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.

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