Catching Up, Part One: What Do You Call Italian-Made Westerns Shot in Spain?
Heat and a move back downtown have kept me from the old K.B., but I've been more screening-happy, if anything. Lest I get more ruthlessly behind, let's take this one in-bold bit at a time:
"Beyond Leone" Spaghetti Western Fest @ I-House
Everyone's an expert on Sergio Leone, but are there filmmakers or even individual films just as worthy? Possibly not, but this cavalcade -- picked by the great collector Harry Guero, of Exhumed Films -- was revealing all the same. The most eye-opening stuff was, not pejoratively, the oodles of trailers. Exploitation films make for the best adverts, as they tend to be nothing more than recycled bits and stars. Hence the reams of Lee Van Cleef vehicles, which find him cast as everything from heroes to villains to a badly-toupéed injun. (Il bruto, if you need know, hails from Jersey.) As with the fake trailers from Grindhouse, seeing the full thing would almost be superfluous -- they could never live up to the shorn-down version. Should trailer-makers be held on the same pedestal as filmmakers? Discuss.
As for the six features themselves, they were an understandable mixed bag. Even the two movies featuring the "Man With No Name" ripoff character Sartana spanned from entertainingly lurid (1970's If You Meet Sartana Pray For Your Death) to stiff to the point of lifeless (1971's Django Challenges Sartana, essentially a spag western "vs" pic). The Wild Bunch-esque Five Man Army -- released the same year, so who knows if rip-off charges are in order -- features Peter Graves, a fat guy, a Japanese guy, a Mexican bandito and another old guy milking the Mexican Revolution via some of the longest set pieces this side of a Melville heist pic, albeit without the rigor. They wind up fighting alongside the peasants, whereas the leads in 1971's amazingly-titled (aka Heads I Kill You, Tails You're Dead! They Call Me Hallelujah (aka, Heads You're Dead, Tails I Kill You -- for some reason I like this title more) continue to happily play for only themselves; not sure what to make of the wisecracking Eastwoodesque star (George Hilton) teaming up with the Russian Kossack dude. (Fuck the Cold War!)
The regrettably spotty Day of Anger -- with bandit Lee Van Cleef, as directed by Leone protégé Tonino Valerii (My Name is Nobody), training a gawky kid on how to be a selfish baddie -- was paired with the series' sole eye-opener: 1968's The Ruthless Four. What bugs me about my liking it so is that it was the most traditionally American of the fest's offerings. Most spag westerns, at least the ones I've seen, tend to revel in bad-ass amorality, rejecting both the classical moral greyness of classic westerns and the bitter, revisionist history stylings of the westerns being made in America at the same time. (Your Peckinpahs, Hellmans, Little Big Man, The Hired Hand, etc.) The Ruthless Four, meanwhile, is a pretty spot-on imitation Anthony Mann -- well-plotted, with dark themes and a slew of unlikeable but (for the most part) human characters.
An ancient, near-death Van Heflin plays a gold prospector whose partner turns on him in the opening scene. Heflin acts quick and winds up having to detonate his mine, which he's been digging out for months, with said backstabber still in there. Hoping to return with a boy he helped raise (Hilton again), he winds up taking on two more men in addition: Gilbert Roland as a former partner who he accidentally (or not) helped put behind bars; and no less than Klaus Kinski, as a pale, effete, vampiric man of mystery who "helped" Hilton (who's not so trustworthy after all) after Heflin and he parted ways. (Kinski's performance at times seems like a dry run for his and Herzog's Nosferatu.) So no one trusts anyone, each person has ulterior motives and there's gold to be had.
So rare is The Ruthless Four that the (faded, dominantly red) print was in 1.33 rather than its alleged 'scope*, so I can't say how Mannish director Giorgio Capitani's compromised frames are. (The editing is fine, though, particularly during a leftfield shoot-out at the halfway mark.) This leaves it transfixing as pure drama, and the film is rarely less than captivating, its four-way battle of wills sometimes reminiscent of Mann's genius The Naked Spur. Sure, it's no masterpiece, but a reddish, sliced-up print is far less than it deserves.
To come: Hiroshi Teshigahara, Pedro Costa, The Bourne Fucking Ultimatum
* If you haven't seen what people did before the days of digitally-abled pan-and-scan, then ye gods are you in for a treat. The framing is usually centered; if the director and/or cinematographer wished to, I don't know, spice things up a bit, then the solution is to simply cut to a different section of the frame. As you can imagine, this is all kinds of jarring, with people sometimes "moved" a mere couple inches so we can someone who'd be left out entirely because he's been staged at the extreme right or left. Disparage P&S as much as you want, at least sudden, unsightly pans are better than sudden, jarring cuts.