanelli: Owen White

Yvonne Sanson: Vivien Skill

Written by: Ernesto Gastaldi, Tonino Valeri, & Renzo Genta, based upon a novel by Rolf Becker (as Ron Barker)

Directed by: Tonino Valeri

Synopsis: Master gunfighter Frank Talby rides into the town of Clifton seeking revenge on the man who cheated him, and befriends local Scott Mary, whom the town abuses because he’s the son of a prostitute. Taking the youngster under his wing, Talby not only gets even with his ex-partner, but also blackmails the town’s corrupt leaders who aided the man in a robbery. When things begin to get out of hand, and Scott’s guardian father figure becomes Talby’s enemy, the young man must decide between revenge and justice.

An interesting note to this Western is that the audience actually roots for the gunfighter who is quite bad and ruthless, as the majority of the citizens of Clifton, save for Scott’s surrogate father, the woman who raised him, and an eccentric blind man, are a truly despicable lot. They berate, beat-up, and treat Scott like dirt because of how his mother earned her living, when in actuality they’re greedy, self righteous, and opportunistic. Even the sheriff does nothing to help Scott, actually not holding up the honor of his position. Talby is really the first person to have an instant like to the guy and even lets him know his mother’s past makes him no less of a good person. Talby is certainly shady and a killer, but at least he’s honest about who he is and what he does, not hiding behind the screen of respectability like the high ups of Clifton. Talby’s helping Scott gain self worth and respect for himself has him indebted to the man, but it’s when Talby begins terrorizing innocent people that Scott starts to wonder if he really wants to be like Talby, and begins to realize Murph, an ex-lawman who took it upon himself to give Scott book learning and common sense, was right in that it takes more than being tough and good with a gun to be a man. This conflict of a man torn between two father figures, and what he sees as the true aspect of humanity is the driving force of the film.

Star Guiliano Gemma proved his worth several times over as an actor in the Italian Western world, but Scott Mary just seems to be a little of a reach for him. Tonino Valeri admitted in interviews later on he’d actually wanted Swedish actor Lou Castel for the part, but because Castel was still an unknown, having only made a couple of films at the time, the studios wanted someone with bankability to sell the film. Matters became a bit more complicated because Gemma had stock in the studio that showed interest in the script, thus putting Valeri in a tough bind. Gemma was certainly excellent in roles like Ringo and Arizona Colt (both to be showcased here soon), but the shy and unsure of himself Scott Mary is just not believable. In a scene where he gets beat up by a saloon keeper, a normal Gemma cowboy character would’ve slapped the guy around a few times, punched him thrice, and make it clear to never put his hands on him again, and not take the beating as he does onscreen. Not that Gemma doesn’t do his best with the role, but he’s far too good looking and sure of himself to be a timid fellow. Lee Van Cleef proved once again why he was one of the top actors in Italian Westerns with the role of Frank Talby. Usually Van Cleef played characters that were generally good natured with hints of the larcenous, but here he plays a deceptive type, who, even though he is as such, is actually more sympathetic than the majority of the characters. While no good, Talby exhibits an unusual humanity with Scott, and truly does like him, this ends up being what works against him when he takes over the town of Clifton. Very unusual pathos for such a hardened character, but Van Cleef with his natural abilities really makes it work.

A well plotted Western and fairly well thought out characters make this one a worthwhile watch, even with some inconsistencies.

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Una Pistola per Ringo (aka A Pistol for Ringo, Ringo: the Killer, Ballad of Death Valley) **** (1965)

Cast:

Guiliano Gemma: Ringo Angel Face (as Montgomery Wood)

Fernando Sancho: Sancho

George Martin: Sheriff Ben

Lorella De Luca: Miss Ruby (as Hally Hammond)

Antonio Casas: Major Clyde

Nieves Navarro: Delores

José Manuel Martin: Pedro (as Jose Manuel Martin)

Juan Cazalilla: Mr. Jenkinson, Bank Director

Manuel Muniz: Tim “Timoeto” (as Pajarito)

Pablito Alonso: Chico, the Kid

Written & Directed by: Duccio Tessari

Synopsis: When Mexican bandit Sancho, his girlfriend Dolores, and their gang rob a bank as the Christmas holiday approaches, and then take a local war hero and his household hostage, the Sheriff has no choice but to act. Knowing all his men are known to the gang, the Deputy suggests gunslinger Angel Face Ringo take on the outlaw and his gang. Problem is, Ringo is in the lock-up for shooting the Benson brothers. Trusting all Ringo wants is a finder’s fee for helping, the Sheriff decides to take a risk and let Ringo go.

The first Ringo film proved a major stepping stone for the Italian Westerns as it was one of the first (if not the first ever) to have an entirely European cast and not utilizing American import actors to help build up the film. Since Guiliano Gemma looked very much like a California surfer, it was decided to cast him as the lead, using the American pseudonym Montgomery Wood (his later Westerns he would utilize his own name). Taking the conventional Western story of bank robbery and hostages, and giving it its own flare, the film still manages to have a European feel and works well. While somewhat tamer than the more known Westerns of the time, there’s still plenty of shooting and an attempted rape, but no where the levels of the more common fare. Another great departure for the Italian Western in this film is the inclusion of two love stories, one between the Sheriff and the war hero’s daughter, and the other between the war hero and the bandit leader’s girlfriend. The Italian Western tended to deal more in action scenes, stories of revenge, war and betrayal, and rarely dealt with romance, and even when it did, it often would end tragically or was perverse in some nature. That the film takes place just as Christmas is coming gives the piece a nice Die Hard like feel to it.

After having several years of bit parts in films, Guiliano Gemma finally became a star, almost overnight with this film, and even broke a barrier that allowed more Italian and Spanish actors to get the leads in future Westerns. Gemma’s good looks made him the first Western matinée idol, and romantic lead, allowing for other possibilities.  Ringo was much different from characters like The Man with No Name and Django as he was clean cut, dressed well, and was generally a decent person who always seemed to end up having to shoot somebody. He’s still out for himself for the majority of the film, but he does have an ethics code and code of honor that forbids him from deceiving others for his own personal gain. He even cracks several cleaver lines of dialogue that give the film a light air in between the action. Fernando Sancho, a Spanish actor who appeared in more Italian and Spanish Westerns than any other performer in the genre, became the quintessential Mexican bandito in this, and at least one or two previous films. What makes Sancho unique, is that while he’s not above executing hostages and beating up on people to prove he means business, he actually treats them with a kind of respect that is unusual for a criminal, Mexican or otherwise. Going beyond the standard one dimensional characters that had perforated Westerns for years, Sancho gave us a character that you don’t necessarily want to root for, but at the same time not totally hate either. Nieves Navarro, the first Spanish actress to become a major player in Italian cinema, breaks another barrier with the character Dolores. The first woman bandit in Italian Western history, Dolores shows the other characters she’s as tough and good with a gun as her male counterparts. Her personality changes radically when the Major starts treating her with a respect that Sancho never had, making her realize there’s more to life than being a criminal. Spanish actor George Martin plays a part not seen before or after this film was made: an honest Sheriff. The Sheriffs of Italian Westerns were usually corrupt, weak, or cowardly, never upholding the law as they should, but Ben breaks that streak by being studious to the law, but at the same time putting the need of the people in trouble before the needs of the books.

A very different type of film indeed for the genre, the action, story, characters,  and one liners make this a good film not just to watch, but to introduce newcomers to the genre.

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Prega il Morto e Ammazza il Vivo (aka Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead) **** (1971)

Cast:

Klaus Kinksi: Dan Hogan

Paolo Casella: John Webb (as Paul Sullivan)

Patrizia Adiutori: Senta

Victoria Zinny: Edith

Dino Strano: Reed (as Dean Stratford)

Dante Maggio: Jonathan (as Dan May)

Fortunato Arena: The Coachman

Adriana Giuffre: Sandy

Aldo Barberito: Greene

Anna Zinnemann: Daisy

Written by: Adriano Bolzoni

Directed by: Giuseppe Vari (as Joseph Warren)

Synopsis: Mysterious drifter John Webb agrees to help outlaw Dan Hogan and his band get across the border to Mexico in exchange for a share of the gold they’ve stolen and that Hogan spare the lives of several people he’s taken hostage. With the Texas Rangers hot on Hogan’s trail, a perilous journey across the desert begins. A mystery soon develops in that Hogan starts to suddenly kill off his men, whom he suspects are double-crossing him. And what exactly is John Webb’s connection to Hogan and why is he involving himself in the matter?

While not having a set of familiar actors on hand, save for Klaus Kinski, the film sports a very well plotted storyline, and even mixes in a little mystery and suspense in that one of the characters remains completely silent on what his true reasons are for being involved in the plot. While not a journey film, the chase that soon follows after a standoff at the way station in waiting to see if anyone in the group will tip off the law as to Hogan being around has the audience unsure of the characters survival. Taking a sort of cue from Agatha Christie, the film keeps the audience in suspense as to what is really going on and what might happen when the truth comes to light. Another interesting note is that the film takes place in only two settings: a midway ranch station, and a vast desert. Normally the Italian Westerns utilized several sets and locations, but this one only utilizes two specific areas. This limited space adds to the suspense and mystery as it provides atmosphere and even a slight sense of claustrophobia. The audience being in the dark as much as the majority of the characters is another interesting touch as it keeps the viewer glued to the screen.

Klaus Kinski was probably one of the best utilized (even with the revelation in recent years of his disturbing behavior) psycho villains in the Italian Western genre, but with  Dan Hogan he plays it fairly straight and calm, only showing his trademark eerie presence at least twice. His most unsettling moment is when he orders one of the hostages, a saloon singer, to sing a song, and is made even creepier by it being Jingle Bells. Apart from a few scenes, he plays a very typical villain of the genre. Paolo Casella, credited under the very Western name Paul Sullivan, does very well as the elusive John Webb. While having some traits similar to the typical anti-hero in greed and opportunity, the character gives faints hints there’s more to him than meets the eye. Definitely more humane, but playing the shallow type for the benefit of the outlaws, Casella constantly has the viewer guessing where his loyalties really lie and what is really behind him being in the position.

While not differing too much in commonality to most of its predecessors and compatriots, the film mixes a good plot, interesting & flawed characters, and a mystery that keeps audiences guessing to the final outcome is a good popcorn watch.

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Il Tempo degli Avvoltoi (aka The Time of Vultures, Last of the Badmen) ***1/2 (1967)

Cast:

George Hilton: Kitosch

Frank Wolff: Joshua Tracy

Eduardo Fajardo: Don Jaime Mendoza

Pamela Tudor: Steffy Mendoza

Cristina Iosani: Senorita

Franco Balducci: Big John

Maria Grazia Marescalchi: Traps

Femi Benussi: Rubia

Guglielmo Spoletini: Camaro

John Bartha: The Sheriff

Written by: Fulvio Gicca Palli

Directed by: Nando Cicero

Synopsis: After he is beaten by his employer, then imprisoned for crimes he’s innocent of, wanderer Kitosch escapes with the aid of outlaw Joshua Tracy, alias Black Tracy. As he travels with Tracy, committing various crimes, including helping Tracy take revenge on former associates, Kitosch begins to seriously doubt his new friend’s sanity. When Tracy sets his sights on Kitosch’s old boss’s ranch, including the woman Kitosch loves, he must face either condemning himself to a life of crime or risk his life to do the right thing. What Tracy hasn’t guessed is that Kitosch might use the knowledge that Tracy suffers from debilitating epileptic seizures.

The wronged man plotline doesn’t get taken to the level it probably should have here, but the ever uncertainty of who the central figure should trust, what he should do or shouldn’t do  still works well. While part of the film seems to focus on the journey the two leads take as they go through various criminal activities, the unlikely bond the two men form in the course of said journey is an interesting that the writer did well in fleshing out. Nothing too different is really done with the story, but that the main villain is given a handicap that is uncontrollable is an interesting aspect that only a few films of the genre really delved into, and should’ve been done more.

George Hilton, an actor from Uruguay, does really well as Kitosch. A character he played before, in Frontera al Sur (Kitosch, the Man Who Came From the North), Hilton adds a little more layers to the role, having him become so cynical in the countless times he’s been wronged and betrayed that it’s not unusual for him to take up with a killer like Joshua Tracy. As the film progresses Hilton begins adding in regret that causes Kitosch to really rethink his loyalties, which becomes harder as he truly does like Tracy. Hilton does well with the torn character who truly doesn’t know what to do. American actor Frank Wolff, another of the many who had to head to Europe for a successful career, proved once again why his UCLA training held him in good stead as the surprisingly vulnerable, but still vicious Joshua Tracy. Wolff was equally adept at playing villains and good guys and this role is no exception. By including a hard hitting illness that even the ruthless outlaw can’t keep in check adds a good twist that leaves the viewer wondering if his cautious companion will use this to, if not stop, at least to keep Tracy at bay. A very capable actor who could’ve gone further had the demons of his mind not made him end it all. Spanish actor Eduardo Fajardo, another stalwart of the genre, impresses viewers very well with his pompous, but still very human and honorable ranch Padrone. More known for playing villains like compatriot Fernando Sancho, Fajardo proved he was just as good playing characters that were hard, but generally decent. Another really solid character actor who added well to the films he played in.

In spite of not having a deep plot or the colorful characters of most Italian Westerns, the film manages to hold interest and keep audiences guessing as to what the lead character will do next.

Now not all these Westerns maybe everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s enough variety that people will find something they like. Ranging from the sleeper hit that’s only gotten some recognition as a well made film in recent years, and one’s deemed sub par fare originally now seen as a little more solid and creative, these first few picks should certainly be up there with some of the better sub-genre films already known.

For the best possible experience, definitely look for the blu ray editions with the Italian language audio option with translated English subtitles.

Images from Google.com/images

For further sources:

IMDB/The Big Gundown & Wikipedia/The Big Gundown

IMDB/Cemetery Without Crosses & Wikipedia/Cemetery Without Crosses

IMDB/Day of Anger & Wikipedia/Day of Anger

IMDB/A Pistol for Ringo & Wikipedia/A Pistol for Ringo

IMDB/Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead & Wikipedia/Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead

IMDB/Last of the Badmen & Wikipedia/Last of the Badmen

 

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview

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