It’s hard not to compare Minnesota Clay (1964) to A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Not only were they filmed at the same time, released the same year, and both made by men named Sergio—Sergio Corbucci in the first case and Sergio Leone in the second—but they also used the same source material to tell similar stories. The source material used was Dashiell Hammett’s early hardboiled detective novel, Red Harvest (1929), along with Akira Kurosowa‘s cinematic samurai version of that novel, Yojimbo (1961). The stories told involve marksmen who, after arriving to towns in turmoil due to on-going gang wars, pin one gang against the other to bring gold to their pockets and peace to the citizens.
Minnesota Clay and A Fistful of Dollars are also two of the earliest offerings from the two greatest Spaghetti Western directors. But while A Fistful of Dollars became an international sensation, launching and then guiding the genre in the years that followed, Minnesota Clay was in comparison a quickly forgotten box-office bust. One reason for its failure was the bad-timing that left it in the shadow of Leone’s groundbreaking film, but another was its mediocrity, which becomes especially obvious when you compare it to Corbucci’s later triumphs like Django (1966), The Great Silence (1968), and Companeros (1970).
Structurally, Corbucci tells his story with just as much craft as Leone, and the plot of Minnesota Clay, like A Fistful of Dollars, is an entertaining one. But unlike A Fistful of Dollars, nearly every element surrounding the plot is bland. For most of Minnesota Clay’s 91 minute runtime, I felt as though I was watching one of the many nondescript American westerns that the Hollywood studio system shitted out during the ’40s. The costumes are too clean and colorful, and the sets are too well lighted and swept.
Then there is Cameron Mitchell, who plays the lead as Minnesota Clay. He successfully pulls-off the worn-down, has-been gunfighter persona with his big gut and weary face. He reminds you of a big city bus driver who has worked one too many nightshifts. But I think he pulls this persona off too well, because the defeated tone that hangs onto each of his words eventually gets depressing and you stop caring about him and whether he lives or dies.
Corbucci does try to get us to care about Minnesota Clay. He tries to contrast his goodness with the badness of gang leaders Ortiz (Fernando Sancho) and Fox (Georges Riviere), but neither of them are bad enough. He even has him let out a few tears when looking at an old photo of his lost love, but such sentiment isn’t Corbucci’s strong point and I wasn’t moved. The closest he gets to making us care about Minnesota Clay is through the love-child sub-plot… but Nancy Mulligan (Diana Martin), his unknowing daughter, is played by an actress whose skills would be better used leading birthday party sing-alongs at Chuck E Cheese than conjuring up empathy in the viewer.
And as bad as Martin is, the uncredited Alberto Cevenini as Andy, Nancy’s admirer, is far worse. Besides making us vomit in our mouths with his boyish bumbling and stumbling, Andy’s only purpose is to insult our intelligence with monologues like this:
“Only you can help us Mr. Clay. This town has been taken over by two gangs. First it was the gang of Ortiz, a Mexican bandit. They robbed and killed without any pity. The people were at their wits-end, so they hired a man. He’s a man by the name of Fox… He turned out to be worse, very much worse. He appointed himself sheriff and took over the whole town, murdering every day.”
In this speech, Andy may as well be looking directly into the camera while reading off a printed synopsis. I felt as though I was listening to a fifth grader’s plot description of a Dr. Seuss book. Corbucci lazily talks down to us—something Leone has never come close to—and as the film progresses, I couldn’t help but hold it against him.
Minnesota Clay, however, isn’t nearly as bad as I’m making it out to be. Like I said before, it’s hard not to compare it to A Fistful of Dollars, and in doing so it’s easy to get hung-up on its weaknesses, but there’s actually a lot to like about Minnesota Clay. The character of Estella (Ethel Rojo), for instance, is a memorable one. She looks great in a black bra, but she’s also enticing in her motives as she flip-flops her loyalty between Ortiz, Fox, and Minnesota Clay. Like the most seasoned of American politicians, you never quite know where she stands or what she will do next.
There are also several moments in which Corbucci invokes the magic that he would display in later films. When Minnesota Clay shoots off the earring along with the earlobe of one of Ortiz’s back-talking men and then later gets his freshly burnt face stomped on by one of Ortiz’s other men, you are reminded of whose film you’re watching. And after the final showdown in which Fox tries to get the nearly blind Minnesota Clay to shoot his own daughter concludes, you’ll always remember it as a Corbucci film. These moments, however brief, firmly establish Minnesota Clay as an early checkpoint in the development of the second greatest director of Spaghetti Westerns, and for that it’s worth watching.