Compared to Most Spaghetti Westerns, 'Dead for a Dollar' Is a Feminist Film

by Christopher Forsley

1 October 2014

After Dead for a Dollar, you'll never eat turkey the same way again.
 
cover art

Dead for a Dollar

Director: Osvaldo Civirani
Cast: George Hilton, Sandra Milo, John Ireland, Piero Vida, Franco Ressel

(Denwer)
1968

The brief bar scene that opens Dead for a Dollar (1968) sets the film’s lighthearted—but rarely humorous—tone. The Colonel (John Ireland) is trying to ask the bartender something but keeps getting interrupted by a rowdy pair of drunks shooting and laughing at a helpless Santa Claus-like old man. Frustrated, The Colonel shoots them both dead. “I hate noise,” he says. Then, just before the credits roll to some catchy Saturday morning cartoon music, we learn that he’s “looking for a couple of fellas… “

Roy Fulton (Gordon Mitchell) and The Portugese (Piero Vida) are the fellas The Colonel is looking for. Together the three of them robbed a bank and are now fighting over the loot. There’s also Glenn Reno (George Hilton) who we see impersonating a priest at a funeral procession for Fulton. Although Reno mispronounces words while reading from the Bible, he successfully convinces the onlookers that Fulton is dead. But Fulton isn’t dead. The coffin that is presumably holding his body is actually holding the bank loot. With Reno’s help, Fulton buried it so he could retrieve it after healing from a gunshot wound. When he doesn’t heal, and in fact dies, Reno “inherits” it. The Colonel and The Portugese, however, aren’t about to give it up, and the loot rotates between them an innumerable number of times.

It is, however, Liz (Sandra Milo), the mistress with “curves in all the right places”, that the three men unknowingly share, who is in control of the situation. Liz is reminiscent of Catherine from Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962). She does what and who she wants when and where she wants to. All the men in the film are in love with her and it makes them stupider than they already are. In fact, for the majority of the film she has the loot while the three of them are fighting each other over fake bills and empty bags. Compared to how most Spaghetti Western’s portray women, Liz is feminist hero who’s superiority over the dimwitted Colonel, the bumbling Portugese, and the naive Reno makes Dead for a Dollar the closest the genre can get to producing a feminist film.

If it wasn’t for the overzealous flirting of Liz and her ability to hustle the film’s three leads like a Texas hold ‘em veteran hustling drunken tourists into big pots they have no chance of winning, Dead for a Dollar wouldn’t be worth watching. Director Osvaldo Civirani doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, and doesn’t seem to have any interest in finding out. When he’s not halfheartedly emulating scenes from Sergio Leone’s masterpieces, he’s piling one uninspired plot twist atop another to create a breakneck pace that makes the film come off as one long, disjointed trailer. The shootouts are infrequent, the fistfights are tiresome, and, aside from Liz, the characters are as one-dimensional as can be. 

Though he is just as one-dimensional as the rest, I did enjoy the character of Hartman (Franco Ressel), the corrupt banker who paid the trio to rob his bank so he could collect insurance money before hiring a posse to retrieve the stolen loot back. His performance provides the film with some satirical material. “Never trust a bank,” says The Portugese when the trio is cornered by Hartman’s posse. “I was right to rob them instead of trusting my money in them.” When the posse decides they want to keep the loot for themselves, Hartman lets out the best line of the film: “There’s always a bastard who beats the other bastards.” I would have liked to have seen this thread of the story extended further, but some satire is better than no satire. 

There is one unforgettable scene in Dead for a Dollar, but it is a scene that you’ll wish you never saw. It consists of Reno and Liz sitting across a small table eating her speciality: turkey. It probably only lasts 5 minutes, but seems as though it goes on for hours. We’re zoomed-up on their saliva-dripping tongues as half-chewed bird flesh falls from their mouths and they rub grease into their facial pores. They don’t talk to each other, but they do stare at each other as though they are enjoying a mutual orgasm. I don’t know if the scene is supposed to have a symbolic meaning or the director just wanted to share his fetish with the world, but I do know that I’ll never be able to enjoy a turkey leg, or watch Dead for a Dollar, again. 

Dead for a Dollar

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