Monday, April 30, 2012

Spaghetti Westerns

Spaghetti Westerns was published by Kamera Books back in 2010 and was written by Howard Hughes; no, not that Howard Hughes. The book contains an overview of the genre, a reference section for further reading, and a listing of what films movies and soundtracks have been released; but the bulk of the book is a collection of reviews of what Mr. Hughes call the best thirty-four spaghetti westerns.

The book starts out very well with a twenty-five page overview of the spaghetti western genre. This section is very informative and quite a good read. The next few sections are devoted to the movies themselves. I really like how this section was laid out. A short synopsis of the film is given followed by a page or two of background information about the film. Mr. Hughes goes into some behind the scenes information on each of the films covered and it's in this section that I found the most enjoyment. Finally, the author gives his opinion on the movie being covered. The final section of the book is the reference section which gives a listing of spaghetti western books for further reading, which movies have been released on DVD (as of the printing date of 2010), a brief listing on soundtracks and links to websites about spaghetti westerns.

For the most part, I found the film synopses to be accurate, except in a few instances where I wondered if we had watched the same movie. I also tend to agree with a lot of the author's opinions on the movies themselves, except for his harshness towards Duck You Sucker and his enjoyment for the comedy westerns sub-genre. A few of these films are covered in the book and my sentiments are quite the polar opposite of the author's, but that's to be expected in any collection of reviews. On occasion, when referring to other films in the book, the author will sometimes use an alternate title rather than the one most commonly used.

Would I recommend this book? Perhaps. If you're already a fan of the genre and have read any lengthy volumes on the subject, I would probably skip this one. However, if you're brand new to spaghetti westerns and wondering which films may be worth tracking down, then this might be for you. The only other negative aspect of this book is the steep price. The MSRP is £12.99, which is about $21 - rather pricey for a short 160 page book. If anyone is interested in picking this up for your own library, the Amazon Marketplace has used copies for as low as $1.72 plus shipping (as of this writing).

If anyone was wondering, here is a listing of what Howard Hughes calls the 34 Best Spaghetti Westerns:  

A Fistful of Dollars
One Silver Dollar
Seven Guns for the MacGregors
A Pistol For Ringo
For A Few Dollars More
The Return of Ringo
The Hills Run Red
Navajo Joe
A Stranger in Town
A Bullet for the General
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Hellbenders
The Big Gundown
Django Kill: If You Live, Shoot!
Death Rides A Horse
Face To Face
The Big Silence
Day of Anger
Cemetery Without Crosses
Once Upon A Time in the West
Today It's Me... Tomorrow You
A Professional Gun
The Price of Power
Adios Sabata
A Man Called Sledge
They Call Me Trinity
Duck You Sucker
Trinity Is Still My Name
My Name Is Nobody

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Golden Triangle

The second episode of the first season of MacGyver opens, like most of the early episodes, with an opening gambit that is reminiscent of the pre-title sequence of a James Bond film. It's the action packed end of our hero's previous mission which has no relation to the main story of our episode. MacGyver has followed a man with briefcase to a junk yard. This briefcase contains top secret Pentagon missile launch codes. He's there to sell the codes to an unnamed party and Mac's got to stop them.

Using a crane with a magnetic lift, he snatches the briefcase, and codes, and takes off. A short chase through the junk yard concludes with Mac being knocked unconscious. He awakens to find himself tied up in the back of a car that is about to be flattened. Thinking quickly, MacGyver rips off the back seat cushion, climbs into the boot and pops the trunk open with a tire iron; all without being seen by the heavies. A short forklift ride later and MacGyver has trapped the bad guys, recovered the briefcase and called in the cavalry. It sounds like a rather good start, but this opening gambit lacks any sense of excitement or danger.

Our main story opens when a highly decorated military officer assigns MacGyver the task of heading off to Burma to recover a canister of poison from a crashed plane. He only has 24 hours to find the canister and make it back to the chopper.

It's not long before Mac runs into a group of villagers who are being used as slave labor to harvest opium for General Narai, the local drug lord. It is also here where we first begin hearing some truly dreadful dialogue. With the help of a boy from the village, Mac locates the crashed plane, but the canister is missing. Worse yet, the drug lord's minions capture MacGyver who are convinced that he's a narcotics agent.

General Narai isn't happy that his slaves are taking too long to harvest his poppies and will return in five days to collect his opium, or else! While he's lecturing the villagers and being shown the weapons from the crashed plane, Mac spots the canister. But here's where Mac's luck runs out. As a warning not to cross the general, MacGyver will be staked out at the head of the trail with no food or water for the five days that Narai will be gone.

The little boy who showed Mac the plane feels badly for him and decides to steal the trusty Swiss Army Knife to help MacGyver escape - which he does. Mac sneaks back to the village and using this episode's sole MacGyverism creates a diversion which helps him recover the canister. Using a signal flare as a fuse and a life raft air pump, the boat inflates, the flare pops and a small explosion is created. Mac kicks the snot out of some thugs, blows up a jeep with another flare and the rest of the baddies run back to General Narai.

The villagers are now in turmoil as they know Narai will return and he won't be too happy with them. Some want to work harder to harvest the rest of the opium while the rest want to fight back for their freedom. MacGyver tells them to decide what they want to do as he takes off to meet the chopper. 

But MacGyver is our hero and he can't abandon the villagers to their fate. He drops off the canister and returns to the villagers who have decided to fight back. They only have a matter of hours before the drug lord will be back. Working together, Mac and the villagers set a number of booby traps for the general's troops - all of which work and the villagers manage to capture all of the general's men.

The general and his chopper are soon back, this time with mounted machine guns. Mac is able to attach a steel cable from a Jeep's winch to the helicopter and force it to land where he proceeds to punch out General Narai. It looks like Mac is in trouble when Narai pulls out a sword, but he trips and falls on it. The rein of terror is over and the villagers are now free. With only a single MacGyverism, some truly terrible dialogue, a weak opening gambit and a weak ending, this episode isn't as good as the pilot - but it's not terrible either. It's a solid early entry into the adventures of MacGver.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Six Shots or Only Five

Dirty Harry by Phillip Rock
Published by Bantam Books in December 1971 (2nd printing)

To the city of San Francisco:
I will enjoy killing one person every day until you pay me $100,000. If you agree say so within 48 hours in personal column San Francisco Chronicle and I will set up meeting. If I do not hear from you it will be my next pleasure to kill a Catholic priest or a nigger.

Magnum Force by Mel Valley
Published by Warner Books in April 1977 (4th printing)

The Deserving Dead
Gangsters at their country estates. Pimps in their El Dorados. Drug czars ringed by bodyguards. A vigilante with a deadly aim is gunning them down. He's cleaning up San Francisco, and no one can say that his victims don't deserve to die...

But who is the executioner? Who will be his next target? When will he stop killing? Dirty Harry's itching to track him down, and if no one gives him the job - he'll take it!

Magnum Force
An explosive novel based on the blockbuster Warner Bros. film starring Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry.

The Enforcer by Wesley Morgan
Published by Warner Books in 1976

San Francisco trembles when a group of terrorists lays siege to the city, planting bombs and demanding millions. Frightened officials start cracking down on suspected political militants - but Harry Callahan knows a heist when he sees it. These are hoods - and they only cause they're fighting for is the money. To end their power play, Harry will fight as dirty as they do and make sure the blood they shed will be their own.

Now a hit film from Warner Bros. starring Clint Eastwood.

Sudden Impact by Joseph C. Stinson
Published by Warner Books in December 1983

Rape and Revenge!
There he was! She had never been able to forget his face. His face - and the leering, jeering gang who had been with him enjoying her pain and humiliation as each one took his turn. Well, he wouldn't get away. He deserved to die...

This murder will be only the beginning. And Dirty Harry finds himself smack in the middle of revenge on a grand scale as he tracks the woman who is tracking the rape gang.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Gunslinger Western Collection

It's been a while since I've done one of these, it's been a while since I posted anything actually. Let's take a look at another budget label collection of spaghetti westerns. This time around it's the Gunslinger Western Collection released by Pop Flix in 2009.

The Cover Art
This four disc set comes packaged in a nice tin with a raised image of Gianni Garko from the I Am Sartana Your Angel of Death poster. The reverse features a write up for each film in the set and another piece of poster artwork, this time of Franco Nero from Massacre Time.  Strangely enough, both of those films are not in this set.

The Discs
The Gunslinger Western Collection includes four single sided dual layer discs. With each disc holding two or three movies. The cover artwork is also reproduced on each disc along with a listing of which movies appear on it.

The Menus
The menu loads after the standard FBI warning and a thirty second Pop Flix advertisement. There is a Main Menu where you can select which film you'd like to watch which leads to the film's own menu which features a four chapter stops and the option to play. I like the inclusion of the film's poster as well.

The Movies
The set contains ten movies, two or three per disc. Better yet, all of them are spaghetti westerns. Again, the plot summaries will be taken from the back cover while the reviews are from Spaghetti Westerns: The Good, the Bad and the Violent by Thomas Weisser.

Disc One
If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death (1968)
Original Title: Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte
Starring: Gianni Garko, Klaus Kinski, William Berger
Directed by: Gianfranco Parolini
Music by: Piero Piccioni
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic)
Original Runtime: 96 minutes
DVD Runtime: 95 minutes

Synopsis:  It hails bullets and rains blood when a mysterious stranger (Garko) goes up against rival gangs, shady bankers and a gatling gun over a shipment of gold! This violent film launched a highly successful run of sequels based on the character of Sartana.

Review:  This film is proof positive that Frank Kramer (Gianfranco Parolini) can make a fine movie.
Notes:  Although it's not in the correct aspect ratio, this release is a nice alternative to out of print version from Wild East.  It is certainly an improvement over the version in The Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 2: Sartana: The Complete Saga.
Run, Man, Run (1968)
Original Title: Corri, uomo, corri
Starring: Tomas Milian, Donal O'Brien, John Ireland
Directed by: Sergio Sollima
Music by: Bruno Nicolai
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)
Original Runtime: 121 minutes
DVD Runtime: 120 minutes

Synopsis:  A knife-throwing thief (Milian) must beat murderous bandits, federal agents, a bounty hunter and his own hot-blooded fiancee to a fortune in lost gold that could change the outcome of the Mexican revolution!

Review:  This is the continuing story of Cuchillo's misadventures, perhaps too episodic, against a Mexican revolution backdrop. It's another search for the lost gold film, as an uneasy alliance is eventually solidified between Cuchillo and an American opportunist named Cassidy...

Notes:  The full 121 minute version is available in another anamorphic widescreen release from Blue Underground. While the version presented here is nice, the Blue Underground disc is much better as it does not suffer from the compression issues that these budget releases do - it also has some very nice special features.
Disc Two
The Strangers Gundown (1969)
Original Title: Django il bastardo
Starring: Anthony Steffen, Rada Rassimov
Directed by: Sergio Garrone
Music by: Vasili Kojucharov & Vasco Mancuso
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)
Original Runtime: 102 minutes
DVD Runtime: 98 minutes

Synopsis: An avenging gunman (Steffen) returns from the grave to settle an old score with the traitorous Confederate officers who allowed his entire regiment to be slaughtered during a Civil War battle.

Review: This is the uncredited inspiration for Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter. It's also Sergio Sergio Garrone's very best film. Cowritten with actor Anthony Steffen, director Garrone has designed a remarkable motion picture, ranking as probably one of the all-time top ten spaghetti westerns.

Notes: Squeezing three films on this disc has hurt the quality of The Strangers Gundown. VCI Entertainment released a stand alone DVD of the film with a runtime of 98 minutes, which has gone out of print. They recently put out a double feature of The Strangers Gundown & Today We Kill... Tomorrow We Die, but this version is in the incorrect aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
I Am Sartana, Trade Your Guns For A Coffin (1970)
Original Title: C'è Sartana... vendi la pistola e comprati la bara
Starring: George Hilton, Erika Blanc, Piero Lulli
Directed by: Giuliano Carnimeo
Music by: Francesco de Mas
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: Pan & Scan
Original Runtime: 99 minutes
DVD Runtime: 92 minutes

Synopsis:  On his endless quest for gold, a gunslinging bounty hunter (Hilton) tangles with Mexican bandits, a double-crossing mining boss and a parasol-carrying dandy!

Review:  Officially, it's the last film in the Sartana series, this time without popular Gianni Garko in the lead role. George Hilton takes his place and does an admirable job considering the odds, a new face in an established vehicle.

Notes:  Wild East has released a beautiful print of this film entitled Sartana's Here... Trade Your Pistol For A Coffin as Volume 38 of their Spaghetti Western series. The film is in the correct aspect ratio, is anamorphic, has a trailer and an interview with George Hilton, but it also only runs 92 minutes.

Blindman (1971)
Original Title: Blindman
Starring: Tony Anthony, Ringo Starr
Directed by: Ferdinando Baldi
Music by: Stelvio Cipriani
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)
Original Runtime: 106 minutes
DVD Runtime: 84 minutes

Synopsis:  A sightless gunslinger (Anthony) embarks on a bloody killing spree after Mexican banditos steal the precious cargo he was to deliver to Texas miners - 50 mail order brides! Ex-Beatle Ringo Starr is impressive as one of the malicious bandits.

Review:  Obviously inspired by the Japanese blind samurai films, this movie features Tony Anthony's best acting as the sightless gunfighter...  It is truly an enjoyable picture.

Notes: There has been no release of an uncut version of this film in the US. Germany and Japan both have English friendly versions from Koch Media, Xylopho, and SPO Entertainment.

Disc Three
Keoma (1976)
Original Title: Keoma
Starring: Franco Nero, Woody Strode, William Berger
Directed by: Enzo G. Castellari
Music by: Guido & Maurizio De Angelis
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)
Original Runtime: 101 minutes
DVD Runtime: 101 minutes

Synopsis: A half-breed Indian (Nero) returns home after the Civil War to discover his town overrun by sadistic bandits and a greedy landowner. Widely considered the last great spaghetti western.

Review:  The first half is great, cryptically mystical, but then it becomes a humdrum Cain and Abel story... Franco Nero's last western for 13 years, until Django Strikes Again. This film is regarded as the best entry from director Castellari.

Notes:  Again, the Blue Underground disc is the best around sporting some very nice special features, including an audio commentary with Franco Nero.

The Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
Original Title: I Quattro dell'apocalisse
Starring: Fabio Testi, Tomas Milian
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Music by: Fabio Frizzi
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)
Original Runtime: 104 minutes
DVD Runtime: 101 minutes

Synopsis:  The sole survivors of a frontier town massacre make a desperate bid to reach the next town. But when they meet a trigger happy bandit (Milian), all their lives are changed forever!

Review:  Besides looking absolutely stunning, this multivariate film is both heavily symbolic and immensely entertaining. It's a rarity among rarities, an intelligent revenge flick, complete with one of the most satisfying vengeance endings in the spaghetti western genre. It also offers one of the very best Fabio Testi performances, plus a remarkably good one from Tomas Milian.

Notes: The Blue Underground version is uncut and includes the trailer and an interview with Fabio Testi and Tomas Milian.

Disc Four
And God Said To Cain (1969)
Original Title: E Dio disse a Caino
Starring: Klaus Kinski
Directed by: Antonio Margheriti
Music by: Carlo Savina
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic)
Original Runtime: 100 minutes
DVD Runtime: 94 minutes

Synopsis:  After enduring ten brutal years of hard labor for a crime he did not commit, a former Union officer (Kinski) has one thing on his mind - revenge. But the man who framed him is now a wealthy land baron who guards himself with 30 hired guns!

Review:  A lesser Anthony Dawson (Margheriti) film.  Especially irksome because the final twenty minutes look as though they were filmed at the bottom of a coal mine - on a moonless night.  This is remarkably uncharacteristic of Margheriti's work... He made some good westerns; this isn't one of them.

Notes:  I have not been able to find any English friendly releases that are uncut and in the correct aspect ratio. Although not very pretty, this is the best we have so far...

The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe (1973)
Original Title: Il Mio nome è Shanghai Joe
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Chen Lee, Gordon Mitchell
Directed by: Mario Caiano
Music by: Bruno Nicolai
Original Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: Pan & Scan
Original Runtime: 98 minutes
DVD Runtime: 94 minutes

Synopsis:  A Chinese immigrant (Lee) seeks a new, peaceful like in America, but instead finds racists, perverts, slavers, greedy con men and mercenaries. When provoked, the gentle mystic becomes a deadly killing machine with fists of fury that can ram through his opponents' bodies!

Review: Inspired by the success of Terence Young's Red Sun and the popular American television series Kung Fu, this is another East-meets-West western. The graphic violence sets this one apart from the others.

Notes:  The version here is still Pan & Scan, but has a longer runtime than the one in The Best of Spaghetti Westerns: In the Tradition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly collection.

White Commanche (1968)
Original Title: Comanche blanco
Starring: William Shatner, Joseph Cotten
Directed by: Gilbert Lee Kay
Music by: Jean Ledrut
Original Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
DVD Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Original Runtime: 93 minutes
DVD Runtime: 93 minutes

Synopsis: Half-breed twins (Shatner in a dual role) - one a leader of a band of Commanches, the other a member of the white man's world - face off in a bloody showdown when a violent range-war is declared!

Review: This film is William Shatner's only contribution to the spaghetti western genre.

Notes:  Any budget-priced spaghetti western collection is not complete without White Commanche. It has looked better in other collections.

Special Features
No special features here.

The Bottom Line
The selection of movies this time around is actually quite good (If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death; Keoma; Run, Man, Run; The Strangers Gundown; The Four of the Apocalypse and Blindman being the best) - with many of them being in anamorphic widescreen. Better versions can be found, but if you're interested in spaghetti westerns, you might want to pick up this set and maybe upgrade later if you like theses films. This set is actually a combination of two of their two disc sets. One is the Vigilante Western Collection and the other is also called the Gunslinger Western Collection.