Friday, August 29, 2014

Fred Blosser reviews Spaghetti Westerns

The Fourth Sergio

Sergio Leone pioneered the Spaghetti Western.  Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima made significant contributions to the genre in Leone’s footsteps.  When fans think of Spaghettis, those are the three Sergios who usually spring to mind.  But there was also a fourth Sergio in the Italian West  – Sergio Martino – who directed two interesting entries on his way to bigger fame in other Italian B-movie genres in the late ‘70s and the 1980s with “Slaves of the Cannibal God” and “2019: After the Fall of New York.”

Nominally, “Arizona Colt Returns” (1970) was a sequel to an earlier Spaghetti, Michele Lupo’s “Arizona Colt” from 1966, also known as “The Man from Nowhere.”  Both movies were written by prolific screen scribe Ernesto Gastaldi, and both feature character actor Roberto Camardiel as comedic sidekick Double Whisky, but different actors star in the title role – Giuliano Gemma in the original, and Anthony Steffen in the sequel.  Steffen does a pretty fair imitation of Clint Eastwood’s flinty stare under the lowered brim of his hat.

Bandit Keene (Aldo Sambrell) kidnaps Paloma (the sultry Rosalba Neri, hubba hubba!), the daughter of wealthy rancher Moreno (Jose Manuel Martin) and steals Moreno’s gold in the bargain.  Moreno tries to hire gunslinger Arizona Colt to recover daughter and gold.  Colt declines until Keene captures and nearly kills Double Whisky – and now it’s personal.

It isn’t a top-tier Spaghetti, but there’s plenty of action, which becomes non-stop in the last fifteen minutes when Colt stalks Keene and his outlaws.  Like other Italian Western directors, Martino borrows a lot from Leone in his camera placements, stunt choreography, and visual gags.  You may remember Camardiel’s face from other Italian Westerns: among other supporting roles, he was the cynical sheriff in “The Big Gundown” and the snide station master in “For a Few Dollars More.”  Here, he delivers a lip-smacking performance that may give you a greater appreciation for the relative subtlety of Gabby Hayes and Andy Devine in similar roles in American Westerns. 

There are at least three DVD editions on the market.  The one I have is a widescreen Koch Media DVD edition from Germany under the title “Der Tod Sagt Amen” (which translates to “Death Says Amen,” I think, but I may well be wrong).  The visual quality is pretty good if not spectacular, and although the DVD has an Italian soundtrack, there are optional English subtitles. 

You may want to put your TV on mute as the title credits roll; otherwise, you’ll be doomed to have the bouncy bubble-gum title song (“I guess I gotta get … my gun. /  I guess I gotta shoot … someone”) loop endlessly through your mind all day.

Martino’s second and last Spaghetti, “Mannaja – A Man Called Blade” (1977), was one of the final Italian Westerns as the genre sputtered to an end in the Disco era.  I’m not even sure it had a U.S. theatrical release, at least not widely.  Maurizio Merli plays the title character, a hatchet-wielding bounty hunter who rides into a ramshackle town run by mine owner McGowan (Philippe LeRoy) and McGowan’s scheming topkick, Voller (John Steiner – who looks a bit like American actor John Beck).   

McGowan is a puritanical tyrant who rails against saloons and dance-hall girls while his mines pollute the valley and his workers cough out their lives from lung disease.  Any commentary on the intersection between religious hypocrisy and greed is coincidental, I’m sure.

Where “Arizona Colt Returns” came from that period in which Spaghettis were still pretty much modeled on Leone’s “Dollar” movies, “Mannaja” reflects a wider range of inspirations.  As critics have noted, there’s a Sam Peckinpah influence in Martino’s slow-motion scenes of violence (Sam did it better, of course), and something of Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” in the muddy, raw look of the sets and locations.

Nevertheless, among the Peckinpah and Altman touches, the echoes of the earlier Spaghettis are still evident.  The relationship between Blade, Voller, and McGowan is very similar to that of the characters played by Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, and Gabriele Ferzetti in “Once Upon a Time in the West.”  A plot twist involving Blade, Voller, and McGowan’s daughter is similar to one involving Arizona Colt, Keene, and Paloma in Martino’s own earlier Spaghetti.  Several familiar Spaghetti veterans appear in the cast, including Donal O’Brien and Nello Pazzafini.  

Where “Arizona Colt Returns” was scored by Ennio Morricone’s frequent collaborator Bruno Nicolai, the “Mannaja” score by the DeAngelis Brothers seems to be modeled on Bob Dylan’s score for “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and Leonard Cohen’s for “McCabe.”  The croaking vocals and druggy instrumentation are off-putting at first, but like “Mannaja” as a whole, they grow on you after repeated viewings.  I believe the excellent 2003 DVD edition from Blue Underground is still available.  It’s too bad the genre didn’t survive long enough for Martino to explore it some more.  A meeting between Arizona Colt and Blade would have been interesting.

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