Archive for A Fistful of Dollars

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Ringo Stars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2022 by dcairns

Lots of spaghetti westerns on YouTube!

Above are A PISTOL FOR RINGO and THE RETURN OF RINGO, Duccio Tessari’s two RINGO movies with Giuliano Gemma and his five hundred Joan Crawford teeth as “Montgomery Wood” as Ringo. The Ringo Kid, of course, was John Wayne’s protag in STAGECOACH, and just as everybody and his nephew rushed to make Django knock-offs using the character name without permission, this can be seen as Italians claim-jumping a piece of established mental real estate, though nobody was likely to believe that these films had any official connection to Ford’s classic.

Tessari, one of Leone’s writing team on A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, apparently wasn’t interested here in using the hardboiled YOJIMBO model to upend Western movie morality, as the Sergios had done. His films tend to be nicer — even his gialli have sympathetic characters sometimes.

I just acquired The Pocket Essential Spaghetti Westerns by Howard Hughes (not that one), who traces Tessari’s influences to Hollywood B-pictures and serials, though mercifully his cowboys do not sing (but both these movies have a lugubrious balladeer warbling saccharine over the Morricone title themes). Leone, feeling the need to shore up his intellectual credentials with some smart references, claimed he was influenced by silent cinema and neo-realism, and that the western was fundamentally European because Homer invented it. But Tessari’s second Ringo flick (which, as is the way of these things, enjoys zero continuity with the first) really IS a Civil War version of the Odyssey, or the last section of it anyway, the homecoming. (It’s the RETURN of Ringo not in the sense of his being recognizably the same character, but in the sense that this Ringo incarnation returns home after an absence.)

I do like the jokey start of the first film — check it out.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: You Say Zapata, I say Sabata

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2022 by dcairns

So, I watched NAVAJO JOE, about which opinions differ — Tarantino I believe is a fan, Alex Cox less so, and Burt Reynolds even less so. I suspect I’ll never be a huge Corbucci fan, but I thought it was pretty good. Reynolds was maybe hoping it would do for him what Clint’s Italian westerns had done for Clint, an unrealistic hope.

Reynolds is good — physically impressive, but is that even his voice in the English dub? And the role doesn’t give him any humour, which holds back his effectiveness. Burt is a good example of the all-round leading man type, a light comedian with an edge. We also get Aldo Sambrell as a good, vicious baddie, and Fernando Rey as Father Rattigan, the town’s complacent priest (dubbing Rey with a stage Oirish accent actually WORKS, somehow).

I have a theory that The Pied Piper of Hamelin would make a good spaghetti western plot. This one comes fairly close to it, but lacks the Piper’s final vengeance. Since HIGH NOON, revisionist westerns had traded in the trope of the unworthy town. Gary Cooper’s town clearly doesn’t deserve its sheriff, but the movie doesn’t question the necessity of saving it. In YOJIMBO and FISTFUL, the town is practically destroyed in the course of being “saved”. By the time we get to HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, Eastwood’s most Italianate western (lacking only the high style), the town is intrinsically corrupt.

Alex Cox assembles plenty of Corbucci interview material in which the maestro says things like “I think it’s best not to put women in these films,” which is very weird since his best westerns feature strong women. Navajo Joe has some honest saloon girls and a heroic maid. And it showcases Corbucci’s strongest suite, his sense of landscape. Really magnificent wide shots.

Ennio Morricone, billed as Leo Nichols for some strange reason (Corbucci is Corbucci, De Laurentiis is De Laurentiis, and the credits brag about the Almeria locations so they’re not trying to pass this off as an American film) gives it an epic score of wailing and chanting, but it may be slightly misjudged — most of the biog musical scenes show the bad guys riding into action, so this celebratory theme — “Navajo Joe, Navajo Joe!” — feels emotionally off. But judged purely as music, which is how I first encountered it on one of my many Morricone LPs, it’s pretty great.

Best exchange is between Burt and one of the awful townspeople, who calls himself an American. “Where was your father born?” asks Burt. “Scotland.” “Well my father was born HERE, and his father before him and HIS father before him. Which of us is the American?”

We get yet another crucifixion, when Joe is hanged upside down, arms outstretched, like St. Peter.

Cox’s objections to the juddery zooms and day-for-night shooting strike me as frivolous, especially when the film provides us with Joe’s horse’s POV in a shot/reverse shot that seems to imply man-to-horse telepathy.

ADIOS, SABATA (aka INDIO BLACK, SAI CHE TI DICO: SEI UN GRAN FIGLIO DI…, 1970) is a weird one. Released in the US as a SABATA film, and from the director of the first in that series, Gianfranco Parolini, it was intended to launch an entirely different character, Indio Black. It stars Yul Brunner, not Lee Van Cleef, and he is outwardly a different guy — lots of tassles on his black costume, gold-plated repeater shotgun and pistol. But “Indio Black” and “Sabata” require entirely different mouth movements to say, so I was expecting flamboyant lip flap whenever the hero is named. Didn’t happen. So it seems like the English version was always planned as a Sabata film, or at least, it was while they shot it.

Parolini (aka J. Francis Littlewords) then went on to shoot THE RETURN OF SABATA with Van Cleef, and Indio Black was never heard from again.

The movie deals with some of Cox’s irate objections to Parolini’s cheap-looking first SARTANA — it has great Spanish locations in place of an Italian chalk quarry, looks big and impressive, and attempts to be about something — the Mexican Revolution. Gerald Herter, the Teutonic gunfighter in THE BIG GUNDOWN and the alien-infected swine in CALTIKI, is again an excellent Austrian antagonist.

But it’s not just a Tortilla western and a Zapata western — it’s what Cox calls a “circus western” — it has acrobats and gadgets and gimmickry galore. There’s a guy who kills enemies by flipping steel balls at them with his feet. The baddie has a model galleon rigged up with cannons that fire real bullets. As with most Parolinis, there’s an element of James Bondery, but the other influence is the peplum films, which often featured tumblers. Parolini had worked exclusively in peplums and Bond knock-offs before he got into westerns.

Cox’s main objection to the first SARTANA and SABATA films was that the action was meaningless, and that’s still sadly a bit true here — the Revolution could have provided a grounding, but Indio Black / Sabata is out for himself, as is just about everyone else. As usual, he’s borrowing from Leone without understanding Leone. The Civil War in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY was more than a colourful background, it made a point — Leone cited MONSIEUR VERDOUX (another Chaplin connection!) to make his moral relativist point — how can we condemn the likes of Tuco, Angel Eyes and Blondie in the face of so much greater carnage wrought by people fighting over actual issues rather than just loot? Parolini has no such idea in mind, and his film would clearly work better if his heroes were more idealistic.

I think the cynicism of the Italian western can be seen here as echoing that of the filmmakers — the director as hired gun, taking on a job, not really caring whose side he’s on, just wanting to get rich, looking for any chance to screw his employer…

Brynner, who is charismatic as ever, is supported by the exuberant Ignazio Spalla (upper right) and singer Dean Reed, whose style is peak spaghetti — blorange hair and shoe-polish tan. An offense to the eye and soul. And he’s called Ballantine, because the Scots are never to be trusted in the spaghetti west, whether they’re called “Murdok” or not. The honourable exceptions are the MacGregors. heroes of a short series of films scored by Morricone, who are a sort of SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS team.

The movie ends with a character doing a big swear, interrupted by Bruno Nicolai’s (beautiful, inappropriately elegiac) score, a clear Leone swipe. What have we learned? Nothing. But it’s been fun — this would seem like a great adventure movie if you were 10.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Pink Desert

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2022 by dcairns

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.