The Philosophy of Violence Is the Central Theme to Sergio Sollima's 'Face to Face'

by Christopher Forsley

17 August 2015

Our protagonist exemplifies how intelligence and education, when used as weapons, can lead to far more violence than guns and knives.
 
cover art

Face to Face

Director: Sergio Sollima
Cast: Gian Maria Volonté, Tomas Milian, William Berger

US DVD: 13 Aug 2015

With the new release of Sergio Solima’s Face to Face (1967), Kino Lorber has given the people of the US a gift that comes close to rivaling France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty or Teddy Roosevelt’s gift of the Grand Canyon. Most will probably consider such a statement hyperbole, and patriots and naturalists might find it insulting, but spaghetti western fanatics such as myself will at least entertain the comparison, because Face to Face is, without question, one of the ten best films in a genre that includes about 600, and it has never, until now, been released in the States. For these reasons alone, this new Kino Lorber release should be celebrated, but the fact that it’s on Blu-ray in HD with an additional uncut 172 min version in Italian makes it a gift for the ages. 

A majority of the spaghetti westerns that make up the genre’s top ten, as long as the top ten is compiled by someone with at least half a brain, are directed by the three Sergios: Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, or Sergio Sollima. While Sollima was the least productive of them, all three of his spaghetti westerns — The Big Gundown (1966), Face to Face(1967), and Run Man Run(1968) — are bonafide classics and Face to Face is an undeniable masterpiece. Each of them has a political lining that adds weight to their plots and characters, but there
s an additional depth to the plot and characters of Face to Face that only one or two films in the entire genre reach. 

As is usually the case in the medium of film, the vessel responsible for taking the plot and characters of Face to Face to such depths is the screenplay. It was written by Solima in collaboration with the genre’s greatest writer, Sergio Donati who, in addition to previously working with Solima on The Big Gundown (1966), also wrote for the great Leone on For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and Duck, You Sucker!(1971).  With writing credits like that, Donati’s contribution to Face to Face cannot be overstated. 

The film begins by introducing Brad Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonté), an over-civilized intellectual with some sort of lung ailment, as he announces his resignation from his job as a professor of history in Boston and his plans to move to Texas, where he hopes his health will improve. In his departing speech, he tells his students that “All men must die in time, other men will make history live, and each man can choose his own part in history… You will have to choose many times between just and unjust, truth and untruth and always the answer is only to be found within you.” This inspired speech foreshadows the choices Fletcher makes once he arrives to Texas. 

In fact, Fletcher isn’t in Texas more than a few days when he makes the choice to offer water to Solomon ‘Beauregard’ Bennet (Tomas Milan), a prisoner who arrives at the isolated desert hamlet where Fletcher is recovering. Beauregard’s captors tell Fletcher to forget about the water, that their prisoner is the leader of a dangerous gang and can’t be trusted, but the professor persists. He goes into a rant about how in this country every man is presumed innocent until proven guilty and how water is a natural human right and so on. In offering the prisoner water, Fletcher believes he is making a just decision, but his decision results in Beauregarder getting hold of a gun, killing everyone in sight, and escaping with the professor in tow. 

The rest of the film shows how, as a hostage and eventual comrade to the dangerous gang leader Beauregarder, Fletcher has to make many choices between just and unjust, truth and untruth. At first these choices are easy, and the differences between right and wrong are distinct. But as the story progresses, Fletcher begins to see the world in a new way. He begins to see that the line between good and evil is not always so obvious and that such a line might only exist in theory, not reality.

Beauregarder, on the other hand, has never believed in a line separating good from evil. He is a man of instincts. He doesn’t think about what is right and what is wrong. He just does what he feels. Although Fletcher says to him, “You’re an animal incapable of thought, killing people from sheer stupidity,” it’s obvious by the half-hour mark that Fletcher finds Beauegarder inspiring. He’s not inspired by his “animal-like”, instinct-driven behavior, but he is inspired by his ability to lead and have an impact on history. 

Thus, Fletcher not only wants to join Beauegarder’s gang, but he also wants to lead it to more glorious heights. After orchestrating a semi-successful bank heist during which Beauregarder is captured and jailed for a short time, he begins to act on his ambitions for greatness by taking over the gang and making new, authoritative rules. Although Fletcher is only just learning how to shoot a gun, it becomes clear — at some point between his blackmailing and torturing — that his intellect and knowledge of history makes him far more dangerous and possible of far greater evils than the more “animal-like” Beauegarder.

Just before brutally killing an undercover federal agent who had joined his gang in hopes of dismantling it, Fletcher makes a powerful speech that exemplifies how intelligence and education, when used as weapons, can lead to far more violence than guns and knives. “What’s surprising is that a man like me could have remained all those years watching life as a spectator before he discovered the force that was in him, but do you have any idea of what can be accomplished if you’re a man of intelligence, where men who are morons have succeeded usurping the power and the land?”

He then goes on to paraphrase the ‘philosophy of violence’ which reveals his ultimate goal: “One violent soul is just an outlaw, a hundred a gang, but they’re an army at 100,000. That is the point. Behind the confines that limit the outlaws and individual criminals, violence by masses of men is called history.”

In addition to the instinct-driven Beauegarder and the intellectual-driven Fletcher, there is also the law-driven Charley Siringo (William Berger), who wants to lock both criminals up and goes to great lengths to do so. Eventually all three men meet in the middle of the desert where their personal life philosophies are stripped bare and pinned against the others’ outside the confines of society and its rules. As Fletcher said at the beginning of the film to his students in Boston, “All men must die in time, other men will make history live, and each man can choose his own part in history,” these three men each make choices between just and unjust, truth and untruth. The answers they find within themselves, however, differ greatly from each other, and Face to Face’s unforgettable conclusion highlights these differences. 

While Donati’s powerful dialogue and complex character development and Solima’s excellent directing and persuasive anti-fascist sensibilities are essential to the greatness of Face to Face, credit must also be given to its three lead actors as well. Volonté, who most will know as the demented villain opposite Clint Eastwood in Leone’s first two ‘Dollar’ films, plays Fletcher with a range that is rarely if ever seen in spaghetti westerns. The always brilliant Milian puts on one of his more subtle and controlled performances as the laid back but incredibly confident Beauegarder, and in doing so he creates a hard-to-read, fascinating character. Berger’s performance as the lawman trying to capture the outlaws is standard Berger, but I don’t think there’s any fan of this genre who doesn’t take great joy in standard Berger.

With all that said, a truly great spaghetti western can only be truly great if it has a truly great score, and with Ennio Morricone on board, Face to Face has exactly that. Morricone’s theme song is one of my favorites. It’s a multilayered, incredibly intense visual track that perfectly captures not only the duality of the characters in Face to Face and the philosophies they embody, but also of the American frontier as portrayed by the spaghetti western genre.

Face to Face

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