Sunday, November 29, 2009

ONE DOLLAR TOO MANY (I Tre Che Sconvolsero il West, 1968)

Here's the fourth film and fourth Spaghetti western by the young Enzo G. Castellari, who'll go on in the 1970s to be identified with tough-cop movies and earn a once-removed place in film history as the director of The Inglorious Bastards. In 10,000 Ways to Die Alex Cox gives Castellari a thumbs-up for his next film, Johnny Hamlet, but this one is the sort of thing Cox doesn't care for as a rule: a comedy western. As such, it doesn't even rate a mention in Cox's survey, but it turns out to be fairly entertaining, thanks to Castellari's dynamic direction and the enthusiasm of his three stars.

Frank Wolff plays Edmund Kean, an actor like his English namesake who has turned to crime in the Old West. Disguised as a preacher, he's won the confidence of a stagecoach team who'll be carrying a big shipment of money out of town to the Springwood Bank. The harmless minister asks them to carry along a Bible for the congregation in Springwood. Inside is a time-bomb set to blow somewhere outside town; afterwards, Kean plans to collect the strongbox from the ruins. But he hasn't reckoned on Moses (Antonio Sabato), the generic lone Mexican bandit who holds up the stage before the bomb goes off. Not knowing about the cash shipment, he takes the mailbag (containing the bomb) and sends the stage on its way. Moses rifles through the bag impatiently, finding a few bills and a necklace, and tosses the Book away moments before it blows. Kean arrives moments later and decides to hang Moses for ruining his plans. But once Moses understands the situation he tells Kean that he knows how to break into the Springwood Bank and get at the money.

Kean spares Moses and the film briefly becomes a caper movie. While the actor distracts the populace outside the bank with an impromptu morning sermon, Moses gets the cash after tunneling into the bank overnight and surprising the bank president. When Kean's suddenly dragged off to officiate at a funeral, Moses absconds with all the loot. Kean prepares to give chase but has his plans complicated by Clay (John Saxon), a gambler whom the bank president owes a fortune after a night at the card table. The way Clay sees it, a good chunk of that money belongs to him, so he wants to join the chase for Moses. Kean doesn't want more partners and is willing to fight for his principles, but the arrival of a posse compels the men to join forces to get out of Springwood.

The stars of One Dollar Too Many all have gimmick weapons, but you're meant to laugh at them. John Saxon's gun (below) has a built-in music box that plays after he shoots. "It's a German tune," he explains.

A pattern emerges. As the trail leads to a Mexican village, a train station, a raging river, etc., our three protagonists will switch sides and form different two-vs-one factions depending on who's got the money. Ultimately they have to team up to keep the loot out of the hands of a bandit band and the U.S. Army while making sure not to confuse the valise it's in with a lookalike bag belonging to a comedy-relief henpecked tourist. This gives Castellari plenty of chances to film sprawling, brawling action scenes. Some work better than others. The best is Saxon's battle to escape the Mexican village. He leaps, dives and climbs walls in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks while slugging anyone in his way. Saxon certainly didn't do any of the jumping, but he can throw a punch like a cinema champion.

Saxon slugs Hercules Cortez (above, playing the Bolo Yeung of Mexico) while fighting his way through an angry village.

Less successful is a fight pitting Kean and Moses vs the bandits in a cantina kitchen. Some of the action is good, but the scene simply goes on too long with too many gags about people getting covered with flour or soot. Also overdone, or simply misconceived, is a climactic struggle for the loot on the river that ends up looking like a game of water polo. Castellari was clearly trying to do something original here, but the water simply doesn't give him a good stage for stunts or comedy, and his stuntmen simply flail about in it. He must have realized that he'd botched the climax, because he brings his three stars back for one more running fight scene that at least has plenty of energy before closing the film with the addition of a fourth partner for the team.

The ending still doesn't seem right. The theme of One Dollar Too Many (also known as Vado, Vedo e Sparo -- "I came, I shot and I stole," while the original title translates to "The Three Who Upset the West") is greed, and the characters exhibit greed on a near- epic, Mad Mad Mad Mad World level. Given the cartoonish antics of our protagonists, it might have made more sense for their chase never to end rather than letting them all finally win as Castellari does. But the movie runs on such high spirits, and the actors look to be having such a good time, that you can't hold these debatable failings against it. I can hold Carlo Rustichelli's goofy score against it, but after a while I could tolerate that, too. It's no masterpiece, but it's simply too much fun to dislike.

Videoasia goes too far in proclaiming One Dollar "the first comedy of the genre" on the box cover for Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 3: The Fast, The Saved and the Damned. Cox reports Franco and Ciccio had already done a parody of the Leone films by 1966. It's possible that Castellari's was the first one (or even the last one) to be good, but I'd need to see more spaghettis before drawing that conclusion. In any event, the Videoasia copy could be sharper, but it looks to be letterboxed correctly. It's one of ten films in the new set (I've already reviewed The Price of Power), and you shall hear from it again before long.

Earlier this month, Mr. Spaghetti Western posted the original Italian-language trailer to YouTube. The picture quality is actually better than the DVD.

No comments: