Archive for Sergio Leone

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Lee’s Rough Rider

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2022 by dcairns

THE BIG GUNDOWN is a really fun Italo-oater directed by Sergio Sollima and written by Franco Solinas, Fernando Morandi and Sergio Donati, with Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian in the leads.

Alex Cox, who writes favourably about the film in 10,000 Ways to Die, is a big Bunuel fan, and I perceived a Bunuelian parallel with this one: Van Cleef is hunting Milian’s Mexican rascal, who is accused of raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl. It’s basically The Fugitive, in terms of the plot dynamic. What’s surprising is that the movie doesn’t let us know that Milian is innocent for quite a stretch of the runtime. The parallel is with Bunuel’s excellent, underseen THE YOUNG ONE, which does the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD thing of having a Black man falsely accused of rape, but in this case confuses our feelings by not revealing his innocence until halfway through or so. In his memoir, Bunuel may be misremembering the film when he credits himself with making the Black man both good and bad — in fact he’s good, but we’re not allowed to know this for a while.

While we might guess, based on the incidences of misogyny in the genre, that the filmmakers figured their protagonist’s guilt was unimportant, but I don’t think that’s credible: Leone might shrug off rape on several occasions, but not child murder. I think it’s a bold and interesting strategy — our sympathies are with Van Cleef, we’re curious about Milian, and our negative attitude to him is undermined then reversed.

Not that the film isn’t breathtakingly cynical. At one point, anti-hero Cuchillo falls in with a Mormon wagon train — the weather immediately gets overcast and muddy. Van Cleef tracks him down and seems to be on the verge of rescuing the Mormon leader’s fourteen-year-old daughter from almost certain overfamiliarity. After Cuchillo has escaped, Van Cleef learns that the girl is actually the leader’s fourth wife.

Of the writers, Solinas, who co-wrote SALVATORE GIULIANO for Franco Rosi and BATTLE OF ALGIERS with/for Pontecorvo, wanted to write a political western, and succeeds subtly. Morandi was AD on that film, and they both went on to write Joseph Losey’s M. KLEIN. And Donati worked for Leone on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. So it’s a really interesting mix of people (Italian movies seem even more apt than Hollywood ones to feature whole football teams of writers).

All this background comes from Cox’s book, where he says that the Solinas-Morandi draft conceived the Mexican fugitive as older, the American pursuer as younger — a Tuco-Blondie set. Sollimo and Donati flipped the ages so that Lee Van Cleef could be Corbett and Tomas Milian could play Cuchillo, young and reasonably attractive under the obligatory stubble and dirt,

The film should be political, but the references to Cuchillo as one of the “dogs of Juarez” don’t add up to much. And as Cox observes, for a tale of American adventurism — Corbett follows Cuchillo into Mexico despite it being out of his jurisdiction — it all turns out very nicely. Of course, Cuchillo is innocent (as charged) and the corrupt rich dude (Walter Barnes) and his son who’ve sicced Corbett on him are really to blame. Which is an implied social criticism, anyway. Spaghetti westerns are good that way — the villains are often wealthy businessmen and politicians who play with toy soldiers.

The chase story allows for picaresque developments — there’s a weird episode involving a sadistic female landowner (Nieves Navarro as “the widow”) who is so beyond-pathological she seems more like a character from Greek myth — someone Odysseus would have some trouble with. And Van Cleef’s realising that Milian has been framed coincides with a miniature political awakening in Mexico, where he’s reduced to the status of prisoner and pauper. And there are entertaining novelties like the Austrian duelist, complete with monocle, who LVC has to square off against.

Cox rightly appreciates the plotting, stating that it deploys “genuine reversals rather than the contrivances of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.” Sometimes I wonder if he even likes Leone, but in fact he’s just clear-eyed about his weaknesses: tackling the DOLLARS films and OUATITW, he’s both extremely critical and wildly enthusiastic. Anyhow, the twists in TGTBATU may be contrived, but they make the contrivance amusing — Clint being saved from hanging by a cannon-blast that destroys the entire building is a bravura moment and I can’t understand anyone not enjoying it. Van Cleef being tricked into thinking a rattlesnake has bitten him, so that Milian can escape, is clever, but still depends on the serpens ex machina showing up at just the right time.

Cox is a very opinionated commentator, which can be bracing, but he baffles me when he (rightly) praises Morricone’s score, then (wrongly) complains about the “hideous, screeching vocals of Edda Dell’Orso, and the diabolical song, ‘Run, Man, Run.'” I first knew this movie via its soundtrack, several tracks of which appeared on the LP of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY I bought when I was twenty. Enjoying Dell’Orso’s soprano seems to me a necessity if you’re going to appreciate spaghetti westerns in general and Morricone scores in particular. Cox obviously finds enough to enjoy without liking this component, but I can’t help but feel he’s flat-out wrong and ought to WORK ON IT. Personal taste is a weakness we should all strive to overcome. I like this and I don’t like that is what keeps us from broadening our minds. The only thing a canon is good for is leverage to convince us we might be missing something.

I also like the song — I like Morricone’s pop arrangements too, and I like the naked emotionalism of it. That’s a key part of the Italian western thang — deeply cynical stories about horrible violence, venality and casual betrayal, with soaring, romantic music. I think it’s also part of why English-language critics not only disliked the films for their inauthenticity and sadism, they were thrown by the weird two-tones-at-once approach, and concluded that the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing.

RUN, MAN, RUN is also the name of THE BIG GUNDOWN’s sequel, starring Milian sans Van Cleef, which I plan to watch.

THE BIG GUNDOWN stars Angel Eyes; Django; Porthos; Emanuelle; Zorro; Yevtushenko; and Stevens.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Except with Bullets

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2022 by dcairns

I knew I’d be looking at a tortilla western or Zapata western in this series — maybe more than one. The Italians visited the Mexican Revolution a fair bit, either because their Spanish locations and swarthy extras made it a natural fit, or because, unlike Hollywood filmmakers, many of the writers and directors could get behind a leftwing revolution con mucho gusto.

Having enjoyed some Damiano Damiani in the past — THE WITCH/LA STREGA IN AMORE (1966) is fascinating, GIROLOMANI, IL MONSTRO DI ROMA (1971) is fascinating but maybe doesn’t quite come off, I was excited to see what he could do with the genre. Spaghetti westerns are frequently unbeautiful, even the best ones frequently partaking of that orange pancake makeup approach that gives this series its title; but the Damiani movies I’ve seen are lustrous.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL aka QUIEN SABE? hits the ground running — Lou Castel as the smart, dangerous Americano is cool and ambiguous. We meet him buying a train ticket. “Do you like Mexico?” asks a cute little boy. “No,” he smirks, “Not very much.” With his long, angular head, like a child’s coffin, he’s a unique presence.

The train is soon held up by bandit-revolutionaries — the line here is less blurred than eradicated. They are led by Gian Maria Volonte, backed up by Klaus Kinski as his half-brother (?), a fanatical, grenade-throwing priest, and pistol-packin’ Martine Beswick. The latter two sporting faces you don’t expect to find under a sombrero. Alex Cox, an enthusiast for the genre, does bemoan the fact that there’s only one instance on record of a Mexican being cast as a Mexican (Gilbert Roland — and with him you get a less stereotypical performance, I bet).

Written by Franco Solinas and Salvatore Laurani, the film rapidly arrives at a compelling situation: the train, carrying troops and weapons, is stopped by an officer tied to the tracks. Anyone who gets out of the train to rescue him is picked off by snipers on the hills bordering the track. The soldiers in the train are picked off too. The alternative is to advance and run over the officer, something the officer in charge of the train isn’t willing to do.

During all this, Volonte’s excitable, childish Anthony Quinn act is really hateful. His boyish enthusiasm is meant to be likeable, possibly. Yet we’re involved in the soldiers’ horrible dilemma, so this jovial madman, who sees it all as a big joke, is unbearable. But it’s something the movie overcomes. By pairing him with Castel’s cool dude, who dresses like an American gangster, we get something theoretically comparable to Eastwood and Wallach in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. What transforms it is politics — Volonte is at least somewhat motivated by sincere revolutionary fervour, while Castel has an entirely hidden agenda of his own — and sex. This becomes uncomfortably obvious to both men when Volonte’s El Chuncho kills a friend who has attacked Castel’s Bill “El Nino” Tate. He can’t explain why he’s done it. He’s not very bright or very articulate. But he seems to sense it. And so does Tate.

Fortunately, there are lots of violent missions to carry out — both their overt ones, and Tate’s private one, which brings things to a head. It’s all really interesting. Cox identifies it as the first western with a gay subtext that’s inescapable. I think RED RIVER might beat it out there, but the Volonte-Castel love story is more central here. (The Monty Clift-John Ireland love story might have been more prominent in RED RIVER if Howard Hawks, who was responsible for it, hadn’t drastically cut down Ireland’s role, peeved that Ireland had taken up with a female co-star he’d had his eye on).

Music is by Luis Bacalov, a good choice if you can’t get Morricone or Ortolani. Alex Cox is particularly keen on the film’s art direction — I think you never really believe an Italian western is happening where it says it is — even the undeniable presence of Monument Valley in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST feels like a trick — which it kind of is, since we’re in Spain the rest of the time — but this is a pretty convincing Mexican revolution.

Cox gets very irate about the opening VO, which didn’t bother me at all. Unnecessary, perhaps, but these things can have an atmospheric value, giving a spurious documentary sheen to fictionalized settings and action.

The film’s two titles are both good — A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is quite literally what Castel is carrying. It’s a golden bullet, as in DJANGO KILL. A favoured image (see also RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL) which literally combines the two obsessions of the genre, money and violence. Alex Cox has pointed out that the spaghetti western hero from Leone on is not too interested in sex or love or justice, and money is secondary, but killing is ALL-IMPORTANT. QUIEN SABE? (WHO KNOWS?) is a key line of dialogue that really resonates in the film, and seems to stand in for everything poor dumb El Chuncho can’t verbalize.

Volonte’s appearance in the film made this one of the few Klaus Kinski pictures where Kinski wasn’t the director’s biggest problem (Kinski was TWICE in movies where people plotted to assassinate him, he was such a pain). Volonte, objecting to his costume, showed up on set naked. Damiani got angry with him and shoved him off his horse. I’m not sure if this was all the same incident or two different occasions.

But Volonte is really good, and Castel, more subdued, is a great acting partner for him. The movie has some of the best acting I’ve seen in a spaghetti. (The leads in the Leone films are always iconic, and James Coburn reacting to the firing squad in the rain at night in the uneven DUCK YOU SUCKER gives the greatest reaction shots of his career.)

Kinski is very fine also, though with him it can feel as much a triumph of physiognomy as acting. But at a certain point, the two are inseparable. Beswick has less to do, and her best scene is hampered by her worst facial expressions, but it IS an interesting scene. Some of the bandits want to rape a rich woman they’ve captured. Beswick’s “Adelita” is all for this. She was raped at 15, so why should this woman be spared. It’s a depressing but believable sentiment. Compare it to DUCK, YOU SUCKER! where Leone seems to consider rape as an amusing form of class revenge. Here, the unacceptable views are at least coming from a character, not (seemingly) from the filmmaker.

Big spoilers now — Volonte’s El Chuncho has a serious case of star worship about his General. Ushered into the man’s presence, he is promptly sentenced to death for abandoning a village he’d earlier liberated. Heartbreaking interrogation where Chuncho, an honest man, is talked into proposing his own execution. Here, Volonte starts to be absolutely incredible. Your heart breaks for the murderous bastard.

Kinski volunteers for the job of his brother’s executioner (he would), but is killed by Tate/Castel, who is fulfilling his true mission, to get close to the General and assassinate him.

El Chuncho now follows Tate back to his spymasters, planning to murder him, but then learns that he’s rich — Tate has set aside half his huge fee for him. He takes the bandit to get a makeover and to get laid. El Chuncho goes along like a man in a dream. He had intended to avenge the general, but suddenly he has everything he could ever want, including Tate’s friendship.

It flashed on me suddenly what this reminded me of: the section in Tess of the D’Urbervilles where she becomes the lover of her rapist, because she can’t process what he did to her. Volonte plays everything with exactly the right sense of concussed daze. In his new city clothes, he’s like a strange shaggy child.

And then he wakes up. Tate can’t understand why El Chuncho suddenly wants to kill him. Neither can El Chuncho. Who knows? But, the deed done, El Chuncho recovers his revolutionary fervour, so it’s a happy ending. But you have questions, which is good.

A proper movie! It transcends its genre while still providing the pleasures associated with its genre. And while DD’s closeups don’t have the iconic/comicbook impact of Leone’s and his epic sweep isn’t as epic or sweeping, his less explosive style allows for more depth.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL stars Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano; Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald; Sister Hyde; Cesare Borgia; Man Friday; and Dr. Choma Kruvajan.

The Sunday Intertitle: Bloomer Wants to Kill Himself

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2022 by dcairns

Firstly — I’ve been remiss in not announcing that The Chiseler is back, at a new address, here. Add it to your bookmarks. Scroll down and you’ll find my piece on Segundo de Chomon.

Raymond François Émile Marie Pierre Frau AKA Raymond Dandy AKA AKA Kri Kri AKA Patachon AKA Bloomer — remarkable how many names these minor European silent clowns have — one for each territory, sometimes more — thwarted in love, wishes to make away with himself. Being a good citizen, he informs the police.

Originally from Senegal, Frau made his name(s) in Italy, a nation thronging with tumblers in the teens.

Luckily for us, this is not only a suicide comedy, it’s a behind-the-scenes movie, offering us yet another glimpse of the film industry in its baby-steps phase. “Bloomer is expected to work in the theatre. Potbelly goes to meet him.”

In reality, suicide has caused considerable trouble for filmmakers, particularly, it seems, in Italy, and the filmmakers have not always responded with sympathy. The first instinct is to worry about how to finish the movie. When gaunt-featured Canadian character player Al Muloch, one of the three hitmen at the start of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY *and* ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, fatally defenestrated himself on location for the latter movie, Sergio Leone was heard yelling “Get his costume!” as the mortally injured actor was ambulanced away, still in his movie gear. On CITY OF WOMEN, Fellini’s slightly baffled response to feminism, former peplum idol Ettore Manni, playing the hypermacho Dr. Xavier Katzone, shot himself in the groin with his .44 Magnum one evening and bled to death. “At least it proves the film works,” mused Fellini, and rewrote the film’s ending to exclude his deceased thesp. Admittedly, we don’t know that Manni’s death was intentional. Maybe the gun went off while he was cleaning it. With his dick.

Bloomer/Patachon/Dandy/etc is discovered apparently dead from poisoning (this is hilarious so far) but then there’s some “he’s behind you!” panto poignancy as he filches a swig of booze while his friend Potbelly is setting up a long candle. The film looks set to play out mostly as a single set-up. Then he starts pranking his friend, which is oddly antic behaviour for a man bent on self-destruction.

It seems this is all a ploy to get revenge on Bloomer/Dandy/etc’s prospective father-in-law who’s refusing his daughter’s hand. Potbelly is persuaded to take the place of the corpse, though how this can be expected to convince given his physical mountainousness is anybody’s guess. Such are the ways of farce. “Bloomer is unrecognizable,” remarks a hopeful intertitle, as our man dons false pornstache and eyebrows. This development seems to be the only reason for the movie-making subplot. Frau/Dandy’s mastery of disguise must be alibied, or the whole thing will be unbelievable. We can’t have that.

GOOD ACTING from the boss of the Keystone Karabinieri and the unyielding Mr Pepper: their gestures are expressively Italianate without lapsing into the purely rhetorical or explanatory. At this time, Mack Sennett’s comics were still trying to illustrate the plot to the audience using hand-gestures and exaggerated lip movements. This favourable impression is slightly marred when Patachon/Dandy’s sweetheart throws a full-on fit of hysterics, but that seems to be what the plot requires. So far, our hero’s scheme is causing widespread distress and alarm. It must be working.

Looking somewhat like Fawlty Towers’ Manuel, Dandy/Bloomer arrives at the grieving household, personating his own (presumably non-existent) brother, and threatens to murder Mr Pepper. But, being a good sport, he’ll settle for twenty thousand lire/gilders/bucks — exactly the sum Pepper told him he needed to marry his daughter (do pay attention). There seem to be a number of crimes involved here — threats of violence, extortion, armed robbery, fraud — so it’s a good job the police are already involved.

However, under Italian comedy law, Mr. Pepper is now compelled to allow the marriage to go forth, as Kri Kri/Dandy/Frau/Patachon/Bloomer/Lazarus celebrates his resurrection by kissing his sweetheart and leaping into the arms of his mother-in-law-to-be with Harpo-ish enthusiasm.