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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Bad Man's River (Blu-ray)
Bad Man's River (Blu-ray)
Kino // PG // October 6, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $22.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 1, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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American character actor Lee Van Cleef became a star of both Hollywood and, principally, European Westerns on the heels of his two epics for director Sergio Leone, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), movies that shrewdly capitalized on his strengths. Bald, wiry with pinched features and beady eyes suggesting a weasel and sporting a nose like a hawk, Van Cleef was an unlikely leading man, but his air of understated confidence, acting ability, and great screen presence could not be ignored.

Where top-billed Clint Eastwood made his "Dollars" films, returned to Hollywood and never looked back, Van Cleef remained on the Continent, starring in a batch of variable but sometimes excellent spaghettis, notably Death Rides a Horse, The Big Gundown (both 1966), Day of Anger (1967), Sabata (1969), and The Grand Duel (1972). Their success led to leading roles in a handful of Hollywood-produced Westerns, including Barquero (1970) and The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972), before the genre petered out and Van Cleef found work making guest star-type supporting appearances in other genre films, most memorably in John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981).

Some of Van Cleef's spaghettis are mediocre, but I sure wasn't prepared for the startling awfulness of Bad Man's River (1971), especially given all the talent involved. Intended as a Western comedy of double-crosses and double-double-crosses, it co-stars Gina Lollobrigida, Gianni Garko (then playing Sartana in a popular series of films) and, in the last third of the film, James Mason. Further, it was made by most of the same team behind Horror Express (1972), produced immediately after this. Horror Express is fast-paced, exciting, and unusually intelligent, much superior to the concurrent British horror movies it emulated.

By contrast, absolutely everything about Bad Man's River is terrible: the script, the direction, the performances, the sets, the special effects, and especially the music. Both Bad Man's River and Horror Express were produced by formerly blacklisted American screenwriter Bernard Gordon and directed by Spaniard Eugenio Martín (billed as "Gene Martin"). For Bad Man's River, Gordon hired longtime if clearly slumming associate Philip Yordan to write the script, wisely not rehiring him for Horror Express.

A Kino Lorber release, Bad Man's River is not, as one might expect, a title licensed from MGM. Rather, Bad Man's River was one of a handful of titles originally distributed in the U.S. during the early 1970s by Scotia International, many of which seem to have fallen into the public domain, including both Horror Express and Bad Man's River. However, licensor Ignite Films has provided Kino with a good high-def transfer sourcing very decent-looking 35mm film elements.

The movie opens with its single good joke: a Texas banker, demonstrating his supposedly impregnable bank vault, accidentally kicks a hole in the vault's floor. Underneath, Roy King (Van Cleef) and his men have been tunneling their way in.

Aboard a train bound for Mexico, femme fatale Alicia (Lollobrigida) steals King's considerable haul, but later she finances a new job, to hijack the paddleboat, the Ariel, played by a ridiculously unconvincing miniature, to travel downriver and to blow up a mission, also a miniature, serving as a base for the Mexican Army.

The $10,000 payout for that job evaporates when Alicia next proposes an even grander scheme, to steal the million bucks the Mexican Army will now have to spend buying new munitions from across the border.

Yordan's screenplay is hopelessly confusing. I never could figure out to whom Alicia was married and/or widowed to, though at various points in the story possibly King and, perhaps simultaneously, to Montero (James Mason). The British actor plays somebody with a Spanish name and speaks with an American southern drawl. The movie has so many double- and triple-crosses that by the halfway point one can't help but simply give up and beg for the picture to end.

And absolutely everything about Bad Man's River is terrible. Van Cleef is atypically hammy, Mason's Southern accent shaky. Many of the Western street exteriors are lacking set decoration, making them appear especially underdressed and almost schematic. Martin's direction, so good in Horror Express, positively stinks here. For example, he tries underscoring gags by relentlessly freeze-framing on punch lines, but the gags are never funny, and the freeze-frames only serve to stretch the interminable film even more. Even Lee Van Cleef's toupee is lousy. (Wisely, from the mid-‘60s forward, he rarely wore one.)

Most of the movie takes place on or adjacent to the Rio Grande, but the locations are all too obviously a placid lake. In wide shots, one can almost see all the way around it.

The picture's music, credited to Waldo de los Rios, is so at odds with what's onscreen that it's almost fascinating. Euro Westerns usually hired Ennio Morricone and, when he wasn't available, hired others to write Morricone-esque scores. But Bad Man's River alternates between three musical types, each debatably more inapt than the other two. Some of the time it's something like Barbershop quartet, sometimes it's rock-Power pop with a strong emphasis on driving electric guitar along the lines of Badfinger. At other times it resembles the music one might hear underscoring a corporate video describing sales figures during the fiscal year.

Spaghetti Westerns were at this point changing, shifting either toward outrageous comedies (the best of which was the Leone-produced My Name Is Nobody) or extremely dark, even apocalyptic stories (as in Four of the Apocalypse). Westerns with the premise of this movie are occasionally good, with A Big Hand for the Little Lady and Sam Whiskey being two examples, but Bad Man's River is just astoundingly bad, maybe the worst film of everyone's career except the once-talented Philip Yordan who, incredibly, went on to make movies far worse (Night Train to Terror, etc.).

Video & Audio

Kudos to Ignite Films, for at least providing decent film elements for this otherwise miserable film. Shot in 2.35:1 Franscope, Bad Man's River looks good throughout, though possibly a clean 35mm theatrical print may have been the source. The film elements, versus the transfer, have its share of imperfections, most probably inherent to the original release version, but generally the color is good and the image is sharp. The 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio (English only) is fine; no subtitles or other audio options and the disc is Region A encoded.

Extra Features

Just a trailer.

Parting Thoughts

Even Lee Van Cleef's lesser Euro Westerns tend to be fairly watchable if only for him, but Bad Man's River is downright grueling to sit through, an incredible waste of talent. Rent It.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, will be released this September.

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