Saturday, October 27, 2012

10.000 dollari per un massacro (10,000 Dollars for a Massacre) (1967)

One can tell within the first few minutes of 10.000 dollari per un massacro (10,000 Dollars for a Massacre) (1967) that it has the potential to be a doozy of a Western.  Django (Gianni Garko, billed here as "Gary Hudson") lays on the beach at sunset, laughing and celebrating with a corpse.  The corpse is a lucrative bounty, and Django is tickled pink to cash it in.  Crossing the valley, Django spies Manuel Vásquez (Claudio Camaso) on horseback, and the two pass each other by quietly and without incident.  It's a fateful meeting, and the two meet several times during the duration of the film.  However, only one of the two gunslingers is going to survive this picture.
In an introduction to Westerns All'Italiana:  The Wild the Sadist and the Outsiders, Gianni Garko writes:

"In 10.000 Dollari per un massacro and Per 100.000 Dollari T'Ammazzo, I used the assumed name of Gary Hudson,.  I impersonated two romantic revenge-driven bounty killers with all the frailties of the common man.  In both movies Claudio Camaso, the younger brother of Gian Maria Volonté, portrayed my opponent.  I still remember him fondly." (1)

I love Garko's description of his character.  The title of the film is ironic.  It is clear from the outset of 10.000 dollari per un massacro that above all Django loves money.  When Django goes to the sheriff to cash in his latest bounty, the sheriff remarks that Manuel Vásquez's bounty is currently at three thousand.  Django scoffs, because he knows that the bounty will get higher.  Later that evening at a saloon, Django enters and finds Manuel at a card table.  They play an uneasy hand, and Django remarks that the fellow who beat the two at poker cheated.  Manuel knifes him in the back and gets his earnings from the corpse's pocket.  He splits the take with Django.  Pretty saloon owner, Myanou (Loredana Nusciak), chides Django for his violent actions and notes that Django and Manuel are just alike:  there is little evidence that she is wrong.
Manuel kidnaps a wealthy landowner's daughter, and the father later goes to see Django who offers him five thousand to retrieve his daughter and kill Manuel.  Django scoffs at the offer, again.  Django gets critically injured by two of Manuel's gang, and it is pretty Myanou who nurses him back to health.  Django has a change of heart and professes his love to the woman.  She returns his love and asks him to accompany her to San Francisco, away from the violent life on the frontier.  He agrees.  The father of the kidnapped daughter appears again and this time offers Django ten-thousand to find his daughter and kill Manuel.  Django accepts.
Much of the script of 10.000 dollari per un massacro, penned by Franco Fogagnolo, Ernesto Gastaldi, and Luciano Martino, focuses on the theme that Django, killing criminals for the law for money, and Manuel, a criminal killing anyone for anything, are the same.  Wisely, director Romolo Guerrieri focuses his drama on this theme.  Guerrieri, incidentally, also helmed two excellent films scripted by Fernando di Leo, the Western, Johnny Yuma (1966), starring Mark Damon and Rosalba Neri, and the crime drama,
Liberi armati pericolosi (1976), starring Eleonora Giorgi and Tomas Milian.  At a pivotal point in the film, Django and Manuel agree to commit a stagecoach robbery.  Django stipulates that no one is to be harmed.  Manuel agrees but reneges on the deal by killing everyone.  Why should Django care, if the score from the robbery is the same?  The romanticism of Django, which Garko adeptly observes, dies at that moment.  It is time for revenge.
There are quite a few attempts at humor in 10.000 dollari per un massacro but most of them fail to inspire laughs and inadvertently, perhaps, make the film a lot more disturbing.  I’ve never quite admired Gianni Garko’s acting range, but here, he is quite good.  There is a boyish charm to his character which creates a sense of innocence about him, despite the fact that he is a confident gunfighter.  When his reality comes crashing down upon him, Garko follows suit and becomes the cold, stoic fighter to whom I am most accustomed.  Good-looking Claudio Camaso looks quite a bit like his brother and plays his character of Manuel much as his brother does in the Leone Westerns:  very much charismatic yet wholly impulsive and cruel.  The action sequences are excellent, and save some plodding scenes, the pacing and tone is well-done.

While 10.000 dollari per un massacro is very much traditional and not quite innovative, it is traditional cinema done exceptionally.  I also believe, but am uncertain, that this film is one of the first films to capitalize on the Django character from Sergio Corbucci’s landmark film.  Gianni Garko would later cement his own legacy in the Euro-Western as Sartana in multiple films.  10.000 dollari per un massacro is well-worth seeing for fans of the genre.

1.  Garko, Gianni,  “Introduction.“  Authors, Bruschini, Antonio and Federico de Zigno.  Western All’Italiana: The Wild the Sadist and the Outsiders.  Glittering Images.  Firenze, Italy.  2001:  p.  15.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Una pistola per cento bare (A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins) (1968)

Jim Slade (Peter Lee Lawrence) is imprisoned by the Army for his refusal to kill anyone during wartime, citing religious reasons for his refusal.  The Civil War ends, and he is pardoned.  Jim returns home to his parents' ranch in Tucson, Arizona and comes home to find his parents murdered.  Jim abandons his religious pacificism to exact revenge upon his parents’ murderers.  He buys a pistol and quickly learns to use it.  Four bandits were witnessed at his parents’ ranch, and Slade sets out to find them.

Umberto Lenzi only directed two Westerns, and Una pistola per cento bare (A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins) (1968) is his most notable.  Una pistola begins promising.  Slade finds the first bandit in a town’s square with a noose firmly around his neck, seconds before he is to be hanged for murder.  Slade rescues the bandit and escapes the town.  In a remote section of the desert, Slade forces the bandit to dig his own grave and reveal the identities and locations of his accomplices.  Once the bandit supplies the information, Slade guns him down in cold blood.  Slade’s bloodlust continues.  In the next village, he finds the home of a bandit where his wife and two children prepare for a meal.  Slade kills the bandit whose corpse falls upon the kitchen floor.  His wife and children are forced to witness his death.  Wasting no time, Slade tracks the third bandit to a crowded saloon.  Slade announces his presence to the crowd and demands the bandit present himself.  The bandit, well-dressed and at a card table, identifies himself.  Seemingly oblivious to the onlookers around him, Slade guns him down.  This mean-spirited killing spree by Slade occupies only the first fifteen minutes of Una pistola.  Amazing.

Unfortunately, the energy created during the first act cannot be sustained.  Jim has little information on the fourth bandit, as he only knows his last name, “Corbett,” and the state where he last seen, “Texas.”  He moves through the counties and checks the local bounty boards.  During one afternoon, he rides into a sleepy town and stops in the saloon.  He meets a traveling preacher, like Slade also fast with his gun, named Douglass (John Ireland).  Soon after introductions, the town is under siege by a group of bandits who attempt to rob the local bank.  The bandits are positive that two-hundred thousand dollars are located on the premises.  No money is found and the bandits retreat, not before killing the local sheriff.  The mayor of the town offers Slade and Douglass five thousand dollars each to stay and protect the town.  Slade refuses but accepts the deal when he learns that the bandit leader is none other than Corbett (Piero Lulli), the final man upon whom Slade wants to exact revenge.
During the second act of Una pistola per cento bare, the pacing slows and the plot becomes slightly too convoluted.  Slade’s plan to catch and then kill Corbett involves learning the location of the two-hundred thousand dollars, manipulating the location of the cache to lure Corbett back into town, and finally, enacting a plan to subdue Corbett once he arrives.  This latter aspect of Slade’s scheme involves myriad phases and Lenzi and his scriptwriters employ several plot and character twists.  The exposition of this scheme takes too long, so most of the ninety-minute runtime becomes bogged down.
Despite the meandering second act of Una pistola per cento bare, it does contain the most notable sequence of the entire film.  The local asylum has burned down, and the asylum’s patients have been relocated to a single cell in the town’s jail.  Within the cell are a pyromaniac, a rapist, and a murderer to name a few and there is nowhere to safely put them besides the jail.  Both Douglass and Slade, presumably because of their religious backgrounds, see the group as unfortunates and take pity upon them.  In the most well-known sequence of the film, the group escapes the cell and lays siege upon the town:  burning buildings, murdering townsfolk, and two attempt to rape the lovely beauty who sings at the local saloon, before being thwarted by Douglass who appears at the last second.  This sequence is not nearly as menacing as some of the early sequences in, say,  Condenados a vivir (Cut-Throats Nine) (1972) but it is unsurprisingly sickening and unnerving.  The inclusion of the group of psychotics in Una pistola appears, at first blush, solely to create an overtly exploitative sequence.  (However, one of the group involves himself in the plot in a pivotal scene.)  Certainly this sequence in Una pistola has created a lasting legacy and notoriety for cult and Western film fans.
When Una pistola per cento bare ended, I had this overwhelming feeling that I’ve just watched an average western, despite several strong sequences.  In the first instance, the film feels transitory, as if its meandering and convoluted plot was warming up for the giallo. (Lenzi would release his sinful Orgasmo subsequent to Una pistola.)  Also the mean-spirited and tension-filled opening act would foreshadow Lenzi’s later work with his masterful crime flicks, such as Milano odia: la polizia non può sparare (1974).  Ultimately, I believe the absence of a central and focal villain is the biggest flaw of Una pistola.  The opening sequence of the film establishes that Slade is willing to abandon his religious beliefs of pacificism (and face hard labor for this belief) for the sake of revenge.  Having Slade relentlessly and coldly follow this path of revenge only to stall the path to become a scheming, substitute lawman feels artificial.  Perhaps a simpler plotline would have made Una pistola a strong, exploitative, mean-spirited Euro-Western.  As it stands, Una pistola per cento bare is more of a cult oddity for Euro-Western and Lenzi completists.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Yankee (1966)

My expectations when sitting down to watch Yankee (1966) were of seeing an arty western with some kinky shit included in regular intervals.  This may sound glib, but make no mistake, these were welcome expectations; for the director of Yankee was none other than Tinto Brass in his sole contribution to the genre.  As for my expectations, they were mostly fulfilled:  Yankee is beautifully shot (photography by Alfio Contini) with an interesting design; the music by Nini Rosso is memorable; and finally, the dialogue of the script is clever and often playful.  The kinky shit is also there, but its quantity is much less than I anticipated.  Perhaps, there is a reason behind this restraint, as we will see.
The Yankee is Philippe Leroy, an arrogant and confident bounty killer who loves money.  During the opening sequence in a darkly-lit saloon, a bandit enters on horseback (!) and robs the till.  The Yankee, in attendance, shoots the bandit, as does another bounty-killer rival in the bar.  With two bullets firmly placed in the heart of the bandit, neither bounty killer wants to share the bounty.  The buxom barmaid proposes a game of chance:  with a deck of cards, the one who draws the high card may bed the barmaid; while the loser may claim the corpse for the bounty.  The Yankee's rival draws first and selects a two from the deck.  With a win inevitable, the Yankee forfeits the game and claims the bounty.  This is excellent character exposition.
The Yankee crosses the Rio Grande into New Mexico and stumbles upon a frontier town that is suspiciously devoid of inhabitants, save the gravedigger.  The Yankee learns that the town is controlled by egomaniacal and ruthless bandit, the Grand Concho (Adolfo Celi).  The Yankee makes a brief stop at the sheriff's office and learns that the majority of the Grand Concho's gang hold bounties.  Most of the bounties are low, but in the aggregate, the bounty for the entire gang is quite lucrative.  The Yankee hatches a scheme to bring down the Grand Concho and his gang.  His intellect and fast gun will be essential, but his arrogance may prove fatal...
If the story of Yankee sounds familiar, then perhaps this is intentional.  Kevin Grant, author of the interesting Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns, sees Yankee as a polarization of the cat-and-mouse motif that the anti-hero engages with his opponent during the film.  Grant in his introduction emphasizes Brass's film and  writes that, "...Yankee [1966], whose dialogue resonates with references to risk and the deadly pleasure of playing--its director, Tinto Brass, envisioned its villain and anti-hero as bull and bullfighter, respectively."  (1)  Yankee's chief commercial inspiration may have been Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and Brass was attracted to this motif, now becoming commonplace in westerns.
"Brass had initially conceived a totally original visual experience," writes authors Antonio Bruschini and Federico de Zigno, "where the various main characters' entry was supposed to be introduced through the emphasis on a symbolic detail (the gunfighter's spur, the woman's naked ankle and so on...), closely in tune with the pop-style of that era, adopting a visual conception similar to that of the comics of Guido Crepax." (2)  Unfortunately, Brass's vision was stifled, as Bruschini and de Zigno continue, "The end results were considered 'too odd,' by the producer who 'manipulated' the film in the cutting room, to make it more 'normal.'  'The main obsession I had, was that of the ''language,"' says Brass, 'I wanted to apply the language of the comics to the most disparate genres.  That western, as I had conceived it [...] was supposed to be a movie told with ideograms, much like Chinese writing, a sign indicating a concept.  But after the argument I had with the producer there remained only a few microscopic details, the colt, the spur, the trigger and so on, which left the audience baffled.'" (3)
Perhaps if Brass had been able to fulfill his vision with Yankee, then it may have been appropriate to discuss the film alongside his own Col cuore in gola (1967), Jean-Luc Godard's Week End (1967), Giulio Questi's La morte ha fatto l'uovo (1968), and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L'éden et après (1970) and Glissements progressifs du plaisir (1974), for example.  As Yankee stands today, however, much of Brass’s original vision remains.  For example, the Grand Concho occupies seemingly a castle which casts a shadow over the entire town below.  The castle is fitted with a throne upon which Celi’s character sits.  On the walls are various portraits of the Grand Concho with many of the styles influenced by the art of the time.  In a hilarious and provocative sequence, Yankee enters the castle while the Grand Concho and his gang are away.  He steals many of the portraits and posts them around the quiet town.  When the Grand Concho sees his portraits, now littering the town like bounty notices, he becomes enraged and demands all houses burned where a portrait is placed.  This is just another part of the game--while the portraits sit in the castle they commemorate a grand leader, and as they are posted in the street, each becomes a symbol for ignominy and contempt--a nice juxtaposition and a fantastic sequence.
The editing of the film is contemporary (Brass was one of the editors).  Yankee has many single-shot cutaways, and each could stand on its own as a single composition.  Indeed, they are disorienting but they never distract--often each piece emphasizes the preceding or subsequent sequence.  In as much many of the close-ups are a joke.  Think of how many times one sees a close-up of a gunslinger's eyes during a fateful confrontation.

Adolfo Celi is a brilliant actor and he really steals Yankee away from the others.  He’s not quite a Manson-like guru but more traditional.  At one moment he can be jovial and then at the drop of the hat, Celi’s character is frighteningly cruel.  Leroy is fine in his role.  He lacks the boyish charm of Giuliano Gemma, the melancholy of Anthony Steffen, or the total badass-ness of Lee Van Cleef, for example.  Much of his face is hidden by his hat, and Yankee is so full of playful dialogue, little attention is paid to his aesthetics.  Yankee follows a traditional Western tale, yet there is enough to make the film spontaneous.  When the gunfighter’s game escalates to its conclusion--two guesses as to whom is participating--it is remarkably tension-filled.  The ending is very satisfying, and I would be remiss to note how very good Celi is in this sequence and on a whole.

Finally, as for the kinky shit and provocative bits that are characteristic of Tinto Brass cinema, author Christopher Frayling adds this interesting observation:  “By 1967, when Questi made the film (Django, Kill), things were getting a little out of hand:  an Italian magistrate seized all the copies of Django, Kill he could find, and a Cinecittà producer dragged Tinto Brass out of the cutting room of another Spaghetti Western, Yankee.  It was ironic, wrote [critic] Fornari, that of all films these two should receive ‘the stigma of artistic martyrdom.”  (4)  This is an interesting quote from Frayling, as it seems to insinuate that 1) perhaps the producer of Yankee feared criminal liability and forced the cutting of Yankee to distinguish it from Questi’s film and 2) perhaps Brass’s original film was as provocative as Questi’s landmark western.  I don’t know.  Yankee is tame compared to Brass’s other work.  As it stands today, Yankee is ripe for a visit from the seeker of curious cinema and a fantastic Euro-Western for those uninitiated to the genre’s uniqueness and offbeat charm.

1.  Grant, Kevin.  Any Gun Can Play:  The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns.  FAB Press.  Surrey, England, U.K.  2011: p. 22.
2.  Bruschini, Antonio and Federico de Zigno.  Western All’Italiana: The Wild the Sadist and the Outsiders.  Glittering Images.  Firenze, Italy.  2001:  p.  39.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Fraying, Christopher.  Spaghetti Westerns Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone.  St. Martin’s Press.  New York.  1981, 1998:  p. 82.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dove si spara di più (Fury of Johnny Kid) (1967)

Dove si spara di più (Fury of Johnny Kid) (1967) is a minor Euro-Western which features major actors of European cult cinema.  Its lasting impression upon European cult cinema is its historical value.  Dove si spara di più boasts one of the first appearances of iconic Spanish actor Paul Naschy and is also one of his earliest forays into the technical side of filmmaking.
Through his father, he writes, Paul Naschy became friends with a number of film directors, one of whom was Gianni Puccini.  During the filming of Dove si spara di più, Naschy "became a consultant to the art director, to the head of wardrobe and to the armorer, much to the chagrin of executive producer Enrique Cabezas who had helped [him] get involved in the movie in the first place.  Gianni had a blind faith in [his] judgment, even going so far as to ask for [his] advice about the script and certain scenes."  (1)
Naschy's appearance in Dove si spara di più is in a bizarre scene.  Enter bustling saloon leading man Peter Lee Lawrence as Johnny and his Falstaff-ian accomplice, Lefty (Andrés Mejuto).  With biceps and forearms bulging, Naschy plays a bandit engaged in an arm-wrestling contest.  The contest is a fierce one, and the participants go back and forth, moving almost to the rhythm of the song being sung by lovely María Cuadra (portraying a wistful and tragic prostitute).  As Johnny and Lefty make their way to the bar, a winner emerges in the arm-wrestling contest.  The loser of the match gets his hand impaled upon a bed of a nails.  Naschy writes:  "The props department came up with the idea of placing wooden planks with real, sharp-pointed nails under the forearms of each actor.  So when I forced down the arm of the Italian actor the nails went into his flesh, sinking into several veins and splattering blood over the continuity girl, who almost fainted.  As a result we had to wait three or four days to carry on shooting, this time, obviously. using fake nails." (2)

Peter Lee Lawrence (né Karl Hirenbach, billed here as Arthur Grant) portrays Johnny Mounters in Dove si spara di più, as the youngest son of the Mounters family who own a large ranch at the end of the valley.  Across the way is competing family, the Campos clan, most represented by villainous son, Rodrigo, portrayed by Pietro Martellanza (billed as Peter Martell).  The youngest Campos is sweet and passionate Giulietta (Cristina Galbó).  The two families are engaged in a bloody rivalry.  Johnny and Giulietta fall in love.  Is everyone picking up on from where the source material originates?
Westerns, in general, are full of archetypes and a blending of Shakespeare and Western mythology would seem an ideal pairing.  Not quite.  Dove si spara di più is never truly compelling and the familiar story is not rendered memorably.  It is a chatty film, full of speeches, which may seem appropriate given the source material, but the Western landscape should have an equal amount of talking down iron sights.  The gun fights and action sequences pale to the cinema of Corbucci and Castellari and at times appear ridiculous.  In one sequence, the Campos and Mounters families engage in a gun battle with each family behind cover across a courtyard.  During the shootout, one can actually witness fools break cover and head out into the courtyard.  Of course, they are gunned down within seconds.  I don't understand this battle strategy--ever.

Other sequences make no sense and are odd and seem out of place.  Normally, I love characters acting nonsensically in cinema.  There's an energy and spontaneity and freedom in those sequences.  However, there are times when ridiculous sequences seem just nonsensical and plodding.  For example, Lawrence's Johnny is a character who does not drink alcohol.  Fair enough.  So when Johnny gets angry or full of melancholy, he doesn't head to the saloon to knock back glasses of whiskey.  Instead, he has the bartender pour him a glass of whiskey which he slides down the bar and shoots with his pistol before the glass falls off.  Lawrence shoots quite a few glasses.  Perhaps at the conception stage, this scene was either pivotal and/or clever.  During its rendition, it seems grating and annoying.
Not all the nonsensical and weird sequences are uninteresting, however, in Dove si spara di più.  The town's sheriff is a douchebag and has aligned himself with the Campos family.  In exchange for giving a blind eye to the nefarious deeds of the Campos family, the Sheriff is granted the hand of Giulietta in marriage.  His allegiance to the Campos family goes further back:  in an attempt to apprehend one of the Campos' sons, he is forced to pull his pistol.  Both the sheriff and the son fire his weapon simultaneously and the bullets collide.  The sheriff carries to the two bullets, now fused as one, as a symbol of fate.  He believes that his destiny is weaved with the Campos's.  It's an interesting, highly unlikely, and symbolic scene.  It's a clever use by the filmmakers to make often boring expository material weird and unusual.

Peter Lee Lawrence and Cristina Galbó were once married, and as far as my limited research has uncovered, Dove si spara di più is the only film in which the two star together.  The best scene of the film is the meeting of the two.  Johnny with Lefty in tow decide to rob a stagecoach, believed to be carrying a valuable Campos treasure.  As Johnny pulls the riders out of the carriage, Giulietta emerges last.  She pulls a small pistol from her purse and aims it at Johnny.  Johnny is frozen, and adeptly, Giulietta shoots the black mask off of Johnny's face.  The chemistry that the two hold shows instantly that it is love at first sight.  This scene is the heart of Dove si spara di più; and had the love story been developed more, then film could have been something interesting.  Instead, the love story is a vehicle for a familiar revenge tale and stock Western mythology.
Dove si spara di più is definitely a film for the European cult film fan who is looking to branch out in the more obscure titles that the genre has to offer.  I am a huge fan of Peter Lee Lawrence--a cult actor in a genre of cult cinema, to be certain--so I would recommend the film to his fans.  Paul Naschy fans will certainly relish the opportunity to see the icon in one of his earliest endeavors.

1.  Naschy, Paul.  Memoirs of Wolfman.  Midnight Marquee Press.  Baltimore, Maryland.  2000.  Pp.87-88.
2.  Naschy, Paul.  Memoirs of Wolfman.  Midnight Marquee Press.  Baltimore, Maryland.  2000.  Pp.88-89.