Friday, October 10, 2008

Italian Westerns: Changing the Landscape of the American Western Part 2

For A Few Dollars More (1965)

European Sagebrush Sagas: "Then came the bounty killers..."

1965 was a grand year for the European western film. By this time, the once thriving, and sometimes extravagant sword and sandal genre was put to rest atop Mount Olympus. Many of those same actors put down their swords and picked up six shooters. Coliseums and chariots were replaced by wind swept towns and horse drawn carriages. The cycle of Spaghetti Westerns was picking up some serious steam and 1965 saw a good number of high quality Italian western films raking in the box office receipts. Some of these still clung to American western conventions despite the runaway success of the first Leone film. That particular style didn't quite take a firm hold on the genre till Leone's second western picture, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965).

Clint Eastwood in For A Few Dollars More (1965)

After the success of the previous film, Clint Eastwood returns as the "Man With No Name", this time as a bounty hunter. A combination of his previous character (the same look more or less) but a different name (Monco) this time out. Eastwood wouldn't be the only returning actor. Many of the previous films supporting players would return including Mario Brega. Gian Maria Volonte also returns in a repeat performance as the villain; a far more sadistic interpretation than his turn in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964).

Lee Van Cleef in For A Few Dollars More (1965)

Arguably the most memorable aspect of this production is the addition of Lee Van Cleef as a vengeful bounty hunter named Colonel Mortimer. Van Cleef had previously done supporting roles and occasional co-star turns in a lot of American western pictures and even some science fiction films namely the classic BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and Roger Corman's IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956). He also featured in a smaller capacity in a number of television programs such as THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Van Cleef's role in Leone's second western cemented his success in Europe for a number of years. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) could be labeled as Van Cleef's film as opposed to Eastwood considering how much screen time is devoted to the Mortimer character. Also, the central plot line revolves around him.

For A Few Dollars More (1965)

The film itself was incredibly influential for the next five years until the comedy westerns changed the genre yet again. While A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) planted the seeds of what was to be, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) was the fruits of all the labor. The plot device of the bounty hunter as a main character became a staple of hundreds of later films. Also, Mortimer with his cache of various guns and rifles foreshadowed the gadget Euroaters that would surface with entries such as SABATA (1969) and the SARTANA series of films.

For A Few Dollars More (1965)

The role of Mortimer was also a more complicated personality than that of Manco. Constricted with grief over the unjust rape/suicide of his sister, Mortimer cavalierly and punctiliously plots his revenge but with the assist of Manco who is oblivious at first to Mortimer's true intentions. The two form an alliance for the reward on El Indio and his men. Only later is Mortimer's true purpose revealed; the audience being teased with clues from several scenes showing Indio raping a young woman and killing her man resulting in her suicide. The villains dispatched and retribution meted out, Mortimer is no longer interested in the money. It becomes apparent the money wasn't all that important to him from the beginning. He lets Manco take off with all the winnings.

For A Few Dollars More (1965)

There is also some great one liners and some darkly comical touches such as the final moments when Manco is counting the number of dead bandits he has loaded onto a cart. He realizes one of the villains is still alive (played by frequent bad guy Luigi Pistilli). Manco turns and kills the sneaky bandit. Mortimer, on his way off into the sunset, turns and says, "Something wrong, boy?", to which Manco replies, "No, old man. I thought I was having trouble with my adding. It's all right now." The scene where Manco and Mortimer first meet is a western "testing of skills" akin to what was seen in thousands of kung fu programmers only instead of fists, feet or swords, it's accuracy with their guns.

Gian Maria Volonte in For A Few Dollars More (1965)

Considering many other Italian westerns of the time featured conventional antagonists inherent to the genre from years prior, Leone's movie introduces a seriously depraved bad guy the likes of which hadn't been presented in a film of this type. Volonte was a grim scoundrel in the previous entry, but here, he's a drug using, psychopathic rapist who isn't above slaughtering his own men. He is also a very intelligent, albeit unhinged rogue. Volonte was a theatrical actor of some repute. He detested his two Leone pictures and refused to do anymore in this vein stating he only wanted to do important films with something to say. He did star in two of the most significant Italian westerns of the 1960's, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1966) and FACE TO FACE (1967). The depth and severity of Volonte's interpretation of El Indio was a hard act to follow and rarely did a spaghetti western villain reach the heights of his savagery.

Klaus Kinski in For A Few Dollars More (1965)

In addition to the over the top lead villain, another memorable bad guy (both on and off screen) made an impression in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1966). Klaus Kinski, a German stage performer turned actor was a sex starved, money ravening performer who made a name for himself in the Italian film industry. Some purists felt, much like Van Cleef, that Kinski hurt his career by doing so many westerns; a number of them being of far less caliber than the best of the genre. Kinski portrayed a hunchbacked gunslinger in El Indio's gang. He has a run in with Mortimer when he uses his hump to strike a match. The extended scenes of silence (save for Morricone's music) and close ups of faces leading up to violence is piled on thick here becoming a staple of Leone's style and copied by other directors of the genre.

Guiliano Gemma in Return of Ringo (1965)

Also in 1965 was another hit western, Duccio Tessari's RETURN OF RINGO (1965), one of the best of the Spaghetti's. Overlooking the rules laid down by Sergio Leone's new style, Tessari opts instead to pay tribute to the American style of western and also pay tribute to Greek mythology (there are several nods to Homer's THE ODYSSEY) in the process. Utilizing the same cast and production crew, actors are switched around to play different roles this time out.

Gemma & Nieves Navarro in Return of Ringo (1965)

Guiliano Gemma returns as Ringo but not the same Ringo from the previous film. A more serious tone permeates the second outing than before. Ringo returns home from the war to find his town taken over by a ruthless Mexican bandit gang. With his wife having been told he was killed in battle and his home taken over by the bad guys, Ringo plots his revenge. One of the finest films from Tessari, it was one of the last Italian westerns to retain an American western sensibility as it's backdrop for the action.

Django (1966)

The year 1966 brought forth more change that, in Europe at least, was just as influential as Leone's prior productions. The film was the groundbreakingly violent DJANGO (1966) from enigmatic director Sergio Corbucci. Bordering on a horror western (something Corbucci would do with his bleakly depressing 1968 film, THE GREAT SILENCE), DJANGO starred blue eyed Franco Nero as the embittered, coffin dragging anti-hero, Django. Little is told about his character but it is later surmised that he fought in the Civil War for the Union and that he is searching for the murderer, or murderers, of his wife. His dress is totally different from the Eastwood look bearing more close approximation to a gravedigger. Django is first seen dragging a mud caked coffin through a panorama of desolation.

Django (1966)

The bulk of the film takes place in a likewise mud encroached town populated by prostitutes and a gaggle of racist thugs which would purport to be the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition to the red hooded, fanatical band of killers led by Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), there's also a gang of Mexican desperadoes headed by "General" Rodriguez. Corbucci would create a mesmerizing portrait of dread in his depiction of the American West. Mixing elements of horror among his innovations of the western fundamentals, Corbucci's West replaces dust and tumbleweeds with lots of crosses and a landscape draped in mud and blood. The basic outline is an excessively violent and gruesome reprise of Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964).

Django (1966)

The villains in DJANGO (1966) are suitably nasty, but like Leone's caricatures, are darkly comic book in execution due to their over the top nature. Corbucci also had a penchant for maiming his protagonists or featuring characters with an anomaly of one sort or other. Because of its extreme violence, DJANGO (1966) never got a theatrical release in either the United States or Great Britain, but it was hugely successful in European countries siring some 50 sequels. Less than half these actually feature the Django character. Most of these "sequels" were just retitlings to cash in on the success of Corbucci's original.

Django (1966)

Corbucci had directed a few westerns prior to his barnstorming smorgasbord of violence but none of them had the impact of DJANGO (1966). However, Sergio's production of JOHNNY ORO (1966) had made American actor and future movie producer Mark Damon a European western star. Damon had collaborated with Corbucci on the script for DJANGO (1966) and was slated to play the lead but was sidetracked by a prior film commitment. Instead, a gas station worker named Franco Nero was selected to play the grim anti-hero. According to his own testimony, Damon was also one of several actors considered for the lead in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964).

Terence Hill as Django

One of the better of the DJANGO sequels was the prequel. Entitled, DJANGO, GET A COFFIN READY (1967), the film detailed Django's origins as well as show how he came across his gatling gun concealed within the coffin. Terence Hill takes over for Nero, who was reportedly supposed to play the role again opting instead to go to Hollywood for a role in CAMELOT (1967). Nero was also tapped to star in the ghoulishly downbeat Corbucci western, THE GREAT SILENCE (1968) as well as the eccentric and curious entry, THE SPECIALIST (1969) but an apparent falling out with the director kept him from participating.

Django gets his coffin ready

Terence Hill would gain a certain degree of success with the Leone influenced and hugely popular western film, GOD FORGIVES...I DON'T! (1967). Directed by Guiseppe Colizzi, it was the first of a trilogy of films. Co-starring with Hill was Bud Spencer, or under his real name, Carlo Pedersoli. Three years later, this duo would set European sagebrush cinema on fire with the western comedy, THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970), a film which caused an avalanche of imitations in the 1970's. Even still, the tidal wave of revenge oriented spaghetti westerns still had enough vitality before the comedy would take center stage.


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