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The Weekend Western: A Bullet for the General May 19, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , 3 comments

This is an overtly political spaghetti western from Damiano Damiani and, with its anti-American intervention message, it’s still very relevant today. The story deals with an American who falls in with a group of Mexican bandits in order to get close to a revolutionary General, and forms a mutual friendship with their leader, El Chucho.

The film is a feast for the eyes as well as the brain, with Antonio Secchi’s cinematography making the most of the Spanish locations, but it’s the script by Salvatore Laurani and Franco Solinas that puts this among the best of the Italian westerns. The characters are well rounded and develop over the course of the film, there’s plenty of humour to balance the action, and it builds to an impressively restrained yet emotionally powerful climax.

Gian Maria Volontè, a familiar face to anyone who’s seen A Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More, plays El Chucho. The character develops from a loud, greedy and somewhat obnoxious killer into a fledgling revolutionary, a true man of the people and Volontè brilliantly portrays that transformation, turning in a performance that is far more complex than your standard western, be it Italian or American.

By contrast, Lou Castel, as the American Tate, is restrained and emotionless. It’s a performace that may not be to everyone’s taste but for me it served as a nice counterpoint to Volontè, American reserve paired with Latin fire. Tate isn’t explored anywhere near as much as Chucho, his motivation is money, but his chalk-and-cheese friendship with the bandit adds some colour to the character.

Also making an impression is Klaus Kinski as Chucho’s brother, El Santo, a crazy religious fanatic who believes his brother is selflessly aiding the revolutionaries. Kinski has a face that’s worth a thousand words and Damiani makes the most of it, Santo is the only truly selfless character in the film.

Luis Enríquez Bacalov is credited with the score but Ennio Morricone receives a supervisor credit and the spaghetti maestro certainly left his mark on the finished film. Morricone often wrote music he didn’t receive full credit for (due to contractual issues) and it wouldn’t surprise me if this was such a case.

Damiano Damiani’s film is up there with those of the Sergio’s (Leone, Corbucci and Sollima) and it’s a shame he didn’t make more westerns, only making one more (and that almost ten years later) the comedy A Genius, Two Partners and A Dupe. If your only experience of Italian westerns is through Clint Eastwood then you should give this a try, it’ll show you that there’s far more to them than you probably realised.

The Weekend Western: Yankee April 20, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , add a comment

Before he became famous as a director of erotica, Tinto Brass made this early spaghetti western that’s very much in the Fistful of Dollars mould. A stranger known only as “Yankee” (Philippe Leroy) rides into a Mexican town that’s under the despotic rule of El Grande Concho. After seeing the wanted posters of Concho’s men in the sheriff’s office he suggests to Concho that they split the reward money. Strangely the bandit isn’t too keen on the idea of turning all his men in to the law, deciding he’ll make more money with them than without, particularly as he has designs on a shipment of gold being transported along the Rio Grandee by the US Cavalry. This leaves Yankee to collect the money for himself, provided he can kill them.

As you might have gathered, the plot is rather silly but Brass keeps the viewers attention with visual flourishes, always looking for odd angels to shoot from. Unsurprisingly the camera lingers over Mirella Martin as Concho’s woman, particularly when Yankee kidnaps her out of her bathtub and rides away with her across the desert with her modesty barely covered.

Adolfo Celi, the villain in the James Bond film Thunderball, is a suitably loud and intimidating El Grande Concho, but Philippe Leroy is sadly no Clint Eastwood, looking uncomfortable in western garb. The Frenchman lacks the sort of screen presence needed for the part and seems an odd choice. That he wears a rather silly looking hat doesn’t help either.

With a flimsy story and a weak lead performance the main reason to watch Yankee is to see one of the most well know Italian directors trying his hand at something a little different. Tinto Brass does enough here to leave you wondering what might have been if he hadn’t elected to concentrate exclusively on titillating his audience.

Just a brief note about Koch Media’s spaghetti western DVDs released in Germany. For some reason, unknown to me, their DVDs don’t list English subtitles on the packaging (only German), nor can you select English subs from the menu screens, yet most do have English subtitles and they can be selected using the subtitle button on your DVD remote. So don’t be put off by the apparent lack of English-friendliness.

TV Tomb: The Guns of Will Sonnett – Season 1 April 19, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : TV Reviews, Westerns , 3 comments

While I remember several of the western TV shows of the ‘60s this one escapes me, in fact I’m not even sure it was ever shown on UK television. It’s your typical man/men on a quest type of series with Walter Brennan playing the title role while Dack Rambo, later of Dallas fame, plays his grandson Jeff. The pair are searching for Will’s son, legendary gunfighter Jim Sonnett, the father Jeff has never seen. Their search leads them into all sorts of adventure, from both old acquaintances of Will and enemies of Jim.

Walter Brennan relishes being the star of the show, making the most of the series format to develop Will beyond the stereotypical cantankerous grandfather he starts out as, into a fully rounded character. The series fills in the details of his past as an army scout and his estrangement from his son as it progresses, giving us little nuggets every few episodes.

If Brennan provides the acting then Rambo is there to handle the action, getting stuck in to the fight scenes with gusto while also providing eye candy to appease the ladies in the audience. His acting is nothing special but he does a serviceable job, mostly just needing to look hurt, confused or occasionally, angry.

Unlike many series of its type, the object of their search does make an appearance or two. In fact Jason Evers as Jim Sonnett features in the series best episode “Message at Noon” a story that keeps the action until the end, instead focusing on the loneliness of the professional gunman. The bulk of the episode takes place inside a saloon, with Evers talking to the bartender, played with customary excellence by Strother Martin, about his past regrets and the son he hasn’t seen for years. It’s a touching and intelligent half-hour of television.

Guest starts are plentiful, with some familiar faces making appearances. Charles Grodin is a hot-headed young gunfighter with a bell on his holster for every man he’s killed, while Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper all try their luck against the Sonnetts to their cost.

The quality of the episodes is mostly good, with the occasional standout where the series breaks with its format a little. There’s only one real dud, the Christmas episode “Sunday in Paradise” which has Will Sonnett behaving out of character and features a feel good ending that isn’t the series norm.

For the most part though this is an excellent example of a half hour ‘60s western TV show, with a strong central performance from Brennan and some thought put into developing the characters, something unusual for the period.

Next on TV Tomb: The Sandbaggers - Season 1

The Weekend Western: Ulzana’s Raid April 12, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , 1 comment so far

When Ulzana leads a band of renegade Apaches off the reservation, Lieutenant DeBuin is assigned to capture or kill him. Along with his cavalry detachment DeBuin is assigned two scouts, McIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay. McIntosh is a veteran who respects the Apache while Ke-Ni-Tay is an Apache who is bound by his word to serve or as he puts it “Ke-Ni-Tay sign paper. Ke-Ni-Tay soldier.” The film deals with DeBuin’s hunt for Ulzana and the atrocities they find in the Apache’s wake.

Robert Aldrich’s film doesn’t go in for the panoramic vistas of John Ford, he’s not interested in showing us the beauty of the west, focusing instead on the brutality of the people who inhabit it. Made at a time when the trend was to show Native Americans in a sympathetic light, with films like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, Ulzana’s Raid instead shows them as savage killers. It’s not that Aldrich paints them as the villain, more that their idea of morality is so alien to men like DeBuin that they may as well be form another planet. Even McIntosh, who appreciates their single-minded simplicity doesn’t understand them, seeing them as almost a force of nature – a hard people for a hard land.

The central performances are all first rate. Burt Lancaster was an actor who seemed to get better with age, becoming less a movie star and more a character actor. In the early ‘70s he gave us a trio of ageing western heroes, in Lawman, Valdez is Coming and Ulzana’s Raid, and all three have a world-weary quality to them. McIntosh is as much teacher as scout, he readily admits that Ke-Ni-Tay is a better tracker, and he attempts to impart what wisdom he can to the young Lieutenant DeBuin in the hope it will keep both of them alive.

Bruce Davison is perfect as DeBuin, a fresh faced enthusiastic actor to portray a fresh faced enthusiastic officer. DeBuin matures as the film progresses, going from an idealist with hopes of reforming the Indians to a soldier who wants to punish them. He learns from McIntosh and, while he still makes mistakes, he’s a better leader by the films end.

DeBuin’s conversations with Ke-Ni-Tay are some of the films more interesting moments, as the young Lieutenant tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to understand his enemy. Ke-Ni-Tay is perhaps the films most complex character, as ruthless as Ulzana yet also a man of his word and Jorge Luke does an excellent job of bringing that complexity to the screen. He’s a riddle that it’s left to the audience to sort out for themselves.

That the actors are so good is in no small part due to the script by Alan Sharp, which keeps the viewer hooked while saving the bulk of the action for the last fifteen minutes. How a Scottish shipyard workers son developed such an ear for authentic western dialogue is anyone guess but with this and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand he produced two classic western scripts.

Aldrich’s film is both an exciting western adventure and an allegory for the Viet Nam War, with the Apache’s guerrilla tactics and brutality representing the Viet Cong, while the US soldiers become equally savage, desecrating the Apache dead. Yet the film never seems preachy, it leaves the audience to think for itself and get as much out of the film as they want.

The Weekend Western: The Bounty Killer April 6, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, DVD Reviews, Westerns , add a comment

This is a decent little spaghetti western from Eugenio Martín, who went on to make the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee monster-on-a-train flick, Horror Express. Rather than the usual wide open vistas the film concentrates on one settlement, too small to really be called a town. Luke Chilson, a bounty hunter is looking for an escaped bandit, José Gómez, and figures he’ll come calling on his sweetheart, Eden, who he believes helped him escape in the first place.

The townsfolk are less than happy to see Chilson, not only don’t they like the way he makes a living but they also see Gómez as something of a local hero, who’s been unfairly treated by the law. When Gómez shows up the locals help him get the upper hand, only to find he really is as evil as they’d been told. He brutally beats Chilson and ransacks the town and when he’s joined by his gang the people realise their only hope is to free the captive bounty hunter.

Martin’s film is high on atmosphere and short on action, but the build up is well handled, with the tension rising to the bullet filled dénouement. Richard Wyler isn’t a very charismatic lead but his performance is solid enough, and Chilson is a man of few words.

It’s in Gómez that the film has a genuine star turn, Tomas Milian once again showing what an entertaining villain he can be. Gómez is a much darker character than Cuchillo in The Big Gundown and Run, Man, Run but he’s far from a standard villain, there’s an element of self loathing about him, as he deliberately turns his friends in the town against him.

There’s an excellent brawl between the two leads, with all the violence you’d expect from a Euro-oater. Stelvio Cipriani provides an entertaining score, with more than a touch of Morricone to it. All in all this is a solid western with Milian’s performance putting it a cut above the norm.

The Weekend Western: Will Penny March 30, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , 7 comments

This is the old western-hero-hooks-up-with-mother-and-child tale that’s been done more than a few times before but what makes this so special is the central character of Will Penny. It’s as much a character study as anything else with the first half of the film dealing with his quest for work after completing a cattle drive and it’s only in the second half that the film becomes a love story, when he comes across Catherine Allen and her son Horace holed up in the line rider’s shack where he should be spending the winter.

Will Penny is possibly Charlton Heston’s finest performance, with the inveterate poser giving a rare understated performance. There’s a subtlety here that you don’t usually associate with big movie stars. Will Penny isn’t a larger than life hero, he’s a down to earth cowpoke who knows his best years are behind him and Heston plays him as such, allowing Heston the actor to overshadow Heston the Movie Star for a change.

Writer/director Tom Gries script gives the film an authentic, gritty feel that shows what a cold hard place the West was for aging cowboys like Penny, while Lucien Ballard’s cinematography lets us see that while it was a harsh place it was also a beautiful one.

Donald Pleasence is the patriarch of the villainous brood Will comes into conflict with early in the film and who returns to add some action at the end. This was his first serious western role (he’d appeared in John Sturges’ comedy western The Hallelujah Trail a few years before) and it would be the blueprint for his future appearances in Soldier Blue and the TV mini-series Centennial. His ‘Preacher’ Quint is an over the top display of insane evil, very one dimensional but still fun to watch. Bruce Dern plays one of his sons with somewhat more restraint.

In the role of Dutchy, one of Will’s friends from the first half of the film, Anthony Zerbe does a comedy accent and provides a few laughs but Lee Majors is a little too clean-cut as Blue. Elsewhere real cowboys-turned-actors Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson add a bit more grit to proceedings.

The central relationship with Catherine Allen is never overly sentimental, Joan Hackett matching Heston’s restraint. It’s that understated feel that makes the ending so affecting. Even the kid, played by Jon Gries (the director’s son though not apparently his choice for the part) turns in a good performance, with the on set bond he formed with Chuck adding a touch of genuine emotion.

This is Heston’s film though and he dominates it without ever seeming to do very much. It’s a world away from the historical epics he’s more famous for and makes you wish he’d done a few more less showy parts.

The Weekend Western: Texas Adios February 3, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , add a comment

1966 was a busy year for Franco Nero, along with a thriller or two, a comedy, some schlocky sci fi and a biblical epic, he found time to star in three spaghetti westerns – the seminal Django, Lucio Fulci’s Massacre Time and Texas Adios. Of the three Texas Adios is, by a long way, the least interesting.

Nero is Burt Sullivan, a small town sheriff, who at the start of the film decides it’s time to head for Mexico to avenge his father’s murder. Considering his pappy died when he was seven it’s strange that Burt’s waited so long before hitting the vengeance trail, maybe he was waiting for his little brother Jim to grow up. Jim decides he’s going to tag along to see justice done for the dad he never knew.

I won’t spoil the film’s twist, but it has much in common with similar familial confusion in Massacre Time. Unlike that film though there’s too little going on to keep the viewers attention, apart from a violent barroom brawl none of the action scenes stand out. Ferdinando Baldi lacks the style of Fulci or Corbucci and the film’s plodding pace doesn’t help matters.

Nero looks and acts cool but Alberto Dell’Acqua as his brother hams it up big time and is a constant source of irritation. Even the music is below par, and that’s usually something you can rely on in an Italian western.

This is one for Franco Nero or spaghetti western completists only.

The Weekend Western: Valdez is Coming January 28, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , 3 comments

Burt Lancaster as a Mexican! The idea probably sounds ridiculous…I mean Burt looks about as Mexican as George W. Bush does an Arab…and yet, a bit of make-up and a first class performance and Burt becomes Bob Valdez, ex-cavalry scout and current lawman (on the Mexican side of town of course).

Many a ‘70s western mirrored hot topics in the here and then, with Viet Nam an obvious target (Soldier Blue and Ulzana’s Raid). It’s not war but race that’s at the heart of Valdez is Coming and considering it offers up a black man murdered for a crime he didn’t do, a pregnant Indian woman now a homeless widow and the browbeaten, and later just plain beaten, Bob Valdez, you’d have to be a little slow on the uptake not to get the film’s message.

For all that the film doesn’t feel preachy, the subtext never getting in the way of what is a damn fine action western. In lesser hands Valdez’s transformation from submissive lawman to a one man guerrilla army would be ridiculous (particularly for someone of his advanced years) but Lancaster makes it real. Bob knows the land, knows the people and, most importantly, knows how to handle a gun (he carries a small arsenal) and Burt, in the way he handles that array of weapons, the way he moves and interacts with the environment, makes it all real.

The supporting cast is pretty good too, from up-and-comers like Richard Jordon as a young hothead (the sort of part he played a lot early in his career) and Hector Elizondo’s hired gun to Jon Cypher as the main villain (a world away from Hill Street Blues) and Susan Clark as the cause of much of the films strife. Best of all is Barton Heyman as Cypher’s right-hand man, El Segundo, a very bad man to be sure (he’s scarily moustachioed to prove it) but also a complex one, capable of respecting his adversary, far more in fact than he respects his boss.

Made in Spain the film has the feel and look of a spaghetti western but whereas most Italian make horse operas featured morally ambivalent anti-heroes, Bob Valdez has a just cause and a sense of personal honour that sets him apart.

In the late sixties and early seventies Burt Lancaster starred in several superior westerns. Some, like The Professionals are rightly regarded as classics but others are somewhat under appreciated. Valdez is Coming falls into that latter category, it’s a film that’s well worth a western fans time, primarily for Burt’s powerhouse performance, which I’d rank up there with his best.

The Weekend Western: Massacre Time January 21, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Westerns , 1 comment so far

Tom Corbett (Franco Nero) receives an urgent message to return home. When he arrives he finds the family ranch now in the hands of a stranger and his brother Jeff (George Hilton) a washed up drunk. He’s urged to leave town by just about everyone but when an old family friend is murdered he’s determined to get to the bottom of things, wherever that may lead.

Massacre Time was directed by Lucio Fulci, a man usually associated with horror movies. This was the first, and arguably the best, of his three spaghetti westerns, and while the idea of a man returning home to find his home is no longer his own may not be an unusual one, there are enough twists to the tale to make it a cut above the average.

The familial entangelments of the plot are far from the western norm, having more in common with a soap opera, but to say more would spoil the surprise. It certainly adds an unusual, almost Shakespearian, character dynamic which gives the actors plenty to work with.

Graphic violence isn’t unusual in a spaghetti western and Massacre Time has, as the title would suggest, more than its fair share. What is unusual is the bullwhip duel that’s fought between Nero and Nino Castelnuovo as Jason ‘Junior’ Scott the new ranch owners son. As you’d expect Fulci does a decent job with the action but he really excels himself with this whip fight, aided by Castelnuovo extraordinary performance.

Of the three main characters it’s Castelnuovo who makes the biggest impact as the barking mad son. He’s a total psychopath, whether watching a man torn to pieces by dogs or shooting an unarmed boy down in cold blood, he’s got a demented gleam in his eye and an evil smirk on his lips. Without doubt one of the standout Italian western villains and the films most striking asset.

Franco Nero made this the same year as Django but his performance here lacks the impact of Corbucci’s film. It doesn’t help that as characters go Tom Corbett is a little on the dull side, easily overshadowed by brother Jeff. George Hilton as the elder Corbett sibling steals Nero’s thunder as the drunk who still knows how to use a gun (shades of Rio Bravo?). It’s a flamboyant, over the top performance that (I think) marked Hilton’s first appearance in a spaghetti.

Not a classic but well worth a look for Castelnuovo’s scene stealing psycho and Hilton’s drunken gunslinger.

The Weekend Western: The Scalphunters January 12, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Westerns , 1 comment so far

Sydney Pollack isn’t a director I associate with westerns, when I think of Pollack I think of films like The Yakuza, Absence of Malice or Tootsie, films with a contemporary setting. Yet Pollack directed the excellent Jeremiah Johnson as well as this hugely enjoyable comedy western so it’s perhaps a shame he hasn’t made a few more oaters.

Most successful comedy westerns tend to spoof the genre, sending up the characters and situations that are familiar to genre fans. The Scalphunters is one of the few that manages to be funny without playing the whole thing for laughs. That it’s so funny is down to William Norton’s witty script and the fine playing of the leads, in particular Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.

It’s this Burt/Ossie double act that generates the bulk of the comedic moments, as the cantankerous trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster) and ex-slave/would-be-Indian Joseph Lee (Davis) are thrown together when Bass is forced into trading his hard earned pelts for the black man. The banter between the two is a delight with Lancaster getting more laughs in the first twenty minutes than he did in the whole of The Hallelujah Trail.

Once the pair are parted the laughs don’t dry up completely but the film does become more of a straight action western as Lancaster goes after Telly Savalas and his band of scalphunters (including Shelley Winters). He picks off the gang gorilla style, slowly witling their numbers down and Pollack delivers some fine action scenes. For a director who got his start in television and had only made the jump to the big screen a few years prior to this, he makes remarkably good use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The final showdown is a satisfying one, the film culminating with a memorable brawl between Lancaster and Davis. If fact there’s hardly a bum note in the whole film, we get laughs, action and even a little social commentary thrown in for good measure. You can’t really ask for much more than that.

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