Archive for September, 2010

Spaghetti Westerns, Part 5

Posted in Film on September 30, 2010 by thebigsmoke

The Big Gundown (La Resa dei Conti) (1966)

By way of introduction to this brilliant western from Sergio Sollima, I am going to begin by posting the stylish title sequence, featuring yet more music composed by Ennio Morricone. I cannot express how much I love this spine-tingling sequence, despite its crude and simplistic quality.

Although Zapata westerns are often preoccupied with revolution, there are a number of notable exceptions. The Big Gundown certainly qualifies as a Zapata western, but it carries a message about prejudice which is slightly more subtle than usual.

Tomas Milian is Cuchillo, a Mexican criminal on the run after being accused of the rape and murder of a young girl. Tasked with hunting him down is bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett, played by Lee Van Cleef. The ensuing chase is a cat and mouse game full of dangerous and unexpected turns.

Milian, a stalwart of spaghetti westerns, was often picked to play Mexican parts, despite being Cuban. When watching flims like The Big Gundown it is easy to understand why, as he possesses a likeable quality and his acting is full of energy. Compare his performance in Companeros or The Big Gundown to that of Rod Steiger’s in A Fistful Of Dynamite and you will understand what I mean.

Van Cleef of course requires no introduction, but it is worth commenting he was at the top of his game for The Big Gundown. His hard, aqualine features are perfectly suited for his role as the relentless Corbett. Effortlessly cool, every moment Van Cleef is on screen is a thrill to behold.

I have to be honest, this is one of my very favourite spaghetti westerns and it upsets me that so few people even know the film exists. If you ever have an opportunity to watch The Big Gundown, I promise you will enjoy this remarkable slice of cinema.

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Spaghetti Westerns, Part 4

Posted in Film on September 28, 2010 by thebigsmoke

A Fistful Of Dynamite (Giù la Testa) (1971)

Companeros and A Bullet For The General provide a good introduction for Sergio Leone’s flawed masterpiece, A Fistful Of Dynamite (sometimes also referred to as Duck, You Sucker! in the United States). As with the two previous films, Leone’s contribution to the Zapata western also features an unlikely partnership between Mexican bandit and gringo, reluctantly drawn into revolution together.

James Coburn stars as John Mallory, an ex-IRA explosives expert, pressganged into helping Rod Steiger’s Juan rob the bank of Mesa Verde. Though initially motivated solely by greed, Juan’s actions become an operation for a revolutionary cause and the pair quickly become mixed up in a fight with the Mexican army. As the conflict escalates, Mallory’s struggle with his troubled and violent past provides a warning that the struggle may carry a heavy price.

As its directed by the undisputed master of the spaghetti western genre, Sergio Leone, you would be forgiven for expecting great things of A Fistful Of Dynamite. The film features all the usual motifs associated with Leone’s films, including the obligatory Ennio Morricone soundtrack. As the film came immediately after the successful “Dollar Trilogy”, Leone was able to attract A-list stars and the production values for A Fistful Of Dynamite are as high as you’ll find in a spaghetti western.

Why then do I describe the film as flawed? Well, although there are some fantastic scenes and it is full of style, A Fistful Of Dynamite is overlong. The plot is meandering and lacks cohesion, which means at times the film seems to drag. It is also significantly let down by the performances of Coburn and Steiger, who are miscast in their roles. Any sensible person will lose patience with Steiger’s Speedy Gonzales impersonation within the first half hour, which means his screen presence diminishes some of the best scenes. I encourage you to watch the film and draw your own conclusions, but for me the film was slightly frustrating in addition to being beautifully made.

Spaghetti Westerns, Part 3

Posted in Film on September 27, 2010 by thebigsmoke

A Bullet For The General (Quien Sabe?) (1966)

Spaghetti westerns such as Companeros, set in and around Mexico and dealing with overtly political themes, are generally referred to as Zapata westerns. The term is derived from the name of a leading figure in the Mexian Revolution of 1910, Emiliano Zapata.

Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet For The General is one of the best known Zapata westerns, and offers more challenging policital themes than most others. Like Companeros, the film features an unlikely partnership between a Mexican bandit and a dapper gringo. The former, El Chuncho, is played by Gian Maria Volonte, probably best known for his role as El Indio in For A Few Dollars More; whereas the latter, Bill Tate, is played by Lou Castel, who was pretty much an unknown at the time (and arguably still is for most of us). There’s also a mesmerising performance from the wild-eyed and brilliant Klaus Kinski, who went on to appear in many more spaghetti westerns.

I have read various reviews of the film which assert it is a commentary on the Vietnam War or illegal CIA activities in South America. Whatever Damiani’s true intentions, A Bullet For The General is a powerful film and I am sure it can still resonate with modern viewers.

Spaghetti Westerns, Part 2

Posted in Film on September 27, 2010 by thebigsmoke

Companeros (Vamos a Matar, Compañeros!) (1970)

I gave considerable thought to how best to follow up my post about Django, but eventually decided to write something about the magnificent Companeros. Another film from director Sergio Corbucci and again starring the impressive Franco Nero, but this effort is considerably less bleak than Django. Nero is as much comic as he is brooding in the role of Yodlaf Petersen, or “The Swede”, a smooth but snobbish arms dealer.

Starring opposite Nero is the excellent Tomas Milian, a stalwart of spaghetti westerns, who plays Vasco, a somewhat misguided bandit leader. This odd couple, lured by the promise of an abandoned safe full of gold, become embrolied in a revolution led by pacifist Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey). As they fight their way across Mexico the pair are forced to reassess their motivations and as well as their allegiances.

The duo of Nero and Milian is enough to make the film enjoyable, but they are ably supported by Fernando Rey, Jack Palance and Iris Berben. Corbucci directs with his usual flair, but the film is greatly enhanced by a superb soundtrack from the remarkable Ennio Morricone. Companeros is a big production which simply oozes quality from beginning to end.

Spaghetti Westerns, Part 1

Posted in Film on September 26, 2010 by thebigsmoke

I happened to comment in a previous post that I’ve been watching a lot of westerns. More specifically, I’ve been watching a lot of spaghetti westerns – westerns produced or directed by Italians during the sixties and seventies. I’ve fallen so much in love with these stylish and violent films that I feel a duty to encourage others to explore the genre for themselves. With this in mind, I am going to post a whole series of reviews, spotlighting what are for me are some of the most enjoyable and interesting spaghetti westerns made.

Django (Django) (1966)

Mention spaghetti westerns to anyone with a passing knowledge of film and they’ll invariably think of the movies of Sergio Leone. Leone defined the genre and it is impossible to discuss the importance of spaghetti westerns without considering the influence of this brilliant director.

Unfortunately, Leone’s films are so strong that I can’t help feeling they have been allowed to eclipse the work of other directors. I do intend to write something up about Leone’s films in due course, but right now I am more interested in the obscure titles.

Sergio Corbucci’s Django is not my favourite spaghetti western, but it’s a good film and a great bridge to the genre beyond Leone. After Leone, Corbucci is the most noteworthy of spaghetti western directors, whose work I have found consistently entertaining.

In a plot reminscent of Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, Django rides into an isolated town and plays a gang of racist Ku Klux Klan types against ruthless Mexican bandits. Django, played by Italian actor Franco Nero, was popular enough that the film spawned a slew of sequels and imitations. Unfortunately, later incarnations lacked the screen presence of Nero, whose steely, blue-eyed intensity made the first film.

Django demonstrates that other Italian directors were keen to explore the same ideas as Leone, but Corbucci’s style is much darker and dirtier. His films are characterised by scenes of mutiliation and brutal violence, often inflicted on his heroes and heroines, and this has led to many critics dismissing him as an exploitation director. This is a great shame, because Corbucci was an intelligent filmmaker and at the core of Django are some powerful themes. I urge you to give it a go and will leave you with the trailer.

The most awesome thing you will see today

Posted in Film, Stuff on September 21, 2010 by thebigsmoke

Hey, this reminds me of Jam Circus last night

Posted in Music, Stuff on September 14, 2010 by thebigsmoke
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