The Bounty Killer
Tomas Milian, Richard Wyler, Halina Zalewska, Enzo Fiermonte
Samuel Fuller, the great American director of twenty-nine powerful, provocative, pulpy pictures including Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), and White Dog (1982) said that “If a screenplay doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first five pages, throw it in the goddamn garbage.” With The Bounty Killer (1966), the first Spaghetti western in which the always brilliant Tomas Milian blesses us with his presence, director Eugenio Martin adapts a screenplay that not only gives you a hard-on in the first five minutes, but gives you one that will last until the film closes with one of the most dramatic death-scenes in the genre.
The film begins atop a sunbaked desert mountain where we see, from the view point of the bounty killer Luke Chilson (Richard Wyler), two bandits frantically fleeing through the valley below. We get a closer view of them when one of their horses collapses from exhaustion and sends its rider tumbling. After this impressive example of 20th century B-movie stunt-work concludes, the other bandit turns around and considers helping his partner. The two look into each other’s eyes for a moment, and then the horseless bandit desperately attempts to hijack his partner’s horse but gets punched and again goes tumbling into the dirt. But this time he is left there for Chilson, the approaching bounty killer who has money on his mind.
This thrilling opening sequence is accompanied by an intense track from Stelvo Cipriani that plays in place of dialogue until, about ten minutes into the film, Chilson arrives at a small ranching settlement in pursuit of the escaped bandit who is hiding out with the aid of a big-breasted blonde named Anne Eden (Halina Zalewska). Although Wyler, with his depiction of the bounty killer Chilson, merely imitates Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, he nonetheless succeeds in creating a cool, clever, amoral, money-hungry, part-time protagonist. After eating what the enchanting Eden provides him, he goes about stylishly capturing the bandit who tries to escape out an upstairs window. What he doesn’t know, however, is that the bandit came to this settlement to tell Eden that Jose Gomez (Tomas Milian)—his gang’s leader, Eden’s childhood friend, and the bounty killer’s target—has been arrested and needs help.
Because Eden, like the rest of the small community, has very fond memories of Gomez, who she helped raise after he arrived at their ranching community as an orphaned Mexican refugee, she is more than willing to assist in his escape. To do this, she waits at an isolated rest-stop on the route Gomez’s captors are taking to the state jailhouse, knowing that they will need stop to eat and rest. And when they arrive with Gomez in tow, Eden is inside looking as innocent as a white rabbit chomping on a carrot—so they don’t hesitate to join her at the table to do some chomping of their own. Chit-chat takes place and then Eden drops her fork, bends under the table to pick it up, and discreetly passes a gun to Gomez. After she leaves, he uses the gun to shoot down all seven of his captors with glee and ease, in spite of wearing handcuffs.
Milian is easily the most gifted of all the Spaghetti Western stars. Even though The Bounty Killer is his first work in the genre, his performance in it is as inspired as his more applauded performances in classics like The Big Gundown (1966), Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (1967), Face to Face (1967), Tepepa (1969), and Companeros (1970). He’s one of those actors who, no matter his roles or lines, always expounds excellence. His eyes reveal more than most actors can with a 5000 word monologue, and his body moves with a powerful grace that brings to mind Muhammad Ali in his first fight against Sonny Liston. I don’t know why he never received the international acclaim he deserves, but I do know that he is always a pleasure to watch.
With Gomez, Milian brings to life one of his most interesting and definitely his most complex characters. Following his escape, he returns to his home where Eden and the rest of the ranching folk welcome him with open arms. They know he is a convicted criminal, but they see him as a Robin Hood type character, a warm-hearted victim of an unjust and racist society who turned to crime out of necessity, and they compare him and his gang to the legendary Jesse James. He’s “one of us”, says a grimaced ex-sheriff named Novak (Enzo Fiermonte). And when Chilson comes to capture him and a lengthy, nicely choreographed fistfight breaks out between the two, the citizens make sure Gomez gets the better of the bounty killer.
Their loyalty, however, is further tested when Gomez’s gang arrives. They tie Chilson up under the sun, beat him mercilessly, ride circles around him, outline his battered face with bullets, and have a great time tormenting the bounty killer. Gomez, meanwhile, lays on a bed he has dragged into the middle of the ranch, laughing and drinking whiskey bottle after whiskey bottle. He allows his men to pillage the ranch all the while halfheartedly promising to pay the community back two-fold, and then informs Eden that he’s going to take her to Mexico with his gang. “You’re not the same person,” asks Eden, “are you?” To which Gomez replies, “I’m the same Mexican”.
It’s clear that the victim has become the victimizer, but Eden and the rest of the community have to ask themselves the same question the mother of a junkie son asks herself when he steals her jewelry and she don’t call the cops: when does helping become enabling? Eventually the community realizes it made a mistake in protecting Gomez and that Chilson the bounty killer was right when he said, “the Jose you once knew doesn’t exist anymore.” The ex-sheirff Novak admits, “We shouldn’t have let it go this far,” and Eden decides to untie Chilson and let him try to end the anarchy.
But the community has a soft spot for Gomez even after all the destruction and madness he brings into their lives. Eden still loves him. Even Chilson admits that he would rather take him alive than kill him. Milian brings so much damn charisma to the character that he makes it easy to ignore his violent streak. He has that duality of danger and likability that is so common among real-life gangsters , how they make you love them and fear them at the same time and in equal measures, that most movies overlook and most actors lack the talent to conjure up. This bipolar personality of Gomez is encapsulated in a brief but powerful scene where he, after learning that Eden let the bounty killer free to face off against him, slaps and then kisses her, again and again, violently and passionately.
Although Milian carries The Bounty Killer with his brilliant acting, director Eugenio Martin, who would later direct the terrible Pancho Villa (1971), must be given some credit for highlighting the gifts of his star with lively yet not distracting camera work. And the simplicity of the plot, which was adapted from the productive pulp writer Marvin H. Albert’s novel of the same name, is what gives Milian the room to fully realize the character of Gomez and, in the process, provide us with some interesting social commentary that includes both liberal and conservative stances. At first, for example, we are lead to believe that Gomez is a victim of society, a product of circumstance, but in the end we are told that we must not pull our punches when such characters enter the boxing ring that is society.
// Notes from the Road
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