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Italian Westerns in the 2007 Venice Film Festival

The VENICE BIENNALE is showing, in late August and September 2007, a retrospective of some 30-odd Italian Westerns. It's a great opportunity to see some rare and remarkable films. This is a short introduction to the line-up, and notes on the ones I've seen (I hope to see the other ones in Venice!)


ITALIAN WESTERNS IN VENICE

In late 1963, in Rome, the cameraman Enzo Barboni went to the pictures. Coming out of the cinema, he ran into his friend Sergio Leone. Barboni raved about the samurai film he'd just seen - YOJIMBO. Leone and his wife, Carla, went to see it the next day.

Leone, too, was blown away by Kurosawa's picture. He'd seen SEVEN SAMURAI, of course. And countless Westerns. But YOJIMBO was something different: Its cynicism, its arbitrary surges of violence, made it unique among the films they'd seen. Though YOJIMBO is as much a gangster movie as a Western, Leone was determined to make it the model for the Western he planned to make.

As soon as he got home, he phoned two brother directors, Duccio Tessari and Sergio Corbucci, and told them about YOJIMBO. Corbucci had already seen it. And guess what? He too planned to make a Western with a YOJIMBO feel to it. Suddenly, Leone and Corbucci were rivals, in a race to direct a Western based on Kurosawa's samurai film. They were 34 and 36 years old.

Leone got his Western off the ground first. Though other Italian Westerns were made before it (including one by Corbucci), PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI is the fount from which the genre, or sub-genre, sprang. Inevitably, some great films are missing from the Venice line-up: but some classics - DJANGO, SE SEI VIVO SPARA, TEPEPA, LA RESA DEI CONTI - are also being shown. Venerable actors, composers and directors - including Giulio Questi - will attend their screenings; the writer Marco Giusti will present a massive book about the genre/sub-genre. I've noted where it's an HDCAM projection: otherwise, presumably 35mm prints are being shown.

PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI (a.k.a. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1963), quite rightly, begins the Venice Biennale's Italian Western retrospective. It was so close in script and spirit to YOJIMBO that the Japanese sued Leone's producers, delaying the international release until a deal was done. The film made a star of its lead actor, Clint Eastwood. It gave work to a great Italian actor, Gian Maria Volonte, who had been blacklisted for being a Communist. And it created the cynical, violent prototype for the Hollywood action hero of today.

DJANGO is Corbucci's fourth Western, made in Italy and Spain in 1966. It's violent, impressionistic, sadistic, anti-clerical. In one scene, the prist/Ku Kux Klan spy falls into the hands of the Mexican bandits who cut his ear off, make him eat it... and then shoot him dead! (The censor told Corbucci to cut the ear-severing scene. But Corbucci 'forgot to' remove it from certain copies: these were the ones screened for the press!) Costumes and sets were by Carlo Simi, who also designed Leone's films. Enzo Barboni shot it, and Luis Enrique Bacalov wrote a magnificent score. DJANGO is set in a sea of mud. Though influenced by YOJIMBO - there are two opposed sets of outlaw gangs, and the hero suffers horribly - it feels fresh and original. Notice the cast and crew don't take American-sounding pseudonyms: Corbucci made DJANGO for the Italian market. More violent and pessimistic than anything before it, DJANGO was banned by the British censor until 1993. 32 sequals followed! Only one of them 'official'.

NAVAJO JOE was made by Corbucci after DJANGO. He directed three Westerns that year - 1966. NAVAJO JOE has a bigger budget: the producer was Dino de Laurentis. And it has an American star - a former Playgirl centerfold, Burt Reynolds, in his first film role. Reynolds called NAVAJO JOE "the worst experience of my life," but I bet he had worse ones. Ugo Pirro created a great persona for him: the implacable avenger with a long speech about how he, and not the white racists, is the REAL American. Fernando Rey, as the priest Father Rattigan, gives all his scenes a Buñuelian tone until the villain, played by Aldo Sambrell, shoots him dead. Did Cormac McCarthy see this film? NAVAJO JOE anticipates his grisly scalphunter epic, BLOOD MERIDIAN.

IL RITORNO DI RINGO (a.k.a. RETURN OF RINGO) is Duccio Tessari's sequal to UNA PISTOLA PER RINGO. Both films were made, with typical speed, in 1965. IL RITORNO is the more stylish, and original. Morricone's score is superb, and Ringo - played by Giuliano Gemma - is unlike any other Italian Western hero: at one moment, he is afraid. The film's premise - Mexicans cruelly dominate gringos in Ringo's home town - is absurd. But the Mexican bad guys (Fernando Sancho and Jose Martin) are portrayed as polite and dignified; the gringos as ineffectual hysterics. The Surreal and perverse are hinted at: like Buñuel's ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, Ringo has a beloved music box, and lies in wait to murder his own wife. But nothing is developed or taken seriously. Tessari walks the line between gratuitous violence (good!) and over-egged sentiment. Fine photography by Francisco Marin.

UN DOLLARO BUCATO (a.k.a. ONE SILVER DOLLAR, 1965) Not much to be said for this plodding Italian-French Western, shot at Elios Films outside Rome. It was directed by Giorgio Ferroni, and stars Gemma, who, absent Tessari, is less good. There's one worthwhile scene - where the hero and his brother are coaxed into a showdown in the saloon. The rest is leaden, with dialogue like "The bandits steal all of our livestock and all of our crops!"

LA RESA DEI CONTI (a.k.a. THE BIG GUNDOWN, 1966) - a classic Italian Western, directed by Sergio Sollima. After the DOLLARS films, this is Lee Van Cleef's best character - as a Texas lawman with political ambitions, hired to track down an innocent fugitive: Tomas Milian. The score is one of Morricone's best; sets and costumes were by Carlo Simi. An excellent cat-and-mouse story, interweaved with politics: American aristocrats are racist perverts, Europeans fanatical militarists. According to Howard Hughes, the English-language version is cut to make Van Cleef appear more of a cold-blooded killer: but this works! (Another instance, like Corbucci's MINNESOTA CLAY, where the US distributor's insensitive cutting made a good film better.) HDCAM projection.

BOUNTY KILLER (a.k.a. THE UGLY ONES) is a Spanish-Italian psychological Western, directed by Eugenio Martin - mainly on the Llano del Duque location in Almeria - in 1966. The heroine (yes, the protagonist is a woman, though she only gets third place in the credits!) must choose between an unpleasant professional bounty hunter, Luke Chilson (those names!) and a glamorous bandit, played by Tomas Milian. Milian plays an excllent character. At first loved by all the locals, who save him from the bounty hunter, his bandit becomes increasingly strange, cruel, narcissistic and mad. Fine photography by Enzo Barboni, and a good performance by Mario Brega (usually cast as a supporting bad guy) as a simple-minded blacksmith who adores the outlaw.

UN FIUME DI DOLLARI (a.k.a. THE HILLS RUN RED, 1966) is the first Western by director and critic, Carlo Lizzani. Despite the blood-drenched English-language title and the emphatic Morricone score, this is a Western in the American style, notably influenced by ONE-EYED JACKS, well shot by Antonio Secchi. A year later, Lizzani co-scripted another revenge Western, this one with Pier Paolo Pasolini: the story was similar, but the film was REQUIESCANT - one of the most stylish and deranged of all Italian Westerns. Both films have half-mad, suffering heroes. REQUIESCANT is a greater film. Lizzani said, "We did try through the Spaghetti Western to say something up to date... something polemical... something about justice."

SE SEI VIVO SPARA (a.k.a. DJANGO KILL, 1967) is marvellous, an entirely Surrealist Italian Western, directed by Giulio Questi. NAVAJO JOE has Surreal moments thanks to the hypocritical bourgeois presence of Fernando Rey; but SE SEI VIVO SPARA is a Surrealist film. It's strange, hypnotic and disturbing in its theme, in its editing strategy (the script was co-written by the editor, Franco 'Kim' Arcalli), in its characters, and in its location - the decaying Colmenar Western set near Madrid, where A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was made. Like Questi and Arcali's previous collaboration, LA MORTE HA FATTO L'UOVA / A CURIOUS WAY TO LOVE, the film is violent, mystifying, impossible to predict. Questi said he wanted to recount his experiences as a young partisan, in the mountains, in the Second World Wor: "I never liked Italian Westerns. I made one, and to tell the truth, I only like one: the one I made myself." HDCAM projection.

TEPEPA (a.k.a. BLOOD & GUNS, 1968) is an excellent Mexican Revolution story, directed by Giulio Petroni. John Steiner is a wooden gringo, but Tomas Milian as the social bandit and Orson Welles as the reactionary army colonel are outstanding. They have good debates about power and the Revolution, and their showdown is strongly acted and well staged. Francisco Marin's location photography turns Tabernas, Albaricoces, and Guadix into the white-walled Mexico of the 1920s. Much irony and moral ambiguity; very influential on Leone's DUCK YOU SUCKER. Only Damiano Damiani's QUIEN SABE? / A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1966) is better.

OGNUNO PER SE (a.k.a. THE RUTHLESS FOUR, 1968) is a gold-mining adventure up in THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE vein, directed by Giorgio Capitani. Slow to start, and American-style at the beginning, it features a strong, increasingly over-the-top cast. Only Van Heflin plays it straight, as miner Sam Cooper. Gilbert Roland, as Cooper's enemy Mason, rumbas to himself before the shootout: he is quite excellent. Klaus Kinski is always entertaining. The action is well done, and the locations - in Almeria - are gorgeous.

PREPARATI LA BARA (a.k.a. GET THE COFFIN READY, VIVA DJANGO) is one of the 32 DJANGO sequals, this one directed by Ferdinando Baldi in 1968. Baldi specialised in imitative, exploitation Westerns, including the brilliant LITTLE RITA NEL FAR WEST, the erratic BLINDMAN, and the 3-D COMIN AT YA! Terence Hill is an unconvincing substitute for Franco Nero, but Baldi choreographs the action well, and the film is shot by DJANGO's cinematographer, Enzo Barboni.

E DIO DISSE A CAINO (a.k.a. AND GOD SAID TO CAIN, 1969) is a Gothic Western directed by Antonio Margheritti, better known for his horror films. It observes near-classic unities: taking place in one location within the space of one night. Klaus Kinski is the revenge-driven hero, clad in a black cape and a red shirt, entering town via a well in the graveyard, sliding in and out of shadows like a ghost. E DIO DISSE... has the claustrophobic, over-dressed air of a horror film. For an Italian Western, the bad guys are very un-villainous: the Acobar clan seem pleasant and a bit childish, yet they are doomed to be destroyed by the implacable, languid, weird Gary Hamilton. There are no flashbacks; conventional exposition is almost entirely ignored. A fine film.

UNA LUNGA FILA DI CROCI (a.k.a. NO ROOM TO DIE) was written and directed by Sergio Garrone in 1969. It tells the story of a cabal of corrupt businessmen, led by a banker, Fargo, which smuggles Mexicans into the US for use as slave labour. It's an extremely timely subject (as today, "illegal" Mexicans are allowed to die while the smugglers escape), but the execution is uneven, the action not always good. There are fine flashbacks, and great scenes involving Mario Brega, and Fargo, played by Riccardo Garrone. The same director and star - Garrone and Anthony Steffen - made a DIO DISSE-style ghost-revenger Western, DJANGO THE BASTARD, the same year.

COMPAÑEROS (a.k.a. VAMOS A MATAR, COMPAÑEROS! or LET'S GO AND KILL, GOOD BUDDIES!, 1970) is Corbucci's jokey remake of his Mexican Revolution drama, A PROFESSIONAL GUN (1968). Both films star Franco Nero - as a European mercenary - and Jack Palance - as an evil, eccentric American arms dealer. Here, Tomas Milian plays the Mexican social bandit; in the previous film, it was Tony Musante. The stories are very similar; the films have the same flashback structure. Why did Corbucci, usually so inventive a director, make the same film twice? Christopher Wagstaff writes in Popular European Cinema: "COMPAÑEROS in 1970 earned 1.5 billion lire in Italy, while Bertolucci's IL CONFORMISTA only earned 0.5 billion. Both of these films can be said to have a strong political engagement." So, was Corbucci in it for the money - or the Revolution?

LO CHIAMAVANO TRINITA (a.k.a. THEY CALL ME TRINITY). In the late sixties, Giuseppi Collizi made three Westerns featuring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. The films were increasingly comic, and circus-acrobatic-oriented. In 1970, Enzo Barboni - cameraman of DJANGO - borrowed Collizi's team and wrote and directed this comic Western, the first of several allegedly-funny Westerns to feature the character of 'Trinity.' I love Barboni's work as a cinematographer, but I hate these 'Trinity' films. Italian Westerns were good when they were epic, doom-laden, and portentious. The 'Trinity' films signalled the beginning of the end for the Italian Western (but, as they are supposed to be funny, I imagine the Venice screening will be popular!)

MATALO! was the only Western of Cesare Canavari - shot in 1971. Lou Castel (REQUIESCANT) stars in an extended homage to SE SEI VIVO SPARA, complete with weird editing, gay sub-plot, and an outlaw coming back from the dead. I recall a long scene in which Castel has his hair pulled. But my recollection of MATALO! is dim. (Canavari directed the very first 'Emanuelle' film - IO EMANUELLE - in 1973.)

UNA RAGIONE PER VIVERE... UNA RAGIONE PER MORIRE (a.k.a. MASSACRE AT FORT HOLLMAN, 1972) is an Italian/French/Spanish/German coproduction with American stars - James Coburn and Telly Salavas. Filmed in the fort built for an American Western, EL CONDOR, it's more of a DIRTY DOZEN-style action thriller than a Western: it was shot by COMPAÑEROS' cinematographer, Alejandro Ulloa. The director, Tonino Valerii, was Sergio Leone's assistant; he made two very signifigant Westerns of his own, EL MIO NOME E NESSUNO and IL PREZZO DEL POTORE. MY NAME IS NOBODY is an epic partially shot in the US, and often credited to Leone. THE PRICE OF POWER is a political thriller, set in Dallas, Texas, about a conspiracy to assassinate the President! An excellent picture, it was shot on the locations of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

IL GRANDE DUELLO (a.k.a. THE BIG DUEL, 1972), was directed by Giancarlo Santi, another former assistant of Sergio Leone. It's a variable Western featuring Lee Van Cleef, Hong Kong-style acrobatics, excellent villains, and strong score by Luis Enrique Bacalov. There is a series of interesting flashbacks which suggest that Santi - like Valerii - was interested in the politics of political assassination. Was Leone sending his assistants out to tell the public something about American power politics? And what about the scene where Lee Van Cleef catches a bullet between his teeth? What does that mean? Where was Santi (or Santi and Leone) trying to take the genre?

KEOMA was directed by Enzo G. Castellari (a.k.a. Enzo Girolami) in 1975, near the end of the Italian Western cycle. Franco Nero, star of DJANGO and other notable films, plays a blond Indian who returns to town to oppose his racist half-brothers and a well-poisoning rancher. There are excellent flashbacks, a good performance by Woody Strode, and a fantastically-bad ballad by a seemingly-insane, screeching songstress. Castellari directed several Westerns, of which the best was JOHNNY HAMLET (a.k.a. QUELLA SPORCA STORIA DEL WEST, 1968), an adaptation of Shakespeare's play, co-written with Sergio Corbucci. He also directed the only Russian/Italian Western, JONATHAN OF THE BEARS. HDCAM projection.

Other Italian Westerns being screened at Venice (which I haven't seen) are:

I SETTE DEL TEXAS Joaquin Romero Marchent, 1964
$100,000 PER RINGO Alberto De Martino, 1966
$10,000 PER UN MASSACRO Romolo Guerrieri, 1966
RINGO NEL NEBRASKA Mario Bava, 1966
SUGAR COLT Franco Giraldi, 1966
IL TEMPO DEGLI AVVOLTOI Nando Cicero, 1967
YANKEE Tinto Brass, 1967
LA MORTE NON CONTA I DOLLARI Riccardo Freda, 1967
LA TAGLIA E TUA, L'UOMO L'AMAZZO IO Eduardo Mulgaria, 1970
LA VENDETTA E UN PIATTO CHE SI SERVE FREDDO Pasquale Squitieri, 1971
IL MIO NOME E SHANGHAI JOE Mario Caino, 1973
I QUATTRO DELL'APOCALISSE Lucio Fulci, 1975

The official list of Italian Westerns includes GONIN NO SHOKIN KASEGI, directed by Kudo Eiichi in 1969. This is also known as THE FORTRESS OF DEATH. Is it a Japanese Italian Western, like SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO? We shall see...