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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.

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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