Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Hills Run Red: Italian Westerns, Leone, and Beyond

In January, the PFA had a six film series titled The Hills Run Red: Italian Westerns, Leone, and Beyond.  The series was inopportune as it was partly scheduled opposite the Mostly British Film Festival and Noir City XI.  I was still able to catch four of the films.

Duck, You Sucker starring Rod Steiger & James Coburn; directed by Sergio Leone; (1971)
The Mercenary starring Franco Nero & Tony Musante; with Jack Palance; directed by Sergio Corbucci; (1968)
Navajo Joe starring Burt Reynolds; directed by Sergio Corbucci; (1966)
Sabata starring Lee Van Cleef; directed by Gianfranco Parolini; (1969)

The Mercenary is probably best known today for the song L'arena by the prodigious Italian composer Ennio Morricone (still scoring new films at age 84).  Quentin Tarantino famously used the song in Kill Bill Vol. 2.  Tarantino also used at least two of Morricone's songs (A Silhouette of Doom and The Demise of Barbara and the Return of Joe) from Navajo Joe in the Kill Bill series.


As I mentioned, Duck, You Sucker (the title frequently ends with an exclamation point which makes for an unusually over-punctuated title) was part of a loose trilogy by Sergio Leone.  With the seemingly outrageous casting of Rod Steiger as a Mexican bandit, I wondered how the film would turn out.  Of the three films in the trilogy (the other two are Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America), Duck, You Sucker is my least favorite.

Set during the Mexican Revolution, Duck, You Sucker lacks the epic feel of other well known Leone films.  Focusing on the friendshp between Steiger's Juan and James Coburn' John, an IRA expatriate, the film behaves like a buddy film at times.  When Juan's banditry and John's revolutionary zeal coincide, they form a friendship while robbing banks and attacking the Mexican Army. 

Duck, You Sucker never captured my full interest. There are backstories (including a creepy slow motion threesome in a Irish meadow) and betrayals but they seemed like contrived diversions.

The Mercenary was my favorite of the four films.  Tony Musante plays Paco Roman, a Mexican peasant turned revolutionary.  Franco Nero is Kowalski, a Polish mercenary who serves as Roman's advisor on military & strategic decisions.  Jack Palance is Curly (same character name as his role in City Slickers), a gunfighter looking for gold.  The interests of three characters converge and diverge throughout the film as their motivations and loyalties shift.

The plot is difficult for me to remember.  The three lead actors strut around the screen with great flamboyance.  At one point, Palance has a nude scene in the desert.  The highlight is a scene where Paco (dressed a rodeo or circus clown) and Curly duel while Morricone's trumpet dirge plays on the soundtrack.  The Mercenary is very stylish and stylized; reminding me of scenes from various Tarantino films.


Navajo Joe had a particularly memorable soundtrack.  In one of his earliest lead roles, Burt Reynolds plays a solitary and taciturn Indian.  I can't recall if his tribe was ever identified but one can only assume Joe was from the Navajo nation.

I'm not quite sure what Navajo Joe has going for it.  It has a predictable plot which doesn't think highly of the audience's collective intelligence.  Reynolds doesn't mug or ham it up probably because he doesn't have much opportunity.  I'm wondering if Joe's quiet nature is mainly to restrict Reynolds' opportunities to derail the film.

Navajo Joe does have a couple things going for it.  First and foremost is Morricone's soundtrack (for reasons unstated, credited as Leo Nichols) which was inspired by Indian chants but with his inimitable stylings.  Second, Reynolds and/or his stuntman perform some great old school stunts.  Finally, watching the film in 2013, with full recognition of Tarantino's use of the songs, gives Navajo Joe the patina of importance which would otherwise be lacking.


Lee Van Cleef has always interested me.  He played in three of the greatest Westerns ever made - High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence & The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.  After the Leone film, he had a career making Spaghetti Westerns of decreasing quality and importance.  Although PFA curator Steve Seid said Sabata was filmed before Van Cleef's descent in irrelevance, I wouldn't have known it otherwise.

Perhaps, the popularity of Sabata made it cliche in hindsight.  Again with the threesome (what is it with Spaghetti Westerns and threesomes?), Sabata (Van Cleef), Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) and the silent Indian acrobat Alley Cat (Aldo Canti).  With a plot that I cannot fully recount, the film moves from a bank robbery with acrobats to a gun battle at the villain's fortified ranch to fake death to a final showdown with a guy who has a gun hidden in his guitar.  How many different films and TV shows have recycled these plot devices?  The Wild Wild West, The Quick & the Dead, Desperado, etc. It's unfair to judge Sabata by the films that came after it but the imitators (at least Desperado) outdid the original.  It didn't help that Sabata had its tongue firmly in cheek.


The Hills Run Red was an interesting series but it seemed to diminish the significance of the films.  Maybe it was the films themselves but the Spaghetti Westerns didn't age well.  I often say that but in this instance, the films seemed very much a product of their times and the subsequent cheapening of the genre by wholesale imitators reduced the luster of the genre for me.

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