Monday, June 27, 2011

BLOOD AT SUNDOWN (1966)

Confusingly followed by an unrelated 1967 Spanish Western also called BLOOD AT SUNDOWN (and also starring Anthony Steffen!), this 1966 Alberto Cardone entry has garnered a modest rep over the years. In terms of content, it's probably best classed with the old-timey goodie-vs.-baddie Westerns of the pre-60s, as it seems quite far away from something like MANNAJA. There's not a lot of ambiguity to be had, my son or daughter. After serving twelve years in prison (a compromise sentence between a total pardon and hanging, lawl!), Johnny Liston returns to his town to settle a score with his no-goodnik brother Sartana, who has spent the past twelve years marrying/raping Johnny's sweetheart and racking up a pretty impressive tally of gunshot-murder victims.
BLOOD isn't that distinctive in terms of look or plot, but it's important for the genre for one surprising reason, which you will find at the end of this paragraph. So Johnny returns to find his brother terrorizing the town, including a mute named Jerry, and eventually meets up with Mom Liston. Mom is easily the movie's most compelling character, a fierce drunk who forces the town's ladies to literally kneel and beg for help from her. Also along for the ride are a fairly fun cast of minor characters, which makes the sameyness of the plot and unimpressive shot-on-a-Rome-lot visuals easier to swallow. Ditto for the pretty novel native-Mexican ruins which serve as Sartana's lair. All of this goodness is simply backdrop for the not-too-engaging brother-vs.-brother feud around which the film pivots. It resolves itself in the way that you would most expect. What you wouldn't expect is that the character who had one of the longest lifespans in Spaghetti western history would be the bland villain SARTANA! This movie set Gianni Garko up for life, as he'd go on to turn into the hero of such films as IF YOU MEET SARTANA PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH and LIGHT THE FUSE...SARTANA IS COMING! Sartana was the fucking Punisher of his day. I am personally disappointed that the villain named Ralph didn't show up in sequel properties, but so it goes...
I'm mostly ambivalent about BLOOD AT SUNDOWN. I didn't curse the gods that I devoted some time to it, but neither is it my new favorite thing. The minor characters and some fetching dialogue ("And this finishes your career as a pain in the neck, brother dear!", "They only believe you and your clever handlin' of the law and the marvelous manners you have!") help to alleviate the tedium of some parts, and I'd wager that this is almost no one's most loved film. But it's not TERRIBLE. Just not as good as many other things.
I think I shall try another film with a mute character next. Mystery abounds!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

DJANGO (1966)

I've glutted myself on Fragasso and the only remedy is spaghetti...Westerns, that is! Put that comedy gold in your college fund. Even though the genre has received a bit of renewed interest over the last decade or so, it still lags behind the gialli, cannibal films, blaxploitation, teen vampire horror, and other specialty cinema in terms of fan interest, so it seems like a good idea to look over some entries for a spell, both the more acclaimed and the more obscure. And starting off with something I didn't originally enjoy seems counterproductive and dumb, but it happened. So sup, DJANGO.

When I initially saw DJANGO, I was disappointed that it lacked the crazy pace of COMPANEROS or the depth of the Sergio Leone films. Upon rewatch, the first half or so is indeed slow going and full of muddy roads. A preliminary burst of action involves a woman being bullwhipped by a band of Mexicans, only to be "saved" by a band of religious zealots who intend to crucify her into sinlessness. Then Django arrives, pulling a coffin, and half-heartedly saves her yet again. He invites her to accompany him on a grand adventure! So they go to the dullest whorehouse in the world, where garishly-painted ladies sit around knitting and yawning in fancy dresses. Turns out that the whorehouse is sort of a demilitarized zone between the Mexicans and the army of Major Jackson, whose racial creed leads to things like Mexicans-as-clay-pigeons on the shooting range. The Spaghetti West is a whole lot more willing to tackle social issues than the Western Westerns that inspired it. Racism is a pivotal point in this film (although kind of clumsily developed) and other S-Westerns would incorporate social ills in even more brazen ways (cf. the IRA bomb maker as hero in Leone's DUCK YOU SUCKER).
Because this kind of film emerged in the late sixties and seventies, there is a notable absence of white-horse heroes. Protags in Spaghetti westerns tend to be less John Wayne and more John Wayne Gacy. If they're not wanton killers, at the very least they are primarily concerned with their own well-being and very rarely rush to the aid of burning orphans and whipped women without solid financial or vengeful reasons. Django in this film is essentially a big dickbag. He's greedy and abrasive and normally only wins fights when underhandness is involved. Viewers who are used to the grindhouse and exploitation films of this era should recognize the sort of gray-shaded characterization at work here. Practically NOBODY in DJANGO is heroic in the traditional sense. The racist guys are racist louts, but the Mexicans are also brutish and disgusting, Django is too sketchy to like, and the women are ciphers who only exist to need rescuing, then fall in love with assholes. The viewer doesn't really have a point of reference in the film and, when that works well, it's awesome. But I'm not convinced that it really works here, with events unfolding and me not invested and thus me not caring.
Thankfully, there are some plot-aside points that make DJANGO enjoyable. If anyone in the film deserves an award for achievement, it is the music. The title song is one of the best ever for this kind of movie (kudos, Luis Bacalov). You will remember it long after the film's events have been replaced in your mind with grocery lists and pics of Silvia Saint. BUT music is well-handled throughout DJANGO. When the Mexican insurgency is riding, there is this utterly amazing piece of lumbering, sinister mariachi music that is unlike anything I've ever heard. If Gorecki wrote mariachi music, it would sound like this. Those people who want to keep housemaids and farmhands from stealing America's greatest jobs should totally steal it for their commercials. There's also a great scene in which music from a party bleeds into simple guitar music from outside a house. Little things like that make the endless frames full of tree-free brown mud tolerable. There are also some good visuals, particularly the creepy red-Klan racist army. Director Sergio Corbucci was too damn good to leave tons of mud on one side of the visual see-saw without balancing it out with some beautiful shots. So, yeah.
I didn't despise DJANGO as much this time. It's nothing great, to say the least, but it at least contains the essential ingredients which would pop up in other Spaghetti westerns. And it inspired a computer code, a disappointing Japanese film, and a Johnny Depp movie about a sheriff lizard or something. That is more than most of us can boast.