Monday, March 13, 2017

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 5

   From dime novels to western serials, to the ‘Golden Age’ of western film, we end up in the 1960’s, where Spaghetti Westerns were ready to reinvent the whole scene. They began at the turn of the century, but the ‘real’ Spaghetti films didn’t get going until Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. With that film Spaghettis became something else. Bloody, cynical and often real eerie. They were loner pictures, boiling down the man and nature themes of the Old West into tales of betrayal, murder and revenge straight off the end of a gun.
   No, Leone wasn’t the first one to come up with that style of film, a couple pictures beat him to the punch, but he’s the one popularized it. His Dollars Trilogy cemented the standard for the ‘real’ Spaghetti Western and brought westerns as a whole to a more elegant place. A weirder place and naturally, everyone else followed.
   After Fistful, everyone had a lanky, killer-eyed hero infiltrating a gang of thieves to do some grief. After A Few Dollars More, it was music watches. After The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it was Lee Van Cleef. They all had latina spitfires and pissy old men sidekicks and sunwashed adobe buildings with the heat wobbling on the horizon. They all wanted to capture the soul of this new Old West.
   Which means what to weird westerns? Nothing and everything. No, the Spaghetti Western, or Zapata or Eurowestern or Ostern ain’t weird western. But they’re weird films. At their core, they embody a weird west atmosphere. Like photographs held underwater. You can’t quite make out the details for how the light keeps moving. Throw in Ringo Starr or some Kung Fu, it gets even weirder. 
   This, ‘cause if some film wasn’t a Dollars clone or some other interpretation of the trilogy’s themes and characters, it was a mashup of the Spaghetti with another genre. No robots or zombies, no, but they did plenty fine without.
   1967’s If You Live, Shoot! (AKA Django Kill or, in Italian, E Se Sei Vivo Spara) is one that borrowed straight from Leone’s playbook, but then heaped on the violence and supernatural undertones to produce the closest thing to a nervous breakdown ever filmed, aside from Jodorowsky’s El Topo in 1970.
   The Stranger rises from the grave after being buried by his comrades and sets out for revenge. He does this with pistols full of gold bullets, which are of course cut out of the corpses by townspeople who want the precious metal. A trio of identically clad gunmen, a crucifixion, an insane woman on fire, death by dynamite, a suicide, several torture scenes and a man turned into a gold statue, all make an appearance.
   Dynamite was real popular in these mashups, as you’ll see. 1967’s Dynamite Joe tamed his enemies using only sticks of it. No gun. It’s not tongue in cheek neither, so it plays even funnier than it sounds. Johnny Hamlet in 1968 was a combo Spaghetti Western and retelling of the Shakespeare play. This one though, ‘Hamlet’ rides off into the sunset at the end.
   1970 had They Call Me Trinity, (Trinity himself, like Eastwood’s Manco, or Nero’s Django, becoming a stock-type they’d bring back in other films) a Spaghetti-Comedy, but with some spiritual nuances. Trinity’s known as The Right Hand of the Devil, for his mythic prowess with a gun and naturally, he runs afoul of the Left Hand of the Devil, his own brother. The character would come back with a different name in 1976’s Keoma, who was a gunfighter prone to being visited by the ghost of a witch.
   Also in 1970 was Matalo!, which relied heavily on flower-child influences with its costumes and soundtrack, giving everyone medallions and fringe vests and bellbottoms as they strolled around a ghost town to psychedelic rock. Bit of an Acid Western/Spaghetti deal. Make no mistake though, it’s violent as hell, despite the counterculture flavor.
   But no reason to imply that culture when you can have it star for you. French rocker Johnny Hallyday played a hero in 1969’s The Specialists and Ringo Starr himself took a co-star role in Blindman (1971). Ringo’s the bad guy, torturing, killing and shooting the heads off snakes. Slavery, rape and the Mexican Army play against hand-cranked machine guns, marriage to a corpse and of course, dynamite.
   Then came the more obvious genre combinations. The Kung Fu Western with My Name is Shanghai Joe (1972) and The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974). A couple Samurai Westerns, with Red Sun (1972) and The Silent Stranger (1974). In the first, Charles Bronson teams up with a samurai warrior to recover a valuable sword, then Tony Anthony’s The Stranger (nothing to do with Django Kills) goes to Japan and battles machine gun wielding samurai. This is the third of four (or five) “Stranger” films and weird as it is, don’t hold a candle to the next one in the series, Get Mean (1975). Dynamite (yep), barbarians and a four-barreled shotgun. That’s all you need to know about that one.
   We barely touch on what was really going on with these films, but this is a taste. Not to mention the traditional ‘Leone-style’ Spaghettis themselves and their Zapata offshoots. Plenty weird in there, too. And we can’t forget everything going on the rest of the world.
   America had gotten wind and was certainly up to a few things itself…

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