Cox’s Orange Pippins: “…and lose the name of ACTION!”

Quite enjoyed DJANGO THE BASTARD — the other vengeful ghost spaghetti western. Anthony Steffen is quite a compelling wraith-hero. As with this film’s unofficial twin …AND GOD SAID TO CAIN, there’s a certain loss of tension when your hero is an unkillable ghost and everyone else is a baddy. Best of the bad men is bleach-blond epileptic madman Luciano Rossi, doing the Kinski thing, as “Hugh Murdok.”

Director Sergio Garrone made a bunch of westerns and also some of those noxious Nazisploitation films. I was inclined to hate him, but couldn’t quite manage it in the face of his sheer misguided enthusiasm for wanky directorial gimmicks. His direction is lively but random. Cox picks, as an egregious example, an aerial view tracking Steffen’s hat — a shot that must have taken considerable trouble, and is over before it’s made an impression, replaced with something equally throwaway and meaningless. But I like the hat shot — it’s attractive. Some of Garrone’s other angles are just silly, but as I say, they’re lively. The kind of thing I get cross with Kenneth Branagh for doing in HAMLET, but can accept in something that is after all called DJANGO THE BASTARD.

Then we watched KEOMA together on our larger screen and that was… kind of impressive. My first Enzo G. Castellari film. I don’t know why but Tarantino’s championing him always put me off, somehow. QT’s enthusiasm can be sort of repellent, but in fairness the films he enthuses about are usually at least interesting. (I think BLOW-OUT is a poor film, personally, but it’s not devoid of interest, even just from a pathological viewpoint.)

Enzo is having fun with this very late spag western — it barely rates a mention in the Cox book because he takes the view that there are no good post-1970 Italian westerns, but this is very nearly a proper movie. Castellari’s flourishes are better-motivated than maestro Garrone’s, as when hero Franco Nero holds up four fingers in front of four opponents, a moment you can enjoy in the lengthy trailer.

Weird hearing Nero with his own accent, especially since Keoma is a halfbreed Indian. With his beard and bare chest and wolf-cut hair, FN is a new kind of gunfighter for a new-ish kind of western. Bits seem post-apocalyptic, prefiguring the genre Castellari and all the other genre hacks would dabble in after MAD MAX, other bits seem medieval — there’s a plague ravaging the land, ffs.

Woody Strode has quite a bit to do and has an extraordinary last scene — it is possible that Castellari was a bit too uncritical of his performers, or else urged them to “give it both knees” in Billy Wilder’s phrase when more restraint would have been advisable. But it’s the kind of mad choice that seems acceptable in a nutzoid oater like this.

Spaghetti westerns, unlike most of their American counterparts, always TRY to be progressive about race, though they often slip up in hilarious/uncomfortable ways, due to naivety — the spaghetti west is all like Kafka writing the Statue of Liberty with a sword in her hand: EVOCATIVELY WRONG — and a certain insensitivity that comes with the genre.

The era of Morricone and Morricone-influenced scores is over, as we also saw in FOUR FOR THE APOCALYPSE. This one also has songs — a female vocalist warbling at a high pitch like the bastard daughter of Joan Baez and Tiny Tim, and a gruff, growly man (Nero himself) who mainly sings about what is actually happening in front of us, which gets very funny. (“How did I get in this meeeeeessss?”)

KEOMA — which also has supernatural-Gothic-Shakespearian vibes — led us to JOHNNY HAMLET, originally developed by Corbucci and intended to star Anthony Perkins, but was passed to Castellari and Andrea Giordana. The real star turn in this one is Gilbert Roland, as “Johnny Hamilton’s” chum, “Horace.” The first time Horatio has been the coolest and most impressive character, and the only time a real Mexican appeared in an Italian western (according to Cox — seems legit).

A Perkins Hamlet, even a wild west one, would have been something. An Andrea Giordana Hamlet is just fair. His green eyes look good in Leonesque ECU — this is an insanely colourful film at times — the dream sequence in which the ghost appears is pure Corman, or impure Bava. Funny how Castellari, seeking to present the sequence in a way that doesn’t violate genre conventions — no ghosts in cowboy films — except the aforementioned ones, and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and Elvis at the end of FLAMING STAR I believe — and he ends up with a sequence that has absolutely nothing in common with western aesthetics.

Elsewhere, there’s a cemetery in a cave — comedy gravediggers seem ready-made for an Italian western, with the strong antecedent of the coffin-maker in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

Castellari mounts the camera on a wheel as Johnny H realises the time is out of joint —

There are capering actors, so that we can have snatches of the bard, and an anticipation of Agnes Varda —

Kind of funny how the Shakespearian character who can’t make up his mind becomes this angst-ridden action hero who’s constantly shooting people and getting in punch-ups. Most of this action doesn’t much advance the plot, but neither do the Shakespearian soliloquies they replace (WH Auden observes that Hamlet is unusual in that the big speeches are all standalone bits of philosophising that work just as well out of context). It’s also funny to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern transformed into sadistic henchmen from the rather ineffectual stooges of the original. What “Claude Hamilton” needs in his camp is a deadly Laertes type, but none is forthcoming, though there is, instead, this guy:

A major spaghetti trope I haven’t mentioned — DISGUSTING EATING. Leone’s giant mouth closeups in DUCK, YOU SUCKER! are the apotheosis of this, but in both THE BIG SILENCE and this one, men deliver dialogue through half-masticated facefuls of chicken. There should, now that I think of it, be a spag western called A FACEFUL OF CHICKEN. In this movie the chickenlover is a Mexican bandit called Santana who seems to have no connection to the source text, which means he can do what he likes, so he does.

Johnny, like Steffen in DJANGO THE BASTARD, has just returned from the Civil War, fighting on the side of the South. Cox observes that this is unusual in Italian westerns, which aren’t suckered by the lost cause myth. Cox then embarks on his worst bit of pontificating, throwing out the right-wing talking point that the War wasn;t really over slavery, but over the southern states’ right to secede. I assume somebody fed this line to Cox and he didn’t question it further. But, as sf writer Theodore Sturgeon advises, we should be prepared always to Ask the next question. WHY did the southern states wish to secede? Turns out maybe the Civil War was about slavery after all…

This Hamlet does not go mad, or feign madness, nor does he (spoiler alert) die at the end, though most of the other characters do. These departures from the source text make this not really a version of Hamlet at all. One wonders if Corbucci, who conceived the idea, would have been more faithful, not so much to the play, as to the IDEA. What’s the point of doing Hamlet as a spaghetti western, after all, if you don;t actually follow through? And, while the opening dream sequence (deleted in America) is wonderfully outside the stylistic Overton window of the genre, an insane hero and a tragic ending (as with THE BIG SILENCE) seem perfectly suited to the revenge western. In place of all this, Castellari has his hero crucified — a ballsy move in a production of Hamlet, but rather standard for an Italian western (see also DJANGO KILL! and, in fact, KEOMA) — so that he has to tie his pistol to his hand for the final shootout, a variant on DJANGO. A shame — instead of throwing overly-familiar business at us, under the guise of a Shakespeare update, Castellari could have used the concept to hit us with material that would be genuinely unfamiliar, but perfectly in keeping with the revenge western format. A miss, a very palpable miss. But EGC is a fun stylist, and I’m perfectly willing to see more of his stuff now.

22 Responses to “Cox’s Orange Pippins: “…and lose the name of ACTION!””

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    DC, A really in-depth review that should lead to your dismissal of Cox and reading of Kevin Grant’s ANY GUN CAN PLAY unless you’ve already done so. Yes, Cox gets so many things wrong as several Italian Westerns had characters fighting on the side of the South. this was less an approval of The Lost Cause mythology but more a reflection of the divided state of Italy since Cavour’s reunification led to the South losing out economically and politically. Much needs to be done of this parallel and a rudimentary essay appears in Sebastien’s SPAGHETTI WESTERN DATABASE (SWDB) which is a very valuable guide.

    Secondly, once you read Grant you’ll discover that there were several good late Italian Westerns, two starring Guiliano Gemma, CALIFORNIA and SILVER SADDLE.

    Thirdly, I’d recommend looking at more of Castellari’s work especially his poliziotesschi. Like the young German plagiarists mentioned towards the end of Max Nordeau’s problematic, yet valuable, book DEGENERATION (1895), the odious QT borrows so much without having an understanding of the relevant cultural contexts so that his version ends up crude and vulgar. With friends like QT, Castellari needs no enemies. Try also to see A MAN CALLED BLADE (1977), another good late entry and the only Western as star poliziotesschi’s Maurizio Merli made. “Back the Badge as long as it is Maurizio Merli.”

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Woody is also great in those 70s Italian crime films whatever role he plays.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I recently saw the first film Sidney Poitier directed: BUCK AND THE PREACHER and that strikes me as a great western in terms of dealing with race and how westerns have tackled it, as well as the question of African-American and Native American solidarity.

  4. Poitier’s later films lack ambition, but I should find time for that one.

    70s Poliziotteschi next!

    Cox acknowledges that there are southern military heroes in Italian westerns, he just observes that they’re more of a rarity than in US films, which appears to be true.

    I’m reading Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns, which is nice but has more outright factual errors than Cox’s volume. He has more insight into the origins, and he’s less apt to blurt out a dumb opinion.

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    “Sir Christopher”, as he is known on the Spaghetti Westerns podcast circle (all archived on youtube), would never “blurt out a dumb opinion”. I met him at a lecture in the University of Exeter in 1977 where he gave a presentation on the YOJIMBO/FISTFUL parallels. One film screened was THE TORCH (1950), directed by El Mapache himself starring Pedro Armendariz and Paulette Goddard (who also functioned as associate producer) photographed by the great Figueroa. Today many people are seeing the Mexican/Spanish influence on these Westerns especially the work of Jose Romero Marchent.

    Also currently reading Roberto Curti’s well-documented book on Italian Crime Films.

    On BUCK AND THE PREACHER, Cameron Mitchell played the villain and he appeared in two Italian Westerns one being Corbucci’s MINNESOTA CLAY (1966),

  6. bensondonald Says:

    A while ago worked through a pile of Saturday matinee westerns (Hopalong, Autry, Rogers, Cisco Kid, Red Ryder, Lash LaRue) as necessary sides to a nutritionally balanced program: cartoon, serial episode, comedy short, and something that looks like a feature but without the length or heft.

    Noted that characters who get shot out of town — the guy riding shotgun on the stagecoach is the B western’s red shirt — tend to be forgotten and presumably left to rot, unless there’s a plot point that requires at least token formality (“Why it’s Washburn the rancher! We better take him back.”). On reflection you’d expect human skulls to be more common that the longhorn skulls placed beside the cacti.

    Western spoofs usually have an undertaker busily scooping up the dead after a main street gunfight (Who pays him?). “Hamlet” ends with Fortinbras, bent on vengeance, finally arriving to find nobody alive to wreak it upon. He and his officers get the job of cleaning up the mess. Has anybody ever played that for comedy? The fearsome man-of-action hero sweeping in to find his whole mission rendered moot?

  7. Bruce Robinson and Richard E Grant wanted to do Hamlet as a comedy, but nobody would let them and the moment passed.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    DC, Don’t forget Castellari’s HEROIN BUSTERS with Fabio in a 70s outfit nobody would want to be seen dead in today supported by David Hemmings who acts as straight man to Tomas Milian going down another burlesque Nico Giraldi role in Bruno Corbucci’s THE SWINDLE. Recently watched young ’emmings in Lance Comfort’s LIVE IT UP with ex-Tornado Heinz as post office workers and BE MY GUEST where he invents the “Brighton Beat” in a film featuring Jerry Lee Lewis and Avril Angers exuding kippers for breakfast British comedy. Not to be missed.

  9. John Seal Says:

    If you’re interested in late spaghettis, Sergio Martino’s MANNAJA: A MAN CALLED BLADE (1977) is a really good one. It was Martino’s only western and stars Maurizio Merli as the title character, who dispatches the film’s baddies with his trusty miniature axe (some might call it a tomahawk). The theme song, sung by a gravelly baritone scraping the bottom of his range, is incredibly memorable though not exactly good. The great John Steiner plays the baddie.

  10. Tony Williams also recommends that one, and I’ve enjoyed some Martinos. (He seems to have started his career with a western, Arozona Colt, Hired Gun, with Anthony Steffen, which predicatably has nothing to do with Michele Lupo’s original Arizona Colt).

  11. Re: Tarantino being “crude and vulgar”, I don’t really think these are charges that Castellari is innocent of either; he was always amongst the most spectacle-oriented and prurient of Italian genre directors, in what is quite a crowded field! The Big Racket is a particularly sleazy example. Not necessarily a bad thing in my book.

    Worth noting the soundtrack to “Keoma” is by the De Angelis brothers, who achieved immortality of a certain kind by doing the theme tune to the “Dogtanian & The Muskerhounds” cartoon, a big touchstone for millenials around the continent. Half of it is indeed a Baez pastiche, with the other half being a Leonard Cohen imitation, thus showing the unlikely influence of “McCabe & Mrs Miller”.

  12. Also, regarding the American civil war as a metaphor: worth pointing out that a lot of these directors lived through WWII – Leone’s father worked in cinema under Mussolini and was subsequently blackballed from the industry. Probably rightfully so! But I’m sure it shaped Leone’s cynicism, as exemplified by the hotel owner in TGTB&TU cheering on confederate soldiers while confiding to his wife that he can’t wait for the wealthier Union to take control of the towm.

  13. A huge part of Leone’s approach seems to have been influenced by the mythic idea he had of the liberating Americans when he was a kind, which was followed by a colossal crashing disillusionment when they actually turned up…

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    “Probably rightfully so!” is not a term that should be used lightly. Many stars (Vittorio deSica, Isa Miranda, Massimo Girotti, etc) and directors such as Allesandro Blasetti and Roberto Rossellini also worked in Mussolini’s cine,ma and made pro-Fascist films without their careers being affected in the post-war era. One made a film celebrating the March on Rome that I have in my possession and Rossellini co-wrote and directed THE WHITE SHIP (1941), the first of his three Mussolini films. Probably, people in the industry in the post-war era were saw a more complex picture than their colleagues in France.

    Also, while I detest Tarantino’s cinema, with the exception of JACKIE BROWN, Castellari’s cinema differs a lot from the genre explorations of many Italian directors such as Lenzi. Castellari never made a cannibal movie while Lenzi did. On one of the extras of THE TOUGH ONES Lenzi appears with one of his colleagues regretting the fact he ever made one. Castellari’s cinema needs more exploration if only to see what derivative hack Tarantino copies.

  15. John Seal Says:

    I’ll just add that the DeAngelis Brothers also composed the wacky score for MANNAJA.

  16. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, John. Both soundtracks combine Leonard Cohen with possibly Melanie? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r44Ach4mXE4

  17. John Seal Says:

    I wouldn’t have thought of that comparison, but it’s pretty close! I’d love to know who the male singer is, but I don’t think they’re credited.

  18. Tony Williams Says:

    Try Sebastian H.’s The Spaghetti Movie Database,com. You may find some good leads there.

  19. Tony, I would agree that Castellari is not comparable to Lenzi. I would also say, however, that he isn’t comparable to the more ambitious, artistically and/or politically invested directors of Italian genre cinema either – thinking here of Leone, Bava, Corbucci, Sollima, Di Leo. By his own admission Castellari’s main ambition was to be a crowd pleaser; his films are not without merit, but I maintain that crude and vulgar are fair terms to use for many of them.

    As to the inconsistency in which artists got punished for their collaborationism in postwar Italy – sure, these things never proceed in ideologically consistent ways, not even in Germany (the example which I’d say was most conscientious about its past).

  20. Tony Williams Says:

    Sure, Castellari is not in the upper league. But there is nothing wrong being a “crowd pleaser. “Anthony Mann modestly referred to himself as just a “worker”. Yet the more one sees of Castellari’s genre work (and I’m exploring the polizipotesschis at present), the more his work appears removed from certain prolific contemporaries whose work is definitely “crude and vulgar.”

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