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Cemetery Without Crosses

Arrow Video // Unrated // July 21, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 5, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Cemetery Without Crosses is often heralded as one of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns ever made, in stark contrast to director/lead actor Robert Hossein's interviews on this disc distancing it from the genre. It's not as if Hossein was sneering down at Italian westerns; Cemetery Without Crosses is dedicated to Sergio Leone, Leone himself directed one of the film's most memorable sequences, and Hossein would've starred in Once Upon a Time in the West if Gaumont had been more flexible with his contract. Still, Hossein's insistence that Cemetery Without Crosses neither resembles nor imitates Leone and his contemporaries is understandable; its most towering strengths -- and, arguably, its greatest disappointments -- stem from how the film shatters genre conventions.

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Stripped to its core, Cemetery Without Crosses is a tale of revenge. The film opens with a cold-blooded lynching: payback for one of the Caine brothers daring to steal from the Rogers clan. The newly-widowed Maria (Michèle Mercier) cannot let this stand, seeking out a former fiancé once renowned as a gunslinger. Manuel (Robert Hossein) isn't interested in her gold or in vengeance, but in deference to the love they once shared, he agrees to help Maria exact her revenge. It's a premise that doesn't defy expectations for an Italian western, but the same can't be said about its execution. Though Spaghetti westerns often blur the line separating good from evil, Cemetery Without Crosses doesn't bother with any glimmer of hope or justice. The Caines and Rogers alike are monstrous. The vengeance they seek will not bring an end to any longstanding feuds, instead begetting more violence and further cause for revenge. There is no hero galloping off into the sunset as the love of his life wraps her arms around him: just an endless, unrewarding, unrelentingly bleak cycle of carnage and misery.

Cemetery Without Crosses is a masterfully crafted condemnation of vengeance. Though its largely French crew hadn't spent nearly as much time stomping around Almería as the Italians had, these mountainous deserts have rarely been photographed with such aching beauty. Its shootouts may be few in number but are incomparably swift and brutal just the same, and the violence on display here is in no way limited to gunplay. The score by André Hossein -- oriented around frantic Spanish guitar, occasionally blended with orchestral strings -- is unforgettable. The combination of this music, the foreboding backdrop of what might as well be a ghost town, and the remarkably sparse dialogue further heightens the film's grim, ominous tone.

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Despite its richly deserved reputation, Cemetery Without Crosses is likely to disappoint a fair number of Eurowestern fanatics. Haunted and defeated even in triumph, Manuel by design lacks the commanding presence of the most memorable Spaghetti western anti-heroes. Coupled with the film's disinterest in action setpieces, occasionally long stretches without dialogue, and a tone that's astonishingly dour even by the genre's standards, viewers expecting a more traditional Spaghetti western may find themselves without something immediately appealing to embrace. Though I admire and respect Cemetery Without Crosses, my misplaced expectations prevent me from fully appreciating a challenging film I've seen only once. I suspect that Cemetery Without Crosses rewards multiple viewings, and I'm immensely looking forward to revisiting it in the near future now that I have a clearer idea what type of film I'll be watching. Recommended.

With Day of Anger under Arrow Films' belt -- the most singularly striking presentation of a Eurowestern on Blu-ray to date -- my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high for their second Western on these shores. Cemetery Without Crosses isn't quite in that same league, but Arrow did the best they could with the elements available. The original negative was damaged beyond the point of restoration, and the highest quality source available was a 35mm internegative suffering from heavy wear, fluctuating density, and chemical stains. Compared to Day of Anger, the colors here are less vivid, the image is softer, and the source elements at times exhibit considerably more damage:

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These limitations were unavoidable, and they honestly aren't as much of a concern as I would normally have assumed. The image is better defined and more richly detailed in motion than the screenshots scattered throughout this review might suggest. I'm deeply impressed by the very fine, filmic texture showcased here, and the clarity of this film grain suggests that every micron of detail there is to resolve has been faithfully reproduced on Blu-ray. The AVC encode is, as ever, immaculate as well. Given the short length of the film, most any other label would've dumped Cemetery Without Crosses onto a single layer Blu-ray disc, but this BD-50 lavishes the encode with the headroom it needs to breathe. Cemetery Without Crosses has languished in obscurity for far too long, and it's greatly appreciated that Arrow has given the film its long overdue release in the U.S. with such a strong presentation.

Also included in this combo pack is an anamorphic widescreen DVD.

Cemetery Without Crosses boasts a pair of 24-bit, monaural LPCM soundtracks: one in English and the other in Italian. A French soundtrack would've been appreciated given the nationality of so much of the talent on both sides of the camera, but that doesn't diminish my enthusiasm for this Blu-ray release in the slightest. I predominantly listened to the film in Italian (with English subtitles) and occasionally sampled the English track. Both are very comparable in volume and fidelity, and what I heard of the English language performances strike me as well above average for a Spaghetti western. The presentation is more than respectable, if, again, not quite approaching the heights of Day of Anger. Dialogue is sparse but reproduced well in both languages, with its sibilance and mild strain generally remaining unintrusive. André Hossein's score is far and away the most noteworthy aspect of Cemetery Without Crosses' audio, and it sounds truly outstanding. These uncompressed soundtracks hit all the marks I'd hoped they would, leaving me once again thrilled with what Arrow has delivered.

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Along with the newly-translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack, a set of SDH subs is available to pair with the English audio.

  • Remembering Sergio (5 min.; HD): In this newly-produced interview with Robert Hossein -- the only non-archival extra on this disc -- Cemetery Without Crosses' director and star reflects on his time living in Italy alongside such luminaries as Federico Fellini. As its title suggests, his close friendship with Sergio Leone is the central focus, including the two of them trekking to Almería by train and Leone helming the film's memorable dinner sequence. Hossein also touches on the financing and production of Cemetery Without Crosses as well as its release in a profoundly different climate. I would have loved to hear a more involved conversation -- especially some insight as to Dario Argento's involvement in the screenplay, as that's been a point of contention over the years and is only mentioned in passing in the disc's liner notes -- but I certainly enjoyed this interview while it lasted.

  • Robert Hossein Interview (2 min.): In this excerpt from a 1968 episode of "Côte d'Azur Actualités", Hossein speaks briefly about his approach to the Western genre, one he notes as being more distinctive than Italian productions bearing surface similiarities.

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  • Location Report (8 min.): Also culled from a French television series, this excerpt from a 1968 episode of "Cinéma" features behind-the-scenes footage of Cemetery Without Crosses as well as on-set interviews with Robert Hossein, Serge Marquand, and Michèle Mercier. Among the topics of conversation here are the central actors fielding much of their own stuntwork, how this film is a Shakespearean tragedy in the form of a Western, how its multinational makings are of less significance than some may think, and what a rewarding, if not entirely glamorous, experience this has been for the cast. As with the "Côte d'Azur Actualités", this black and white footage looks fantastic even close to a half-century after the fact.

  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): An Italian trailer rounds out the extras.

Cemetery Without Crosses is being issued as a combo pack, and the second disc in this set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD. The DVD is region-free, and, coded for regions A and B, the Blu-ray disc might as well be. The reversible cover art is gorgeous no matter which side you choose, and the insightful set of liner notes by film historian Ginette Vincendeau and Rob Young frankly put to shame anything I could ever hope to write about Cemetery Without Crosses.

The Final Word
Cemetery Without Crosses is anything but a traditional Spaghetti western, and those who take comfort in the subgenre's familiarities may bristle at this film's sparse dialogue, limited action, melancholy performances, and relentlessly bleak atmosphere. Cemetery Without Crosses so utterly defied my expectations that I'm not sure if I can even adequately review it with a single viewing. Honestly, that's thrilling to me as a writer and as someone who profoundly loves cinema, and it's a further example of what a remarkable library Arrow Films has amassed in their very short time on these shores. Recommended.
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