‘Son of a crippled crow, how did you get here?’
A bandit becomes disillusioned with the criminal life and leaves his band of outlaws to go straight. He takes a job as Sheriff in a remote town but soon becomes involved in a desperate race for buried treasure. A race that soon involves his former colleagues and a villainous priest…
Although rightly celebrated now as a master of the macabre, Italian film director Mario Bava worked in other genres, and we find him here tackling a Spaghetti Western with a healthy dash of comedy. It was his third trip out West, although his previous two outings had been fashioned far more after the classic Hollywood template.
Handsome outlaw Roy Colt (Brett Halsey) is fed up with the hand to mouth existence of the outlaw life. After a friendly dust-up with his main partner, Winchester Jack (Charles Southwood), he quits his crew, heading for a respectable life and a steadier income. Riding into a nearby town, he saves old man Samuel (Giorgio Gargiullo) from the attentions of a gunman in the local saloon and is offered the tin star. However, Gargiullo was targeted because he has a map showing the location of buried treasure in the desert, and law enforcement suddenly starts to look like a poor career choice.
Meanwhile, Southwood and his boys liberate Native American squaw Manila (Marilù Tolo) from two bounty hunters taking her back to town to face the music after killing a man. Southwood’s motivations aren’t selfless, of course, but the canny Tolo has both money and matrimony on her mind. An attempted stagecoach robbery brings Halsey and Southwood together again, and they join forces to find Gargiullo’s treasure. Unfortunately, its existence isn’t a secret, and local kingpin, The Reverend (Teodoro Corrà), has his own plans for the booty.
All those familiar with Bava’s work as a filmmaker are probably aware that comedy was not the director’s forte. Science-fiction spoof ‘Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs’ (1966) is almost universally regarded as his poorest film, and sex-comedy ‘Four Times That Night’ (1971) is not well-regarded either. On the plus side, his technical skills and compositional flair are fully present and correct. Under the Maestro’s careful eye, the landscape is ravishing, and the scenes shot in the early morning desert have such a forceful quality that it’s almost possible to feel the cold air and the dirt beneath the actor’s feet. Furthermore, he uses his celebrated optical trickery to place some tall rocky formations on the skyline towards the end of the film, evoking a feeling of Monument Valley, the most famous of Hollywood’s Old West locations.
Unfortunately, beauty of composition, shot selection and graceful camera moves are not the primary requisites for delivering laughter. The director was saddled with a script by Mario Di Nardo, who had also penned Bava’s previous project ‘Five Dolls For An August Moon’ (1970). By all accounts, it was a serious drama but, once again, to say that Bava did not like Di Nardo’s work was an understatement. Rather than follow the screenplay, he added jokes and encouraged the cast to improvise. What eventually reached the screen was largely a shapeless, rambling tale that struggles to focus or achieve a consistent comedic tone.
The villainous Corrà embraces these funnies with some enthusiasm, but the rest of the cast doesn’t share his broad approach, so there’s a significant tonal clash every time he appears. Tolo handles the material to the best advantage of the other principals, even if the Rome-born actress could only pass for Native American in some weird, alternate universe. Halsey looks the part but brings little else to the table, and Southwood’s lack of charisma probably explains why he only had a short screen career.
Perhaps wisely, Bava never ventured into the West again, although his two other stabs at the genre, ‘The Road To Fort Alamo’ (1964) and ‘Savage Gringo’ (1966), are far more coherent and effective. It seems fair to suggest that the decision to throw out the original script at the last minute and aim for the funny bone was not helpful. Improvised comedy can be funny, of course, but it isn’t easy to pull off in the context of a full-length feature film. Several of the cast had already worked with Bava, which may have helped create an on-set atmosphere that encouraged the director’s decision.
Halsey was an American whose screen career initially began at Universal in the early 1950s when he was signed as a contract player. By the end of the decade, he’d graduated to featured roles in b-movies such as ‘Return of the Fly’ (1959) and ‘The Atomic Submarine’ (1959), as well as regular guest slots on Network TV shows. Relocation to Europe in the early 1960s led to initial roles in sword and sandal pictures and historical dramas before he diversified into other genres, including the Spaghetti Western and Eurospy. After starring in Bava’s ‘Four Times That Night’ (1971), he returned to the United States and did a great deal of television work. He also had a significant role in Luigi Cozzi’s trash fire Euro-Horror ‘The Black Cat’ (1989) and made a supporting appearance in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather Part III’ (1990).
Like so many Italian actors of the period, Tolo’s credits reflect the popular trends of the local industry, her career beginning in Peplum subjects like ‘Maciste, gladiatore di Sparta’ (1964) and ‘Messalina vs The Son of Hercules/L’ultimo gladiatore’ (1964). Once Bond eclipsed the Muscleman as the screen hero of choice, she graduated to the Eurospy arena, running around the glamorous capitals of Europe in vehicles like ‘Espionage In Lisbon’ (1965) and ‘Judoka-Secret Agent’ (1966). Inevitably, she appeared in some Spaghetti Westerns and a handful of Giallo films, such as ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972). Outside of genre cinema, there were roles in more prestigious, mainstream projects including Vittorio de Sica’s ‘Marriage Italian Style/Matrimonio all’italiana’ (1964), Luchino Visconti’s segment of ‘The Witches’ (1967) and she featured significantly in Edward Dmytryk’s ‘Bluebeard’ (1972) which starred Richard Burton. She retired from the screen in 1985.
Bava’s technical skills shine as usual, but the resulting film is a patchy, unsatisfying comedy-Western.