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.

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