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.
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.
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.
4. Fraying, Christopher. Spaghetti Westerns Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. St. Martin’s Press. New York. 1981, 1998: p. 82.