A Tasty Spaghetti Ragu: A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE (MGM 1974)

James Coburn, at the height of his career, moved from American movies to international productions with his trademark elegance and ease. He worked for the Maestro of Spaghetti Westerns Sergio Leone in 1972’s DUCK, YOU SUCKER , then appeared for Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii in A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE, a revenge tale disguised as a caper film that costars Telly Savalas and Spaghetti icon Bud Spencer. The version I viewed was the truncated American cut, missing about a half hour of footage and released stateside in 1974. If the complete version is as good as this one, I need to hunt it down and see it!

The Civil War-set drama finds Coburn as Col. Pembroke, recently escaped from a Confederate prison after surrendering Fort Holman without a fight to Rebel Major Ward (Savalas) and his forces. Fort Holman is a crucial piece of real estate to the Union Army, and Pembroke aims to redeem himself by taking it back, recruiting a scurvy bunch of reprobates about to be hung for their crimes – murderers, rapists, and horse thieves all. Pembroke and his Dirty Half-Dozen are initially at odds until he tells them the real reason they’re attacking the fort – a cache of hidden Confederate gold worth half a million dollars!

The first hour builds slowly, as the motley crew make their way to Fort Holman and Eli (Spencer) is sent in to infiltrate the fort and pave the way for Pembroke’s band of bandits. Then the action picks up considerably, as the attack turns into a bloody massacre and Pembroke’s true motive is revealed (and no, I’m not going to spoil it for you!). Valerii and his cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa capture the beautiful vistas of Spain’s Almeria desert (which Leone used extensively in his films), and Fort Holman itself was originally built for Burt Kennedy’s THE DESERTER. The terrific score is by… no, not Ennio Morricone, but Riz Ortolani, the Italian jazz composer who broke through in films with MONDO CANE (introducing the hit song “More”), and whose impressive resume includes scores for CASTLE OF BLOOD, ANZIO, THE MCKENZIE BREAK, THE VALACHI PAPERS, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

Director Tonino Valerii (1934-2016)

Valerii had quite an interesting career, writing the screenplays for Italian horrors TERROR IN THE CRYPT (with Christopher Lee) and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (starring Barbara Steele) before assisting Leone on A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE . Making his debut in the director’s chair with 1966’s A TASTE FOR KILLING, he guided Lee Van Cleef and Guiliano Gemma in DAY OF ANGER, helmed the coming of age tale A GIRL CALLED JULES, the giallo MY DEAR KILLER, the poliziotesco GO GORILLA GO, and the Franco Nero action vehicle SAHARA CROSS. His most famous film is MY NAME IS NOBODY , starring Terence Hill and Henry Fonda, on which Leone himself allegedly directed a few scenes and contributed some second unit work.

Most Spaghetti Western aficionados sing the praises of NOBODY, while considering A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE to be a second-tier entry in the genre. I’d disagree; I think it’s a very underrated and well put together film that’s definitely worth a look, even in the edited version. And if you happen to run across a complete, uncut version of the film… let me know!

Weird Western Tale: Lee Van Cleef in SABATA (United Artists 1970)

Let’s face it, Lee Van Cleef was one cool hombre, and he’s at his coolest in SABATA, the first film of a trilogy written and directed by Gianfranco Parolini (aka Frank Kramer). The beady-eyed Van Cleef is obviously enjoying himself as Sabata, a trickster with a sinister chuckle and an array of tricked-out weapons who always manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

The movie begins traditionally enough, as $100,000 in Army payroll is deposited for safe keeping in the town of Daughtrey’s bank. A daring robbery finds the guards murdered and the safe heisted. It’s all a plot by banker Ferguson, Judge O’Hara, and ex-Confederate Colonel Stengel to buy up land needed for the railroad to come through. What they didn’t count on is the presence of the mysterious Sabata, who stops the bandits with his extra-long range Winchester, carting their carcasses back to town with the safe intact.

Sabata discovers the trio behind the deed, and blackmails them to the tune of ten grand. When they make several attempts to kill him, his price keeps going up and up, finally reaching sixty thousand! Along the way, Sabata picks up some allies: the soused ex-soldier Corrincha, who’s deadly with a blade, and his acrobatic comrade, the silent Alley Cat. There’s also the strange Banjo, a man from Sabata’s past, who’s “just waiting” throughout most of the film, until he takes his crack at Sabata. There’s an explosive assault on Stengel’s compound and a final duel at sunrise between Sabata and Banjo that winds up in a twist (and twisted!) ending!

Van Cleef had revitalized his career in Italy by co-starring with Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY , then began starring in Spaghetti Westerns on his own. SABATA finds him tempering his tough guy image with a sense of humor – I’ve never seen Lee do so much smiling in a film without his usual hint of menace behind it! Van Cleef loved the part, and returned to it in the third and final sequel THE RETURN OF SABATA (though the second of the trilogy, ADIOS, SABATA , the charcter is played by Yul Brynner… while Lee was off playing Yul’s old role as Chris in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE!).

William Berger as Banjo looks and dresses like a member of The Rolling Stones, circa 1970… in fact, the actor was once Keith Richards’ roommate! Berger was no stranger to Spaghetti Westerns (TODAY WE KILL… TOMORROW WE DIE!, IF YOU MEET SARTANA PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH, SARTANA IN THE VALLEY OF DEATH), and was featured in Mario Bava’s FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, Tonio Valerii’s MY DEAR KILLER, and seven films with director Jess Franco. Pedro Sanchez, Linda Veras, Franco Ressel, Nick Jordan and Robert Hundar will all be Familiar Faces to those familiar with Spaghetti Westerns and/or Italian giallo thrillers.

There’s more than enough action and violence in SABATA to keep Spaghetti buffs satisfied, with the added bonus of a humorous turn by Lee Van Cleef. Sure, it may be a little weird to watch ol’ Lee opening up and enjoying himself, but after (at the time) eighteen years in the business, even a tough guy like Van Cleef deserves a break!

 

 

Best Served Cold: DEATH RIDES A HORSE (United Artists 1967; US release 1969)

During a torrential rainstorm on a dark, bone-chillingly cold  night, a band of men guarding a cache of gold are all murdered by a masked outlaw gang. The marauders then enter the home of the leader, a married man with a family. He is the first to die, and after his wife and young daughter are brutally raped, they too are killed. But the marauders haven’t seen the little boy hiding in the shadows, witnessing his family’s violent demise. The house is burned to the ground, but the boy lives, storing the memory of the men who destroyed his family, until fifteen years pass, and the boy has become a man with an unquenchable thirst for revenge…

This dark, disturbing scene sets the stage for DEATH RIDES A HORSE, a gem of a Spaghetti Western directed with style by Giulio Petroni, made in 1967 but not released stateside until 1969. The genre was in full bloom at the time, thanks to Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” Trilogy , and Italian Westerns were everywhere during the late 60’s/early 70’s. Petroni weaves a spellbinding tale of vengeance, and though not often included in discussions of Great Spaghetti Directors (limited mainly to The Three Sergios: Leone, Corbucci , and Sollima ), his DEATH RIDEA S HORSE left me yearning to watch his other four genre entries: TEPEPA, A SKY FULL OF STARS FOR A ROOF, NIGHT OF THE SERPENT, and LIFE IS TOUGH, EH’ PROVIDENCE?.

American actor John Philip Law , whose career was bigger in Europe than his native land, plays the grown-up Bill Mecieta, now eager to track down the murderous thugs who slaughtered his family. Law was never an actor of great range, but he did brooding well, and is more than acceptable in the part. But there’s another important character in this revenge story: the gunman Ryan, released after spending fifteen years in prison, and out to hunt down his old companeros who framed him for robbery.  He’s played by Lee Van Cleef, fresh off his appearances in Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY . Van Cleef, after years of struggle, was coming into his own after the success of the Leone films and Sollima’s THE BIG GUNDOWN . He would soon become one of the most iconic of Spaghetti Western stars, especially after the 1969 hit SABATA.

It becomes apparent that Bill and Ryan are after the same people, though for different reasons. Bill wants to form a partnership, but the older Ryan balks, telling the youngster there’s too much hate in him. The men play a cat-and-mouse game through most of the film, each fueled by his own desire to right the injustices done to them. We learn the former outlaws have now become prominent citizens in their respective towns, as when Ryan tracks Burt Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson) to Holly Spring. Cavanaugh is the saloon and gambling czar there, and Ryan tries to shake him down for money. Ironically, Cavanaugh hires Bill to protect him from Ryan, but the older gunman’s much too cagey. Bill discovers Cavanaugh was once known as ‘Four Aces’ because of the tattoo on his chest… the same tattoo Bill saw during his family’s massacre! A violent gundown takes place in the saloon, with Bill victorious, and Ryan making the save.

The trail leads Ryan to Linden City, where banker Walcott (Luigi Pistilli) resides. Walcott is far more devious than Cavanaugh and traps Ryan, as his henchmen (led by Mario Brega) deliver a brutal beating, then Walcott robs his own bank, absconding with a million dollars and setting up Ryan as the fall guy. Ryan’s thrown in jail to wait for a date with the hangman, but Bill breaks him out, then leaves him behind to face the man who killed his mother in a Mexican cantina. He does the job, but is overtaken and tortured by Walcott and his crew, buried up to his neck in the blazing hot sun. Ryan arrives as the outlaws leave to search for him, freeing Bill and setting the stage for a climactic battle in a sandstorm, and a final confrontation as Bill realizes who Ryan truly is…

All this takes place under the keen eye of Petroni and DP Carlo Carlini, with the beautifully rugged Andalusia scenery perfectly framed. The shot composition and fluid camera movement are matched by a top-notch Ennio Morricone score, heavy on guitars, bass drum, and flute. It’s a masterful piece of work, with both Law and Van Cleef at their steely-eyed best. Like I said earlier, DEATH RIDES A HORSE left me craving more Giulio Petroni Westerns, and once you see this terrific film for yourselves, you’ll be reserving your seats on the Petroni train, too.

This post is part of The Great Western Blogathon hosted by Thoughts All Sorts. Saddle up and check out the other sagebrush entries by following this link: https://thoughtsallsorts.wordpress.com/

   

Western Zing: MY NAME IS NOBODY (Titanus 1973)

Sergio Leone  wasn’t quite done with the Western genre after DUCK, YOU SUCKER. MY NAME IS NOBODY is based on “an idea by Sergio Leone”, and though Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii is given full credit,  the Maestro reportedly directed a couple of scenes as well as some second-unit action in the film. Whatever the case, the film puts a comic spin on Spaghetti Westerns in general and Leone’s movies in particular, with the comedic talents of star Terence Hill standing in sharp contrast to the old school Hollywood hero Henry Fonda .

Hill was the brightest star on the Italian horizon, having starred in Giuseppe Colizzi’s GOD FORGIVES… I DON’T, ACE HIGH, and BOOT HILL alongside burly Bud Spencer, adding elements of humor as they went along . But with 1970’S THEY CALL ME TRINITY, the duo went full-bore into comedy territory, giving the Spaghetti genre a needed shot in the arm. Some fans hold the Hill/Spencer films in contempt, crying too much funny business ruined the Spaghetti recipe, but I’m certainly not among them. The best Spaghettis always had a strong strain of humor running through them, from Eli Wallach’s Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY to the performances of Tomas Milian , and Leone himself never shied away from throwing in a good gag. To me, comedy is an essential herb for making a good Spaghetti, and box office returns on the Hill/Spencer vehicles proved that most fans agreed.

Hill’s ‘Nobody’ is basically an extension of his ‘Trinity’ character, a laid-back, outwardly goofy vagabond who happens to be quicker than he lets on in both his mind and his actions. He idolizes gunslinger Jack Beauregard (Fonda), the fastest gun in the west, whom we’re introduced to in a barber shop, where three killers have marked him for death. Beauregard beats the odds, and when the barber’s little boy asks who’s faster than Beauregard, the reply is, “Faster than him? Nobody!”, setting up the next scene where Beauregard comes across Nobody lazily attempting to catch a fish.

The plot involves a worthless mine used to fence stolen gold by outlaw gang The Wild Bunch, and Beauregard’s quest to snatch his late brother’s share of the loot, with Nobody urging the aging gunfighter to take on the Wild Bunch solo, “one against one hundred and fifty” and mark his place in the history books. But that’s all secondary to the images put onscreen by Valerii. Nobody’s ‘undercranked’ fighting scenes are throwbacks to the silent slapstick era (and resemble Hong Kong Kung-Fu movies), the direct opposite of Beauregard’s slo-mo killings, emphasizing the difference stylistically between the two Western brands. There’s a bizarre Street of Pleasure scene (reportedly Leone’s handiwork) which features a parody drinkin’ and shootin’ contest. Leone also did the scene with Nobody and a train conductor standing at the urinals, which in my opinion could’ve been edited out, but the Maestro thought it was funny. A ciascuno il suo. 

A Funhouse Hall of Mirrors scene is an obvious (but well done) homage to Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , and Leone’s American spirit brother Sam Peckinpah  gets name checked during a graveyard scene between Hill and Fonda. Unlike most early Spaghetti Westerns, much of MY NAME IS NOBODY was filmed on location in the American West (both New Mexico and New Orleans). Many American actors appear in brief roles: Leo Gordon , R.G.Armstrong  (for some reason billed as R.K.!), Geoffrey Lewis, and future DALLAS star Steve Kanaly. Also in the cast in a small bit is Leone and Spaghetti veteran Mario Brega .

Ennio Morricone  delivers his customary unique score, his themes punctuating the characters and the action onscreen. Sound plays an important role in the film, as it does in all the Spaghettis (for better or worse, in some cases). Grizzled vet Fonda delivers a final message that says goodbye to the Old Hollywood West, along with some advise to the new breed of international stars like Hill. MY NAME IS NOBODY may have too much basil and not enough oregano for some intenditori, but for my palate it’s a tasty entry on the Spaghetti Western menu that’s a feast for the eyes and ears. Buen appetito!  

 

Bloody Good Show: Franco Nero in DJANGO (Euro International 1966)

A solitary man is dragging a coffin through bleak, rocky terrain. He comes across a helpless female tied to posts, being whipped by a gang of banditos. A group of mercenaries, adorned in red scarves, shoot down the bandits. The group, members of ex-Confederate Major Jackson’s marauders, plan on burning the woman alive. The solitary man, watching all this, guns down her attackers with blinding speed, freeing her and offering protection. The man’s name is… DJANGO!

Any resemblance between Sergio Corbucci’s seminal 1966 Spaghetti Western and Sergio Leone’s 1964 A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS   is not strictly coincidental. Both movies are uncredited adaptations of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 YOJIMBO, though Corbucci’s version of the tale takes more liberties and  he succeeds to out-Leone Leone with the brutal, unrelenting violence, making this a must-see film for fans of the genre.

Django takes the woman, a half-Mexican named Maria, to a desolate ghost town inhabited only by saloon proprietor Nathaniel and a brood of colorfully dressed whores. The town is considered neutral territory for two warring factions, Jackson’s KKK-like rebels and “General” Hugo Rodriguez’s band of revolutionaries. When Jackson and his men enter the tavern, we learn what Django’s been keeping in that coffin… a mitrailleuse machine gun, which he uses to obliterate most of Jackson’s gang! Soon The General and his troops ride into town, and Django, who once saved Hugo’s life, has a plan to purchase more machine guns for Hugo’s cause, by stealing the gold hidden in the Mexican Army stronghold Ft. Charriba.

Django, Hugo, and two men hide in Nathaniel’s wagon, pretending to be the whores, and pull a bloody raid, witnessed by none other than the vengeful Major Jackson. Django is now ready to take his share of the gold and move on, but Hugo is reluctant to part with either it or Django right away so, while the revolutionaries revel in their good fortune, Django re-steals the gold, loading it in his coffin. He sets up his machine gun to thwart anyone attempting to enter its location and sets to ride off, but Maria forces him to take her along. Coming to a rickety bridge, Django prepares to part ways with Maria, only to have the gold laden coffin slide into the quicksand below! Maria tries to help Django extricate himself from the quagmire and is shot down by Hugo’s men. Django is pulled from the quicksand and suffers an even worse fate, viciously beaten with a rifle butt and trampled by horses, leaving him a broken, bloody mess.

Hugo and his pistoleros ride off, only to be ambushed and slaughtered by Jackson and the Mexican Army. Django and Maria, both still alive, make it back to Nathaniel’s, and Django confesses he must kill Jackson, the man who murdered his former fiance, or none of them will get any peace. The final confrontation in the cemetery between Django, broken hands and all, and Jackson is a masterpiece of Spaghetti Western cinema.

Corbucci’s judicious use of wide-angled shots, overhead views, and close-ups, while similar to Leone, are far from derivative, and the director stakes out his own unique style, making art out of all the carnage. There are shocking scenes like the one where Hugo cuts off the ear of one of Jackson’s men and force feeds it to him, then shoots him in the back. A barroom fight between Django and one of Hugo’s men is well-staged, and capped off by Hugo plunging an axe into his own soldier’s back! The sight of Django brutally beaten and trampled is both horrifying and unforgettable. Then there’s that cemetery finale, done by Leone and Kurosawa in the previous versions, but with a distinct Corbucci twist.

Franco Nero became an international star with DJANGO, appearing in two more Corbucci  westerns (THE MERCENARY, COMPANEROS), and returned to the character in 1987’s DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN. There are over 30 “unofficial” sequels featuring Django, with actors Tomas Milian, James Philbrook, Franco Franchi (of the comedy team Franco & Ciccio), and Terence Hill all tackling the part. Mention must be made of DP Enzo Barboni’s stunning photography and the score by Luis Enrique Bacalov (who won an Oscar for 1996’s IL POSTINO), featuring a theme song by European pop star (and American ex-pat) Rocky Roberts.

The movie and character have influenced everyone from Quintin Tarantino (his DJANGO UNCHAINED even features the same theme song, and a cameo by Nero) to pro wrestler The Undertaker. DJANGO played briefly in Los Angeles in 1966 before gaining wider distribution in an edited version in 1972. The print I saw on Sony Classics was the uncut (though dubbed) original, and that’s definitely the one you want to watch. DJANGO is also available on both DVD and Blu-Ray, and if you’re into Spaghetti Westerns, rush out and buy a copy today.

 

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 3: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (United Artists 1966)

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is the GONE WITH THE WIND of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and definitely in my Top 5 Favorite Films. After turning the genre upside down with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and inside out with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Leone’s final entry in his triptych of films starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name is an ambitious epic about greed, revenge, and the futility of war, told with a warped sense of humor and plenty of action. Besides Eastwood and FEW DOLLARS co-star Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach joins the cast in a performance that should have won the Oscar.

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We’re first introduced to Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), who’s one mean mutha. Sent to find information on the location of stolen Confederate gold, he kills his informant, then kills the man who hired him, and begins his search for “Bill Carson”. Meanwhile, bounty hunter ‘Blondie’ (Eastwood) turns in the bandit Tuco (Wallach) for reward money. Tuco is wanted for a laundry list of nefarious deeds and sentenced to hang. But at the hanging, Blondie shoots the rope, freeing Tuco, and the two escape, forming an alliance to scam the law with their rope trick.

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Blondie gets sick of Tuco’s bitching and ends their partnership by abandoning him in the desert. Tuco survives, and reunites with his former gang members to kill Blondie. The pistoleros are no match for Blondie and all wind up dead, but Tuco sneaks in from behind. The bandit forces Blondie to wear a noose and stand on a chair, just when the Union Army decides to bomb the town, sending the rooming house crashing in a heap. Blondie escapes, but Tuco catches up with him and forces the bounty hunter to walk across the scorching desert without food or water as he sadistically lords over him.

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Just when Blondie’s about had it, a six-horse coach comes careening across the desert landscape. Curious Tuco stops the runaway horse and finds the coach full of dead Confederate soldiers. Not one to waste an opportunity, he lifts the corpses’ wallets and watches, only to discover one of them’s still alive. It’s “Bill Carson”, who tells Tuco the name of the cemetery where $200,000 in gold is buried. Tuco goes to get “Carson” some water, but when he returns the man is dead. However, Blondie has managed to crawl over, and now is the only person alive who knows the name of the grave where the gold is hidden.

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The two mortal enemies are now partners again. Donning the Confederate uniforms, they make their way to a mission run by Tuco’s brother, where Blondie can convalesce. The pair then hit the road, but are captured by Union forces and sent to a POW camp. Tuco has taken the identity of “Bill Carson”, which sparks the interest of the camp’s sergeant…. Angel Eyes!

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Eli Wallach totally steals the show as Tuco. A foul-mouthed, feral animal who’s not as dumb as he looks, Tuco is alternately funny and cruel, sly as a fox and twice as dangerous. Wallach has a field day in the role, and the character is more fully fleshed out than either Eastwood or Van Cleef’s archetypes. The scene where Tuco is bathing when a bounty hunter tries to take him by surprise, delivering the line “When you have to shoot, shoot- don’t talk!”, is a classic, as is the one with Tuco in the gun shop. Wallach wasn’t even nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar (Walter Matthau won for THE FORTUNE COOKIE), but the film itself wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. That year George Kennedy won for COOL HAND LUKE, but Wallach should’ve been a shoe-in either year.

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There are so many big set-pieces in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEN UGLY, none more famous than the three-way showdown between Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach. Leone’s wide-angle shots and deep close-ups are interspersed with a spinning camera effect, edited to perfection, all while Ennio Morricone’s music builds to a crescendo. Speaking of the maestro, this is my favorite of his scores, a musical masterpiece on its own that was turned into a hit record by Hugo Montenegro in 1968, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts:

And yes, I still have the 45 lying around somewhere in the basement!

Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD,THE BAD, AND THE UGLY never gets old. I watch it a least once a year, and always marvel at something I didn’t quite pick up on before. Even if you’re not a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, the film transcends the genre into cinematic art by one of the screen’s true masters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go downstairs and look for that 45….

 

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 2: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (United Artists 1965)

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After the huge international success of his A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , Sergio Leone was red hot. Another Spaghetti Western was hastily written by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni (and an uncredited assist from Sergio Donati), but FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is pure Leone, from the visual style to the bits of humor interspersed between the violence. Clint Eastwood returned as The Man With No Name, paired this time with veteran Western heavy Lee Van Cleef as the beady-eyed Colonel Mortimer.

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Eastwood’s character (briefly referred to as ‘Manco”) is a fast-drawing bounty hunter. He’s interested in the $10,000 reward for escaped killer/outlaw Indio. Mortimer is also interested in Indio, but has another motive: a young Indio raped his sister, resulting in her suicide during the act. The two meet up in El Paso, where Indio plans to rob the bank’s estimated one million dollars, kept in a secret cabinet. Manco and Mortimer engage in pissing contest in the street, shooting each other’s hats, but soon form an uneasy alliance to split the reward money. Manco infiltrates Indio’s gang, but the robbery is successful. Mortimer shows up as a safecracker willing to help for a price, followed by treachery at every turn until the final shootout between Mortimer and Indio, filmed as a warmup to the more heralded scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

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Lee Van Cleef became a star at age 40 thanks to this film. The actor had struggled for years in Hollywood, playing Western henchmen (HIGH NOON, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE), noir goons (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL), even sci-fi villains (IT CONQUORED THE WORLD), but after an uncredited role in 1962’s all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, he was absent from the big screen until Leone came calling. From the opening panoramic shot of him nailing a rider with his rifle, Van Cleef’s persona as one scary dude not to be messed with was established. Suddenly, after all the struggles, he was a star, and made Spaghetti Westerns right until the craze died down in the 1970’s. Van Cleef continued to work steadily in films, from his role in John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK to costarring in the television ninja series THE MASTER, right up until his death in 1989.

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Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon Rojos in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) plays Indio as the meanest, craziest bandito the West has ever seen. This nut makes Liberty Valance look like a boy scout! He’s always smoking weed to obliterate the memory of what happened that night with Mortimer’s sister, and carries a chiming pocketwatch with her picture (Mortimer has one, too). Many of the cast of Leone’s previous film appear, as does another Familiar Face: German actor Klaus Kinski, making his Spaghetti debut as the hunchbacked outlaw Wild.

Lee Van Cleef (Col. Douglas Mortimer) is not interested in collecting the bounty on El Indio and his gang, motivated solely by retribution. Clint Eastwood (Manco) can collect the money.

Ennio Morricone’s music is back, a staple of these films. The hauntingly whistled theme, with it’s by now familiar whipcracks and wordless chorus, is a classic in its own right. The camerawork by Massimo Dallamano, a standout in FISTFUL, is excellent, guided by Leone’s painterly eye. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was another worldwide hit, but like it’s predecessor not released in the U.S. until 1967. Leone’s next film would be what I consider his greatest, the final chapter in the Dollars Triolgy, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

(to be continued… )

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 1: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (United Artists 1964)

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If the American Western film wasn’t completely dead in 1964, it was surely on life support. Television had saturated the market with weekly oaters to the point of overkill. John Wayne’s starring vehicles were still making money, but the rest of Hollywood’s big screen Westerns were mainly made to fill the bottom half of double feature bills, from Audie Murphy outings to the low budget, veteran laden films of producer A.C. Lyles.

Meanwhile in Italy, writer/director Sergio Leone was as tired of the sword & sandal films he was making as was his audience. He had a notion to revitalize the failing western genre by giving it a new, European perspective. Leone grew up on Hollywood westerns, and wanted to turn them on their ear by showing a more realistic, grittier version of the Old West. Searching high and low for an American name actor to star, Leone was turned down by the likes of Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Rory Calhoun before finally settling on a young television actor named , Clint Eastwood co-star of the series RAWHIDE. The result was A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the first true “Spaghetti Western” and a bona fide film classic.

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Clint, with his iconic serape and cheroot, plays The Man With No Name, who arrives in the Mexican border town of San Miguel. Two rival factions, the Rojos and the Baxters, rule the roost, with violence and death as commonplace in the town as its dusty streets. He kills four Baxters and signs on with the Rojos, but ultimately plays both sides against the middle. Eastwood helps the beautiful young Marisol escape the clutches of the murderous Ramon Rojos and flee with her husband and son, only to be beaten and tortured for his troubles.  But of course, Clint escapes and returns for his revenge in a bloody five against one conclusion.

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If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Akira Kuroswa’s samurai epic YOJIMBO (1961), of which this film’s a remake, in the way THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was a remake of SEVEN SAMURAI. Only Leone didn’t credit it as such, and a lawsuit was pressed by Kurosawa, who said it was “a fine movie, but it was MY movie”* (the suit was eventually settled out of court). Leone was also obviously influenced by the films of John Ford, with beautifully framed shots of Spain’s Tabernas Desert and Cabo de Gata-Najir National Park standing in for Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, all captured by DP Massimo Dallamano. Those trademark Leone close-ups are in evidence here, a tactic reused by virtually every man who ever helmed a Spaghetti Western. The violence is swift and unromanticised, another Leone trademark that would later be usurped by a score of directors, especially Sam Peckinpah.

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Another Leone trademark began here, his collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone. Right from those animated opening credits, we hear something out of the ordinary, as budget constrictions (the entire film only cost around $200,000) caused Morricone to improvise, using whipcracks, gunshots, a chorus, and that twanging Fender guitar to create a unique, memorable score. Morricone woud work on all of Leone’s Westerns and soon became the most sought-after film composer on both sides of the Atlantic, finally receiving his due with an Oscar for THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 2016.

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A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS made Clint Eastwood an international star, and Spaghetti Western aficionados will recognize many Faces that may not be Familiar to most film fans: there’s Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon), Marianne Koch (Marisol), Jose Calvo, Sighardt Rupp, Mario Brega, Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell, Lorenzo Robledo, Antonio Molina Rojo, and Jose Canalejas, all of whom pop up in dozens of other Italian horse operas, including Leone’s. It became Italy’s highest grossing film ever, but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. It was a huge success stateside as well, and a few months later Leone’s sequel, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, opened in America. We’ll take a look at that one next time…

*quote taken from The Emperor and The Wolf (2001) by Stuart Galbraith IV, New York: Faber and Faber.

Good Day in Hell: DUCK, YOU SUCKER (United Artists 1972)

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Sergio Leone’s DUCK, YOU SUCKER is the director’s most overtly political film statement. Butchered and retitled A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE by United Artists upon its American release, the film was restored to its full glory in 2007. The print I viewed is the full 157 minute version broadcast last summer on Encore Westerns, and the result is an epic tale of revolution, the futility of war, and class struggle starring two great actors, Rod Steiger and James Coburn. Filled with violence, humor, and Leone’s signature touches, DUCK, YOU SUCKER is second only to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY on my personal list of Leone favorites.

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The film is essentially a buddy movie at heart. Juan Miranda (Steiger) is leader of a bandito family that robs from the rich and gives to the poor… namely themselves! They come across John H. Corbett (Coburn) riding on his motorcycle. John’s an ex-IRA man on the run (as we learn in flashbacks spread throughout the film). He’s also an expert with dynamite, and Juan has visions of joining forces with John to rob the Mesa Verde National Bank. But John has other ideas, planning on going to work for a German silver mine owner. Juan isn’t easily dissuaded, though. He tricks John into blowing up the German and his men, and now John, wanted for murder, reluctantly agrees to work with the bandit.

Or so Juan thought, as John ditches Juan and his crew with the help of a speeding train. Undaunted, Juan continues on to Mesa Verde, only to be met there by John, who’s now aligned with Mexican revolutionaries. The revolutionaries attack the soldiers while J&J put their bank heist into effect. But to Juan’s chagrin, the vaults aren’t filled with Mexican gold but political prisoners, and Juan becomes a reluctant hero of the revolution! The revolutionaries are chased by the soldiers, and retreat to caves while J&J hold off the soldiers with gatling guns and blow up a bridge. The two men head to the caves, only to find everyone has been slaughtered, including Juan’s children. Juan goes on a suicide mission and is captured. He’s facing a firing squad when John swoops in like an Avenging Angel to free his buddy.

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And we’re only about halfway through the film! I’ll won’t spoil the rest for those of you who haven’t seen DUCK, YOU SUCKER yet. I’ll just say there are many more twists and turns on the two men’s journey… you’ll have to watch for yourselves. Instead, I’ll tell you the film walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, and its success lies in Leone’s genius as director. Leone has created an unheralded masterpiece which is only now beginning to get it’s proper due thanks to its restoration and rediscovery.

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You tend to forget what a brilliant actor Rod Steiger was if you haven’t seen him for a while. There are echoes of Eli Wallach’s Tuco from THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY in Steiger’s performance, as intended in the screenplay by Leone with Sergio Doanti and Luciano Vincenzoni. But make no mistake, Steiger puts his personal stamp on the role as the bandito more interested in gold than revolutions. James Coburn is his equal as the Irishman Corbett, a man grown weary of revolutions and killing for other people’s causes. Despite their cultural differences, Coburn and Steiger form a bond of friendship forged by mutual tragedies and their common distrust of the powers that be.

The cinematography by Guisseppe Ruzzolini is breathtaking, and the film is masterfully edited by Nino Baragli. No Leone film would be complete without Ennio Morricone, and he supplies his usual fine and unique score. The special effects are done by Antonio Margheriti, better known to film fans under the pseudonym Anthony Dawson, director of HORROR CASTLE, CASTLE OF BLOOD, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH, WAR OF THE PLANETS, TAKE A HARD RIDE, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, and YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE.

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DUCK. YOU SUCKER was Leone’s last Western. His valedictory film, the gangster epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, would be released in 1984. Leone died at age 60 in 1989, leaving an indelible mark on film in general, and the Western genre especially. Though he’s only credited directing seven features, among those seven are some of the best Westerns cinema has to offer. Find yourself a copy of the uncut, original DUCK, YOU SUCKER and prepare to be amazed at the artistry of Sergio Leone.

 

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