Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spaghetti Western Review

TASTE OF VENGEANCE turns out to be one of star Gianni Garko's lesser westerns, which is a shame, because this is a great-looking film. Some locations familiar to spaghetti western fans are revisited, the cast is full of familiar faces like Frank Brana and Lorenzo Robledo, and the always charismatic Garko leads the way as Bryan, a decent man crazed by the rape and murder of his wife by renegade Union deserters. No longer a believer in justice he turns against his rescuer, Daniel, the man who dragged him out of his burning house, and takes up a life of crime. Daniel, on the other hand, becomes a sheriff and vows to bring Bryan in. As they say, complications ensue. One of the problems with Taste of Vengeance is that Garko is just too good as the villain; you tend to like him more than Sean Todd (Ivan Rassimov), the good guy, who frankly is written a bit bland. Music is nothing to write home about, and some of the English dialog sounds stilted. Garko gets crazier and crazier and by the dramatic shoot out at the end I really didn't care too much how it ended up. One point; at the beginning Bryan takes a bullet to the stomach as his home is invaded. He passes out and when he wakes up, having been tended to by Daniel, his wound has miraculously healed, and is never mentioned again. Sloppy film-making, but partially redeemed by a strikingly filmed ending. For SW enthusiasts only.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spaghetti Western Review


THREE SILVER DOLLARS a.k.a. Dai nemici mi guardo io! (1968) Cast: Charles Southwood, Julian Mateos, Mirko Ellis
As a long time fan of Eurowesterns, I'm inclined to find something of value in even the most pathetic of efforts. THREE SILVER DOLLARS, though, took me two sittings to get through. It's an average film at best, with very little to recommend it except to the die-hard SW fan. Charles Southwood stars as Alan, one of his first roles, and it's easy to see why he was chosen as the lead; he's handsome in a traditional movie way, blonde, even features, a touch of charisma. He looks like a slighter Richard Harrison, and should have been better as a star of westerns; perhaps he just wasn't that interested in a film career. Julian Mateos is okay as Hondo, a Mexican cell mate of Alan's who wants to team up with him on his search for the gold, the three bucks in the title being the key to the treasure. There is an okay theme song which is used again and again, and Mirko Ellis rants and raves as the villain, the mysterious El Condor. The dubbing is particularly bad on this one, as the love interest, a half-Mexican girl, sounds like a street-wise film noir broad. Also, incredibly, the line "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" is used seriously. I guess it's a sign of a bad movie when the best thing about it is the silver dollar props they used. Southwood is seen to much better effect in SARTANA'S HERE; TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN, teamed up with George Hilton.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

American Western Review


RIDE LONESOME (1959) D. Budd Boetticher Cast: Randolph Scott, Pernell Roberts, James Best, Karen Steele, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn
This is a film I came to late in life. I don't remember it ever being on tv in the bay area, and of course it's never had a video release here in the U.S. I kept hearing about the Boetticher/Scott westerns and finally got a couple from a friend over at the SWWB during my days of heavy trading. Of course I was blown away by it, even though it wasn't widescreen.
Scott plays Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter who captures Billy John (James Best) a young giggling killer with connections. The youngster sends word to his big brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) to come to his rescue and as Brigade is taking him handcuffed to Santa Cruz, where he killed a man, they encounter Boone (Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn in his first film role) at a waystation where Mrs. Lane, the station master's wife (the picturesque Steele) has been left alone. Brigade soon finds out that Boone and Whit are after Billy John too, not for bounty but for the amnesty promised for his capture. The two men have spent time on the wrong side of the law and want to go straight.
A simple premise and the film which features intermittant action turns into a fascinating character study. The two outlaws are immensely likeable as is Brigade, of course. Mrs. Lane, and we the viewers, can't imagine them squaring off over the valuable prisoner, but as they near Santa Cruz and Frank and the boys are gaining on them we gradually begin to understand Brigade's motivations and the superb climax is set up.
SPOILERS AHEAD!
Brigade is luring big brother Frank to the hanging tree where years before he had hanged Brigade's wife. Frank is a different man now; a man can change, but Brigade's desire for revenge hasn't changed. He will hang Billy John from the same tree unless Frank stops him. Van Cleef is very good in a small role. You sense his new-found decency, but he can't change the past, and he can't let his young brother hang.
This sets up the memorable final shot, second only to the final shot of THE SEARCHERS in my opinion, Brigade standing alone before the blazing hanging tree as the music swells and the camera follows the smoke up to the empty sky and THE END appears.
This is one of those films that I fall into every time it's on. I don't want to watch it, it's just something I have to do. Now that I have the dvd I'll pop it in just intending to watch bits and pieces but invariably watch the whole darn thing. It's that good and compact, a pleasure to watch, and probably my second favorite American western!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

American Western Review


A critic friend of mine recently published his list of the fifty best films of the fifties; only two westerns made his list; neither one was THE SEARCHERS.
I wrote and questioned him about this, and he allowed that yes, he'd recently seen THE SEARCHERS for the first time, but it was on AMC (ecch!) and pan and scan and he wasn't sure how he felt about it. He agreed that he needs to see it widescreen and without commercial breaks, but for some reason I doubt he'll come around to my way of thinking, that THE SEARCHERS is the greatest western of all time.
Beautifully filmed in Monument Valley, the film boasts John Wayne's career best performance; others may opt for Nathan Brittles in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON or Thomas Dunson in RED RIVER, or even his Oscar winning role of Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT. All three are great performances, but none come up to his role as Ethan Edwards. According to Harry Carey Jr., who's book COMPANY OF HEROES talks about his career in westerns, John Ford meant this one; there was a different feeling on the set (and Carey should have noticed, having made seven or eight films with Ford by this time), a feeling of seriousness and purpose. Edwards remained with Wayne during filming; he was no fun to be around, and I think this shows in the finished film. Some of the usual Wayne humor is present, but the melancholy of Ethan's return to the woman he loves who is married to his brother is palpable. Later at the cavalry fort, when he pauses at the doorway and looks back at the white captives, the look on his face is downright scary! His eyes are hooded as he looks at the young blonde woman crooning at a doll; we know what he'd like to do, what he's got planned for Debbie, and we're horrified that this American Icon, the Duke, would contemplate such a thing.
I like the humor in the film; Charlie McCorry, Old Mose Harper, Lars Jorgensen's Swedish accented declaration "Next time I raise PIGS, by Golly!". There were characters like this in the old west, and Ford and scriptwriter Frank Nugent do a great job of showing them.
Unfortunately, with the political climate what it is, THE SEARCHERS has dropped out of the IMDB's top 250. This doesn't break my heart, as it's largely a popularity contest, full of recent trendy films, and John Wayne is largely despised by today's young filmgoer, who only remembers his far-right politics. And Ford, who was quite the Hollywood liberal in his day, is considered old hat and plodding, his films full of sentiment and buffoonery. Leone is much more popular (well, I can't really argue with that; GBU and OUATIW are #3 and 4 behind SEVEN SAMURAI and THE SEARCHERS on my ten best list), but 3:10 TO YUMA and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD are both on the top 250 while THE SEARCHERS dropped off some months ago.
I think a lot of viewers take THE SEARCHERS for granted. We saw it years ago, yeah it's good, but kind of old fashioned. John Wayne is dead, and who watches John Ford anymore?
Well, we should. THE SEARCHERS remains a stunning western, the best of all time, I think.

Spaghetti Western Review

DJANGO AND SARTANA ARE COMING...IT'S THE END! 1970
Cowboys do a whole lot of riding in this Demofilo Fidani western starring Hunt Powers (Jack Betts) as Django and Chet Davis as Sartana. Also on view is Gordon Mitchell as a deliciously insane bandit leader who spends a lot of time talking to himself in the mirror. and playing poker against himself in the mirror...and cheating! Shots of horsemen riding along the horizon take up screen time and build the slim story up to ninety minutes or so of questionable action. Fidani has been compared to Ed Wood, but this one is pretty well done, with a top-notch score, plenty of extras milling about in the backgrounds, some nice town sets, a few gorgeous ladies, and an incredible stunt team who flop and twitch when they're shot; no slumping to the ground for them, they usually fly from twelve to fifteen feet when shot, while twitching horribly. Fans of the genre just might have a good time with this one; others beware!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spaghetti Western Review

SHANGO, LA PISTOLA INFALLIBILE 1970 d. Edoardo Mulargia
Shango is a typical Anthony Steffen spaghetti western, beautifully photographed with great music, lots of sweaty Mediterranean actors posing as Mexicans, bad dubbing, and a sneering Eduardo Fajardo as a Confederate Major who is reluctant to see the south go down in defeat (a staple of these pasta oaters!). Lots of gun play, hurtling stunt men, put-upon villagers, and the reliable Steffen as Shango, a Texas Ranger who just wants folks to believe that the war is over. Good production values, great sets, fine music and lots of action make this one a winner, if you like spaghetti westerns. Franco Cleef's restoration is fine with only an unavoidable slight hiss on the soundtrack.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Spaghetti Western Review


In 1961 Michael Carreras was looking to become an independent producer, breaking away from Hammer Films, purveyors of high-quality Gothic horror movies, which was a family business owned by James Carreras, his father. His idea, a new one, was to film a European western, using the desert area of Almeria, Spain, to fill in for the American southwest. Along with another Hammer regular, Jimmy Sangster, he signed American actors Richard Basehart, Don Taylor, and Alex Nicol, all of whom had acted for Hammer, to play the protagonists. The result, SAVAGE GUNS, is one of, if not the first, spaghetti westerns of the modern age. It has the look, the low sandy desert, adobe houses, the sneering bandidos, and the iconic mysterious gunslinger who finds himself between warring factions. The music is not quite there yet, very American in style, as is the action, but it has its moments. As a prototypical Euro-western, it's of interest to students of the genre, but probably too slow for typical western fans. Lots of talking. Capricorn, Carreras' and Sangster's company, didn't last long, and most likely because of the failure of this film, Hammer remained uninterested in adding westerns to their roster of Gothic Horror, Adventure, and Thriller movies, but imagine if they had; would we have been treated to Christopher Lee in DRACULA OF THE RIO GRANDE? Or Peter Cushing as a mysterious black-clad gunfighter? One can only conjecture.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Favorite Places



JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL MONUMENT
My first real desert experience was in Joshua Tree National Monument a long time ago. I was struck by the eerie silences, the vast acreage of Joshua Trees raising their arms to heaven (hence the term, named after Joshua the prophet...) We climbed some huge boulders and looked out over the desert, and could distinctly hear a normal-voiced conversation between two hikers half a mile or so away. Amazing quiet.
Joshua Tree is one of the most traveled desert parks in the USA, along with Death Valley, and Anza Borrego. You go to Death Valley for the dunes and the heat, Anza Borrego for the wildflowers, and Joshua Tree for the rocks. Nowadays Ryan Campground is nearly impossible to use as rock climbers pour into that area all the time. We generally stay at Jumbo Rocks, the largest campground, which is close to all the attractions of the park.
It's possible to visit JT for years and still find new things to do. A couple of years ago a friend and I found the Queen Mine trail to an overlook, from which you could see closed off mines and rusted equipment; this year my daughter, her friend, and I hiked down to it, about a mile or so of which the last bit was uphill, but what wonders we saw! Well, a gigantic boulder, some rusted mining equipment, and closed off mines descending blackly into the earth. It had the same eerie quality of any place which has been heavily used and abandoned, the feeling that MAN HAS BEEN HERE, BUT NO MORE and What Are YOU doing here? In the midst of a very populous sightseeing area we saw no one for over an hour and it was great.
If you go wear kind shoes and take along plenty of water. I don't always, because I'm a dope, but my daughter keeps track and makes me take some, and I always drink most of it up during the hike.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spaghetti Western Review


All'Ombra di una Colt (1965) aka SHADOW OF THE COLT
This 1965 Italian western has many familiar faces among the cast; all do a good job, particularly Conrado San Martin as the elder pistolero, Duke, who forbids his friend Steve Blane (Stephen Forsythe) from courting his daughter. Complications ensue, and eventually Duke and Steve are face to face on the main street of Providence (the same town Clint Eastwood cleaned up in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS). Most of the fun in this one is recognizing the locations and identifying stock performers like Franco Ressel, Sancho Gracia, and Jose Calvo. Aldo Sanbrell shows up early as a bandido, and Tito Garcia is cast as a barkeep with a full head of hair for a change. The action is good, with the stuntmen earning their keep by crashing off of roofs and through remadas, and Blane's horse gives probably the best performance in the history of equine acting. Nico Fidenco's score is outstanding, although the vocal over the titles are a bit off-putting. The titles themselves are particularly flamboyant for a spaghetti, luridly painted cartoons that flirt with a fine art look. Overall I liked this one, I think seeing it in a nice widescreen print helped a lot.