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Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Fistful of Spaghetti: Killer Kid (1967) & Massacre At Grand Canyon (1965)

This column covers the Good, the Bad & the Mediocre of the Spaghetti Western genre. This entry is a double feature for two obscure Italian westerns; one contains a rare heroic turn for a popular Mexican actor known for his villain roles, and the other has a fascinating role call of behind the camera technicians.


Anthony Steffen (Killer Kid/Capt. Morrison), Giovanni Cianfriglia (as Ken Wood; Ramirez), Fernando Sancho (Vilar), Liz Barrett (Mercedes Hernandez)

Directed by Leopoldo Savona; Production Manager: Sergio Garrone

The ruthless and cruel Captain Ramirez hunts down and kills revolutionaries in his search for The Saint, the righteous leader of the Mexican insurrection against the Federales. Adding complications to Ramirez's pursuit, a group of American gunmen secretly steal weapons from US encampments to be sold to the freedom fighters. Killer Kid, the most dangerous gunfighter in the west, bides his time in a military jail. He manages to escape and soon ingratiates himself in the company of the elusive Saint ultimately joining them in their fight against Ramirez. However, one of the Saints men, Vilar, doesn't trust the American ace gunfighter whose motives and actions are shrouded in mystery.

"This film is dedicated to the Mexican people who in humble valor allowed for the birth of a modern, independent, democratic republic." So begins this 1967 Italian western; a Zapata shoot'em up whose only real political underpinnings are in that opening statement. With such a bold and patriotic statement to begin the film, Savona's movie never quite reaches classic status settling instead for a typical western affair saddled (haha) with a convoluted plot. The opening statement attempts to elevate the film with minor political underpinnings which are subsequently lost amongst the usual six gun shenanigans.

However, a handful of scenes are deftly managed by the director such as a nice scene involving the Kid and his love interest, Mercedes, the niece of the Saint. The Kid gives a grand speech about his change of heart in regards to the peasants who fight for a righteous and just cause. This scene is accompanied by a very nice romantic musical piece by composer Berto Pisano. There are a few other nicely orchestrated sequences that manage to lift the film above the average spaghetti sagebrush saga, but never quite proves itself worthy of the company of such noted classics as Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1967) and Corbucci's THE MERCENARY (1968). A fair number of characters and minor sub-plots litter the hot and arid landscape depicted in this picture. The title character, for example, is as complicated as the plot itself.

Anthony Steffen essays another one of his archetypal western hero roles which only required him to remain silent much of the time with an occasional sly grimace to carry his performance. He's best when playing characters such as these and as wooden as he often is, Steffen could turn such a performance to his advantage. Having starred in some 27 westerns, Steffen also displayed a good amount of flair in the quirky and fun A MAN CALLED APOCALYPSE JOE (1971) which, like KILLER KID (1967), was also directed by Savona. This is definitely one of Steffen's better movies. Like his other colleagues who enjoyed domestic popularity, Steffen crossed over into other genres for films such as THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE (1971) and THE KILLERS ARE OUR GUESTS (1974). He will most probably always be remembered for his prolific career in Euro westerns.

Former sword & sandal actor/stunt man Giovanni Cianfriglia has a larger than usual role here as the main antagonist--Captain Ramirez. Cianfriglia is a strong presence during the first 30 minutes or so but then disappears midway through showing up for the bombastic finale. Formerly Steve Reeves's stunt man, he also got to play the main villain in HERCULES THE AVENGER (1965) in which he dueled with British born Reg Park. He did get to partake as the lead hero in the Italian superhero /spy action films SUPERARGO AGAINST DIABOLICUS (1966) and its lesser sequel, SUPERARGO AND THE FACELESS GIANTS (1968). Cianfriglia was gifted with a great look but although his career spanned 40+ years covering every genre, he never made it as a leading man, but remains one of the most recognizable faces of Italian genre cinema.

Fernando Sancho is a sight to behold here as Vilar in a role that's one of the best he was ever given. An unusual turn in that he plays a good guy and a somewhat complicated good guy at that. In addition, he gets quite a bit of screen time and mucho dialog almost taking the film away from Steffen with his lively and spirited portrayal of the anxious and hot-tempered Vilar. His characters name sounds like a variation of the word 'vulgar' and it suits him perfectly.

The film itself seems to have had a decent budget at least bigger than a lot of these movies. Savona and his cinematographer do a fine job capturing some great scope shots in addition to some well handled character interplay and several nicely choreographed action scenes. Although there are a couple of sloppy bits here and there such as one of the soldiers leaping from the blast from an explosion just before the detonation takes place. The hideout for Sartana's gang seen in BLOOD AT SUNDOWN (1967;no relation to the popular series character but also played by Gianni Garko as a villain) is used here for one scene after the insurgents have fled their initial sanctuary. That film, incidentally, also starred Anthony Steffen and may have been shooting at the same time as KILLER KID (1967).

KILLER KID (1967) is a slightly above average film with a number of elements to set it apart from the run-of-the-mill entries of the genre. A last minute script change cripples the film and is a bit jarring, but no doubt this was due to Steffen's prima donna behavior. The script contains surprisingly more intricate characters than generally afforded these movies and it's one of Steffen's better films of his career; not a classic, but worth the trip for spaghetti fans.

This review is representative of the R2 Koch Media PAL DVD


James Mitchum (Wes Evans), Jill Powers (Nancy), George Ardisson (Tully Dancer), Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (Sheriff Cooley), Ferdinando Poggi (Ace Manson)

Directed by Sergio Corbucci
(Stanley Corbett) and Albert Band; Second Unit Director: Franco Giraldi; Camera Operator: Stelvio Massi; Music by Gianni Ferrio; Director of photography: Enzo Barboni

Returning home after two years of hunting down the men that murdered his father, Wes Evans comes home to take back his job as sheriff as well as find solace in the arms of his betrothed. Upon reacquainting himself with old friends who thought him to be dead, Wes learns that his girlfriend, Nancy, has married Tully Dancer in his absence. He also learns that a range war between the Dancer's and the Whitmore's over Red Grass Valley has resulted in bloodshed between the two factions. Although the land rightly belongs to the Whitmore's, the Dancer's claim the territory was tricked right out from under them. With the violence between the two families escalating, the neighboring town of Ariba Mesa is caught in the middle. The Dancer's decide that to take the Whitmore land, sheer numbers will not be enough; the might of the Manson brothers is recruited to seize Red Grass Valley. However, Wes Evans isn't about to let that happen.

Sergio Corbucci, who later found fame after further changing the European Western landscape with the release of DJANGO (1966), had his first go at the genre with MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (1964). The polar opposite from his later western productions, the film bears more of a resemblance to the sprawling American western, a genre to which some 20+ European imitation westerns had already been seen on Italian cinema screens MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON being one of them. However, it seems Corbucci had very little to do with the direction of this film, although he was given sole screen credit; something that was a regular occurrence in Europe at the time. Incidentally, the plot point of two factions of warring families would also be utilized in Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), a device that was lifted from Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961).

Whatever his level of input actually was, Corbucci's penchant for maimed and disfigured characters does rear its head here--a man who lost his leg in a gunfight with one of the Dancer's after Harley Whitmore had sold him a plot of land on Red Grass Valley. Despite its rather plain jane approach to the form, the film is much bigger in scope than many of the countless Eur-oaters that followed. There's a livliness to the film that makes it a moderately enjoyable watch.

The film also seems to share a number of the same locations as seen in the popular German western WINNETOU films from Karl May. Enzo Barboni (who later went on to a successful directorial career himself) captures the beautiful vistas and mountain landscapes seen here which again, captures the flavor of the soon-to-be-replaced style of American western popularized by actors such as Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Speaking of John Wayne, there is a popular running gag in his 1971 film BIG JAKE whereupon everybody he comes into contact with says, "I heard you were dead". This gag was also implemented into John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) as an homage to BIG JAKE (1971) but the same gag is heard in MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (1964) as a number of people say the same thing to Mitchum's character upon his return to Red Grass Valley and Ariba Mesa.

James Mitchum, the spitting image of his father, takes the lead here as Wes Evans. He seems confused most of the time but comes through in a number of scenes. It appears that James did not dub his own voice for this movie but would do so for THE TRAMPLERS (1966) directed by the co-director of this film, Albert Band. Mitchum doesn't have a lot of range, but makes up for it with charisma and the wiry actor handles action much better than others seen in these movies. Mitchum can be seen in the moonshine movie, THUNDER ROAD (1958) where he played the on screen brother to his off screen father, Robert Mitchum. He also featured in one episode of the US western show HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL (1962) as well as the shockingly bad schlockfest MONSTER (1979).

George Ardisson plays the villain, Tully Dancer and appears to indulge himself every second of screen time he has nearly stealing the film away from Mitchum whose name value is just barely enough to carry the film. Ardisson was great portraying bad guys but had a look that could lend him to playing protagonists, too. He also plays the heavy in Antonio Margheriti's atmospheric Gothic horror yarn, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) and the sidekick to Hercules in HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961).

Giacomo Rossi-Stuart will also be familiar to fans of Italian cinema having appeared in just about everything from sword and sandal films (WAR OF THE TROJANS ;1962), to horror (KILL, BABY, KILL!;1966) and war pictures (CHURCHILL'S LEOPARDS;1970) among them. Stuart was a nasty villain in two films in Michele Lupo's gladiator trilogy, THE REVENGE OF SPARTACUS and SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST THE WORLD (both 1964).

Far more interesting than the film itself is the behind the scenes staff. It's a veritable who's who of superlative Italian filmmakers. Viewers will recognize luminaries such as Franco Giraldi, the 2nd Unit Director here. Giraldi went on to his own successful career in westerns with the box office successes of SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS (1965) and the even more successful SEVEN WOMEN FOR THE MACGREGORS (1966), two films that predated the comedy western formula that would take over the genre in the early 1970's spearheaded by DP/director, Enzo Barboni.

Stelvio Massi serves here as a camera operator and would go on to a career as a head cinematographer. He would also undertake a successful career as a director most memorably in the Italian crime genre. The aforementioned Enzo Barboni would gain enormous fame after the Euro western would change yet again in 1970 with the release of THEY CALL ME TRINITY, a film that would not only resonate in Italy, but internationally as well.

Composer Gianni Ferrio contributed many scores for the genre but his compositions for MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (1964) imitate the American style and aside from the main theme song and a brief cue here and there, the score never strays from the American western formula. Curiously, the film sports two different musical tracks as well as different sound effects depending on which track is selected on the Koch Media DVD. The English version sports the traditional sounding gunfire and other foley effects familiar to fans of the genre while the German track sports sound effects that are more reminiscent to US westerns.

While probably not for everyone, Sergio Corbucci (sort of) makes a grand entrance into the spaghetti western arena with a big, American fashioned entry that, while not indicative of his later works, foreshadows great things to come from the master filmmaker.

This review is representative of the Koch Media R0 PAL DVD.

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