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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Liberty Was An Art-House and We Never Knew It!

Many of us are too young to have stood on line for La Dolce Vita or talked over the finer points of Bergman’s latest in a beatnik coffee shop, but European sensibilities we surely cultivated for having supped at continental banquet tables of import genre pics --- reviled then, celebrated now. DVD has confirmed good impressions we formed over forty years ago. Who is Mario Bava but the more accessible and visually stimulating counterpart to a for-years dominant Fellini? You couldn’t have sold Sight and Sound on the bolder initiatives of Euro strongman pics, but we surely knew Hercules In The Haunted World was something special, even if such high-minded publications did not. Imports defiled formulas we had grown tired of. Those they created for themselves flaunted domestic protocol and whetted bloodlusts peculiarly satisfied by widescreen tableaux of men tied to, then torn asunder, by stallions whipped toward opposite directions. Muscles and monsters, then later arriving Italo westerns, announced they were capable of anything by crudely dubbed word, if not deed. We’d been put on notice by German-made frontier sagas with recognizable homegrown names (Lex Barker, Elke Sommer, etc.), their genteel content given stature by Panavistas our westerns seemed to have lately abandoned. These played tandem with Hammer Films at the Liberty., By the time Spaghettis landed ashore, we matinee continentals were aesthetic equals for any Manhattan art-house habitué, our palettes evolved thanks to genre helpings we can now recognize as among the finest work Europeans were doing in those years.

There was a week in the Winter of 1968 when we had one hell of a snow and folks couldn’t find a road to drive a car on, so Brick Davis and I walked knee high in drifts down to the Liberty and saw For A Few Dollars More. It seemed appropriate upon leaving the show to lay in a supply of Spanish Maid Cigars (with a crook in the middle) for our trek home. Providential blizzard conditions and Clint Eastwood’s example thus resulted in two fourteen-year-olds brazenly lighting up a pair of cheroots --- on Main Street --- without fear of detection, surely a first for me at the time. American westerns were long past inspiring such abandon. Italian spaghetti became my frontier diet of choice. Must have been all that realism --- but what did I know of the real west? Precious little based on Virginian and Cimarron Strip episodes, their too comfortable supporting names and faces, shuttling back and forth between tired theatrical and televised oaters. How could such assembly product be anything other than bland and inauthentic? Euro-westerners were nasty and always dangerous. They wore cool dusters and arresting fur-lined vests. Gunshots reverberated as bullets ripped through flesh. Those taking hits spun like pinwheels and paused but for a glimpse of shots between the eyes. No need to ask what motivated these anti-heroes, for it was always the flash-backed family massacre, where Mom and beatific teenaged Sis got it in the belly right along with Dad. John Wayne and James Caan shared beans with comparative decorum in El Dorado. Italians slopped up chicken quarters in gross-out close-up, spewing dubbed dialogue from mouths resolutely filled. Savage beatings for leading men were as dependable as once was Gene Autry lifting a guitar. Spaghetti leads could rely upon at least one desert siege sans horse and water. Kirk Douglas might cross those sands with barely a stain on his buckskins, while Italian counterparts emerged with lips cracked and bleeding, badges of honor for greater conviction we sought. Survival itself was never at issue. Spaghetti westerners were tough beyond standards set by their host country’s strongman forebears. My boyish imagining looked to the day when I might dry-shave with a knife as Lee Van Cleef does in Death Rides A Horse. Like "B" actioners that thrilled generations before my own, spaghetti westerns intensely prolific. So how many shoot-em’-ups emerged from over there? Were there four hundred? Six? One source cites a thousand. I’ve got to wonder if hidden vaults might contain dozens of unknown Spaghettis --- Italian treasure tombs waiting to be plundered by enterprising DVD producers (and lots HAVE)

I much preferred slapping leather with taciturn (and youngish) Clint Eastwood to down-at-the-heels prairie wanderings of Charlton Heston as Will Penny or even old favorite Dean Martin in Five Card Stud. Both cast a pall for me in 1968. I wondered if they would again, so out came the DVD’s. Will Penny goes for the austere. Men get shot and writhe in pain. Heston’s self-conscious end-of-the-trail cowpoke makes no pretense to blowing down six guys for laughin’ at his mule, so right off we know there’s no fun to be had on this trip, but must villains, even psychotic ones, be so relentlessly sadistic and unpleasant as Donald Pleasance’s outlaw brood? We Yanks thought to checkmate Italians by producing more thoughtful westerns, but most of these came off as plain downers. Will Penny’s another where good folks are abused for what seems forever, only to chicken out in a pay-off hardly deserving of the name. Too many earnest 60’s westerns substituted cruelty for violence, and miscreants got off with comparative slaps on the wrist, Will Penny being  prime example. 

Fresh Italian milk had to curdle eventually. It didn’t take Spaghetti merchants long to begin biting hands that were feeding them. Imitators we expected. Eastwood was supplanted on the marquee by Tony Anthony, John Philip Law and lesser lights available to us by virtue of major studio’s willingness to distribute second –tier westerns where lips moved at odds with dialogue. The Big Gundown seemed good at the time, but I haven’t seen it since ’68. Another from that year surfaced on DVD after decades in obscurity. We never got The Great Silence on these shores, and maybe it’s as well for viewer trauma thus avoided. How could rivers of Spaghetti profits have made such nihilists out of Italian directors? The Great Silence has a likeable hero shot dead at the finish, sympathetic townfolk he’d pledged to protect similarly executed by reptilian Klaus Kinski. I guess I admire the audacity of it, but how did sane investors imagine they’d get worldwide circulation with content like this? Films of a Great Silence sort, atmospheric to a fault, amounted to death wishes for a cycle still aborning. Other late sixties Euro packagings didn’t need bummer westerns to self-destruct. TV scavengers realized there were (seeming) hundreds of sword-and-sandal features available to fatten up color groups for economy syndication --- thus currency, and respect, for these died quickly. Those of us who had paid to watch Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott fight the Duel Of The Titans were now confronted with rubber-stamped Sunday afternoons watching Sons Of Hercules Against Maciste In The Valley Of The Medusa Head (take your pick from among kooky monikers these went by). Italian horror films were as dire. For every Black Sabbath, there’d be several like The Embalmer. I’d hear of Christopher Lee turning up in some of them, but if even AIP shrunk in the face of US distribution, you knew bets were off. By the seventies, we were back to buying American (save dreadful kung-fus, which made Spaghettis seem like models of sophistication). After so long a deprivation, I’m thrilled to see flocks of worthy Euros finally gaining passage to domestic shelves. So many are happy surprises --- I’ve never heard of shows I’m now enjoying. A Mario Bava DVD set is just out --- the deluxe career tome from Tim Lucas is imminent. Treasure hunts among these, plus the westerns, hold promise of many a pleasurable viewing hour. All we need now is someone to rescue and revive some of the better sword-and-sandals.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you're back, John.

I've only seen a few spaghetti westerns besides Leones, but there must be tons--seems that there's an inexhaustible supply of giallos and zombie movies. But like zombie movies, I enjoy them, but probably wouldn't seek them out too much.

Did remind me though, that for all of the great stuff we remember of 60s movies, did any of it come out of Hollywood (and I don't count AIP as Hollywood)? A lot of great stuff happening, and for the most part the majors were flapping on the beach like dying whales.

1:39 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Good to see you are back, John.

Spaghetti westerns can be great. There are a few masters, like Leone. But there are many hidden gems (Sabata, anyone?) that just aren't widely seen anymore. You've got to be willing to pan through some clogs in order to find the gold.

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was really hoping for a close-up screen shot of a kidney stone. I mean, we are all horror fans here, right?

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you're back, Sir.

I dunno about the Liberty, but my favorite arthouse is the Greenbriar...

11:09 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The Spaghetti western are not exactly Italians since many of them were shot in Spain amd since they feature lots of European actors they are more of salad than pasta.

Some were originally shot in Italian or Spanish or German, but when you hear the English dubbed sountrack the pictures do not look right. When they employed American actors in the lead something was necessary dubbed (to either one or another language)and that creates a barrier that damages the enjoyment films.

Some of this films occasionally show up in Spanish language networks like Univision or Telemundo. The neutral Spanish dubbed versions are OK but that's not the way to see any film (it is worst when the original Spanish track from films from Argentina are unnecessary dubbed in order to put the "neutral" accent... the effect in Spain is even worse).

Several of them were quite good and interesting but featured a number of unknown actors and directors which makes it difficult to exactly remember them.

These westerns ended by the mid seventies, although at least one was a coproduction with Argentina: "El macho" starring Carlos Monzón and Susana Giménez. It is horrible to see them speaking in (or being dubbed to) English.

And there is "Savage Pampas", a box office flop from 1967 starring Robert Taylor, shot in English in Spain, in a vain attempt to remake a classic Argentine western that should have been left alone. The original film is called "Pampa Bárbara" and is a masterpiece (partially directed by the same director) that can be seen here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12

11:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't realize Michael Jackson starred in Black Sunday. Maybe it should have been titled "Used To Be Black Sunday".

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say glad you are back, love your blog

7:16 PM  
Blogger The Siren said...

I am glad to see that you are well & back! I was having one of my off-line periods and did not realize that you were having such a terrible time. My best wishes for your full recovery and continued good health.

Will Penny is considered by a number of people to be Heston's best performance, but I agree with you in that it is an aggressively, deliberately unlikable movie. Screenwriter, director and actors are all palpably afraid that someone might look at something, anything in the film and find it happy, let alone heroic. I think you are quite right that at this point the pitiless brutality of the spaghetti Western was influencing the Americans, rather than the other way around. Even the ending seemed somewhat contrived, as though an unhappy ending was chosen not for its logic, but because happy endings cannot possibly be serious.

9:26 PM  

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