Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Pink Desert

IF YOU MEET SARTANA, PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH (Gianfranco Parolini [Frank Kramer] 1968)

I like colour-coded genres: the American noir, the Japanese pinku and the Italian giallo. I think all genres ought to be colour-coded, in which case the Italian western would be the arancia, or orange. I think that sounds pretty good, and avoids the cultural sneering involved in using pasta as a put-down.

So, after Klaus Kinski and his henchmen have killed off a nice old couple in a carriage, Sartana shows up, as a hero for the first time. Gianni Garko had played someone called “General Sartana Liston” in $1000 ON THE BLACK in 1966, but that Sartana was a baddie. This one is a death-dealing “hero” in the spaghetti tradition. Speaking about the genre on TV, Alex Cox rather exaggerated when he said the Italian western hero wasn’t interested in honour, justice, women or money, just killing. He CAN be vaguely interested in all of those things, especially money, but it’s mainly a pretext to motivate the killing. Burt Kennedy astonished John Ford by telling him the Italians made westerns, but mischaracterised them as “No story, no scenes, just killing.” In fact, with their multiple betrayals, Italian westerns often deliver more plot than many American ones, but one can understand Kennedy getting distracted by all the mayhem. When Cronenberg’s CRASH was accused of being just a bunch of sex scenes, Cronenberg asked, reasonably, why you couldn’t tell a story composed that way. So with the Italian western: the best ones often seem like compendiums of set-pieces, all killer no thriller.

Anyway, Sartana: “You look just like a scarecrow!” sneers a henchman after the black-clad gunslinger shows up, in the middle of nowhere (an Italian quarry, faded to a strange pink hue) without anyone seeing him coming. “I am your pallbearer,” he replies, and kills them all (save Kinski). He does it a couple of ways: with a gimmick tiny pistol (of the kind Sabato would also enjoy) and with a shotgun. But he never bears their palls, that was just a figure of speech I guess. These guys’ bones are gonna bleach in the sun.

The pithy quip in the western does have some antecedents in John Wayne (“That’ll be the day!” “Fill your hand you sunnovabitch!”) but it becomes a thing in Italian westerns via Leone’s transposition of the “Cooper, prepare three coffins,” bit in YOJIMBO from Mifune to Eastwood in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. At the same time or slightly earlier actually, Sean Connery’s James Bond had started quipping after a kill (“Shocking!”). The Italians led the world in cheap Bond knock-offs, many of them made by people who also made westerns — Michele Lupo, Sergio Sollima, Duccio Tessri, Gianfranco Parolini (who gives us Sartana, here, and then Sabata), Mario Bava, and writers like Ernesto Gastaldi, Sergio Donati, Fernando Di Leo… It seems to be a matter of temperament whether you went from gladiator movies to spy films or to westerns or to Gothic horror or to gialli or to polizioteschi or soft porn. With only Bava having a go at virtually every genre on the list, sometimes two at a time.

Gianfranco Parolini, directing under the name “Frank Kramer,” plays a small supporting role in this, credited under an anglicised version of his name — it comes out as “J. Francis Littlewords,” which is the most darling thing ever. Like a lovable donkey in a child’s storybook.

Sartana’s gadgetry is another import from the Bond films. Alex Cox heartily dislikes these “circus westerns” (anything with a lot of gadgets, comedy and acrobatics) and dislikes Parolini’s playfulness. “Sergio Leone wasn’t playful,” he protests, and here I have to disagree. Leone cuts from his villain laighing maniacally to a wanted poster of the same villain, also laughing maniacally (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE); he has his credits dodge bullets or get blown up by cannonfire, appear letter by letter when the telegraph chatters, or descend like a level crossing in front of a train (at the same time imitating the action of a clapperboard); he has James Coburn turn into a poster with a glowing banner over his head as Rod Steiger looks at him — an appropriation of cartoon grammar. Leone is absolutely playful. I think I responded to spaghetti westerns as a kid, far more than I did to regular westerns, because they were black comedies with a lot of slapstick.

Speaking of slapstick, along with genre icons Garko, Kinski, William Berger and Fernando Sancho, this movie features Sydney Chaplin. Charlie’s son, not his half-brother, though the cannibal rapist in the family would arguably have fit neatly into an Italian western, especially one by Fulci (whose only spy films were comedies with gormless double act Franco & Ciccio). So I had to watch this one — can’t resist two of my series joining up, more or less.

What about Bond villains? They’re always criminal masterminds, sometimes though not usually attached to a world government. Often they’re businessmen — as with the spaghettis. Well, you need someone who can afford an inexhaustible stream of henchmen for the hero to effortlessly off. Chaplin here plays such a businessman, ludicrously named “Jeff Stewal.” It’s a tribute to the hierarchical, departmentalized nature of film production that Chaplin couldn’t or anyway didn’t get them to give him a name that makes some kind of linguistic sense, rather than a collection of vaguely anglo-saxon sounds.

But the businessmen in these films are not REAL men — the syphilitic Morton in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST typifies the breed. Lack of a pistol equals emasculation. Chaplin is humiliated and extorted by his own hired gun.

William Berger, an Austrian Dan Duryea, snorts from a snuffbox and also rubs the contents on his gums, which suggests to me it might not be snuff. Lanky of figure and lank of hair, orange dye-jobbed Berger is almost as visually arresting as Kinski, and as blue-eyed. He’s irretrievably associated with this genre, never really fitting in elsewhere, which imposed an unfortunately short shelf-life on his stardom.

Title sequences: well, the Lardini company had a set of acid-pop art techniques they would apply to any film, regardless of genre, but their colour washes and (very) limited animation was applied to oaters and espionage with explosive abandon. But only Leone seemed able to get the images to match the music, rhythmically. In the average western, they’re all over the place.

The inter-genre connections seem so strong it’s odd to me that Parolini’s spy films are humourless dogshit and his westerns are fun.

The biggest difference, besides locations and design, between the Italian western and spy film seems to me to be sex, which is largely downplayed/absent in the westerns. Clint’s strangely asexual protagonists lead the way in this: shooting men seems to take the place of coition. Instead of lingering on women’s live bodies, the cameras of Leone, Corbucci and their followers lavish attention on male corpses, usually with perforated foreheads.

The plot in this SARTANA revolves around stolen gold, as usual. This MacGuffin motivates three massacres within the first ten minutes. What’smore impressive is that the film manages to introduce a bunch of characters who are NOT summarily slaughtered.

Piero Piccioni provides music inhabiting the space between “jaunty” and “wildly disoriented.” The musical watch from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is shamelessly pilfered in both non-diegetic and diegetic ways (stolen both from Leone and from characters in the film).

Bond-spaghetti confluence… I’d say there are musical connections — influenced presumably by Masaru Satô’s jaunty jazz score for YOJIMBO, Ennio Morricone abandoned the traditional approach (orchestra with a few olde west stylings and the occasional ballad) for a pop/experimental madness. After FISTFUL, you get a lot of straight rip-offs of the whistling theme and twangy guitars, but you also get all kinds of inventive craziness. I feel like the twangy guitars and vamping horns of John Barry’s Bond scores are an influence.

Everybody in SARTANA sounds like they recorded their lines at the bottom of a bloody well, along with Piccioni’s piano.

Despite his lethal array of dad jokes, Bond’s catchphrase is just a lame introductory statement: “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And likewise the spaghettis seem obsessed with naming their heroes: MY NAME IS NOBODY, THEY CALL ME TRINITY, MY NAME IS PECOS, MY NAME IS SHANGHAI JOE, MY NAME IS MALLORY… M MEANS DEATH!, THEY CALL ME HALLELUJAH, I AM SARTANA YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH and, a bit desperately, TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME. Plus numerous Joes, Johnnies, people with Colt or the name of a state in their name…

The Bond films, though, were directed by British traditionalists who shot things in fairly staid ways, but then had Peter Hunt pick the pace right up in the cutting. No crash zooms, zip pans, bizarro POV shots or gratuitous camera movements for Eon Productions. It took Sid Furie’s compositional eccentricity on THE IPCRESS FILE to bring the spy flick closer to Leone’s exuberance.

While in the Gothic spaghettis, the main character comes and goes like a ghost, and in regular ones this occasionally happens with really cool characters (Eastwood vanishing from a noose in TGTB&TU), here, everyone defeats spacetime, turning up in the middle of the desert without being seen, running into a building and then appearing outside it to shoot some dynamite and blow it up, or watching from a high promontory, on horseback, in plain view, without being spotted.

There’s a lack of scale in this one — Parolini has no enthusiasm for Leone-style giant ECUs where pancake-clogged pores become tangerine moonscapes, and he can’t shoot epic wide shots because his quarry location only extends so far. He keeps things moving with pans and zooms but doesn’t have the wild skill with tracking shots that so many of his countrymen displayed.

There’s more business with sexy saloon girls than usual (the same occurs in SABATA) — a little teasing is allowed, but Sartana keeps his black duds on and only retires to the boudoir to trap a couple of assassins. The girl mockingly tells him that Chaplin’s fat business partner (played by Parolini fave Gianni Rizzo, his character ironically named “Alman”) pays her to talk, and doesn’t “do” anything — but Sartana is the same — having spent a couple of bullets, he tosses her out.

His real flirtation is reserved for Berger and Kinski. He could, it seems, kill the bad guys at any point, but he likes to draw things out. If psychology were in play at all here, that would make him a man with a death wish, which could be interesting, but Parolini and his writers aren’t concerned with anything but plot mechanics and shoot-em-ups. (Have I mentioned how Bava’s ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK dispenses with pretence and has the two heroes express their homosexual passion via punch-ups?)

The action is frequent but repetitive. Garko plays hide-and-seek with Kinski in the barn-like undertakers, a routine repeated in one of Parolini’s SABATA films (I forget which). Kinski wears little bells on his spurs — dainty! — and clogs them with shaving foam when he wants to get stealthy. In YOJIMBO and then FISTFUL and also DJANGO, the supercool hero is exposed, caught, and severely beaten, a vital moment to raise the stakes. It’s boring watching a cool hero win all the time.

Here, it’s Berger who gets the elaborate drubbing at the one-hour mark, so Garko can stay clean and ublemished. This, along with Sartana humiliating him at every turn, robs Berger of dramatic menace, and Fernando Sancho, who administers the beat-down, is a fat caricature Mexican, an unsuitable replacement as head honcho or Sancho. There ought to be somebody set up as deadly with a gun, since, like a John Woo hero, Sartana can effortlessly execute normal gunmen in any number. So the question of who will be the final boss is the main active one, but it’s rather uninvolving. There’s also a femme fatale, Heidi Fischer, which is nice to see. For all the genre’s misogyny, there are maybe more strong female characters than in America westerns, even if they’re villainesses.

Cox complains that the film looks cheap compared to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, made the same year, an unusually naive statement from a filmmaker. Obviously, the film IS cheap, especially compared to Leone’s super-epic. Parolini has some minor Euro-stars and he has some big sets, but spacious rooms are not all that costly if you have the studio space and flats.

The bad guys’ HQ is no Ken Adam control room but appropriately enough, Mussolini’s Villa Carpena, a frequent Italian western location and one also recycled for the SABATA series. That architectural resonance is as close as the film gets to political consciousness.

Cox likes James Bond films, because they (in his view) dispensed with the retrograde good-versus-evil paradigm and merely showcased a can-do Brit doing his job with fancy toys. Why he can’t get behind Sartana, then, is mysterious. Both Bond and Sartana are cool but kind of boring. Alan Moore summarised their ubermensch appeal by invoking a Leonard Cohen poem: “When I am with you / I want to be / The perfect man who kills.” Again, this inherently sinister aspect is something Parolini can’t be bothered exploring. His problem isn’t that he’s playful, it’s that his toys don’t seem to stand for anything richer.

13 Responses to “Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Pink Desert”

  1. “the syphilitic Morton in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST”
    Is the disease specified?
    Morton’s physical symptoms are closer to those of spinal tuberculosis, though his obsession with reaching the Pacific Ocean fits in with syphilitic mania.

  2. You may be right — the disease isn’t specified but it’s a creeping paralysis and syphilis seemed apt for the character, who is kind of the disease of capitalism made flesh. And since his paralysis is, rather crappily, related to his moral corruption (Leone the simplistic), that would at least justify it a tiny bit more.

  3. architekturadapter Says:

    Is that the same Burt Kennedy who directed the bloody and gritty rape and revenge western Hannie Caulder ? A spanish production starring Raquel Welch, Christopher Lee, Jack Elan and Wilde Bunch members Borgnine and Strother Martin.

    And … I always thought the Bava western are nothing worth. Are they in any way recomandable ?

  4. architekturadapter Says:

    I mean Hannie Caulder is gritty by americain standards, not italien, anyway Raquel Welch is gorgeous in it.

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    Bava’s LA STRADA PER FORT ALAMOi s notable for its recognizable color lighting scheme, nothing else. Bava did not take to Westerns but he was active in several ones uncredited. Tim L<ucas's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK provides relevant information. ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK is excruciating in my opinion despite Brett Halsey.

  6. architekturadapter Says:

    That’s what I thought … (I have the digital version of the astonishing book of Bava by Lucas, but not read everything yet).
    Fortunately a week a go Kevin Grant’s Any Gun showed up in my letter box. Heavy volume (2,7 kg), very rich content (illustrations, the amazing who is who section- very usefull), I’m only at page 134.
    If I may criticise one thing is the “theme structure” (similar to Cox’s first attempt of his book) of the chapters. He’s kind of listing all the bounty hunter’s, family issues, revenge movies etc. naming lot’s of films, but without going deeper into them or even judging them. When he does, for a few chosen ones, it’s very good, and albeit being very well informed and gving an impressif overall look of a complex genre, I prefer book’s who are structured film by film.
    And some of the sentences are far too long (for me). But these are minor issues – “Any gun can play” is still essential. As is, in my opinion, is the book “10.000 ways to die” by Cox. They are complementary.
    (Even if I do not always agree with Cox I do not always agree with Grant.)
    But, I agree with David’s brillant analyses of “Sartana” – I also enjoyed the movie for the same reasons. The film’s interesting for the spy connections, but not one of my favorite spaghettis (but I dig very much William Berger an underestimated guy, and as you know , the Kinski.

    And yes, Spaghetti western are definitely orange !

  7. Bava occasionally adds Monument Valley type buttes to his Spanish or Italian landscapes by pasting magazine photos onto glass, a familiar trick of his, so that’s nice to see. None of the other arancia directors seems to have thought of that, but then they didn’t have Bava to make it work. Otherwise, his westerns don’t seem to have inspired him, except to add some quite bizarre slapstick, a mark of desperation I suspect.

    Two errata from the comments section here: Cox’s original dissertation seems to be a different work from 10,000 Ways to Die in the West, not just the same stuff reorganized, and Leone’s dad was blacklisted during the fascist era for his leftist views, which he apparently smuggled into one or two movies.

    Frayling is quite savvy on Leone’s politics: his films portray the west as right-wing anarchy, a survival of the fittest environment where might is right, but he seems to CELEBRATE rather than critique the violence and chicanery, so he’s harder to read than the committed leftist filmmakers. This is one aspect of his work that’s consistent all the way through to OUATIA. And the committed characters are never to be trusted, they’re the real liars.

  8. Doesn’t Morton say he has tuberculosis of the legs? If that even is a thing.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    I think he may mention it began in the legs before taking over the rest of his body? Time to consult (19th texts here.

  10. You can get TB of the bones – not just the bones; scrofula/the King’s Evil was TB of the glands.
    We’re heading for real “What ifs”, but a respectable businessman like Morton would claim to have some other illness rather than syphilis anyway.

  11. I hope you’ll preserve with the Sartana series; it really hits its stride after this, in the hands of Giuliano Carnimeo. “I Am Sartana, Your Angel Of Death” features Kinski as a gambler called HOT DEAD and “Sartana’s Here…Trade Your Pistol For A Coffin” has a character called Sabbath who seems to be a commentary on/attempt to cash in on the British Invasion. Both take a kitchen sink approach and throw in lots of characters; this one feels muted by comparison.

    In the extras for the Arrow Sartana box you can see an interview with Parolini, probably one of the last ones he ever did. Man was still hustling, using the interview to appeal for financing for a peplum he was planning, bless him.

  12. OK, I’m sold on Angel of Death.

    One more Bond connection, though it’s an outlier: in Fort Yuma Gold, Giuliano Gemma’s leading lady is named Connie Breastfull, a sort of idiot’s version of a Bond girl name.

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    So many generic interconnection in generic Italian commercials cinema. The same goes for John Woo’s MANHUNT (2017), a remake dedicated to Takakura Ken’s original which was the first film released after the cultural revolution in China. Note the prologue reference to classic films and how Woo develops its metamorphosis s both in the prologue and elsewhere. far better than any thing Tarantino has ever done. Hope still exists but under certain segments of “Under Eastern Eyes”.

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