Mark Damon, Rosalba Neri, Lawrence Dobkin, Luigi Vannucchi, Fidel Gonzalez
Johnny Yuma (1966) begins with three Spaghetti Western goons riding out of a desert and approaching a colorless Mexican farmhouse where our hero, the shiny faced Johnny Yuma (Mark Damon), is holed up. The goons have the grimy mugs of Sergio Leone’s classic villains, but they aren’t frightening. Their grimaces are kind of funny and the eye patch of the leader seems rather like a clown’s prop. Next to the candy-corn eyed Yuma, however, they are believable enough.
When they try to bully Yuma into giving them his horse, he invites them in to talk business. They enter the house to a series of slow drum-rolls, and Yuma uses his reflection in a mirror to bait their bullets before shooting them down with his own. He then hooks-up, in a broom closet, with the easily impressed Mexican mistress of the house, before riding off in his flamboyant red shirt into the beautiful desert setting while the memorable title song, composed by Nora Orlandi, tells us of his greatness.
This opening sequence is, like the film that follows, simultaneously silly and serious. Because it maintains these two contrasting tones throughout, Johnny Yuma is sure to divide its audience. It will intrigue Spaghetti Western watchers who value the creative freedom the genre provides, alienate those who have conservative views of what the genre does and doesn’t entail, and confuse anyone expecting the typical Hollywood affair.
The story itself is straightforward. Samantha Felton (Rosalba Neri) has her brother, Pedro (Luigi Vannucchi), murder her husband so she can take control of his ranching empire. What she doesn’t know, however, is that her husband willed all his riches to his nephew, the quick shooting Yuma. To solve this problem, Samantha hires an old lover, the bounty hunter Carradine (Lawrence Dobkin), to do away with Yuma. But the hunter and the hunted don’t take to their roles, and their mutual respect for each other disrupts the illegitimate heiress’s plans.
It’s not the story of Johnny Yuma that will confuse most viewers, but rather the contrasting content of it. Director Romolo Girolami doesn’t know whether he’s making a campy comedy or a violent drama, and his indecisiveness marks nearly every moment of the film. He, for example, follows the hilarious zoophilia scene where the voluptuous Samantha slowly strips her clothes off to the joy of a hooting and hollering pet parrot, with a medieval jousting-styled torture scene that ends with Yuma threatening to brand Pedro’s face and then wiping blood over it.
Girolami even offers audiences two totally different types of action. The barroom brawls and slapstick sidekick antics of Dorito (Fidel Gonzalez) are as fun and lighthearted as a Saturday morning cartoon, but the scenes showing bullets go through foreheads, and children getting beat to death, are as graphic and gritty as a sadomasochist’s end-of-the-world party. To appreciate Johnny Yuma, you have to watch it with an open mind and do your best to embrace both the overzealous campiness and violence of the film, because they are the yin and the yang that together make Girolami’s vision whole.
It’s also important to go along with the different acting styles Girolami has assembled and exploited with inventive yet controlled camera work. They range from Gonzalez’s clown-like Dorito character to Dobkin’s over-earnest Carradine. With Yuma, Damon tries too hard to get us to like him, and his apple-eating gimmick is just goofy, but even if you don’t like him you will root for him since Vannuchi, who plays Pedro, looks and acts like an asshole. Regardless of what you think of the cast as a whole, Neri’s performance as Samantha is perfect.
Although the breathtakingly beautiful Neri would go on to act in a hundred or so Italian B-movies and undoubtedly star in millions of teenage wet-dreams, Johnny Yuma was her first Spaghetti Western, and any man or woman with a pulse will know why it wasn’t her last. She manages to radiate pure sexuality and evilness in equal measures, with one characteristic complimenting the other, and she does so constantly yet subtly.
As Samantha, she becomes the kind of woman that would use a pillow to suffocate a man after sleeping with him, and the kind most men would willing be suffocated by, if they got to spend the night in her arms, first. The characters of Yuma, Carradine, and even her brother, Pedro, all fall under her spell at one point or another and she, as a result, is the one who drives the plot and, some would argue, saves the film.
But if you ask me, Johnny Yuma doesn’t need saving. It’s a success even without the presence of Neri as Samantha. The action is thrilling, the violence shocking, and the body count impressive. The campiness, meanwhile, is a blast. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to see a safe that only opens if the bull’s-eye on its giant target-like combination lock is accurately hit with a bullet?