A few years back, VCI released a quartet of Spaghetti Westerns onto DVD, one movie on one disc at a time. Cut to the present day and those four films are back, albeit this time on two DVD-9's and in one handy, fairly priced two disc collection entitled, appropriately enough, The Spaghetti Western Collection. The transfers and extras are identical to those single disc releases, so if you already own those releases this new set offers you absolutely not logical reason to upgrade, but fans of the genre who haven't already picked up these four films can now do so in one fell swoop. Here's a look...
A Bullet For Sandoval:
One of a few foreign films that Ernest Borgnine made, A Bullet For Sandoval, which was directed and co-written by Julio Buchs, is more accurately a starring vehicle for George Hilton, who plays a confederate soldier named John Warner who has just found out before heading into battle that his lady friend, Rosa (Annabella Incontrera), is pregnant with his child. Rather than head into battle, he instead makes an escape and heads to his hometown where he arrives just in time to find out that Rosa died while giving birth. Complicating matters is the fact that Rosa's father, Don Pedro Sandoval (Borgnine), holds him responsible. Sandoval never liked John even when his daughter was alive, and now that she's died, he feels nothing but hatred for the American. He sends John and his newborn grandson out of the family home and into the wilderness alone.
As John tries to care for the infant, it soon becomes obvious that he has neither the experience nor the resources available to him to do this and sadly, his son passes away. This event basically forces John into the same emotional void that Sandoval was in, and John holds Sandoval responsible for the baby's death - but more importantly, he wants revenge and so he sets out to get just that.
A grim and gritty western that sets this tone from the opening sequence in which we see a solider cut a ring off of a fallen enemies body, A Bullet For Sandoval isn't all that unique as far as its plot and storyline are concerned but it's remarkably well paced and often times so dark in tone that you can't help but appreciate it. It's a fairly violent film, though no more so than many other Spaghetti Westerns made around the same time. The violence in the film, however, is a far bit more cold blooded and realistic than a lot of similar films, some of which would take a less nihilistic approach to their subject matter.
The film makes a point with its story in that it shows how those bent on revenge can often lose sight of what matters most and simply just give into the irrationality that hatred and hotheadedness often causes. We first see this with Sandoval who unwittingly kills his own innocent grandson by sending John, who really wasn't responsible for Rosa's death at all, out into the wilderness without any way to care for the baby. While Sandoval's temperament is certainly understandable given that he's lost his daughter, his actions only serve to cause more grief. In turn, when John sets out to get his own revenge, he basically becomes the same time of person as the one he's out to get. The vicious circle is an obvious one, but the film handles this well and it mixes up tension, action, and gritty atmosphere with solid performances from both Hilton and Borgnine (who never quite goes over the top here as he is periodically apt to do) to great effect.
Any Gun Can Play:
Any early directorial offering from Enzo G. Castellari, the man who would go on to make the original Inglorious Bastards and countless other crime, western and post-nuke films during they hey day or Italian cinema, Any Gun Can Play isn't one of the best that the genre has to offer but it's a fun time killer with a good cast.
George Hilton plays a bounty hunter with no name who, in the opening sequence, mows down three very familiar looking cowboys (one looking like Franco Nero from Django, one obviously inspired by Clint Eastwood and another inspired by Lee Van Cleef). This sets the tone for the movie to follow and we know right off the bat that Castellari isn't taking anything all that seriously but is more concerned with having some fun with genre stereotypes and clichés. With that job out of the way, we learn that Hilton's next mission is to take out a man named Monetero (Gilbert Roland), a bank robber with a hefty reward on his head since his gang has just pulled off a gold heist by robbing a train.
Monetero isn't sitting as pretty as he thinks, however, as a bank man named Clayton (Ed Byrnes) is also after him, intent on getting the money back that his gang swiped from the company. As the film progresses, Hilton's 'Stranger' and Byrne's bank man find themselves in a race against one another to bring Monetero in.
Castellari's knack for pacing and for action set pieces is evident even in this early film and he mixes humor with traditional western style action really well here. The three lead performers all fit their roles quite well and while you can't ever take much of what you see too seriously, there's plenty of fun to be had with the film, particularly if you're savvy enough to catch the references that the film makes. There are a nods to the film's of Sergio Leone but also to those made by Corbucci and even Anthony Steffan's Stranger series. The film moves at a good pace despite the fact that it's over a hundred minutes long and the production values are strong. The sets look good - they're all suitably dirty and dusty looking - and the cinematography is better than average. You can't realistically call this one a classic, but that doesn't take away from its entertainment value.
The Stranger's Gundown:
Sergio Garrone's (who would later go on to make a plethora of trashy women in prison movies in the 70s and 80s) 1969 Spaghetti Western effort, Django Il Bastardo, was released in the U.S. in 1974 as The Stranger's Gundown and is widely acknowledged as the basis for Clint Eastwood's second directorial effort, High Plains Drifter.
Brazilian born Antonio De Teffe plays Django, one of a troupe of Confederate soldiers that were betrayed during the Civil War by their three commanding officers, Hawkins, Howard and Murdoch. All of the soldiers in the division are slaughtered by the Northerners and left for dead. Thirteen years later, Django, one of the soldiers from the aforementioned massacre, turns up in a small town and starts putting cross markers down with the names of those who had earlier betrayed him etched into the wood. One by one he hunts them down and exacts his own revenge on the men who may or may not have taken his life years before.
The influence of Garrone's film on Eastwood's masterpiece is undeniable, but I wouldn't go so far as to call High Plains Drifter a remake like many others have. There are quite a few differences not only in the characterizations but in the actual story as well (going into much more detail, however, would surely spoil the twists in the film for those who haven't seen it yet).
While The Stranger's Gundown is very much a low budget affair, Garrone makes the best out of what he has to work with. Gino Santini, the film's cinematographer, uses all sorts of interesting and unusual camera angles to draw you into the story, and it's interesting to note just how many times Django comes into and out of the frame simply by walking in or out from the right hand side of the picture. Adding to the spectral quality of De Teffe's Django are certain gothic touches: the use of crosses to foretell a characters death, the method of disposal Django uses for certain characters, the vengeance from beyond the grave theme that runs throughout the film, all add up to give the movie a creepy and at times, quite unsettling atmosphere that makes the film well worth seeking out not only for Spaghetti Western fans but for ghost story buffs as well.
Note: VCI has issued the US version of the film on DVD, not the Italian version. The main difference is that the scene where the confederate soldiers are killed, which is the entire reasoning behind Django's motive in the film, is presented roughly half way through the film, rather than before the credits, which is how it is presented in the Italian version, Django Il Bastardo.
Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die:
Directed by Tonino Cervi, who co-wrote the script with a young Dario Argento, 1968's Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die follows Bill Keowa (Brett Halsey) as a man recently let out of prison who was wrongly framed for killing his Indian wife. Now that he's out, he's going to find the real killer and so he hires a gang of tough mercenaries, lead by the brutish O'Bannion (Bud Spencer) and a compulsive named gambler Colt Moran (William Berger) to help him track down and hopefully kill the villainous machete wielding maniac, James Elfego (Tatsuya Nakadai).
Like A Bullet For Sandoval this film is a pretty straight forward revenge story, borrowing a little bit from The Magnificent Seven and in turn The Seven Samurai in terms of its structure and its plot development. What makes the film stand out against the countless other Spaghetti Westerns that were churned out before the trend ran its course, however, is the excellent cast. Halsey, working under the Montgomery Ford moniker for some reason, is strong as the bitter and steely eyed man out to avenge the death of his wife. He's got the scowl down properly and looks appropriately tough - we have no problem buying him in the part. Spender and Berger are great together, sharing a few humorous moments and playing to some rather hokey stereotypes but at least doing so with enthusiasm.
The real star of the show, however, is Tatsuya Nakadai, who would star in some of the best films to ever come out of Japan directed by the likes of Hideo Gosha and Akira Kurosawa. It's a bit odd seeing him in a western playing a character with a Mexican name, but he brings a dramatic physicality to the role that really helps him to make it his own, much the way that Toshiro Mifune did when cast opposite Charles Bronson in Red Sun.
If the plot is fairly rudimentary, the cinematography and score generally help to make up for it. The orchestral cues enhance the drama and the tension well and while it never hits the blissful heights of a Morricone/Leone collaboration, it still works well. The camera work does a good job of helping to rank up the tension by going for the close up when the script calls for it but never to the point where it seems like overkill. The sets and dusty European locations double well for the American west, and this is one of those films where things just come together really well. It's not the best that the genre has to offer, but it's competently made, frequently exciting, and generally very well acted.
VCI's transfers aren't going to wow you, but they're watchable enough. The Stranger's Gundownand A Bullet For Sandoval are both presented in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen while Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die is presented in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen. Any Gun Can Play is in 2.35.1 non-anamorphic widescreen, unfortunately. As far as the quality of the images is concerned, expect a fair bit of print damage and some color fading here and there. You won't notice any compression artifacts, thankfully, but some staircasing is present indicating interlacing problems. Detail is mediocre and sometimes fairly flat looking but the image is stable enough. Don't expect miracles here, there hasn't been much restorative work done to any of the films, but they are at least all presented in their original aspect ratios.
It's Dolby Digital English Mono across the board, no alternate language tracks are supplied for any of the four films, nor are any subtitles. The audio quality is on par with the video quality in that it's serviceable enough but far from exceptional. Some mild hiss is present in spots and levels fluctuate a little bit now and then but for the most part things sound okay - not great or even really good, but okay. You'll have no problems following the dialogue or understanding the performers and the defects that are present in the set are thankfully minor annoyances rather than deal breakers.
Extras are pretty light throughout the set. The Stranger's Gundown and Today We Kill... both include a few trailers for other films, while A Bullet For Sandoval and Any Gun Can Play each include their own respective theatrical trailers. Aside from that, each disc includes menus and chapter selection. That's it.
While the presentation for all four films certainly leaves room for improvement and the discs are only a hair above barebones, The Spaghetti Western Collection does collect four notable entries from the genre at a fair price. This is one of those sets you get for the love of the films, not for the sparkly transfers or encyclopedic extras. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.