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!

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!