Monday, December 19, 2005

His Web Fans call him...LVC
The Grande Finale as promised...

Despite the Dean Martin interruption (I've now seen all four Matt Helm movies...but haven't decided whether to review them yet), I managed to return my focus to the other two Lee Van Cleef spaghettis that I had intially wanted to review all at once with the two Sabata movies. Two things happened: 1) I didn't have time to watch the other two movies before writing my review, and 2) I realized it was gonna be one mammoth movie review. The whole thing begged for a two parter, and now it has one.

Ain't life grand?

Let's get started.

Beyond the Law (aka. Al di là della legge, 1968, d. Giorgi Stegani)

The Story: A drifting thief strikes up a friendship with a mining company worker he robbed which lands him the job of sheriff in order to protect the town from a team of outlaws.

The Review: Hmm. I'm not sure how much time I can devote to this one.

First of all, it's not a bad film. Lee Van Cleef was of course in fine form, and this one provided him an opportunity to actually play up his fun side. Like The Stranger and The Gunfighter, Van Cleef doesn't have to have the badass quotient cranked up the whole time, so he springs that wry grin in humor rather than as a warning. Antonio Sabato provides a good hearted optimistic foil, and Lionel Stander has a lot of fun as the completely corrupt "preacher." Gordon Mitchell, of course, overdoes it on the bad guy side, but then that's part of what makes Gordon Mitchell fun to watch (although not nearly as fun as the split personality outlaw he played in Django and Sartana...Showdown in the West.) So the fault wasn't with the cast.

The movie was shot fairly well. The pacing was fairly swift, and the plot had a few good turns. So that wasn't it.

I think it was just that there was nothing really stand out about it. Honestly, I think that's kind of unfortunate. Let's face it: Everyone remembers great movies, and we all remember really bad movies. Then there are those cable movies...the ones that aren't great movies...but they have enough charisma or something going for them that you'd still watch them again. This one had some of that, such as Stander's performance. Overall though, it was just a solid decent effort. Somehow, I just feel that's not fair, because it wasn't bad.

Anyhow. You could spend an hour and a half on far far worse things.

Moving on to greener pastures...otherwise known as the B-side of the disk.

The Grand Duel (1972, d. Giancarlo Santi)

The Story: An ex-sheriff drags a young outlaw back to a town he ran from in order to settle who killed a corrupt patriarch.

The Review: Now, by comparison, this movie was far more gravy.

First of all, it's by the book Van Cleef, straight up bad ass (Think 'Angel Eyes' Setenza from GBU); however, this time his character is peppered with a little Sartana (I've covered him previously and will again!), a character much in vogue at the time. Sartana was an avenging angel of sorts who is always in the right place at the right time. Clayton (Van Cleef), though vastly more earthly than Sartana, holds all the cards based on information he does know, but much like Sartana he orchestrates how everything flows along until the final reveal. Even though he appears to be in danger, he's always ahead of every turn, thus never truly in danger. Maybe I just got a soft spot for characters like this but Van Cleef plays it so well.

Much of the rest of the film is stock spaghetti with the corrupt family of brothers who keep the town under a yoke of potential violence. Then of course, there's the wild young outlaw who has far too hot a head to clear his own name. In a somewhat different vein, there's a horde of bounty hunters who appear to only be interested in bringing the young outlaw to justice but who turn out to be part of the plot. Still (and you may think I'm an idiot for admitting this), I still got dragged in enough that I was trying to solve what was happening before it did. Now, of course, I figured it out, mere moments before the final reveal. (I think what it is is that I've seen so many movies and read so many stories that I start thinking "that's too obvious!") In any event, I actually really enjoyed the use of flashback in this movie, and then the final showdown truly is a Grand Duel. This was in no small part due to a combination of the cinematography, the editing, and a beautiful score.

This one, I imagine, I can watch a number of times. It has all the sweep and circumstance that the first film lacked. Despite the fact that it certainly has more flaws than the first film. For instance, when the Saxon brothers (the villains) murder all these peasant-like figures from the town, I didn't exactly feel that bad. Sure it was a horrific scene...but, I wasn't sure who they were. Somehow they were tied into our young outlaw hero, but I was never quite sure how. Yet, it wasn't enough to totally distract from the rest of the movie.

If anything was distracting, it was Adam Saxon of the villainous trio of Saxon brothers. Ah, Adam. He's merely another in a long line of crazed, depraved, pervert killers. Now, that little description I gave is usually interpreted as homosexual, and certainly that's what's implied. However, of the multitude of gay men I've dealt with, none of them have been THAT crazed, depraved, or psychotic...well, no more or less than most people...and NONE have been master gunslingers or master swordsmen. In this case it's a gunslinger, but I mention swordsmen because I've seen a plethora of villains like these in samurai films, swashbucklers, etc. He's distracting because he seems so odd, and I can't help but wonder how they came to arrive at that type of character. Well, I have a few literary and historical hints...but I don't have time to delve into them now. In any event, just like the completely fey representations of gay men on TV and in the movies, it would take you only a second to realize that this is no accurate representation...and certainly couldn't even be called a stereotype. (Hmmm, I never thought I'd be worried about generalizations in the opposite direction...I guess I can only hope that the cast of Cruising doesn't show up to prove me wrong about that level of depravity.)

In the end, all I can say is that this was the kind of movie that sucked me into Spaghetti Westerns in the first place. I'm always wary about how much I wildly recommend some of these movies. I know I'm not the only one with a love for them out there, but I'm always careful when trying to figure out if I'm being blinded by fan devotion. It's kinda like how all comic book dorks will see, often multiple times, any comic book movie no matter how piss-poor it is (Hey! I've seen you buying the Corman Fantastic Four movie...and I know a few of you still have the Dolph Lundgren rendition of The Punisher.) So, I'm not sure that I can say this was a great movie for those unfamiliar with the genre...but it has definitely made my list.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

"Big O..? You're Sick!"
America's...ahem...answer to James Bond

Ok. We interrupt the crushing wait of the second Lee Van Cleef double feature review (...I watched one...but not the other yet...) to bring you a review of...well, something else.

I believe it was in my review of Temptress of a Thousand Faces or perhaps Angel with Iron Fists (Did I review that one?) that I may have mentioned my growing love for the James Bond knock-offs from around the world in the 60's. The funniest thing about them is that even the best with comparable budgets still fall far short of the mark. Was it Connery? Was it 'Cubby' Broccoli? Was it Fleming's source material?

Actually, I feel I have to answer that in a way before I go on. Part of it, I think was Connery. Few of the Bond knock-offs feature an actor with comparable charisma who can be taken seriously as an action star, a lover, and a wit. He had the looks, the style and the growl. Second, I think it was also producer Broccoli who was already a firmly established professional in Hollywood, and who showed an obvious love for the series which he worked on for 30 years. As for Fleming's source material, it's a tougher call. I've only read Goldfinger, but from what I understand, nearly every Bond movie was quite a departure from the source material; however, I believe it was the considerable amount of work and the imaginative nature of it that the filmmakers were able to create one of the most successful film franchises of all time.

The knock-offs however lack most of's review on the other hand, seems like it could've made it there...or at least come a lot closer. But don't let that fool you, it's still a good watch.

The Silencers (1966, d. Phil Karlson)

The Story: Photographer/Playboy Matt Helm is called back into espionage action when a leader of the nefarious Big O plans release the poisonous fallout from an underground nuclear test.

The Review: Now without doing a pesky thing research, in some respects I can't tell if this is honestly mean to be a parody or not. Most of the reviews or mentions one finds of this flick on-line refers to it as a parody, but having seen it now I'm not entirely sure. In fact, in many respects, I think the tone of the film could be ascribed in part to the stuido and it's star.

Lemme make my argument.

In a similar fashion, James Coburn's Flint vehicles often get called parodies of the spy-flick genre, but I don't believe they were. I think it was a lack of control in the humor department. It was the desire to give into the Swingin' Sixties Beach Party movie vibe, and camp it up...just a little too much. For one thing, Coburn plays it straight, and there's no nodding or winking at the camera. Plus, it has all the usual elements of a Bond moive, only it would appear that everyone making the movie thought that the only way to beat Bond was to go farther with it. But, is over-the-top or more over-the-top a crime? Considering that none of the super-spy flicks, at least the early ones, ever had anything to do with real Cold War threats, the tone fits the total comic book nature of the beast. It just got turned up too high.

Hell, Marvel comic's superspy, Nick Fury, fought more Russians than any of his movie counterparts did.

Matt Helm, as envisioned by his creator Donald Hamilton, is a fairly dark character. He's a man of action, an antihero whose moral code makes him a valiant warrior but also a cold hearted killer. Now take a moment, read back over that description, and tell me honestly if Dean Martin is the first person that comes to mind. So if you cast Dino, can you keep the movie true to what it was supposed to be at least as far being an adaptation of the novel? (After all, though the Bond movies leave the source material, they still hold true in ways to tone and character.) The book version Matt Helm was a photographer, but the movie version Matt Helm...well, he has to be a Playboy-type photographer. (Maybe this movie should've been made by Russ Meyer...a marriage of form and function.) So is it spoof, or is it character vs. actor?

In any event, let's see what we've got left.

I'm gonna go ahead and confess that any movie whose primary concern is moving it's protagonist from one hot 60's babe to another while at the same time blowing things up that threaten truth, justice and the American way...well, it's my kind of movie. Note I said 60's babes. Andy Sidaris movies don't count. (Ok, Ok...I like those too...but for different reasons...actually similar terms of cheese...) So in other words, this movie was a jackpot of sorts.

The story is fairly thin. There's a threat to the U.S. There is a big bad villainous consipiracy. Do you need to know more than that? What the movie has instead is the truckload. Dean Martin spends nearly the entire run of the movie spitting out one-liners that range from good laughs to the nearly painful. Now, you can't say the movie is a character study, because it's not exactly an in-depth study of Matt Helm, nor does it waste any time delving into anyone else. It's more like a movie of archetypes, characters we already sort of recognize so the filmmakers don't have to say more about them. We've covered Matt Helm, but Daliah Lavi is the dark femme fatale, and Stella Stevens is the ditzy sidekick.

Then there's Victor Buono, the main bad guy, who is referred to as Tung-Tze. I assume he was meant to be Asian (and if you see him, you'll know why I say "assume"). Now You Only Live Twice may have contained the silliest Asian make-up job on a white guy (turning Sean Connery "Japanese"), but Tung-Tze...hmm...well, it's not even fair to compare them. At least they were trying on Connery, on Buono they put some dark eye-liner and stopped. It's not even in the same ballpark. And though I've found Buono entertaining in other roles, his sort of shrill distinctly non-Asian accent was for the most part anything but threatening. That's not to say it was bad. It certainly fit in with the rest of the movie. It just wasn't terribly all.

Which leads me to the funniest aspect of the movie: Do we care? Do we care that Lavi turns out to be the enemy agent, Cowboy? Do we care that Matt's going to be melted by what was perhaps the funniest early interpretation of a laser I've ever seen? Do we really care if the Big O detonates the missle freeing the underground fallout (is that an oxymoron?)? The answer is...well, no. Did that stop me from enjoying the hell out of this movie? Again, the answer is no. Was it a good movie? No. Was it enjoyable? Yes. Do you see where I'm going with this?

To be fair, maybe this movie is only as enjoyable as it is because of hindsight. Thirty years later and it's sort of funny to watch nearly every character light up a cigarette every five seconds. This particularly funny when looking at the efforts of anti-smoking lobbyists over the past few years when you don't have nearly the volume of smokers on screen. Nothing, however, nothing beats watching Dino and Stella having a drinking contest while driving! Driving! And we won't even get me started on the...well, I wouldn't call them mysognistic tones (Ok, there is the dress ripping scene)...or even chauvanistic tones exactly...but something says that your average feminist would not go in for Dino's almost constant carousing with all too willing female companions. But in this day and age, it sure is fun to watch!

Now, most importantly: Do I recommend it?

Hmmm, that's a matter of debate. If you're looking for Bond, you're going to be let down. And though Austin Powers was more obviously inspired by Matt Helm than Bond or Flint, you're not going to exactly find that kind of humor either. Certainly, if you were old enough to have seen the movie in it's initial release, you may or may not see what I find so funny and/or entertaining about it in the first place. You have to take it for what it is. It's a product of it's time, star, and studio in much the same way as say Indiana Jones (not that there's any comparing the two in terms of quality).

Basically, a good rule of thumb is: If you can enjoy Death Race 2000, Gamera Vs. Guiron, and Santa Clause Conquers the Martians then you can certainly enjoy The Silencers. I say that because I enjoy all of those movies.

Besides which, I'm halfway through Muderer's Row the 2nd Matt Helm adventure. So far it's been worth it for Ann-Margret (who I'm also working with currently) and a character I just refer to as 1/4 Destro. You can figure that out for yourself.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Man With The Gunsight Eyes Comes to Kill!
...and no, I don't mean Col. Steve Austin...

I came across a site this morning that clenched the subject of this post. I don't recall the name of it off the top of my head, but it was a search engine for cemeteries. Type in a name, find your dead relatives, favorite passed musicians, and your dearly departed Hollywood stars. It's creepy....and all too familiar to the wacky world wide web. I should mention that you could leave flowers and messages for those on record. Now, I've lost a deeply loved sister and a close grandparent in my time on Earth, and I've only visited their graves maybe once since their passing. So...I'm not sure that online "bereavement" qualifies as healthy, much less sane.

Suddenly, a fella carrying around a 20-sided die doesn't seem all that dorky...well, until he starts talking about his +3 Fighting Strength Warrior with a +2 halberd...

Anyhow. Combine that with my double-header the last time around. I decided to expand to a four-for-all...then realized that I hadn't watched the other half of my quadruple header. Not knowing when I'll get around to it, we're back down to a two-fer. (I shall return with the other half.)

All of this because I was shown where a certain favorite axtor was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, in sunny southern California.

It's (gonna be) a Lee Van Cleef spectacular!

Sabata (aka. Ehi Amico...C'è Sabata, Hai Chiuso! 1969, d. Gianfranco Parolini)

The Story: Master Gunslinger Sabata enlists the help of a loudmouth homeless veteran and a high-flying mute Indian in his quest to unravel a plot by several pillars of a Western community to buy up land that the coming railroad will be built upon.

Return of Sabata (aka. È Tornato Sabata...Hai Chiuso un'Altra Volta 1971, d. Gianfranco Parolini)

The Story: Sabata sets up shop in a town whose benefactor for town improvement may actually be its greatest robber baron.

The Review: Let's just get two things out of the way right off the bat, shall we?

For one thing, I am very aware of the existence of Adios, Sabata (aka. Indio Black, 1971 d. G. Parolini) which stars Yul Brynner and much of the same cast as the other two films. I watched it at the same time as the other two. It came in a box set together. Two important details however made me decide to leave it out: 1) Like many spaghettis, it became a Sabata movie to cash in despite the obvious difference in leading men (which went vice versa in the The Magnificent Seven franchise), and 2) which is repetetive, but Yul Brynner (though very very cool) is not Lee Van Cleef.

The second thing, is that I'm still not entirley sure what the hell is with Aldo Canti who plays the crazy acrobat character in all three films. Well, not so much with him, as he was supposedly gunned down by mobsters in the early 80's. More along the lines of: What the hell is this acrobat doing bouncing around the screen in a spaghetti western? Thing is, this wasn't a phenomena limited to spaghettis. Having seen the bizarre trailers for any of a number of different Italian genre movies, I know that I've seen this weird spring board flipping around crap in several different genres. It's almost always the same with someone dropping from a height onto a well hidden trampoline and then flipping through the air to attack, to enter a building stealthily, etc. I just don't get it. It looks weird and...well, early bad wire work in martial arts movies. But where wires eventually worked, you can tell that this craze was never going to catch on.

Ok. Ok. I'll admit that it comes across cleverly in a couple of places, but it still looks illogical...and kinda dumb. It did, however, just needed to be stated up front. If anyone reading this watched these movies based on my recommendation, and I didn't mention that. I can imagine, that within 20 minutes of putting the disk in they would be saying something along the lines of "What the hell is this?" Now it's well over time to move on.

Now, if there's one signifier about many spaghettis, it is the frequent reuse of things that worked in other films or things that were cool. Gianfranco Parolini, the director of the Sabata films, also had a hand in creating another Spaghetti fave, Sartana (played by Gianni Garko...and once by George Hilton [yick!].). He only helmed the first film, but both Sartana and Sabata are sleuthing gunslingers who have a penchant for gadgets (and so do the villains). Now, I've reviewed a couple of Sartana films in these pages, and I have to say that Giuliano Carnimeo who made the rest of the Sartana films definitely created a more realized character with more ironed out mysteries. The difference between the two series though would be that while Sartana had better developed plots, Sabata has higher production values...well, the first one for sure. The one thing neither series failed on though was casting for the iconic leads.

Lee Van Cleef was quoted once as telling his mother that nothing could've been more fortunate than his being born with beady eyes. How true. Lee's hawk-like appearance goes a long way to establish his gentleman killer character. As this set of mysteries doesn't involve any forensic pathology, one needs a man whose sharp-pointed eyes seem to peel through the other characters giving him all the information he needs. Lee had this in spades. Van Cleef also telegraphs the confident strut of a man who knows he can kill you with a glance, who can take a casino for everything it's worth, and who can woo every lady in the room without a word. The only way to explain the importance of this is to see the film because you need exactly that character to suspend your disbelief when he repeatedly demonstrates a preternatural skill to be in the right place at the right time almost every time.

Now the rest of the cast in both films is largely filled by spaghetti regulars. Of standout note in both films is Ignazio Spalla who plays the big burly and surly loudmouth sidekick (a role often inhabited by Bud Spencer, or Mario Brega). Spalla has a natural charm and on screen charisma that keeps his over-the-top blustering fun instead of tedious. We won't cover Canti again, who sort of plays the sidekick to sidekick Spalla in both films. And if you've enjoyed seeing the actors who play the villains dying in nasty ways in other'll enjoy them dying nasty deaths here as well. Though it is a detraction to the second film, that no one stands out particularly well as a villain as more time is spent digging out the shady plan than dealing with him directly until well over half way into the movie.

I can't get away from the character point without mentioning one of my personal genre favorites, William Berger, who plays Banjo in the first film. Banjo's is one of those great characters who walks that fine line between being on the side of good or the side of bad and you never can quite tell which way he'll turn. Now, in a genre populated almost exclusively by antiheroes, it definitely says something if you can stand out in such a role. Berger, whom I've loved in nearly every movie I've seen him in, plays it just right though he is obviously more a character of the 1960's than of the Wild West as the cynical musician lothario with a past. Unfortunately, though there is tension thick enough to cut with a knife between Van Cleef and Berger, Banjo is never quite developed enough to be one of the greats. This ends up being a letdown to the movie as a whole as the choices and plays Banjo makes spur the plot on more and more as the story moves along.

Parolini's direction is brisk and fun, and he keeps the action rolling along at a decent clip. What seems to fail him more than anything is the story, which in both films just seems to lack the right amount of development and in some cases coherency that would make them at least solid good movies if not great ones. In most ways, though the gunslinging detective of sorts comes off as fresh, many of the other elements are boilerplate, but like I said, not tied together well enough to be a totally solid genre effort. The reason I went at some lengths to go over the cast is that they keep the film engaging more than anything else. Van Cleef's banter, Spalla's bravado, and, in the first film, Banjo's moody strut make the effort well worth watching. The frequent, and often well staged gunfights, don't hurt either.

In all, the first film is superior to the second film in many ways, but both are very watchable. I'm not sure if these would win any fans to the genre who had seen no other examples, but they are definitely in a the upper half. I would actually recommend Garko's Sartana over Sabata, but I don't want that to detract from Van Cleef. After all, the decision to write this review came from a link to Lee Van Cleef's grave. If I could, I'd go back in time just to shake hands with him. I enjoy watching him work, and these movies are a good example of his skill and charisma. Unfortunately, too many of the important elements of good film making don't quite add up enough around him.