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Keoma (1976)

by Steve Habrat

The spaghetti western genre can be a truly grim affair, from the shifty characters to the unflinching violence right to the decrepit towns. Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 Keoma is no different. Keoma goes a step further and early on establishes an apocalyptic atmosphere with barely any hope in sight. Despite the doom and gloom, Keoma is one of the most scenic spaghetti westerns I have seen, one that has obviously been treated with care since its release and embraces any opportunity to show off the mountainous landscape. Keoma is a must-see spaghetti western for two other unique approaches. The film is narrated almost like a Greek tragedy, the story guided along by a male and female singer that provides us with our hero Keoma’s inner thoughts and several nifty slow-motion shootouts, slowed down so we can see the victims doing a dance of death right before they hit the ground. They are vaguely evocative of the shootouts in The Wild Bunch and Thriller: A Cruel Picture in their splendor and horror.

Keoma follows a half-breed gunslinger named Keoma (Played by Franco Nero) who returns to his plague-ridden hometown after service in the Civil War. After saving a sick woman named Lisa (Played by Olga Karlatos) from a group of brutal gunslingers who are rounding up plague victims, Keoma learns that his hometown is in control of a brutal landlord named Caldwell (Played by Donald O’Brien). Making things worse, Keoma’s three brothers are looking to join forces with Caldwell and they wish to do away with Keoma. Teaming up with his father, William Shannon (Played by William Berger), and their ex-slave and servant George (Played by Woody Strode), Keoma begins trying to help the plague victims of the town, bringing in medicine, food, and a Marshall to bring law and order to the community. In the meantime, Keoma has to stand up to Caldwell and finds himself hopelessly outgunned.

Unlike other spaghetti westerns, where the characters sit around and stare at each other and mumble little snippets of dialogue (don’t take that as negative criticism, I absolutely love westerns like that), Keoma is a chattier experience and one that is much more action packed than other entries. In fact, I was truly taken aback by the extended gunfight at the climax of the film, one that lasts about twenty minutes. This is a film that is galloping along right from the windy opening scene. In such films like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, Django or even the films of Sergio Leone, the violence was sudden and short, startling the viewer with how quickly it started and how fast it ended. Keoma draws these sequences out and then proceeds to slow the violence down, exploiting it just like a good sleaze picture should. The end shoot out is at times redolent of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch crossed with Bo Arne Vibenius’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the camera glued to the waving ribbons of gore spilling out of the bullet holes of the dead. I was also impressed with the way the film has held up all these years, a clear picture, timeless acting, and expert dubbing (I point this out because these films are usually poor in the dubbing department).

Keoma packs a steely-eyed performance from the gruff Franco Nero as Keoma. Imagine if Johnny Depp had time traveled back to the 1970s, grew a thick beard, and dawned a cowboy hat. If you can make a mental image of that (I doubt that is very difficult), you have Nero’s Keoma. Keoma isn’t a man interested in money or wealth. He only sets his sights on bringing law and order to a town without any and in the process, protecting those who can’t protect themselves. He’s a far throw from Eastwood’s The Man with No Name when it comes to his morals but he is still a man who doesn’t have infinite amounts to say. Sure he speaks more than The Man with No Name, but he hates scum that has too much to say. Those who do end up meeting the blast of his double barrel shotgun. Another standout in Keoma is Woody Strode as George; a pitiful ex-slave with petrified eyes and who is consistently enduring malicious racial slurs spit at him by Caldwell’s men. He is a man who was once honorable, a man who Keoma looked up to when he was just a boy. When we meet him, he is a slouchy drinker who doesn’t stand up for himself. Your heart will break when one of Caldwell’s men walks up to him and urinates on his boots, making a fool of George even though he was just trying to do the right thing. When George finally picks up a gun (and crossbow) and joins Keoma to defend the town, you will want to stand up and cheer.

Director Castellari makes Keoma a standout with some inventive camera angles that makes the film an artful journey into the west. The opening scene has the camera sitting stationary inside an abandoned structure, mostly in the dark except for the light streaming in from a slamming screen door where we can faintly see Keoma ridding through a ghost town. The door is to the right if the screen, the camera almost trying to remain elusive and reluctant to enter the ailing world. Another scene finds the camera placed behind a piece of wood that Keoma and his father are using as target practice, the picture slowly being revealed from the holes shot into the wood. Castellari compliments that unique camerawork with a shrieking score that is the furthest thing from the jangly Ennio Morricone scores that were so popular in these films. The score is used to allow us to hear the thoughts of the characters and sometimes acts as our own inner advice to the characters. It suggests that Keoma should run away with Lisa and start a new life, fleeing the danger that is slowly closing in around them. It also narrates the tension between Keoma and his three nasty brothers, their fractured relationship told in both the score and in flashbacks that play out right before the eyes of the adult Keoma.

For fans of the spaghetti western, Keoma is a must-see for its hasty pace, drawn out action, and doomed love story all told on an apocalyptic stage. At times, the score can get a bit distracting, a nice and inimitable idea but not always as harmonizing as it should be. Another small gripe I had with the film is that the villain Caldwell is slightly brushed over and left underdeveloped. Overall, I had fun with the tragedy that is Keoma and I loved the way the film embraced rollicking action sequences. Next to Leone’s work, Keoma has aged remarkably and is easily accessible to those who are usually put off by older films like this. If you love your westerns with an unconventional touch, seek out Keoma immediately. You will not be disappointed.

Grade: B+

Keoma is available on DVD.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

by Steve Habrat

With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.

A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.

What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.

Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.

In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.

Grade: A+

A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.

Straw Dogs (1971)

by Steve Habrat

If one is to break down the subgenres of the horror genre, it can be separated into three separate groups—the horror of personality, demonic horror, and the horror of Armageddon. The first subgenre, horror of personality, can often be the most terrifying of the three subgenres because the monster is ultimately our fellow man. While Targets and Psycho are the two films that are often praised for starting this subgenre, neither chilled me like Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs. Masquerading as a drama and a thriller, Peckinpah’s growling film sits firmly as one of the most horrifying motion pictures I’ve ever sat through. It fits securely into the horror of personality subgenre and it leaves the viewer shaken for days after seeing it. Perhaps it’s the fact that a young Dustin Hoffman, an actor you would never picture in a film of this sort, gives this film its disconcerting spirit. The audience would never equate him with a role that requires him to shed his skittish nice guy roles and descend into a quivering, bug-eyed monster when his back is pushed against the wall. I’ve caught some flack for allowing this to occupy a spot on my scariest movies ever made, but I maintain that Straw Dogs is indeed a horror film. It will scare you and it will send you away locking your doors at night. And perhaps investing in a mantrap.

Director Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) follows wimpy American mathematician David Sumner (Hoffman) and his stunning wife Amy (Played by Susan George) as they move to rural England so David can peacefully work on research. Their quiet life is soon interrupted by a group of bullying locals working construction at their new home. The locals consistently poke fun at David and lust after his gorgeous wife. When David finds their beloved cat dead and hanging in their closet one evening, Amy demands that David confront the men as she suspects that they are responsible for this gruesome act (Still convinced it’s not a horror movie?). Simultaneously, the film keeps a watchful eye on Henry (Played by David Warner), a pedophile who currently walks the small town streets. The townsfolk are aware of his troubled past and consistently complain about his interaction with children. A young girl Janice seduces Henry one evening and when her brother comes calling for her, Henry accidentally kills the girl. Her father, Tom Hedden (Played by Peter Vaughan) begins a manhunt for Henry and rounds up the men who are also terrorizing David to find Henry. The two plots meet and the film ends in a sweaty, bloody, and unsettling siege on David’s home.

If you have ever seen a film from Sam Peckinpah, you understand his ability to heighten tension before an explosion of action and or violence. As an example, watch the opening moments of his famed western The Wild Bunch. Here, Peckinpah does the same thing within the first few minutes of this particular film. David goes to a local pub to purchase cigarettes and while in the pub, we meet some of the leering, ticking time bomb locals. They appear vaguely animalistic and predatory as they take giant swigs of ale (a deliberate appearance that I’m sure Peckinpah was aiming for) and we can tell they lust after violence as well as David’s wife. They are looking for a good fight. Two of them even go as far to ask David about violence in the United States. They never convey disgust or concern about the violence over seas, but hints of amusement at what David has to say. The stress on the viewer, which stems from the constant threat of a confrontation, is what builds the terror to staggering heights.

While Straw Dogs is a film about the animal within, lurking even in the most sophisticated of human beings, the film is also a commentary on territory and property (“I will not allow violence against this house!”). David is just a pup to the big dogs that prowl the town’s streets. Tom is the symbolic pact leader of the locals. One of them even goes as far to tell David “We always protect our own!” It’s a bit heavy handed at times, but it does add a chill or two near the end. Especially when David snaps from the runt into a seething predator that will not stop his defense until the last antagonist is dead and bleeding. The film also offers up a disturbing rape sequence in which Amy is rapped by two of the attackers. During the first rape, she shows glimmers of pleasure and then shrieks in terror when a second attacker mounts her. The scene suggests that the attackers are under the impression that they can claim anything and this situation rears its ugly head again during the final siege. David and one of the attackers Charlie have a savage, doglike fight for Amy. It’s bloody and ends with a death that will have you covering your eyes.

Straw Dogs will linger with you for days after you have seen it. The film packs a number of savage death sequences in which Peckinpah slows the action down and gives you a pristine view of the carnage. It’s also Hoffman’s silent slip from a rational man into a beast that will haunt your dreams. He so expertly blurs the line between sane and insane that when he attacks one of the men at the end, there is an aura of unpredictability. How we will he strike next? Trust me, wait for the scene with boiling cooking oil. It makes me cringe just replaying it. Straw Dogs is a film that forces the viewer to analyze outwardly, but the scariest trick up this film’s sleeve is the analysis that points inward. Sure, we can debate all day about the horrors lurking in the people around us, but this film will also make us stop and think about ourselves. Am I capable of something like this? Would I savagely kill or choose death at the hands of someone else? Not necessarily the easiest question in the world, is it? That is what makes Straw Dogs one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. The self-reflection it will no doubt evoke from the view. It will send you away petrified of something you can’t escape from—yourself. Grade: A

Straw Dogs is now available on Blu-ray.

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