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Tragic Revenge, Italian West Style

by Tony Nash

(A Par of Western Wednesdays)

(Mild Spoilers)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(this review is of the Italian language version of the film)

Black Jack (1968) poster

Black Jack (Un Uomo per Cinque Vendette / Un i Dannati della Violenza) (1968) R ****1/2

Robert Woods: “Black” Jack Murphy

Rik Battaglia: Skinner, Outlaw

Mimmo Palmara: Indian Joe, Guide

Larry Dolgin: Reb, Outlaw

Nino Fuscagni: Peter, Estelle’s Fiancé

Lucienne Bridou: Susan, Jack’s Girlfriend

Federico Chentrens: Gordon, Outlaw

Goffredo Unger: Billy, Outlaw (as Fredy Unger)

Dali Breciani: Julie Skinner (as Dalia Lahav)

Sascia Krusciarska: Estelle Murphy, Jack’s Sister

Ivan Scratuglia: Rodrigo

Written by: Giuseppe Andreoli (also story), Gianfranco Baldanello, Augusto Finocchi, & Mario Mattei

Directed by: Gianfranco Baldanello

Synopsis: After a successful heist of the Tucson Arizona bank, outlaw Black Jack’s henchmen decide to double-cross him. When Jack gets the drop on them and takes off with the loot, the gang’s Apache guide Indian Joe leads them to Jack’s hideout. Jack’s world turns tragically black when the gang beats and tortures him, and later rape his sister, with the lustful Indian Joe scalping her for rejecting him. Telling his fiancé to forget him, Jack embarks on a fatal and bleak revenge against his former allies.

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1968 proved to be the banner year for edgier material in the Italian Western, especially with entries like Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence), Sonora, Un Minuto per Pregare, un Istante per Morire (A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die), and I Quattro dell’Ave Maria (The Gunmen of Ave Maria/The Forgotten Pistolero). One of the films that took this bleaker outlook to the level Silenzio began was Black Jack. What makes this film exceptional to the existential feel to the Westerns of this period was that there’s no one character that the audience can honestly root for. While characters will at periods show humane sides, the majority of the time they show little to no emotions that move audiences one way or the other. Ironically, what would normally be a hinderance to a film being interesting and enjoyable is not the case here and in fact allows the audience to judge the characters accordingly without worrying if they’re moralizing actions or holding unnecessary sympathies. The characters are actually more interesting because of this and will leave viewers curious as to what their eventual fates will be. The film’s going from the typical heist and betrayal yarn to dark revenge thriller works well and moves seamlessly from one to the other.

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What also sets this film apart from the other Italian Westerns of the day was that all the location scenes were shot over in Israel. While normally most of the Italian Westerns location scenes were filmed in the Almeria area of Spain, the budget was apparently large enough to be able to take the film over to the Holy Land for shooting. Israel makes a nice substitute for the hot deserts of Arizona and really makes viewers feel like they’re seeing an Old Western town in the flesh. Both Israel and Almeria have distinctive looks that make them unique to one another, but because both remind one of the classic Old West landscapes fans have come to love and appreciate, to say that one is better is a little unfair as both are great locales.

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Robert Woods, an American actor who has the rare distinction of having started his career in foreign language films in Europe, offers up a very fine and bleak performance as the title character Jack Murphy. While at heart an outlaw, Jack actually starts out as a devoted brother, friend, and lover to his sister, best friend, and girlfriend. Even with his career profession making it difficult to side with as he has no qualms about killing people to succeed in his ventures, that he does in fact care about the people closest in his life could make the audience pity him for what he decided to do with his life and talents. When the gang who tried to double cross him get their revenge by maiming and crippling him, and raping and scalping his sister, Jack loses not only his reason to live, but his sanity, and decides his revenge will also be a suicide mission. Woods’ talent serves him well in the transition from average outlaw to deranged Angel of Death is done flawlessly. The character’s madness has a Shakespearian quality to it, Hamlet in particular, and shows off Woods’ knack for melodrama which, by some fans’ standards is over the top, help to illustrate Jack’s slow descent into a vileness for which there is no going back once he crosses into it. The one consensus to this change is that Jack is able to convince his girlfriend that he’s no longer worthy of her, thus sparing her from watching his life go to ruin which would’ve caused her to do the same.

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The use of costume as a metaphor comes into play for Woods and his character’s going from one personality to the other. When the film begins, Jack is shown as wearing a combination of black, white, and grey clothes, hinting at his morally ambiguous, but not without some compassion and good points. Upon his sister’s death and his own maiming, Jack spends the remainder of the film dressed entirely in black, showing his full descent into bitterness and madness.

Rik Battaglia as Sanchez in Black Jack (1968)

Rik Battaglia, a veteran Italian character whose career ranged from important “A” pictures to “B” well made entertainment pictures, shows his knack for villainy in the role of Skinner. As Jack’s second in command, Skinner holds some sway over what the gang does in the performance of a job, though he clearly prefers the role of leader to what he really does. Deciding Jack takes too much of the loot as he only handles the getaway part while the others take all the risks, Skinner decides to stage the outlaw version of a coupe. When that fails, he convinces their Apache accomplice to betray Jack, and shows the depths of his savagery in the process. Battaglia does well at playing up a rotten outlaw with little to no scruples, especially with the scene where he and the others take turns beating Jack to a pulp. Showing his range as an actor, Battaglia also gives Skinner a softer side, showing he’s a loving father, risking his life to save her when Jack kidnaps her to have Skinner feel Jack’s own pain when Skinner and the others took turns raping his sister. While showing he’s capable of compassion, Skinner is at heart a dirty outlaw who took things too far in his revenge, leading to his innocent daughter having to possibly pay the price for his sins. Even though the character falls into the general baddie category of the genre, Battaglia gives Skinner a type of empathy in that he tries to keep his daughter out of that world.

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Mimmo Palmara, an Italian character actor most noted for his work with Steve Reeves in the Peplum franchise, exudes slimly villainy in the role of Indian Joe. A rare example of Native Americans being portrayed in the Italian Westerns (the Germans had that market in the Winnetou series) Palmara does a fine job in the portrayal of an Apache tribesman, and that the make-up makes him look like a genuine Apache is a plus as it debunks the traditional stereotypes of the time. Palmara, who was able to speak English phonetically, actually plays the role of Indian Joe silent, playing up the common style of Native American characters not saying much in films and TV of the 60’s. Palmara’s slimy and vicious gaze serves him well as even though he doesn’t speak, it’s usually clear what he’s thinking, and often it’s never good. Joe’s lust over Jack’s sister is the catalyst for the events that unfold, and the character’s anger at being rejected by the sister leads to his vicious and merciless scalping of her, shamelessly sporting her scalp as a trophy as he chants a war cry as he and the gang take off lead to all kinds of doom and consequences.

(Palmera, who was normally credited in the Westerns as Dick Palmer, gets his first credit under his real name since the Peplum period here.)

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Black Jack is one of those films that’s good, but is also a film that one must go into knowing there will be no good characters, and a mood viewers must prepare themselves for. Viewers won’t be left depressed by the film as there’s no major character that would leave the viewer feeling completely hopeless and betrayed by how the story played out, but it’s not the usual twist that normally comes out within the genre. The cast does well in their respective roles, especially Robert Woods, Rik Battaglia, and Mimmo Palmara, and fits the type of feel the Westerns of the day were looking for. Director Gianfranco Baldanello, while skilled at his profession, didn’t seem seasoned enough to tackle a story with the type of depth, character, and mood Black Jack has in it. This isn’t to say Baldanello didn’t do his best with what he had, but there are moments that look out of his league in how they did look and should’ve looked. Other than how the product was handled filming wise, the film is still quite good and does deserve to be recognized as one of the better smaller Italian Westerns of the times. While it misses the mark of being a Leone, Corbucci, or Castellari Western, the film does fit the category of sleeper hit and minor classic, unique enough that it can stand on its own.

(I do recommend the film to Western fans due to the film’s relative obscurity up until the last 20 years or so, making it a rarity within the genre. It’s still a very good film, but is also one of those films you have to be in the mood for before popping it in to the player. The Colosseo Films Blu Ray of the film is fantastic and the transfer/scan of the original film negative is immaculate, save for two scenes, with hardly any signs of real damage. The Italian audio, the preferable audio choice I think, is also quite good, only minimal amounts of popping, and even then only when no one’s talking. Fans on the SWDb have stated that the English dub appears to be out of sync, but others have stated this isn’t the case, but as I never watch the English audios anymore, I can’t give an opinion.)

All images courtesy of Images and their respective owners

For more information

IMDb/Black Jack

Wikipedia/Black Jack

Spaghetti Western Database/Black Jack

Buying options

For those who don’t have a region free player

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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