Cesare Canevari's Matalo (1970) begins with a powerful image of a woman covered completely in black, presumably a widow, in the foreground of a quiet, dusty town, where its inhabitants are standing at the threshold of the jail. A criminal (Corrado Pani) is being led to the noose. The solemn widow gets a wink and a smirk from the soon-to-be dead man, before a gang of bandits raid the town. In the commotion, the criminal gets set free and ducks into an office to loot a satchel of money. The widow meets him at gunpoint, and he lifts the black veil: the two embrace for an intimate kiss, and the criminal leaves the young window, standing with her gun unfired.
Matalo is a unique Western, perhaps most notable for Lou Castel's character, Ray, and his choice of weapons: boomerangs. Mario Migliardi's score is unlike most typical Westerns: electronic and contemporary, even with occasional flashes of what sounds like reverb. Director Canevari's film also has a unique atmosphere: at times, it feels like a traditional Western, with shoot outs and stagecoaches, and at others, like a Gothic horror film; and even at times, Matalo appears as a psychedelic experience.
Pani's criminal is Bart and the satchel of looted money, he gives to the group of bandits, who presumably were hired to free him. Bart smiles and winks at the group as they ride off, only to pull his rifle when their backs are turned to gun them down. After reclaiming the money, Bart gives an odd soliloquy about how life is preferable to be on the opposite side of the gun barrel and the one holding the cash, literally at all costs. Bart meets his two compatriots, Phil (Luis Dávila) and Ted (Antonio Salines), at the crossroads, and after another smile and a wink from Bart, the trio rides off.
In another series of powerful images, the trio ride by a cemetery, with all the headstones reading the last name Benson. Migliardi's accompanying score during this sequence is ominous and haunting with wailing sounds. The trio ride into a ghost town, where the sign, "Benson Bank," hangs by one chain. They hole up. One more arrives the following day, and she is stunning beauty, Mary (Claudia Gravy). Mary is Phil's fiercely sensuous lady, but she likes the wink and the smirk that Bart gives her at her arrival. The four execute a highway robbery of a stagecoach, escorting a cache of U.S. government cash. The robbery ends in a bloody shootout with Bart dying. The robbery is easily Matalo's most traditional sequence and for all purposes, tradition is abandoned at its crime scene.
Canevari plays on the idea of a "ghost town": the cemetery imagery prior to the trio's arrival shows a literal ghost town. Canevari shoots the town night scenes like an atmospheric horror film, punctuated by quick cross cuts of a close-up of a human eye. Someone is watching them, but initially, given the music and the tone of the exposition, it is unknown to the viewer whether the eye belongs a living or dead person. As Phil, Ted, and Mary hole up in the town, and especially during the night scenes, Canevari increases the tension among the characters. Ted gives more than a roving eye towards Mary: he practically stares at her as if worshipping. Gravy's Mary is hypnotically seductive, not just to Ted, but to the viewer also. Her flirtatious nature hides a sinister power. Phil is spied through the window by Ted seen moving the crate of gold to another location. Ted wakes Mary to tattle: although it would seem two-hundred thousand dollars is Ted's motivation but the scene comes off as Ted trying to ally with Mary in order to have the opportunity to wrap his arms around her.
Three other participants play into Matalo: one is the hidden inhabitant of the town, and the other two are unfortunates who wander in: a pretty traveler, Bridget (Ana María Noé), who is widowed on the road; and Ray (Castel), decked out in a paisley coat with a sack of boomerangs under his arm and riding a pale horse. Bridget and Ray both enter the town looking for fresh water, and Ray's at the edge of death from dehydration. None of the three are treated well by Phil, Ted, and Mary; but it is Ted who suffers the most at their hands and through whose eyes Canevari shoots the remainder of Matalo. Mary, in another powerful sequence, swings above Ray's body on a child's swing while holding a knife above him. Mary's also teasing laughing Ted with smiles and laughs and seductive waves of her legs (which Canevari emphasizes in his compositions). Ted takes to beating Ray with a chain or cruelly teasing him with the promise of some water. As Ray's dehydration takes over, the shots become more subjective and hallucinatory. Through Ray's eyes, Ted becomes almost a literal monster.Needless to say, Ray doesn't lay down the remainder of Matalo, and it is quite cool to watch Castel's Ray whip a little ass with boomerangs. The final action scenes are well-shot and edited. Still working today, Lou Castel is a fantastic actor. His early appearance in Marco Bellocchio's Fist in His Pocket (1965) is a phenomenal performance. He gave a sinister turn and excellent performance in Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo (1969). Castel played a pivotal character in Damiano Damiani's masterful western A Bullet for the General (1966), and appeared in one more very odd Western before Matalo, Carlo Lizzani's Kill and Pray (1967). Cesare Canevari is a madman and unique film maker in Italian cinema. He directed Io, Emmanuelle (1969) with Erika Blanc, The Nude Princess (1976) with Ajita Wilson, the super-nasty Gestapo's Last Orgy (1977), and the very, very, very sleazy mystery Killing in the Flesh (1983) with Marc Porel, for example. All are notable works. However, his Matalo ranks alongside Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970) and Roland Klick's Deadlock (1970) as one of the oddest Westerns to come from Europe. Truly unique and unexpected, Matalo should appeal European-Cult film fans. See it. Matalo has been released on DVD in the U.S. by excellent label, Wild East. Buy it here.