The spaghetti western was not an inherently political genre but in the 600+ Italo-Westerns that poured out in the decade or so of its brief reign, among the shamelessly derivative pictures cranked out to cash in on the boom started by Sergio Leone’s international hit A Fistful of Dollars are a handful that draw upon the currents of contemporary Italian and European cinema.
Sergio Sollima only directed three westerns but he brought political and allegorical elements to the familiar conventions.Face to Face (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), his second western, is his most interesting. It is also one of the least known, having never received a legitimate American home video release in any format until now.
There are no imported Americans in this film. Gian Maria Volonté (the head villain in A Fistful of Dollars) takes the lead as Professor Brett Fletcher, a history teacher and intellectual who takes leave from his Eastern college (though only seen in interiors, it looks more European than American) and travels west for his health. Cuban-born Tomas Milian (who also starred in Sollima’s The Big Gundown) is the Mexican bandit Solomon ‘Beauregard’ Bennet, who enters the film in shackles. Fletcher’s kindness to the prisoner gives Bennet an opportunity to take him hostage and escape, but that same kindness leads to a tenuous truce that turns into friendship and later partnership.
Compañeros (Blue Underground, Blu-ray) is an ironic title, but then as a spaghetti western—a genre steeped in mercenaries and con men and double crosses—it would have to be. Swedish gun runner Yodlaf (Franco Nero), in Mexico in the heat of the revolution to sell his weapons to the highest bidder, and hot-headed Mexican peasant turned revolutionary officer Vasco (Tomas Milian in a beret that evokes Che Guevara) are certainly not compañeros by any stretch of the definition. It’s only good timing that prevents Vasco from killing the blue-eyed stranger, and orders from his gun-shy but glory-hungry General that sends him along on a quest to free the idealistic revolutionary leader Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) from American captivity at Fort Yuma. They make a great screen team, verbally jabbing and prodding one another along the way even when they are forced to rescue one another (left to their druthers, they’d go on alone). Nero plays the witty, worldly cosmopolitan (and, blue eyes and lightly bleached hair aside, the most Mediterranean Swede in the cinema) and Milian the wily survivor, acting on impulse and lobbing insults to his Swedish partner between paeans to his twinkling blue eyes.
Sergio Corbucci is one of the three great Sergios of the spaghetti western (along with Leone and Sollima) and the director of two of the genre’s classics, Django (1966), which made a star of Franco Nero, and the Great Silence (1968). Compañeros (1970) leans into the political arena that Sollima specialized in, using the political chaos and opportunism of the revolution as a volatile cultural backdrop filled with warring factions and freelance mercenaries, while driving the film with capers and cons and capture and escapes. They cross the border, break a prisoner out of an American Fort, and tangle with a dope smoking bounty hunter with a wooden hand and a loyal falcon named Marsha. Jack Palance plays the laconic mercenary John, puffing on joints and smiling a crooked grin as he lazily springs traps and puts his prisoners to sadistic tortures, and his stoner delivery sends the film into a whole realm of weirdness.
Complicating things even more are the (not always clear) conflicts within the revolution, with the grandstanding General Mongo only in it for personal gain and the idealistic Xantos playing the Gandhi of the Mexican Revolution, a pacifist who preaches non-violence while everyone is trying to kill him. That includes the opportunist Mongo, who needs Xantos for his payday but also finds him a threat to his agenda. Sort of. The details are murky, but that’s hardly a problem for a genre all about betrayals and greed. And yet Corbucci, who helped define the the amoral tone of the genre in Django, develops a streak of idealism that builds through the film until it blossoms as a defining theme without any sense of irony or insincerity. While he may not embrace the pacifism of his inspiration Professor, Corbucci certainly respects his integrity, a virtue not always seen in the genre, and presents it without cynicism. And that is quite a feat in a film with a body-count and a mercenary cast of this magnitude. It’s a wily good time with a rousing finish.
The Blu-ray debut features both the American version and the disc debut of the longer Italian cut (with four minutes of additional footage). Both editions, which have been newly mastered from the original negative, offer the choice of English and Italian language soundtracks (the restored scenes to the Italian cut are only in Italian with English subtitles, making them easy to spot). Image quality is great and the DTS-HD Mono soundtracks have that distinctive spaghetti western sound of studio-recorded dialogue and post-synched library sound effects. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack sounds great.
Carried over from the previous DVD release is commentary by film journalists C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke and the 17-minute 2001 interview featurette “In the Company of Companeros” with interviews with stars Franco Nero and Tomas Milian and composer Ennio Morricone.
Sergio Leone is unarguably the godfather of spaghetti westerns. He directed its first international smash of the genre, defined the spare, savage style and mercenary sensibility, and made stars of journeymen actors Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. But he was far from the only director who made his mark in the genre. Among the filmmakers who carved out their own style in the genre were Sergio Corbucci, Damiano Damiani, Enzo G. Castillari, and Sergio Sollima, whose trilogy of films with Tomas Milian take a more politically charged approach to the brutal tales of greed and betrayal and revenge that ground most spaghetti western scripts.
The Big Gundown (1966), Sollima’s first spaghetti western, stars Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering sense of justice. Fresh off For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Van Cleef was an instant icon of the genre; the American posters even promoted the film with a reference to his Leone success: “Mr. Ugly is back.” (Never mind that he was actually “the bad” man of the trio.) Sollima casts him as an unusual kind of hero who hunts down wanted men yet refuses to collect the bounty on their heads. His code is honorable (he literally hands a ragged band of outlaws a chance to go out shooting rather than face the rope) but unforgiving, an Old Testament angel as gunslinger passing judgment on the wanted men of his promised land of Texas. His lean features, windblown face, and hard, piercing eyes makes him stand out in the cast of Italian and European actors standing in for American settlers and Mexican peasants.
It’s hard to believe that The Big Gundown (Grindhouse, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), easily one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made, has never been on home video in the U.S. in any legitimate form before. It features Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering and unforgiving sense of justice, and Tomas Milian as Cuchillo, the Mexican peasant outlaw accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl. Cuchillo is more con man and frontier rascal than hardened criminal, but his antics and his survival instincts still manage to get a few unsavory types killed in the proverbial crossfire while Corbett’s obsessive pursuit of justice brings its own collateral damage. But in the savage frontier societies of this spaghetti western culture, that still makes them the good guys.
Director Sergio Sollima is not the stylist that Sergio Leone was and doesn’t have Leone’s operatic approach to conflict on the desert frontier, but with his screenwriting collaborator Sergio Donati he certainly had a way with portraying the corruption of the American dream on the frontier. Van Cleef’s Corbett is a humorless, unstoppable force and Milian’s Cuchillo a wily, earthy Bugs Bunny playing pranks on his escape, but both are pawns in a game of power and money. Which, of course, they learn in due course as the pursuit crosses the border into Mexico and the forces of law and order sent by a would-be railroad baron become ruthless vigilantes. Ennio Morricone provides a suitably spare score and Almeria, Spain, and surrounding areas double for the towns and the beautiful but hostile desert plains.
This debut release is a true labor of love from Grindhouse, a four-disc Blu-ray+DVD+CD Combo that features both the original English-language release version expanded with three additional scenes not seen in American release prints, and the complete Italian director’s cut, which runs 15 longer than the expanded American version (a complete list of cuts is listed in a DVD-ROM supplement on the DVD). The American version is mastered from a 2k digital restoration and the Italian cut uses some of these elements, which makes it relatively easy to spot the footage unique to this version (the drop in video quality is not dramatic but it is noticeable). Both version are presented on separate Blu-ray discs, with the DVD featuring the expanded American cut and a CD soundtrack with Ennio Morricone’s score.
Also features interviews with director Sergio Sollima, co-writer Sergio Donati and star Tomas Milian, commentary by western film experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke, galleries of stills, trailers and TV spots, and a booklet with notes by Joyner Euro-music expert Gergely Hubai.
Himalaya (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) (Dec 31) – Director Eric Valli, a former National Geographic documentarian, hauled his crew up to the high passes and mountain lakes of the Himalayas to shoot this simple, almost mythic survival adventure, but this no documentary. It could be 2 or 200 years ago that this tribe makes its trade pilgrimage through the mountains to the low land. At stake is the stubborn pride of the old former chief reclaiming his position when his son is killed, and the sense of responsibility of the rebellious young natural leader when he sees blind emotion leading the old man’s determination to make the journey without him.
There’s a certain hit of a European creator turning the adventure of an almost primitive culture into a pseudo-mythic journey and the simplicity of this tale threatens to collapse into cliché at times, but the iconic power and directness of the non-actors and the sheer magnificence of the imagery pulls this caravan over the trickiest terrain. Features commentary by director Eric Valli, a 26-minute “making of” documentary, and the original EPK (electronic press kit) for the film.
Nightmare City (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) (Dec 31), also known as City of the Walking Dead, is the notorious goremeister Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 pseudo zombie thriller. These are actually radioactive mutants, the victims of a deadly spill from a local nuclear plant disaster, but they have an unhealthy hunger for human flesh just the same. Hugo Stiglitz (yes, the inspiration for the name of the Tarantino character in Inglourious Basterds) is the journalist sent to cover the accident and Laura Trotter is his medical doctor wife, who do their best the evade the flesh eating ghouls while the army (led by Mel Ferrer) just seems to annoy them.
Previously on DVD in the US, this edition features a new HD master. Italian and English language versions with optional English subtitles, plus an interview with director Umberto Lenzi, trailers, and a booklet.
Young, Violent, Dangerous opens with on a warning. Lea (Eleonora Giorgi, of Dario Argento’s Inferno), worried for her rather weak boyfriend, wants the police commissioner (Italian crime movie stalwart Tomas Milian, in cool seventies badass mode) to stop these otherwise “good boys” from embarking in an impulsive gas station robbery. Cut to three smiling, fun-loving young men romping with if anything overly boyish energy through the city center piazza of Milan like little kids, playing tag to a jaunty score like harmless pranksters on the way to a practical joke. The commissioner is dubious but posts men at the gas station to wait for these misguided guys with fake guns. Except the guns are not fake and these harmless boys explode in a fury of gunfire that leaves four dead and sparks a spree of robbery and murder. It turns out that while Lea thought she was simply reporting a potential petty crime, the real warning was about the dangerous instability of Italy’s youth on the verge of exploding. Or so one would surmise from the film.
Young, Violent, Dangerous is scripted by Fernando Di Leo, who directed some of the most interesting Italian gangster films of the seventies, but it’s no gangster movie. The trio of young men are neither thugs nor political activist. They are educated and affluent, from respectable families with money and status, but something snaps with the first gunshot that sends them on a thrill kill crime spree, targeting everyone from cops and bankers to student revolutionaries and mobsters. It’s like a distinctly seventies vision of post-sixties protest gone sour. Their actions are neither political statement nor social protest, and the money means nothing to them; they literally toss it out the window in their getaway, a sign of their disdain for such crude matters as money. It’s like fantasy game of cops and robbers with live rounds, motivated by nothing but the rush of power and violence and undirected rebellion.
Mario (Stefano Patrizi), who goes by Blondie, looks like an easy-going fellow but reveals himself as the manipulative alpha member of the trio, cheerleading one partner on to match his mayhem and shaming the other into sticking with them despite his better judgment. The fact that entire Milan police force is on their trail only adds to the thrill of the chase, and Blondie’s bloodlust doesn’t differentiate between cop, ally or bystander. To the film’s credit, he doesn’t spout any Nietzschean line of philosophical justification. If anything, he’s a closet sociopath suddenly set free, and as things heat up, he reveals underlying misogyny (in the presence of naked and willing young women, he gets his kicks tying up and lashing one of the girls) and homophobia (as evidenced by sneering comments).
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1982 Identification of a Woman was a homecoming of sorts for the legendary Italian director, who (the studio-bound, shot-on-video experiment The Mystery of Oberwald aside) hadn’t made a feature in his home country since the 1964 The Red Desert. Back with screenwriter Tonino Guerra and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, it’s also a return to his old themes of the difficulties of love and relationships in the modern world. After pushing explorations of alienation and disconnection to the edge in films as Blow-Up and The Passenger, Identification of a Woman brings us back to a more familiar world, and a more personal one too.
Tomas Milian plays Niccolò, a film director looking for inspiration for his next film in the faces of women he clips from papers and magazines, and looking for someone to fill the hole in his personal left by his divorce. The fortysomething director finds his fancies drawn to much younger women and perhaps the subsequent emotional disconnection and communications barrier is a result (at least in part) of this gap in age and life experience. Then again, Niccolò predilections line up pretty well with Antonioni, who long ago had a affair with his beautiful actress and muse Monica Vitti (twenty years his junior). This is a portrait of a film director, after all, and it’s hard not to imagine Antonioni slipping a little autobiography in, either by design or by instinct.
As the film opens, Niccolò is with Mavi (Daniela Silverio), a spirited, assured, independent young woman who comes from money and privilege. Niccolò is adrift her society (Antonioni punctuates his unease at a social event with a dryly funny gaffe: Niccolò stubs his cigarette out in an ashtray, only to find it’s actually a napkin ring left on the table). When a “gorilla” (that’s actually how this rather polite thug is identified in the credits) delivers a veiled threat to stay away from Mavi, he becomes rattled by parked cars and unsigned deliveries and driven to uncover who is sending him these messages, to the point that he loses sight of Mavi. At one point quite literally. Afraid he’s being followed on trip to a country house, he drives like a madman through a thick fog on a country road, oblivious to her terror until she forces him to stop and then runs off, disappearing into the gray cotton sea. While you could say it’s a bit spot on as a metaphor — Niccolò follows and becomes swallowed up, adrift in his own private world while searching for someone out of sight and out of reach — it is also orchestrated with the grace and precision of a ballet and photographed like a dream. Antonioni’s camera simply floats along with him in his dreamscape, seeing no more than Niccolò until the faint orange glow of a cigarette anchors him back into the human world of anxieties and indulgences.