|'); document.write(''); //-->|
It would be fair to conclude that most Spaghetti Westerns are first and foremost action films. However, a number of genre entries did make it their business to focus attention upon the psychologies of their main characters and the two films reviewed here are good examples of this trend.
At the time of its original cinema release Sergio Sollima's Face to Face (Explosive Media, PAL) was hampered by spotty distribution in English-speaking territories. However, the film remains a bona fide classic. Having enjoyed a steady growth in popularity since the early days of VHS, Face to Face is now a permanent fixture in most genre enthusiasts' Top Twenty lists.
By contrast, it seems that Albert Band's The Tramplers (Wild East, NTSC) enjoyed a fairly high profile in US cinemas during the 1960s and the film is fondly remembered by the first generation of genre fans. However, despite its big name cast, the film has been hard to find on home video until now.
When he first arrives out West, Brad Fletcher is a defiantly outspoken liberal who projects a smug air of moral superiority but he's really just as blinkered as those who he aims his disdain at. Fletcher's insistence that a shackled and dehydrated Beau Bennet should be allowed a drink of water quickly leads to the bandit killing a sheriff and escaping with Fletcher as his hostage. When Fletcher subsequently nurses the wounded Bennet back to health the outlaw realizes that he was wise to let his hostage live.
This is the first of several lessons in restraint and forward thinking that result in Bennet slowly reassessing and dispensing with the savage, indiscriminate and violent behaviour that had previously earned him his fearsome reputation. But Fletcher's attitudes are slowly changing too. He likes the sense of power that holding a gun grants him and encounters with Bennet's wider circle of associates begin to make him doubt the tangible worth of the liberal ideologies that he has built his identity around.
One such encounter is with a Southern aristocrat, Belle de Winton (Lydia Alfonsi). Fletcher thinks that he's won a moral victory when Belle agrees to use the word "servant" instead of "slave" when in his presence but she quickly denies him his moment of smugness: she defiantly states that Mr Lincoln's legislation has had no impact on her household while reminding Fletcher that her use of a different word to describe a circumstance does not alter the physical reality of that circumstance one bit.
Bennet's gang eventually head for Puerta de Fuego, an independent and free-thinking mountain community-come-refuge that is, according to Maximilian de Winton (Angel Del Pozo), populated by the "ghosts of the past. Cowboys where there are no cows, prospectors where there's no gold. The dregs of the old romantic frontier who are unable to accept the coming of the telegraph, [and] the rail roads". A surprised Fletcher notes that these ostracised survivors and renegades - whose community effectively represents a strand of genuine folk culture that the emerging forces of capitalism have failed to co-opt - are happier, freer and more alive than anybody else he has ever met before. Perversely, the power struggle that ensues between Bennet and Fletcher will threaten the very future of Puerta de Fuego and its non-conformist inhabitants.
Although it was essentially a political film, Sergio Sollima's previous Western, The Big Gundown, had much in common visually and thematically with other contemporaneous Spaghetti Westerns. With Face to Face, Sollima largely rejected the need to include generic nuances that weren't relevant to the telling of his startlingly original story. Here he constructs a very personal Western that is both serious and mature in its outlook. So much so that the show plays more like an art house feature or a marginal world cinema film at times.
Face to Face is also a great looking film at a technical level. The show's cinematography and editing is top notch while Carlo Simi's costume designs are as impressive as ever. And Ennio Morricone turns in yet another excellent soundtrack score. Parts of the score sound like a dry run for the distinctive operatic vocals and the lush orchestral stylings that Morricone employed for Once Upon a Time in the West. Indeed, ace soprano Edda Dell'Orso's vocals are really well utilized here.
The presence of three of the genre's best-loved character actors - Gian Maria Volonte (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More), Tomas Milian (The Big Gundown) and William Berger (Sabata) - has ensured that Face to Face has retained a strong fan following over the years. Volonte and Milian were both known for throwing themselves headlong into roles that were noisy, dramatic and loaded with wild theatrical gesticulations. Here Sollima effectively strait-jackets the pair and their subsequent approach works a treat.
Volonte manages to convince us that a change of climate and exposure to bad influences could slowly transform a sickly and mild-mannered professor into a physically strong and extremely callous criminal. Equally, Milian is also convincing as the pitiless criminal who slowly begins to rethink his place in the world. Bennet appears subdued but he's always alert, like a coiled spring that's ready to explode if circumstances demand it. His face is generally set in a knotted scowl-come-grimace but Milian uses ever so subtle variations of this expression to show that Bennet's devious brain is working overtime behind his grim facade.
Genre stalwart William Berger always represents good value for money. He's very good here as Charley Siringo and he gets to deliver some poignant lines. When the local authorities tell Siringo that they would like him to lead a vigilante gang's raid on Puerta de Fuego because they're sure that he'll be able to prevent undue violence and bloodshed, Siringo turns them down with the retort, "that's the kind of speech they make in Washington just before they decide to send the army out to massacre the Indians." As with The Big Gundown, a fair number of well known faces from Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy are present here in pivotal supporting roles.
The picture quality of this presentation is near enough excellent. There are one or two fine scratches and small speckles present in places but the picture remains sharp and colourful. This might be the first time that the longer Italian cut of Face to Face has been released with its English audio dub present. Some scenes in this longer version of the film were never dubbed into English so the audio switches to Italian when these scenes come around and the disc's English subtitles have to be activated.
Some restoration work has clearly been done on the film's English audio track - older presentations of the shorter version of this show invariably featured crackly and at times quite raspy soundtracks but the English dub on Explosive Media's disc is near enough excellent. The disc also features German and Italian dub tracks that are supported by English subtitles.
A second disc houses most of the presentation's extra features. Chief amongst these is Spaghetti Western Memories. This is a 50-minute show that is essentially an extended interview with Sergio Sollima that also features a number of interjections from Tomas Milian. Sollima speaks in Italian (English subtitles are provided) while Milian speaks in English.
The Tramplers' larger narrative arc contains elements that aren't often found in Spaghetti Westerns. Certainly the focus on the ins and outs of family life in the post-Civil War South and the cattle drive that Lon and Hoby undertake serve to distinguish this show from most other Italian Westerns. The cattle drive in particular plays an important narrative function here. Lon and Hoby's mother wants the two boys to leave the family home before they become as bitter and hate-filled as their father and other brothers. At the same time, Temple wants Lon and Hoby to prove their loyalty to him by killing Charley Garvey, a local settler who is courting their sister Bess (Emma Valloni).
Choosing the most peaceful option, Lon, Hoby, Charley and Bess take their cattle on a drive North and some really quite epic-looking scenes involving lots of animal wrangling follow. Most of the cattle drive footage was filmed in Argentina but this location footage is expertly integrated into the main feature in a fairly seamless manner. As such, this portion of the film plays quite convincingly and gives the impression that The Tramplers had the benefit of a decent-sized budget.
The disloyalty shown by Lon, Hoby, Bess and (before long) a further Cordeen sister, Alice (Muriel Franklin), soon drives Temple to distraction and he orders assassins to seek out and punish his children. This duly results in some pretty good action scenes. However, director Albert Band saves his best action scene for the show's finale. A subplot has the daughter (Ilaria Occhini) of a Northerner that Temple lynched returning to town on a revenge mission. Her actions result in an impressively action-packed running shoot out that sees Lon and Hoby taking on Temple, their other brothers and their extended family in a fight to the death.
This unusual but well-paced and compelling little show is quite thoughtfully plotted and well acted for the most part. Joseph Cotten is convincing as the fanatical Confederate Temple Cordeen and the lynching of a Northerner that he oversees at the start of the film makes for a pretty disturbing scene. Gordon Scott is quite commanding as Lon and James Mitchum really impresses as Hoby.
Hoby is the youngest of several Cordeen brothers and Mitchum does a great job of telegraphing how a series of bitter experiences result in Hoby undergoing a personal transformation: he starts the show as a good-natured individual who dislikes violence and ends it as a calloused and grizzled gunfighter. Genre stalwart Franco Nero's (The Brute and the Beast) pointed efforts to play diverse Western characters are often overlooked. In The Tramplers he gets to play a character who is more of an idealistic lover than a cynical fighter.
There's an obviously "psychological" element attached to some of the characters' motivations and actions here and this serves to link The Tramplers to some of the more mature US Westerns from the 1950s. But the brutality found in the film's action scenes is unmistakably that of the nascent Spaghetti Western genre. Ultimately, this mix of approaches makes for an interesting and entertaining film. Composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino supplies an effective and, at times, quite distinctive soundtrack score which employs un-generic sounding keyboards on a number of occasions.
Picture quality here falls between very good and excellent and the presentation's sound quality is excellent too. The disc's image gallery is really extensive, featuring an array of stills and promotional materials.
Face to Face rates:
The Tramplers rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.