Reviewed by Lee Broughton
The dynamic but humorous onscreen antagonisms that developed between Terence Hill and Bud Spencer during Guiseppe Colizzi's Cat Stevens and Hutch Bessy trilogy greatly informed the subsequent development of the Trinity and Bambino characters that the pair portrayed in E.B. Clucher's They Call Me Trinity and Trinity is Still My Name. The Italian public's love for these bickering Spaghetti Western tough guys had a big influence on the kind of characters that Hill and Spencer would play in their subsequent films, regardless of their genre. Dark-haired, bearded and barrel-chested, a typical Bud Spencer character tends to be a level-headed hulk who just wants a quiet life. But a quiet life needs financing and his characters aren't above indulging in a touch of petty crime in order to get the ready cash they need. Reluctant heroes who possess a strong sense of self-preservation, Spencer's characters often dream about carefully amassing enough money to finance an early retirement. Terence Hill's blonde, slender and agile characters are usually the bane of Spencer's characters' lives. Sometimes lazy but always mischievous and reckless, Hill's show-off characters usually possess a desire to effect good deeds or a weakness for subscribing to flawed money-making schemes that ultimately prompt the need for heroic acts from Spencer's characters, who generally wind up giving away or losing whatever money they have managed to save for their early retirement fund.
But the box office success of the Trinity films (Trinity is Still My Name overtook Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More to become the highest grossing Spaghetti Western inside Italy) also meant that Trinity and Bambino's influence was felt throughout Italian popular cinema in general: a steady number of cash-in films that featured similar looking duos caught up in antagonistic Spencer/Hill-like relationships and situations appeared in Italy throughout the 1970s and beyond. Released in 1972, Michele Lupo's Ben and Charlie is one such film. But superior production values put this charming, involving and affecting Spaghetti Western well ahead of the rest of the cash-in pack.
Charlie (George Eastman) patiently waits outside of a Mexican prison so that he can give his soon-to-be-released ex-partner Ben (Giuliano Gemma) the beating he deserves for losing his savings in a failed cattle rustling scam. With the beating accomplished, Charlie heads West while ordering Ben to head East. But fate brings the duo together again and before they know it they have inadvertently become bank robbers. When the duo are joined by a disillusioned bank clerk, 'Three Percent' Smith (Vittorio Congia), the authorities send a hard-nosed Pinkerton agent, Hawkins (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), after them. The trio are all set to retire when three real desperadoes (Giovanni Pazzafini, Remo Capitani and Luciano Lorcas) force their way into the gang and intimidate them into pursuing further illegal activities. Now operating completely out of their depth, it can only be a matter of time before Hawkins catches up with Ben and Charlie.
In terms of English and American cinema-goers, George Eastman (AKA Luigi Montefiori of Django Shoots First) is probably best known for his role as 'Baby Doll', Bud Spencer's giant-but-taciturn housekeeper-cum-apprentice in Giuseppe (Ace High) Colizzi's Boot Hill. So it's kind of appropriate that he's playing the Spencer-ish half of the duo featured here. He's slimmer than Spencer but his height and his black hair and beard put him in good stead. When a saloon fist-fight erupts, Eastman's Charlie has just the strength and stature needed to send his opponents flying through the air comic book style. His partner here is genre stalwart Giuliano Gemma (Day of Anger, The Man From Nowhere, The Leopard). With his hair dyed blonde-ish, Gemma actually looks just like Terence Hill in a couple of long shots where he's seen wearing a dirty and threadbare Trinity-style shirt. Interestingly, Gemma was later teamed with Bud Spencer in E.B. Clucher's 1930s gangster spoof, Even Angels Eat Beans. Gemma was famous for his matinee idol looks and the ebullient and jokey approach that he employed when bringing his genre characters to life. But his performance here is remarkably restrained and uncharacteristically measured and he is able to bring a quiet but impressive sense of desperation and pathos to the character of Ben. For all of it's pretensions to be a Spencer/Hill-like comedy adventure, Ben and Charlie's content is really much darker and more serious than the Trinity films and their imitators.
When the duo split up we get to see Ben travelling the West, working small-time but ill-fated gambling scams as he goes from town to town. By the time that he reaches the fair at Blue Hill he's so hungry that he has to enter a desperate sack race which rewards its winner with a basket full of food. The superbly observed and extras-packed sequence that follows, which must surely have had some influence on the similar sequence that appears in Tonino Valerii's My Name is Nobody, simply has Ben touring the fair's wondrous attractions while he hungrily munches on his food. It's in the Blue Hill saloon that Ben and Charlie accidentally find themselves in the same poker game and when they both turn up four aces all hell breaks loose. A well choreographed but fairly silly bar room brawl ensues but it works because it is kept mercifully short by genre standards. And that is perhaps this film's greatest strength: nothing is allowed to overstay its welcome. There are a number of generic comedy Spaghetti Western cliches present here but they don't grate or bore the viewer because director Michele Lupo works hard to ensure that they are not allowed to become giddy or overly distracting spectacles that adversely affect the film's pace or narrative development.
One good example of Lupo's measured approach is a great sequence where Ben bumps into his former fiancee Sarah (Marisa Mell of Danger: Diabolik), a stunningly beautiful but world-weary prostitute who Ben shamefully ditched at the altar. He's surprised to find her dressed in really fine clothes but her glamorous external appearance doesn't reflect real success or inner happiness: Sarah tells Ben that she is still forced to earn a living as a prostitute before observing that he is still a broken down bum who is still running away from himself. Her words prompt Ben to desperately try to articulate how he feels inside: "It's like a promissory note that reads 'Ben Bellow's got the right to be free, rich and happy', and I've got to find the beggar who signed that thing and make him give me what's coming to me." A belief in the tenets of democracy tells Ben that technically he has the right to expect and achieve what he wants from life. But in reality his placement and status in society work to automatically deny him any realistic hope of exercising that right.
Just when we think that Lupo might keep Sarah around in order to effect some kind of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid parody, her stage coach arrives and she makes to depart. The pair's parting exchanges make it clear that they both still love each other deeply but we are left feeling that they will probably never meet again. Charlie secretly observes part of their conversation in a manner similar to Blondie's observation of Tuco's reunion with his brother in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and he's moved enough to allow Ben to tag along with him to the next town. It's a surprisingly touching little sequence that is underscored by some suitably emotive music.
The meeting with Sarah really brings Ben's frustrations to a head. When he and Charlie hit Red Rock, Ben robs the gunsmith (in what amounts to an affectionate re-run of Tuco's similar endeavour in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) before spontaneously robbing the bank. Nobody gets hurt during the robbery: Ben's trick-shooting skills have most witnesses dodging falling shop signs and exploding water jugs or getting caught up in contracting umbrellas, etc. But things get a lot more serious for the duo when Aldo Sambrell's sheriff Walker pursues them with a vicious posse. Walker is a corrupt lawman and by the time that Ben and Charlie have escaped from his clutches they are penniless again. Since they are still 'wanted' men, Ben agrees to pull off a carefully planned bank job that will effectively allow the pair to retire. It's on this job that the duo pick up 'Three Percent' Smith.
Having tried to find success and happiness through regular and honest employment, Smith is the polar opposite of Ben in many ways but the pair both share the same frustrations concerning their diminished lot in life. A little man who has devoted the best years of his life to his work, Smith remains a lowly and undervalued employee even though he's the one person who ensures that the bank where he works functions as a profitable financial institution. The only reward that he receives for his hard work and expertise is admonishments and criticism from his ungrateful silly-ass superiors. Crushed by the constraints of his unrewarding 9 to 5 existence and trapped by the protective bars that he works behind, Smith throws down his pen and seeks freedom by joining up with Ben and Charlie.
But the robbery, their encounter with Walker and the duo's earlier theft of a carriage and clothing from a passing clergyman results in a Pinkerton agent, Hawkins (Giacomo Rossi Stuart of The Last Man on Earth), being ordered to track them down. Hawkins notes that, "within one week these two young men have made a shambles of this state's economic, ecclesiastic and executive power." Consequently the powers that be regard Ben and Charlie's actions as real threats to the status quo and they want the duo dead, whatever the cost. Ben and Charlie's accidental but seemingly unstoppable spiral into ever more serious criminal activities is quite similar to that of the two lead characters in Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise. And Hawkins is very much like Harvey Keitel's Hal Slocumb character from the same film: past experience tells him that Ben and Charlie aren't regular criminals but, unlike Slocumb, Hawkins is unswervingly loyal to the state and he mercilessly intends taking Ben and Charlie out by fair means or foul. He's the kind of hard-nosed, tough-cookie lawman that would be right at home in a Sam Peckinpah film. When a local sheriff observes that the irresponsibly approximate nature of the sketched portraits that Hawkins has placed on Ben and Charlie's nameless wanted posters will result in bounty killers carrying a lot of innocent cowhands into town, Hawkins sternly replies, "the important thing is that those two are among them." When Ben is forced to allow three real villains to join the gang, the film's narrative becomes a kind of cat and mouse chase which leads to an action-packed gun-battle of a finale.
Ben and Charlie possesses a very knowing ambience that gives it a kind of post-modern, 'end of genre' or even 'post-genre' feel: it actually feels like the show was produced around 1976/77. There's some great acting on display here and the large number of familiar genre faces present in quite sizeable and interesting roles (Roberto Camardiel (Django Kill) pops up near the film's end as a deranged drunken sheriff) makes the movie play like an affectionate 'all-star' tribute to the genre itself. But the most remarkable thing about this show is the uncanny way that it gets its intentional mix of both light-hearted and serious subject matter perfectly balanced. There are some genuinely funny moments in this film (the Federale guards' bemused reactions to Ben and Charlie's reunion, Ben coming to Charlie's rescue dressed in a toga made from a Confederate flag and armed only with a ceremonial sword, the stylish yet playfully parodic way that Remo Capitani, Giovanni/Nello Pazzafini and Luciano Lorcas/Catenacci are introduced as the three callous villains who spoil Ben and Charlie's retirement plans, the appearance of a For a Few Dollars More-like display of trick-shooting prowess which involves shooting holes in a series of progressively smaller drinking vessels, etc). But these humorous set-pieces are offset by the film's sometimes violent and brutal edge (Charlie's beating at the hands of Walker and his men, the actions of Capitani, Pazzafini and Lorcas's bad guys, Hawkins's hateful and unforgiving attitude, etc) and its mild allegorical concern with the social and political plight of the marginalized and the overlooked. It's not often that we get to heap praise on a comedy Spaghetti Western but Ben and Charlie really is an impressive and thoroughly enjoyable treat.
If there seems to be an inordinate number of references to Sergio Leone films in this review, bear in mind that George Eastman wrote the film's script with Sergio Donati, who was one of Leone's regular script-writers. Donati has been credited in some quarters with bringing an even sense of pace and rhythm to Leone's sprawling and episodic epics and Ben and Charlie's episodic adventures here certainly seem to have had the benefit of just that kind of talent applied to them. Interestingly, Donati and Lupo would actually get to work with Bud Spencer on one of the genre's final entries, the pretty good Buddy Goes West. Ben and Charlie's other great strength is the outstanding quality of its cinematography. Cinematographer Aristide Massaccesi will be better known to most as the director Joe D'Amato. As D'Amato, Massaccesi was responsible for directing quite a number of Italian exploitation flicks but he had a reputation for being an ace cinematographer that long preceded his reputation for directing exploitation movies. Massaccesi excellent sense of composition and camera placement, and the great variety of stylish angles that every sequence is covered from, results in the production of some really good montages. The show's sets and costumes are of an excellent quality too. Gianni Ferrio (Django - Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne, I Fidanzati) hits the mark with a good soundtrack score that is really quite wide-ranging: a great opening credits song, Ennio Morricone pastiches, flamenco guitar work-outs, classical music-like doodles and jazz inflected bits and pieces are all featured here. But virtually all of Ferrio's varied musical cues, which also include an intriguing children's sing-along song that sounds like something from The Wicker Man, work a treat within the contexts that they have been placed.
Wild East have mastered this presentation from virtually pristine elements. The opening credits sequence used here has been taken from an inferior source but the picture quality of the main body of the film is excellent: it's both pin-sharp and colourful and there's virtually nothing in the way of print damage present. The disc's sound quality isn't quite as good as its picture quality but it is still very good. The disc's extra features boast an impressive image gallery that includes a fine selection of posters, lobby cards, photobustas and stills. An alternate opening credits sequence features a different song whose lyrics are sung by somebody doing a very good Bob Dylan impersonation. Also included is the trailer for another Giuliano Gemma comedy Spaghetti Western entitled Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid that looks pretty funny in a completely slapstick and over the top kind of way.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ben and Charlie rates:
Sound: Very Good -
Supplements: Image gallery, three trailers and an alternate opening credits sequence
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 22, 2005
Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson