Movies ‘Till Dawn: Eurowestern Showdown

12 a.m. – “Day of Anger” (1968, Arrow Films)

51Xx1Kdad1LA favorite among Italian Western devotees, Tonino Valerii’s “Day of Anger” is a tough, sometimes brutal parable about revenge, respect and the cost of earning and maintaining power. Giuliano Gemma (usually a bland presence, but agreeable here) is Scott, an orphan and designated whipping boy for the well-heeled but abusive residents of the town of Clifton. Scott’s fortunes take a turn for the better with the arrival of gunslinger Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef), who wins over the younger man by blasting one of his tormentors. Talby teaches Scott the tricks of the gunfighter trade before enlisting him in retrieving a fortune held by a former partner, Wild Jack (Al Mulock). The cash, however, is long gone – swindled by the pious citizens of Clifton – which sends Scott and Talby back to town to settle their respective scores. Valerii, who assisted Sergio Leone on “A Fistful of Dollars” before launching his own directorial career, keeps the pace brisk and the action ferocious, most notably during a showdown on horseback between Van Cleef and Benito Stefanelli with muzzle-loading rifles.

The constantly shifting allegiance between Van Cleef and Gemma – a notion Valerii would also explore with Leone in “My Name is Nobody” – also lends a considerable degree of suspense to the proceedings, as each violent incident redefines the men’s moral compass. “Day of Anger” isn’t as long on style and camera tricks as other European Westerns, preferring instead to focus on story and character, which should interest non-genre fans. That’s not to say that the film lacks panache – Riz Ortolani’s score (the title track is heard briefly in “Kill Bill Vol. 2”) is a guitar-and-brass blitzkrieg, and the production details, especially in regard to location and costumes, are top-notch. But as Italian westerns go – or in this case, Italian-German productions – “Day of Anger” delivers both substance and thrills, and is one of the films that fans can point to as a high-water mark of the genre. Arrow Films’ exhaustive, three-disc (one Blu-ray, two DVDs) set offers both the truncated English-language version and the original Italian cut, which restores nearly 30 minutes of footage cut from the international release. Interviews with Valerii, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (who tells great stories about Leone and Steven Spielberg) as Italian film critic Roberto Curti, as well as a barrage of international trailers, round out the terrific presentation.

1:30 a.m. – “Man, Pride and Vengeance” (1967, Blue Underground)

91Ho8kGlbBL._SL1500_Also billed (misleadingly) as “With Django Comes Death,” this Italian/West German effort draws its story from the novella “Carmen” by Prosper Mérimée – the same source material for the Bizet opera of the same name and countless other adaptations – which also informs its doomed-romantic tone. Franco Nero is top-billed as a Spanish soldier whose obsession with duplicitous gypsy Carmen (Tina Aumont) puts his career and life into a downward spiral that culminates in a disastrous gold robbery. The emphasis on emotional fireworks over gunplay, especially in the film’s first third, may prove trying for fans of Eurowestern shootouts, but “Vengeance” is eventually balanced by spasms of violence and an overall sense of impending ill fate. Performances by Nero, Aumont and Klaus Kinski, in full dangerous heel mode as Carmen’s partner in crime, are uniformly solid, as is the direction by the largely unsung Luigi Bazzoni, who crafts a tightly constructed and stylish drama with touches of classic noir and melodrama. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray includes interviews with Nero, who recounts his career in Hollywood and Europe, as well as Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”), who served as camera operator here. An informative and enthusiastic commentary track, a brace of posters, lobby cards and video art, and two trailers round out the disc.

3 a.m. – “The Stranger Returns” (1967, Warner Archive Collection)

61LSyvoAiXL._SL1000_Second entry in the offbeat and thoroughly enjoyable “Stranger” series, starring American actor Tony Anthony in the title role, a unnamed wiseacre with a knack for landing in sticky predicaments. Here, the Stranger’s theft of a murdered postal inspector’s identification puts him on the trail of bandit En Plein (former movie muscleman Dan Vadis, here looking Manson-esque), who is after a stagecoach made of solid gold. The opening moments, in which Anthony’s Stranger – who makes his appearance bearing a pink parasol and astride his horse, Pussy – witnesses a murder, relieves the corpse of its ID, is mobbed by the killers and forced to dig his own grave, and then gains the upper hand on the uglies largely sum up the tone of the picture, which could be described as a mix of the spaghetti Western’s dog-eat-dog ethics and the gleeful anarchy of (appropriotely enough) Warner Bros’ cartoons (with the Stranger sharing Bugs Bunny’s wisenheimer smarts and Daffy Duck’s talent for being abused). The result is great fun for Eurowestern fans and casual viewers alike, and is buoyed in no small part by a rousing score by Stelvio Cipriani, Marco Gugliemi as the Stranger’s lunatic, firecracker-toting sidekick, and the enigmatic Jill Banner of “Spider Baby” fame in a rare screen appearance.

Beatles/Stones manager Allen Klein’s stockholder position with MGM helped to secure release of the first two Stranger films in the United States; “A Stranger In Town” (1966) and “Stranger Returns” delivered solid box office returns for the studio, prompting all parties to swing for the fences for the next entry. However, “The Silent Stranger” (1969), which pitted the Stranger against samurai in feudal Japan, forged a rift between MGM and Klein that kept the picture out of theaters until 1977, when it was released in a severely truncated form (the studio trimmed out much of the humor in favor of action). In the interim, a fourth Stranger picture, “Get Mean,” with Anthony fighting Vikings and Moors (!) in Spain, was screened only in European theaters. Anthony and Klein also made the terrific “Blindman” (1971) with Ringo Starr, while Anthony took the solo route as star and producer of the popular 3-D adventures “Comin’ At Ya!” and “Treasure of the Four Crowns.” Klein, of course, produced Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mind-altering Westerns “El Topo” (1971) and “The Holy Mountain” (1973). The two-disc WAC set compiles the first three “Stranger” films, as well as a thoroughly out-to-lunch trailer for “Stranger Returns.”

4:30 a.m: – “White Comanche” (1967, Warner Archives Collection)

61iZB-1H0hL._SL1000_William Shatner plays twin siblings – the “good” Johnny Moon and his peyote-crazed “bad” brother, Notah – in this Spanish-lensed Western produced between the first and second season of “Star Trek.” Though frequently included in lists and compilations of the “worst movies ever” (a subjective phrase, if there ever was one), “White Comanche” isn’t particularly terrible; if anything, the film, produced by TV veteran Sam White (whose brother, Jules White, directed numerous Three Stooges shorts), is cheaply and haphazardly made, with an emphasis on delivering no-frills entertainment. The closest comparison might be one of producer A.C. Lyles’ mid-‘60s efforts for Paramount like “Law of the Lawless” (1964) or “Apache Uprising” (1965), which go through the motions of hitting the required Western story tropes with minimal effort or energy. The presence of a tired-looking Joseph Cotten, as a sheriff in reluctant cahoots with Johnny, underscores the connection to Lyles’ pictures, which were filled with former stars on the wane, like Dale Robertson and John Ireland. What makes “White Comanche” watchable is, of course, Shatner’s turn as the Moon brothers: as Johnny, he leans heavily on smoldering looks and his signature pregnant pauses, which should delight fans of the actor’s unique performing tics. He has significantly less screen time as Notah, but makes the most of his brief scenes by diving headlong into the character’s drug-addled bloodlust, which manifests itself as rabid, ceaseless rants filled with marble-mouthed Hollywood Indian dialogue (“I have promised my people you will burn in the fire!”). It’s certainly not Shatner’s most unbridled performance – that particular laurel belongs to his leisure-suited psycho swain in “Impulse” (1974) – but it’s certainly the high point of “White Comanche.” WAC’s DVD is widescreen, and looks and sounds substantially better than previous public domain presentation.

6 a.m. – “Thunder at the Border” (1966, Sony Choice Collection)

71DkCniFH5L._SL1000_The penultimate title in a long-running series of German Western adventures based on author Karl May’s novels about the Apache chief Winnetou and his white blood brother, Old Shatterhand. French actor Pierre Brice played Winnetou in 11 pictures made between 1962 and 1968, while a rotating group of English-speaking actors – former Tarzan Lex Barker, English screen hero Stewart Granger, and American B-Western star Rod Cameron – played either Shatterhand or a similar role (Old Firehand, Old Surehand). Exceptionally popular among Eastern European audiences, the Winnetou films were redubbed and retitled for American moviegoers and TV viewers, who largely found their highly romanticized notions of the noble savage in nature less engaging than the cynical and violent Italian Westerns. “Thunder at the Border” represents an attempt by the series’ producers to tap into spaghetti Western box office returns by upping the gunplay and thrills – here, Winnetou and Old Firehand (Cameron) face off against a murderous gang of horse thieves that have laid siege to a small Mexican town – and downplaying Winnetou’s ability to connect and inspire people in conflict. Brice, in fact, has considerably less screen time than in other Winnetou films, leaving Cameron and Todd Armstrong (“Jason and the Argonauts”), as a young gunfighter along for the ride, to serve as de facto heroes. Though lacking the angry cool and aggressive style of its Italian relations, “Thunder” benefits greatly from the high production values featured in all of the Winnetou pictures, most notably the stunning location scenes in Croatia’s Paklenica national park.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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