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Wednesday, Mar 25, 2015
Just as some sports fans enjoy the mental face-off that is every at-bat in baseball more than the constant scoring and dunking on a basketball court, many will find the slow pace of this spaghetti western inviting.

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.”


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Thursday, Mar 12, 2015
The archetype of the spaghetti western finds its truest expression in this essential film from Sergio Leone.

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.


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Thursday, Feb 19, 2015
The only distinctive marker of this otherwise drab film is that it trades in guns for swords.

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.


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Thursday, Feb 5, 2015
Even though this Valley of Death tips its hat to the classic spaghetti western Sartana character, he is nowhere to be found in the film. Based on how bad this is, that's probably for the best.

Despite the name being featured in its title, Sartana in the Valley of Death (1970) doesn’t have the classic spaghetti western character Sartana in it. Sartana is most notably brought to life by Gianni Garko in If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death (1968) under the direction of Gianfranco Parolini. Garko went on to make the character a spaghetti western legend in the Giuliano Carnimeo directed films I Am Sartana Your Angel of Death (1969), Have A Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970), and Light the Fuse… Sartana Is Coming (1970). Alas, even though this Valley of Death tips its hat to the Sartana character, he is nowhere to be found—the name never appears in the film.


Producer Enzo Boetani seems to have put the name in his movie’s title with hopes of fooling audiences into thinking it was part of the “Sartana” series, which in 1970 were selling out theaters. But if one goes to Sartana in the Valley of Death expecting to see the iconic character of Sartana in another entertaining Sartana movie, disappointment is bound to come. In contrast to the real Sartana films, there is very little to like about Sartana in the Valley of Death


The plot is interesting on paper but boring on film. Lee Galloway (William Berger) is hired to free the three Craig brothers from jail: Jason (Wayde Preston), Pete (Aldo Berti), and Slim (Rick Boyrd). Once freed, the brothers double-cross him. After a face-off that is so forgettable I don’t remember any of it, the three brothers end up with all of the horses while Galloway ends up with all the guns. Eager for revenge, Galloway follows them into the eponymous “Valley of Death” where a gun versus horse conflict plays out.


In spite of how promising this premise sounds, it is a conflict so underdeveloped that it would be better suited for a kindergarten theatre production than a spaghetti western. There is one somewhat entertaining scene where the three brothers ride their horses around in circles on a distant hilltop while laughing at Galloway’s frustrating attempts to shoot them. Even here, though, it feels like there was nothing at stake, that the characters were no more than paper-dolls in an impromptu puppet show. It’s all in the name of fun and games, sure, but the fun is forced and the games uninventive. The film requires the viewer to invest nothing in the paper puppets prancing before us. We don’t care about them, and so we don’t care about the film.


Most of the problems with Sartana in the Valley of Death can be blamed on Roberto Mauri, who both wrote and directed it. The movie’s pace is so off whack that one suspects that he started shooting with nothing but a premise and wrote the majority of the screenplay in between takes. He starts the film off with a sense of haste by showing Galloway in a series of shootouts—most of which are uninspired with the exception of one, where he makes the ground explode by shooting it, that is just absolutely ridiculous. These shooting matches are meant to prove to the audience that this protagonist is a force to be reckoned with, and they loosely accomplish this goal. 


Right at this point, however, Mauri then puts on the brakes without notice, forcing us to endure the sight of Galloway sluggishly walking around a bad excuse for a desert. This so-called “valley of death” is nothing more than piles of sand haphazardly poured into ten-foot mounds in an attempt to look like the Spanish deserts used in the genre’s better films. If these aimless valley scenes aren’t boring enough, Mauri also feeds us scene upon scene featuring clockwork dolls, which would have been a very spaghetti western flavored topping if they had even a little significance to the events playing out before us. 


Meanwhile, Augusto Martelli’s folksy score, when combined with the distractingly bad acting of nearly every supporting player, only adds to the tediousness that marks the majority of the plot. Taken on its own, the score isn’t all that bad, and nowhere near the worst the genre has to offer. The problem is that the music doesn’t meld well with the feeling of the film. The music is light-hearted, at times even whimsical, which would have worked fine if Sartana in the Valley of Death had been in the vein of the genre’s comedic, campy, or even psychedelic entires, but it isn’t. Instead, the film tries to be serious and it seriously fails. 


In fact, I can’t think of a single member of the cast that produced any kind of emotion in me, humorous or otherwise—unless you count the excitement I felt at the sight of the doll-maker’s daughter (Josiane Marie Tanzilli). She barely reads a line, and only has five minutes at most of screentime, but she is stunning. Martelli was a fool for not using her presence to distract us from all the bad acting. Even Berger, who is usually a sure thing as a spaghetti western villain, is soulless as Galloway; it’s as though he can’t handle the pressure of being a film’s lead protagonist. This is definitely the least memorable role I’ve seen him in, even though it is his biggest. 


With all that said, Sartana in the Valley of Death isn’t the worst spaghetti western ever made. To be sure, it is terrible on the whole, but there are some successes that are worth pointing out.


The premise is original. A handful of other beautiful women, in addition to the doll-maker’s daughter, make appearances, representing a type that helps define the genre. The music is interesting, if out of place. Even though he misses his mark, William Berger is still William Berger. I also enjoyed some of director Mauri’s camera work, such as when Galloway sneaks up on the three brothers and we both move and see from his perspective, crouching behind bushes and zooming up on the guns. Lastly, there’s the matter of the death-by-scorpion in the final showdown: although incredibly unrealistic, it’s hard to deny that it’s pretty cool. If only one could say the same for the rest of Sartana in the Valley of Death.


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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2015
Although Lee Van Cleef's portrayal of a Native American will understandably raise concern in some viewers, this fun if cheesy film takes a clear anti-racism line.

Captain Apache (1971) has a terrible reputation among Spaghetti Western fans. The movie is often used as an example of how the genre took a turn for the worse as it entered the ‘70s. For me, however, it is an incredibly fun if cheesy film that embraces the type of boundless creativity, shameless risk-taking, and over-the-top invention that I find so appealing about the genre. 


The film starts by flashing this sequence of quotes across the screen:


“The only good Indian is a dead Indian”—Paleface saying
“The only good Paleface is a dead Paleface” - Indian saying
“Love they neighbor”
—source forgotten


Then, the theme song kicks into full gear while a montage begins with scenes that help illustrate the following lyrics: “They are after me with guns, knives, and fast fast horses / They are after me with bombs, drugs, and fast fast women / They’re going to tail me, trail me, try to nail me / But they haven’t got a prayer”.


With this montage we get to see the star, a heavily tanned Lee Van Cleef, as the title character, Captain Apache, in all his badass glory, and we realize that it is he who is singing the catchy song. “They call me Captain Apache, a Redskin in calvary blue,” he mumbles with charm. A graduate of West Point who wears a fur-lined jacket, this Native American character of Van Cleef’s will tomahawk his way into your memory, and director Alexander Singer cleverly inserts him into a plot that exposes the corruption and racism that was running rampant in the American Wild West. 


The plot actually has more in common with a spy thriller or a hard-boiled detective story than that of a typical Spaghetti Western. The U.S. Government hires Captain Apache to investigate the murder of the commissioner in charge of Native American relations, assuming that evidence will prove the Native Americans responsible. The only real clue Captain Apache has to go off of is the dead commissioner’s last words: “April Morning”. As the plot unfolds, several different characters are introduced who either know or are trying to find out what this phrase, “April Morning”, means. But, as Captain Apache says, “Every time I get a lead on April Morning someone gets killed.” 


These characters, among others, include a gunrunner named Griffin (Stuart Whitman), a blonde bombshell named Maude (Caroll Baker), several calvary members like General Ryland (Hugh McDermott) and O’Rourke (Charles Stalmaker), a Mexican temptress named Rosita (Elisa Montes), Moon the Native American chief (Percy Herbert), a bunch of muscles like the snarly-faced Snake (Tony Vogel), and a Mexican bandit turned general named Sanchez (Charly Bravo).


Eventually all these characters, including Captain Apache, end up on a train heading to Tucson. It is on this train that we learn what April Morning is and how it plays into a elaborate conspiracy to set-up the local Native Americans so that the U.S. Government can justify forcing them out of their reservation, which is located on valuable land, and off to Yellow Snake Canyon which, as Captain Apache points out, is “filled with snakes!”


Before learning all that, we get to enjoy some great dialogue and many moments of B-movie madness. Griffin, the gunrunner and local businessman, for example, has two body guards that happen to be identically dressed identical twins. Captain Apache, upon meeting them, tells Griffin to “keep your freaks away from me,” to which he asks, “Why do you always insult people who might kill you?” and our protagonist answers, “I like to see a man enjoy his work.”


After Griffin says, “You’re at the wrong table, at the wrong hotel, in the wrong town, and you might even be in the wrong line of business,” the two insulted twins take Captain Apache to the bar where they try to kill him… by forcing him to drink. He says, “I don’t fight with freaks,” and instead goes along with their drinking game. “Bottoms up,” one says while taking a shot, and if Captain Apache doesn’t follow suit, the other says, “My brother is waiting.” This goes on and on until Captain Apache points out that he’s drinking two to their one, and “I’m Indian—one more and I’ll go crazy.” He takes one more and then soberly knocks them both out. 


Because Van Cleef’s character, who is far superior in both intelligence and ability than all the other characters, parodies the racist sayings about Native Americans and completely contradicts the stereotypes of them, Captain Apache is, regardless of what some viewers may believe, a pro-Native American, anti-racist film. While some will understandingly be offended by the sight of a white man playing a Native American, such practices a normal part of the Spaghetti Western genre. Producers used Spaniards to play Mexican characters, just as they used southeastern Spain for the American Southwest and, occasionally, like this case, they used white men to play Native Americans. (Burt Reynolds as Navajo Joe is the most notorious example.)


As silly as most of it is, Captain Apache is the film that made me appreciate the entire spectrum of the genre. It’s easy to dismiss every Spaghetti Western that doesn’t come close to the quality of of Sergio Leone’s many masterpieces, but sometimes these films—whether they’re goofy, exploitative, or just plain bad—have moments of magic in them that can’t be ignored. 


Take, for example, the scene in Captain Apache where we unexpectedly get to see Van Cleef tripping-out one some sort of truth sermon (probably a mescaline based concoction); his eyes bulge while he rolls around on the ground sweating, grimacing, and having visions before escaping from his captures up a M.C Escher type of staircase. If this scene doesn’t increase your love for the genre, I don’t know what will.


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