Cox’s Orange Pippins #1: A Fistful of Kinski

I picked up Alex Cox’s personal field guide to spaghetti westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die in the West, which is fun — he’s very opinionated, but his enthusiasm for the good and ugly entries, and his outrage at the bad, is infectious, so I decided to run a few of his recommendations.

AND GOD SAID TO CAIN… (either 1979 or 1970) lives up to Cox’s recommendation: a Gothic oater directed by Antonio Margheriti in a style close to his Barbara Steele horror movies (one of which, CASTLE OF BLOOD, was co-directed with DJANGO helmer Sergio Corbucci). Klaus Kinski is, ludicrously, a man called Gary Hamilton — “sounds like a football hooligan!” protested Fiona. Pardoned from his chain gang sentence, he embarks on a one-man vengeance spree against the rich businessman (and his private army) who framed him. In the course of this, he rapidly comes to seem like an avenging wraith or revenant, vanishing at will, striking from the shadows.

The movie begins with bright blue skies, bright blue eyes (Kinski’s huge watery orbs were made for ECU) and wobbly crane shots, but also artful use of silhouette and lens flare. Kinski/Hamilton rides into town on an empty horse — he apparently dematerialises from its saddle while his enemies are watching — and the whole last hour of the film is a running battle between KK and the private army. The only thing resembling a subplot is the baddie’s young son, a JFK type scion, wandering about wondering what’s going on.

There’s a strange meal where the rich folks, in their house full of red drapes, candelabras and mirrors — very American/Italian Gothic — try to ignore the sounds of mayhem outside while helping themselves to red wine, mountains of mashed potato, and a single apple, cut down the middle. An almost Chaplinesque repast.

Fiona was at once put off by a particular aspect of the spaghetti aesthetic: big orange faces in sweaty closeup. And hairstyles dyed into a dry crust. The main bad guy has the blorange waves but also a peculiar green streak, presumably some misbegotten clash of hair colouring and Technicolor. But the atmosphere and intensity won Fiona over, and even if none of the other actors was distinguished, Kinski was always around, “fully present,” as Cox says. “Languid, menacing, strong, mad, Gary Hamilton is one of his best Western roles.” That he’s dubbed is a shame: you could have German cowboy, though maybe not one called Gary. Kinski spoke German beautifully, was admired by Brecht for that reason. And his English was agreeable too, in a sinister sort of way.

Cox points out that the film’s classic unity of time, place and theme are unusual: it happens in one night, during a tornado. Margheriti fills the air with bits of straw, a striking effect I haven’t seen copied.

Kinski’s revenges take on almost Phibesian elaborateness: one thug is hanged from a bell-rope, causing his cadaver to dip and rise comically with each toll: another is carefully manoeuvred into position under the bell as it’s cut down. It’s not CONVINCING, but it is messy and horrid.

While Kinski SEEMS like a wraith — one victim calls him “a monster from hell,” and he comes in the French windows through billowing curtains to face his ex just like Chris Lee’s Dracula. But, according to the plot, he’s human. Cox seems torn between feeling the movie is weakened by a refusal to commit to the supernatural, as HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would do, and feeling that the fudging of the point actually creates a more inexplicable atmosphere, which was our reaction.

For a climax, we get a Cormanesque budget-conscious conflagration, and a Wellesian shoot-out in the mirrored house where the chief villain, losing his marbles, can’t tell Kinski from his multiple reflections. Which is also a bit unconvincing, it’s his house, after all, and while there are a lot of mirrors reflecting one another, they’re all around the walls. Kinski appears to be standing in plain view in the middle of the room. But Margheriti shoots it well, we don’t have to BELIEVE this stuff, do we?

AND GOD SAID TO CAIN… is on Amazon Prime for free. We found the blacks blotchy and blocky, but otherwise it looked good.

37 Responses to “Cox’s Orange Pippins #1: A Fistful of Kinski”

  1. ” Margheriti fills the air with bits of straw, a striking effect I haven’t seen copied.”
    No tornado, but there’s a similar effect of flying hay in the fire in Days of Heaven.
    i was a cultural snob in my youth and missed the Spaghetti Westerns then, but has provided me with an unexpected pleasure in my middle and old age.

  2. Mark Fuller Says:

    It took some finding, but the late 40s German dub of Black Narcissus features Mr Kinski doubling for Sabu; and yes, he has the same exquisite voice as Sabu’s; all the voices have been matched to the originals with the greatest care and precision.

  3. Je me prefere Natassia Kinski

  4. .. as Nosferatu, David Ehrenstein?

  5. architekturadapter Says:

    Je préfère Nastassja aussi ! But still, Kinski (father) is always amazing to watch, even in bad films (and God knows he did a lot).

    “And God said to Cain” is an entertainign and intersting goth-Spaghetti-Western and it’s mostly because of Klaus.
    He was always a very provocatif person, but know he’s very mich dispised in Germany, since Pola (his other daughter) published a book in 2013 accusing him of sexual abuse.

    I ‘m very found of Alex Cox’s “10.000 ways to die”, made me dicover a lot of unexpected rough diamonds – he’s only wrong once, giving far too much credit to the boring and unfunny “Don’t touch the white women” (even it has indeed very groovy locations !)

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    The best book on the subject is not by Cox but Kevin Grant’s ANY GUN CAN PLAY. It is the definitive text.

  7. KK seems to have been seriously priapic and amoral, so I think the abuse allegations can be believed 100%.

    Sabu is not tainted by such, but did get at least one paternity suit. Still, the idea of Kinski’s voice emerging from his throat makes me giddy/nervous…

    Grant’s book, I presume, emerged after Cox’s, since he’s generous at crediting others in the field (Frayling, obvs). I’ll watch out for it. Uni library should have it.

    I remember Django seeming very dull and ugly to me after the excessive beauty/grotesquerie of Leone, so I always kind of doubted Cox’s judgement, especially as he hates the “circus westerns”. More on this later, I suspect. Happy to report that Cox’s enthusiasm for Cain is fully justified, even if one longs for some kind of plot reversal where Kinski can get the worst of just one encounter (as Eastwood/Mifune did).

  8. KlausKinski is the opposite of Sabu. He’s much closer toNastassia in his pansexual elegance. Klaus is closer to Leatherface in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”

  9. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Do the film’s qualities perhaps bolster the argument that Castle of Blood belongs to Margheriti? I’ve argued it’s all Corbucci.

  10. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Got some background from Tim Lucas (and you!).

  11. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    But there doesn’t seem to be any definitive proof one way or the other.

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    DC. I’d also recommend Terence Denham’s FISTFULS OF DOLLARS IN ALMERIA that deals with the locations and the influence of early Spanish Westerns. Cox’s book emerged from his dissertation that he altered for publication. It was once available on Sebastian H’s Spaghetti Western Database but the link seems to have gone. Also by “cricus westerns” do you mean BOOT HILL? The opening of RETURN OF SABATA is much better.

  13. Circus Westerns is Cox’s term for antic oaters with tumbling and gadgets and slapstick. Sabata & Trinity et al. He gets quite puritanical here: Parolini didn’t CARE because his films are PLAYFUL. Leone was never playful!

    Leone, I would say, was very much playful.

    I think Margheriti is a fairly accomplished stylist. I’ve not see anything to convince me about Corbucci, even Cox finds most of his films visually flawed. But I haven’t seen much Corbucci.

  14. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Well, maybe it’s Pallottini’s doing — but I’ve never seen anything by M that approaches the tastefulness and visual beauty of that film. I’m actually partial to Corbucci’s visual style. Anyhoo…

  15. The best Corbucci – and KK – spag western I know is THE GREAT SILENCE. Also one of the bleakest films I know.

  16. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Roger: YES! YES! YES!

  17. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I’m very into the Red Westerns right now. One has to have been dosed with Italian Fatalism at an early age in order to fully appreciate their meanness.

  18. architekturadapter Says:

    “The great Silence” is definitely one of the very best Spaghetti Western. The first one I saw from Corbucci. Then I saw his other western and was constantly disappointed. Not so much of “Django”, who has it’s moments, but is widly overrated.

    My recommandation would be Questi’s “Se sei vivo, spara” / “Django kill”. It’s a pitty Giulio Questi didn’t make more films.

  19. Tony Williams Says:

    Questi based much of the film on what he experienced during the Resistance movement in Italy.

  20. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    The Great Silence and Once Upon a Time in America are far greater than any American contribution to its native genre. Ford’s a piker.

  21. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Americans have the wrong sensibility to bring the Western to fruition. Or let’s say “Hollywood directors” instead of “Americans” — Monte Hellman’s good. I should also say Run Home Slow is splendid.

  22. Questi returned to his partisan days in a spooky video he shot in his own home in 2006, Visitors, with himself as leading man: I think the first time he’d openly dealt with the subject. It doesn’t appear on his IMDb page.

  23. Tony Williams Says:

    DC, Do you have a link? Denman’s privately published book contains some valuable insights as to the historical and political background of Almeria in one chapter. Another informatiive book that needed a mainstream press. Grant’s book contains interesting information about the stylistic assoications employed in AND GOD SAID TO CAIN.

  24. I’ll post the Questi short when I’m ready to write about it. Soon!

  25. Tony Williams Says:

    Thanks, I assume it is not subtitled so will await your comments.

  26. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I have it with subs. Got a friend translating Cecilia Mangini films and making subs for those films too.

  27. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    The only Italian director whose references to historical Resistance stay current — extending not just by implication but directly into the Palestinian struggle — is Pontecorvo. Let me know if I’m wrong.

  28. I’ll look out for “Se sei vivo, spara” / “Django kill”. Going by Wikipedia, it’s overflowing with plot and genre! Is the l117 minute version around or only the short one?

  29. The original release was, I seem to recall, even longer. There should be a medium-length one about.

  30. My problem with this film is the lack of suspense: Kinski is our hero and also an unstoppable mythical force that is never at any risk of losing. That might work if the film gave us any empathy for his victims, but it doesn’t.

    I like Cox but have to say my opinion on him went down somewhat after listening to his commentary track on The Specialists: not only does he misscharacterize Johnny Hallyday as a “Rolling Stones type” but also spends some time pondering whether Gastone Moschin was added to “appeal to the French market”; Moschin is Italian and only in about a thousand Italian genre films from that time.

  31. Oh, that’s poor. And Cox doesn’t even like that film, he shouldn’t really have taken the job.

    He should know Moschin from The Conformist, which he has certainly seen. But he’s in surprisingly few westerns.

    Yes, God Said is a little one-note. It’s crucial in A Fistful of Dollars that the tables get turned on Eastwood just once, as with Mifune in Yojimbo.

  32. Tony Williams Says:

    Moschin is a well-known figure from both Italian cinema and the “poliziotesschi” in general and Cox’s comment is idiotic. No wonder he never refers to his predecessors in criticism and that is usually indicative of both lack of courtesy and insecurity. As I’ve said before, Grant’s book is far superior and he does supply reasons as to Kinski’s role in the film. Also we are not expected to have any empathy for the victims especially the son who consciously chooses to support Acombar at the end despite knowing what he did to Gary Hamilton.

  33. Cox does acknowledge previous volumes here.

    I think the point about not having sympathy for the Acombars is that Kinski never seems to be in jeoardy so not having sympathy for his prey robs the film of a lot of suspense. To get the audience worried, we’d need to be concerned about one side or the other.

  34. Tony Williams Says:

    But they are doomed, David, by Gothic predestination, and are so nasty that no audience can have any sympathy for them. They deserve what they get.

  35. Yes, that’s all true, but the result is a decline in dramatic tension, as we watch a character who seems to be invulnerable kill a bunch of people we don’t like.

    The concept of a “rooting interest” is diluted: we can be on KK’s side, but there’s no reason to wonder if he’ll be successful.

    This is not the case in other Italian westerns where everyone is more or less bad, but only because the filmmakers worked out strategies to deal with it. And in this case, there are one or two characters who are on KK’s side but who are more vulnerable, and they do raise the stakes a bit. I think a little more could have been done with them, but one doesn’t feel Kinski is that bothered if they live or die.

  36. Tony Williams Says:

    He is a doomed soul and Grant’s excellent comments on the films Gothic associations clarify why this film is distinctively different.

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