When discovering movies like Blindman (1971), I am overcome with equal parts hope and despair. The fact that such an insane story found serious financing and that so many talented people were a part of it gives me hope in the possibilities of cinema, but it also makes me despair at the reality of cinema. Blindman is an exception to the rule. The rule is that movies with this level of creativity and fearlessness are forced to subsist on meager talent and limited budgets. Blindman is one of a kind; it is the peerless freak of spaghetti westerns. As such, I feel it is my responsibility to protect and promote it.
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More than a decade before he took on the lead role in the forgotten spaghetti western Find A Place To Die (1968), Jeffrey Hunter played John Wayne’s sidekick in The Searchers (1956), arguably the best of America’s traditional westerns. Although Hunter had already appeared in a dozen films, it was his critically praised performance in this John Ford masterpiece that brought his classic good looks and powerful screen presence to the masses, and establishing him as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actors, one bound for stardom.
Hunter followed The Searchers with prominent roles in two more Ford films, The Last Hurrah (1958) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), before he reached his career’s premature climax as Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961). He did, in the following year, put on a great though brief performance in the classic war epic The Longest Day (1962), but his name was buried under the bigger names in the cast like Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, and again John Wayne.
By this point, Hunter had found a constant companion in alcohol. With his opportunities beginning to narrow, he went all-in as the title character in the television series, Temple Houston (1963-1964), but the show was canceled after its twenty-sixth week. Perhaps in a moment of desperation, he then agreed to play Captain Christopher Pike in the very first pilot episode of Star Trek (1964). It was a role that could have brought Hunter the fame he once seemed destined for, but when NBC requested him to continue the character he refused. He said he wanted to focus on making movies.
The bigwigs of Hollywood, however, had become weary of him and his hard-drinking reputation, and it wasn’t long until the only work he could find was on B-movies filmed in Mexico, Hong Kong, or Italy. It was while filming the Italian movie, Viva America (1969), that an on-set explosion gone wrong left the troubled actor with a troubling concussion. He supposedly went into shock on the plane ride back to America; after being inspected and released by doctors, he fell down a set of stairs at his home in California and cracked his skull. Brain surgery was unsuccessful, and Hunter died in 1969 at the age of 42.
Because he starred in it just a year before his tragic and mysterious death, Find A Place To Die is, for fans of Hunter, a must-see spaghetti western. The character he plays, Joe Collins, is an ex-confederate, booze-soaked, gringo gun-runner who is, like the title says, trying to find a place to die. Although the character doesn’t have much depth, Hunter does an excellent job of channeling his own off-screen persona through him. With his blank stares, his deep voice, and is hopeless outlook, Hunter perfectly portrays a down-and-out man who, in the end, finds that he has a consciousness in spite of all the evils flourishing around and within him.
We are first introduced to this character of Collins in a makeshift saloon built among the eroding stones of an ancient Mexican building. He sits there drinking his sorrows away as the stunningly beautiful Juanita (played by Daniela Giordano, who had been elected Miss Italy two years earlier) sings the film’s theme song. It’s a great song, and the sight of the drunken Collins watching Juanita’s smooth brown skin glisten with sweat among the shadowy ruins of the set creates a moody scene that is truly memorable.
But the leading lady isn’t Giordano; it’s the French actress Pascale Petit. She plays Lisa Martin, the wife of an American geologist (Piero Lulli) who struck gold in the Mexican mountains. To open Find A Place To Die, director Giuliano Carnimeo shows the couple resisting an ambush by El Chato (Mario Dardanelli) and his gang. They manage to kill most of the bandits by throwing sticks of dynamite at them, but the explosions cause an avalanche, and a pile of boulders pin Lisa’s husband to the ground. She has no choice but to go look for help, and it is the saloon in which Collins is drinking that she finds first.
Collins agrees to help but since Chato and much of his gang are still in the mountains, he recruits a group of mismatched Mexicans for the task. These men include Reverend Riley (Adolfo Lastretti) who shoots vultures because they are “messengers of death”, a half-bit pimp named Paco (Reza Fazeli) who seems to be in love with his only whore, a dim-witted brute named Gomez (Giaanni Pallavicino) who looses his mind when watching Lisa skinny-dip in a pond, and the triple-crossing Fernando (Nello Pazzafini) who acts as an informer to Chato before overthrowing him and leading his gang against Collins. But Fernando isn’t alone in his desire for the gold. As Collins tells Lisa, “These men are here for only two reasons: her and the gold.”
It’s a good story with a lot of interesting characters. The action is solid and well-dispersed. The lush setting is unique for the genre. Hunter is perfect in his imperfect role. The generous screentime given to the Italian beauties, Giordano and Petit, creates a sense of eroticism that is much appreciated. But there’s not enough in Find A Place To Die to push it pass the standard spaghetti western. The characters, including Collins and the sexy seductresses, aren’t developed enough, and as a result the action, and often the acting, comes off as nothing more than fun and games. We don’t care enough about the characters, and there’s not enough at stake. For fans of Jeffery Hunter, however, it is a must-see curtain call.
For a spaghetti western, Twice a Judas (1969) develops slowly; its plot is as meandering as a monk walking in the moonlight. The film begins by showing what looks like two bodies laying dead atop a desolate desert mountain, but when a frenzied flock of vultures begin pecking away at them, one of the the bodies jumps up and unloads several rounds from a shotgun into the flying scavengers. This shotgun-wielding body is Luke Barrett (Antonio Sabato). Although he is alive, he has an extreme case of amnesia. “It’s inside my head,” he says at one point. “This blackness. I can’t remember anything. I don’t even know who I am.”
If Sergio Leone’s first installment in the “Dollar Trilogy”, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), defined the future of the spaghetti western genre, his second installment, For a Few Dollars More (1965), guaranteed the genre’s future. It not only competed the vision that the first film started, but it also surpassed it at the box-office. In fact, out of all his masterpieces, For a Few Dollars More is Leone’s highest grossing film in the Italian market. Plus, in spite of its mediocre reviews from the confused American critics, it took in $5 million on its initial US release, a large sum for an international flick at the time.
The film 4 Dollars of Revenge (1966) begins by introducing two friends and fellow calvary members, Captain Roy Dexter (Robert Woods) and Barry Halet (Angelo Infani). They are both trying to wed the same big-breasted blonde, Mercedes Spencer (Dana Ghia), but she chooses Dexter, who plans to retire from the calvary and run for governor against a man named Hamilton (Gérard Tichy). Before Dexter retires and gets married, however, he has to complete one last mission for Colonel Jackson (Antonio Casas) that involves him transporting a shipment of gold to Washington.
The mission becomes a disaster when he and his troops are ambushed by Manuel de Losa (José Manuel Martin) and his gang of banditos. Although Dexter manages to escape with his life, he is blamed for orchestrating the ambush and is sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. But the plot doesn’t really get moving until he breaks out of the labor-camp in a brief but exciting escape sequence and begins sneaking around town disguised as a Mexican while collecting clues, trying to figure out who set him up.
Over the course of 4 Dollars of Revenge‘s conspiracy-laden plot, we learn that Dexter’s drunken and jealous cousin, Dave Griffin (Antonio Molino Rojo), struck a deal with Dexter’s's political rival, Hamilton, and Dexter’s heartbroken friend, Halet, to frame him. Once we learn who the backstabbers are, the film transforms from a mystery story into a revenge tale as our hero goes about evening the score with a sword. That’s right: instead of a showdown with guns to conclude this spaghetti western, 4 Dollars of Revenge ends with Dexter and Halet facing off with swords.
It’s not the best choreographed swordfight, but because we so badly want Dexter to right the wrongs Halet has done to him, the swordfight keeps us engaged, and because in this genre we so rarely see swords replace guns, it’s what ultimately makes the film memorable. In fact, aside from the swordfight that concludes the film, there isn’t much about 4 Dollars of Revenge that stands out.
The plot, which is haphazardly adapted from the Alexandre Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), is entertaining, but it’s not even half as entertaining as its source material. It’s not fair, however, to compare this early spaghetti western to that timeless work of literature. Instead, we must compare it to the other films in the genre. And after doing that, I can confidently say that 4 Dollars of Revenge‘s plot is better structured and more entertaining than most. It intensifies as it develops, and although it doesn’t offer any real surprises, director Jamie Jesus Balcazar presents the story with a sureness that wins us over and keeps us watching.
None of the performances are especially noteworthy, but they all get the job done, and there are no obvious weak spots in the cast which is a common problem with most spaghetti westerns of this stature. Wood, as the film’s lead, is only as good as the character he plays. Although his character, Dexter, is reminiscent of the superior Ringo character played by the more talented Giuliano Gemma in The Return of Ringo (1965) in that they are both members of the calvary who sport big burly beards and go undercover as Mexicans while seeking revenge, Wood does a good job at making it easy for us to root for him.
The action sequences in the film, like the acting, get the job done. They deserve neither commendation or derision. They move the story forward relatively well and are nicely planned, but they don’t convey much creativity and aren’t very fun. The exception, along with the concluding swordfight, is Dexter’s escape from the labor camp. He knocks a few guards out, runs up a desert hill, ducks and dodges some bullets, and then hangs off a cliff to fool his pursuers into thinking he jumped to his death.
Perhaps the averageness of 4 Dollars of Revenge is best represented by Benedetto Ghiglia’s score. The soundtrack is a mixed bag, with nothing obviously good or bad about it. There is some very spaghetti western-esque musical whistling in it, along with some classical orchestrated sounds, and a good amount of jazzy trumpeting. But it also has at least one all-male choir number that sounds as though it was pulled straight out of an old-time radio western from the ‘40s.