Monday, 12 March 2012

Spaghetti Westerns I

The blog post I did about the films of Sergio Leone has been quite popular. I hope all of Leone's friends are aware that spaghetti westerns as a genre do not begin and end with Leone. True, he was a genius at the epic scale of the stories he was telling. But there are a number of italian westerns that were more cynical, comical, political, brutal and rebellious of the norms connected to westerns as a genre. And at least as action-packed, too. The best directors of these films were directors named Sergio. Alongside Leone his name-sakes Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima made some ground-breaking and pretty darn good films. Let's take a look.

Django (1966)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

For a clear contrast between the styles between Leone and Corbucci, look no further than the latter's most well-known film. It basically utilizes the same story as Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, mainly the one from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. In both, a stranger walks into a town ruled by two rival gangs. The stranger decides to play the two gangs against each other for profit.

As to where the two films differ. Well, for starters, the protagonist of Corbucci's film, Django (Franco Nero) is a tad grimmer than Clint Eastwood's Joe. So grim, in fact, that he drags a coffin through mud and the prairie. He won't reveal anyone what's in the coffin, leading them to think he's some sort of a vampire or some other undead angel of death. But Django still has a beating heart, as he saves the prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak) from the clutches of Mexican bandits. Django takes her to the nearby town, where the Mexicans are in an open war with the local KKK branch. The leader of the bandits, General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bodalo) allows Django to show his worth by taking out a group of his KKK rivals. He also sees Django and his secret weapon as a road to gaining a revolution back in Mexico. But Django himself is only in it for the gold.

So, Corbucci takes the brutality of spaghetti westerns to the max, and people are getting mudered by the tenfold, if not hundredfold. The hero himself won't escape untouched. In fact, the brutally tortured Django may have the worst fate of them all. The raw violence has put off a lot of people, that have dubbed the film sadistic. At least the film is murderingly ironic. There's little to no place in classic heroism in Corbucci's west. Franco Nero with his baby blue eyes and seeming naïvety mixed with his brutal determinism fits the image like a glove. It's no wonder Nero is second only to Eastwood in the most legendary of spaghetti western leading men.


The Mercenary (Il Mercenario, 1968)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

Django became a character recycled in countless unofficial sequels (particularly in Germany, where even non-related western films were translated to be Django films). Franco Nero rose into cult stardom and starred again in this, another Corbucci corker. This one was also wildly popular on its day, but nowadays its been overshadowed by other films, and best remembered from Ennio Morricone's score which was (as a lot of others) swiped by Quentin Tarantino for his own films.

Nero stars as the Polish bounty hunter Kowalski (still one of the toughest names anyone ever came up with, thanks to Vanishing Point). Again, he's tough and ruthless, only in the game for his personal gains, but this time his character also has a sense of humour. The film was made in a period where political undertones started to take over the spotlight from spaghetti westerns' cynicism, irony and shattering of genre imagery of traditional westerns. The other protagonist is the poor Mexican worker Paco Roman (Tony Mustante). The poor miner is mistreated at his work, and thus decides to humiliate his boss and rise to rebellion. Paco is soon wanted for murder, and also the notorious mercenary Curly (Jack Palance) has a score to settle with him. To survive, Paco must raise a group to fight alongside him against the capitalist landowners and the government who gives them their power.

The film mostly takes place in a flashback. Kowalski, masqueraded as a rodeo clown faces off against Paco in a bull-fighting arena, and we then get to see how things developed to this point. This solution would work, if the arena showdown were the actual climax or the last scene of the film. But as it's only a major turning point, the effect is less functional, as the film has to continue in real time afterwards. All in all, the film features plenty of memorable scenes, showdowns, some good action scenes and a couple of actually funny jokes (witness the roulette table scene). But as a whole it is an uneven film that feels like some powers that be got to have a shot at the editing room. All the three leads are excellent, but The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, this ain't.


The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, 1968)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

Even though the film wasn't very popular when it was first made, The Great Silence has since become Corbucci's most respected and beloved work. It is certainly a sort of peak in this phase of spaghetti western filmmaking. More cynical and cold-hearted films are hard to come by, at least. Rarely for a western film, this takes place in a snowy wilderness, rather than hot deserts. This emphazises the film's icy look at the world and it's unfairness.

The villages of the valleys of Nevada mountains are suffering from food shortage and famine. The people must resort to petty crimes to survive. This makes many an easy target to  a group of bounty hunters, led by the cold-blooded, sadistic, no-nonesense misanthrope called Loco (Klaus Kinski). The gang has no restrains in killing a black man, who happens to be the husband of the young Pauline (Vonetta McGee). The law can't do anything to help her case, but lucky for her, another strangers wanders off to the area. The mute gunslinger known as Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is seeking vengeance on bounty hunters working above the law and has thus taken the law into his own hands. His plan is to provoke them to a duel, and then draw faster, to avoid complications with the law. Silence has long since lost his will to live. But he strikes a relationship with Pauline, due to them both having an interest in killing Loco.

While I think the film is very good, I still don't quite feel it's a masterpiece. The pacing is a little off, and there are certain boring parts in the movie. The relationship between Silence and Pauline in particular isn't quite as warm as it should be for the full effect. But nevertheless, Corbucci turns around some of the tropes of spaghetti westers, having the bounty hunter be the main villain and the murdering outlaw the only way to bring peace into the community. The film is melancholic by nature and no amount of violence can seem to upset its determined, cynical core. Law is as useless as ever, as evidenced by the character of the hopelessly outgunned Sheriff Burnett (Frank Wolff), and the west seems like a hellish place where even the rule of the survival of the fittest is too fair. The characters are manipulative, attempting to gain the upper hand in the upcoming showdown. The one who is the most ruthless will fare well in the game. It's an astonishingly pessimistic film about the human nature. Don't watch it if you're pondering whether life is worth living.


The Specialist (Gli specialisti, 1969)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

The 60's were a time where pop culture spread its wings and crossed multiple boundaries. Comic book panels became highly regarded art, and especially pop music and cinema intertwined to promote both of them. Movie soundtracks became popular records, and popular artists started to become also popular film actors. Italians also wanted a slice of that pie, and thus Sergio Corbucci decided to cast the French pop star Johnny Hallyday as a spaghetti western antihero. This decision works better than you'd think, as the actor doesn't need to speak much, but act ruthlessly and cynically, which seems to come naturally to Hallyday.

Hallyday plays Hud, an outlaw looking for the murderer of his brother. In the process he gets tangled in a three-way power-struggle. At one point is the corrupt law-enforcer of the town of Blackstone, known as The Sheriff (Gastone Moschin). There's also the notorious bandit leader hiding in the wilderness outside the town, El Diablo (Mario Adorf). And there is a group of young drifters, who don't swear allegiance to anyone, and just do nasty things for kicks. Evil western hippies, so to speak. All try to get Hud's shooting skills to meet their own ends, yet Hud only cares to find out what happened to his brother. And thus makes some very powerful people angry.

This film is not very widely seen, which is a shame. The film not only provides a good sense of what was going on at the time, but it's roaring good fun, too. The saloon fight is one of the best I've ever seen. The villains are lovably sleazy, particulaly Mario Adorf loves to chew the scenery. He also has a kick-ass fight scene with The Sheriff. And for all blood-thirsty spaghetti western fans the grande finale may come out as a surprise. In a way, that's Corbucci commenting on the genre that made his career. The film is as self-referential to spaghetti westerns as a genre as Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West was to John Ford's classic westerns.


Compañeros (Vamos a matar, compañeros, 1970)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

Another film at the crossroads of the genre developing, one can't say that Corbucci wasn't able to develop with the times. At this point, political westerns were still going strong, but also more comedic spaghettis (in the vein of Terence Hill & Bud Spencer buddy movies) were beginning to take hold. So, Corbucci managed to mix both of these distinct flavours up pretty decently. Corbucci seems to handle a revolutionary western a lot more confidently this time around than two years prior – and with some of the same key cast members, too.

Franco Nero stars again, this time as a Swedish gun dealer, Jolaf Petterson, better known as The Penguin because of his dandy wardrobe in the beginning. But Nero also can shut up hecklers, even if they are notorious Mexican bandits. He hands their leader El Vasco (Tomas Milian) a coin. Exactly why is a mystery for The Penguin to know and for Vasco and the audience to find out. The Penguin has arrived to Mexico to make a major deal, but as luck would have it, can't get his money from the city's safe. The only one to know the combination is Professor Xantos (Fernando Ray), a rebellious academic, who has been kidnapped by American troops. But as it turns out, El Vasco is a revolutionary, too, albeit a recluctant one. To save his hide from the wrath of the rebel general, Vasco agrees to lead The Penguin to find The Professor. But at their tail is also the greedy one-armed mercenary John (Jack Palance), Jolaf's former business partner out for revenge.

The film has a real buddy-film formula, with the two leads initially disliking each other, but growing more close on the battlefield on their way to riches and fame. In fact, the film is quite a clear predecessor to Sergio Leone's later Duck, You Sucker (or A Fistfull of Dynamite). However, this treats the subject with a lot more lightness and the comedic portions make up the majority of the film. For such cynicalism in The Great Silence, Corbucci surely bounced back, and made a western with more traditional characters that are easier to root for. In fact, the film is seething with warm humanism. There are still plenty of good shootouts to remind that Corbucci hasn't gone too soft on his audiences. But this time around, there's an actual heart of brotherhood beating in the middle of it all.


Sonny & Jed (La banda J.S.: Cronaca ciminale del Far West, 1972)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

From bromance to romance, Corbucci took a page from the book of Bonnie & Clyde for his next western. Basically it is a story of an abusive relationship set on the spaghetti western world. The film has an irrestistible Finnish title, along the lines of "The Beagle Boys of the West", but sadly the film can't live up to that title. Nevertheless it has a few good moments, too.

Corbucci regular Thomas Milian plays Jed Trigado, a bandit who only steals from the rich – and keeps the profits to himself. He is being chased by the hard-nosed Sheriff Franciscus (Telly Savalas), and only escapes when the young girl Sonny (Susan George) helps him. He subsequently kidnaps the girl. Sonny herself wants to become an outlaw, too and falls for the original bandit. Jed himself can barely stand the girl, and doesn't think she's worth much as a partner. He devices schemes to get rid of her, but eventually starts to fall for her, too. But are his former instincts still more powerful than love? More determined is Franciscus on catching the pair, and doesn't even let the fact that he loses his eyesight stop him on getting revenge.

The film borders on the boundaries of good taste. Corbucci isn't above laughing at attempted rape, or weird fetishes towards drinking breast milk. It's a little sad much of the style and determinism of his former work has switched to aimless blundering around for cheap laughs by now. The film is Sonny's story about growing up. Since Jed himself is so despicable from the beginning, we keep rooting for her to gain the moxie to stand on her own. Francisco is a good and a little intimidating villain, but in the end can't amount to much, and Telly Savalas feels wasted in the role. Sadly, at 98 minutes, this still feels a tad overlong. It could've used a few more action scenes, I think.


The Big Gundown (La resa dei conti, 1966)
Director: Sergio Sollima

Leone was the master of Epic, while Corbucci was the master of cynicalism and brutality. That leaves Sollima, the master of political allegories. Sollima often refuses to have clear-cut, good or bad characters in his films. Rather, all the characters represent an idea, and work according to it. The shades of grey he gives to his multidimensional cast overshadows anything seen in the works of Leone or Corbucci. And The Big Gundown, his first western, may also be his best.

Lee Van Cleef starts as a famous bounty hunter John Corbett. In fact, Corbett has brough so many low-lifes to justice that the powers-that-be start to plan a campaign for him to run for the US senate. Corbett agrees, as he sees that as a way to weed out crime. For his campaign, it is suggested that Corbett catches the notorious knife-throwing bandit Cuchillo (Tomas Milian). The Mexican is being blamed of raping and murdering a little girl. Cuchillo is easy enough to find, and not that hard to capture either. But he's as slippery as an eel and manages to escape time after time. At first glance Corbett thought the Mexican to be a little slow, but he starts to realize he's actually a lot brighter than he first figured. He also starts to suspect that perhaps Cuchillo is not as guilty to the crimes he's wanted for, after all. But every time Cuchillo manages to escape, he can't keep himself hidden for long, and always indulges into his favorite vices: women, drinking and stealing.

Like said, the film's strength is it's strong characterizations, and that leads all the way to the colorful cast of secret villains. Ennio Morricone's score is as strong here as ever, as has been recognized by Tarantino and others who have pilfered from the soundtrack. As the background of the film is in a chase, the scenery also changes often. The great American wilderness has rarely been shown as this vast in Italian westerns. Alongside with it, Corbucci contrasts different pilgrims living in various settlements. The point of the film is that laws and values may change, but they may not always seek for what is best for the individual. Man should trust more on his moral compass than to the values others put upon you.


Face to Face (Faccia a faccia, 1967)
Director: Sergio Sollima

Boston University's history professor Brett Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonté) travels to the west to get over his lung disease. However, his vacation changes drastically when the bandit Solomon Bennett (Tomas Milian) kidnaps him. Pairing up with an outlaw brings new life force for the professor, particularly as he watches the impulsive Bennett lose his temper and kill people. The pair become accomplices and form a big band of bandits. Soon the student starts to become even blood-thirstier than the master. But unknown to the bandits, the Pinkerton detective Charles Siringo (William Berger) has gone undercover to the gang and is looking for the right moment to capture Bennett and to take Fletcher back to civilization.

Sollima's film, written by himself and Sergio Donati, is a morality play, looking at the thin line between romantic outlaws and murderous sociopathic bandits. But the side of the law isn't necessarily any better, either. The characters are three-dimensional, and all quite unpredictable. The film certainly has the rebellious attitude of many political westerns, but plot-wise certainly doesn't thread the same tracks as most other spaghetti westerns. The film is reportedly slashed down from its orginal three hour running time to a measly 97 minutes. It would benefit to develop some of its themes with a little more time. Now it seems like Fletcher turns to a life of crime a little too easily and other changes in the act of the characters aren't grounded up well enough, either. The extra running time would turn this small stage play into a true western epic, but the missing scenes have long vanished to the sands of time. The short end result isn't Sollima's best, but that's probably because of the producer Alberto Grimaldi's strict rules about running time.


Run Man Run! (Corri uomo corri, 1968)
Director: Sergio Sollima

Sollima concluded his trilogy of political westerns with a sequel to The Big Gundown, featuring the return of Tomas Milian's Cuchillo. He meets the revolutionary Ramirez (José Torres) in prison and hears from him about a treasure of 3 million dollars, reserved for the Mexican revolution. Ramirez fears for his life, and even though Cuchillo manages for them to escape, Ramirez is soon shot dying with the secret of the treasure's whereabouts. Cuchillo does get a clue, and goes to get rich. But there are also plenty of other shady characters interested in the treasure on his tail, most notably the ominous gringo Cassidy (Donal O'Brien). Cuchillo resorts to his throwing knives only as an extreme measure, but with a combination of luck, and Cassidy watching out for him, he manages to survive to the treasure. But the long road there has made him change his mind about how to spend the money.

Run Man Run! is certainly the most comedy-filled of Sollima's westerns. The bumbling, thick Cuchillo was quite unusual for a leading man still in the 60's, before the comedic westerns took over. The more stoic Cassidy is left to a lot smaller role. Donal O'Brien's role was originally reserved for Face to Face's William Berger, making Sollima's trilogy conclusion a meeting point for characters from both of his earlier westerns. Scheduling conflicts made Berger drop out, and Sollima to write the role smaller. But Milian isn't a bad lead himself, I figure it's about time for sleazy Mexican thieves to be on the spotlight for once. For a revolutionary western, this makes the development from down-on-their-luck bandits to freedom fighters seem most natural and fluid. Indeed, Sollima himself happily considered the film to be his most revolutionary and anarchistic.


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