Monday, June 11, 2012

Shiftless is Here... Trade Your Guns for a Box Set

Despite it's ultra-genric title, Timeless Media's "The Best of Spaghetti Westerns" is a pretty fair collection of second-tier Italian westerns some of which are tough to find. Mercifully, God's Gun, White Comanche and the other usual filler typically found in this type of collection are conspicuously absent. There are two "Shanghai Joe" movies on one disc unfortunately, but after sailing that out the window, I got down to the rest of the collection. The good news is literally half the movies of the 20 that comprise the set are well above average and any fan of the genre would be happy to own them. One odd mistake in the description on the back of box states "Full Screen Presentation" as a DVD feature. However, all the films I viewed, save one, appeared to be in standard widescreen aspect ratios which is a big plus especially for some of the rarer films included. Listed below are the ten best I viewed along with reasons to watch each.

Forgotten Pistolero
aka Gunman of Ave Maria

Fernando Baldi, who made the excellent Blindman, directed this story, based on a tale out of Greek mythology, which concerns two friends who reunite and return home to take revenge on those who betrayed their family. Baldi's genre-mixing ambitiousness pays off and gives the story a surprisingly timeless and tragic feel. The acting is superb, as is the direction, cinematography, sets, costumes and most of the other technical aspects. In short, the film felt extremely well-planned and executed and it shows with a visually striking story which is accompanied by a beautifully composed musical soundtrack. 7.75/10

aka You Die... But I Live

Enrico Maria Salerno, best known as Inspector Morosini in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, steals the show as a traveling wild-west shootout owner who's training a protege to get revenge on the bandit who crippled him. Massimo Dallamano directs and gets the story rolling immediately with a train robbery/massacre. The film also features some surprisingly beautiful composed shots and another good musical score. 7.25/10

The Rope and the Colt
aka Cemetery without Crosses

A dark and atmospheric piece, co-written by Dario Argento, about a woman who convinces a gunslinger to seek vengeance on those who killed her man. Robert Hossein both directed and stars in this deliberately paced, moody, spaghetti western that was made in France. The title song is so upbeat and old-school that it's almost ironic, but the Andre Hossein score works well in setting tone the rest of the way. Very rewarding watch for those with the patience to handle its slow pacing. 7/10

A Pistol for Ringo

One of three "Ringo" movies contained in the box set, this and The Return of Ringo feature the same lead actors, director (Duccio Tessari), producers and crew, but are very different in terms of story, character and tone. Co-producer Luciano Ercoli would later duplicate this dual production stunt in his two "Death Walks" gialli. Giuliano Gemma and Fernando Sancho square off against each other in both films while Nieves Navarro and Lorella De Luca play the super-sexy, not to be trifled with, senoritas. As in Ercoli's gialli tandem, Navarro, and indeed the rest of the leads, do a splendid job of playing distinctively different characters in stories with divergent tones. A Pistol for Ringo is about an on-the-run bandit (Sancho) who takes the family of a remote ranch hostage when cornered by the local sheriff. Gemma plays a gunslinger who is sprung from jail to help the lawman. Decently shot, with a score by Morricone, this is an entertaining stand alone western, but even more fun when viewed with The Return of Ringo as it's quite enjoyable to contrast the different performances and styles. I prefer this film simply because the female actors have stronger and more interesting characters to play. 6.75/10

The Return of Ringo
aka Blood at Sundown

Much like The Forgotten Pistolero this film tells a Homerian-type story concerning a war hero, thought dead, who returns home in disguise to ultimately reclaim his estate and family. Though I did like this film as well, it is much more predictable and Gemma and Sancho aren't as engaging. There is an interesting reverse-racism twist ("No gringos allowed!") and the action, when it comes, is satisfying, but I felt the characters were just a bit more two-dimensional and obvious than in the first Ringo. Nevertheless, it is another entertaining, well crafted film by Tessari. 6.5/10

Ringo; Face of Revenge
aka Los cuatro salvajes

This Ringo film has nothing to do with Tessari's films and stars Anthony Steffen in the titular role. The Eduardo Manzonos Brochero story is superb and plays out like an Italian version of The Treasure of Sierre Madre with four characters finding it ever more difficult to trust each other (and would you trust a guy named "Tricky"?). The cast is near-perfect for the material with Steffen and Eduardo Fajardo as the heroic lead and grizzled sidekick, Armando Calvo as the man with a treasure map and the sublime Frank Wolff as the aforementioned card-sharp 'Tricky' who lives up to his name, and then some. Had Mario Caiano's direction been a little bit more than serviceable, the film could easily have been a minor classic, but even as is, it is quite enjoyable especially due to the performances and charisma of Wolff, Fajardo, the well-written screenplay and an amazing at-full-gallop gunfight. 7.25/10

10,000 Dollars for a Massacre
aka Guns of Violence

Interestingly, this film starts out with a shot of the ocean and lead, Gianni Garko as bounty killer Django, laying on the beach with a dead body. Though slow paced, the movie is quite good due to an Ernesto Gastaldi script, a very unusual soundtrack which, at times, features a theremin(!), and two solid bad guys in Fernando Sancho and heavily guy-linered Claudio Camaso who actually steals the show with his icy, arrogant stare. There are also some surprising moments of genuinely well-played pathos on both sides when loved ones are lost in the conflict which gives the film more gravitas than the average shoot 'em up. 6.75/10

aka Campa carogna... la taglia cresce

Gianni Garko plays a koran-quoting, bounty hunter. You heard me. It's not as goofy as it sounds as he plays an almost Sartana-like character who teams up with three military guys, headed by Stephen Boyd,  to recover a stolen cache of weapons from some bandits. Lots of action, but more than a little uneven in tone and lacks the style and intelligence of some of the other films in the set. 6/10

Shoot, Gringo... Shoot
aka Spara Gringo Sparra

Bruno Corbucci film with Brian Kelly and Fabrizio Maroni. Kelly plays an escaped criminal who makes a deal with a wealthy landowner to get his son away from an outlaw gang he's joined and bring him home. Kelly as the wise, experienced gunfighter is paired quite nicely with Maroni who plays the errant son. The 'Midnight Run' aspect of the movie works quite well as Maroni's character keeps figuring out ways to escape and Kelly keeps capturing him. Most of the other characters and story lines were not as interesting and fortunately were not the focus. 6.25/10

A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof
aka Amigos

Giulio Petroni, who directed Death Rides a Horse, made this film next. It's starts out fantastically with Giuliano Gemma's character happening upon a stagecoach massacre in the desert. He takes it upon himself to start burying the victims, and Mario Adorf, a grizzled prospector who has been watching from afar, soon joins in to help him. After they've finished, they nod to each other and head in different directions. It's a beautifully rendered scene that is only helped by the Morricone score that accompanies it. Unfortunately, the remainder of the film is much, much lighter in tone, and although it's not bad, it lacks the feel of the opening scene and is never that good again. Still, having Adorf in a western is great even if he is playing it a little thick for comic effect, and I did like the turkey-loving, scam artist Gemma portrayed. Being the only intentional comedy in the box set does give the film a novelty feel and provides a nice change of pace. 6.5/10

The other films in The Best of Spaghetti Westerns box set range from the somewhat average, more traditional, pre-Leoni type of westerns, like In a Colt's Shadow, to filler like the two Shangai Joe movies. But given that they all appeared to be in widescreen format (except for the first Shangai Joe which is fullscreen), and the picture quality is somewhere between above average to excellent I'd recommend this set especially for someone who is looking to delve deeper into the genre. Overall score for the set: