Tuesday, January 12, 2010

THE BEAST (La Belva, 1970)

There's a tragicomic quality to Mario Costa's western, with a strong but possibly unintentional emphasis on the comic in its treatment of the presumptive title character. Crazy Johnny has no special skills with gun or knife or any other weapon, and nothing to avenge. All he has going for him is the fact that he's played by Klaus Kinski, which means, on this occasion, that Johnny pursues his interests with an elan that justifies the "Crazy" label. Over time, you can't help, though you probably should, feeling sorry for Johnny, who spends the film pining with a Wile E. Coyote-like hunger for poontang, but suffers from chronic rape-us interruptus.

"Ah cain't git no...sat-is-fack-shun." For some reason, a dubbed Southern accent has never seemed so appropriate for Kinski as it does in The Beast.

From the start of the show Johnny's on the trail of tail, and he has no time for courtship, dating or other civilized minutiae. Before the credits roll he pounces on a female, only to be driven off before he can consummate his crazed (crazing?) desire. This establishes the pattern for the rest of the film. Repeatedly, Johnny will have women in his power, only to be chased off, shot at, or otherwise repelled. Sometimes the women themselves fight back, exploiting an unbecoming naivete in our horndog antihero. In one scene, he pressures his prisoner for sex. She consents, but requires him to step outside so she can undress. He dutifully complies, and when he enters again, his victim breaks some furniture over his head.

Resistance only prompts his wrath, however, and when women fight back and flee, he ends up killing rather than raping them when he catches up. Asked to account for himself after one such murder, he affects righteous indignation. "She was killed because she wouldn't let me make love," he protests.

"You're beginning to bore me, old man," Johnny explains as he blasts a rare male victim who dared question his murder of the girl in the coach.

Sometimes the mere absence of women is enough to set him off. At one point, Johnny finds himself in a town and heads straight for the bar. Demanding women, he's told that the floor show won't start for another hour or so. That provokes a glass-tossing tantrum and a quick exit on the way to fresh adventures. Thus La Belva shapes up as a spaghetti epic (albeit filmed in Spain) of sexual frustration and its violent consequences.

But there's a plot beyond Johnny's perpetual lustquest, the sort of mundane storyline one might find in a Marx Bros. or early Abbott & Costello film to keep those people interested who are bored by the comedians. It involves the Old West form of identity theft, a labor-intensive business that requires you to kidnap a person before you can pretend to be her. In this instance, Johnny falls in with some conspirators who want to appropriate a young woman's inheritance. It's up to him to keep the girl captive while the female conspirator, proper papers in hand, goes to town to claim the money. This is where Johnny gets his head busted, and when he takes a lethal vengeance that has repercussions for his fellow conspirators. There are Mexican bandits involved as well, but the details seem secondary to the perverse pathos of Crazy Johnny's pilgrimage of failure.

In the absence of a master gunfighter or a revenge plot, and due to the odd imbalance of the identity-theft plot and Crazy Johnny's exploits, La Belva has a disorganized quality verging on randomness. It's almost appropriate, given the picaresque aspect of Johnny's adventures, but it more likely reflects the brute fact that Costa had a star and story that didn't quite fit together. For that reason I feel that I can only recommend this film to Kinski fans, but to them I definitely recommend it. For some reason it seems like a role he was destined to play, and it's certainly a part he seems to empathize with. Perhaps it struck closer to home than the great man might have cared to admit, but if so it didn't stop him from doing very watchable work.

It might be more watchable in some form other than the copy in VideoAsia's Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 3 box set. It's the one film in that ten-film collection not to be letterboxed, if I remember right, and my poor screencaps testify to the quality of the transfer. Despite being identified as The Beast on the box, the film itself has latter-day opening credits that identify it as Rough Justice, a title of surpassing vagueness but one that at least wouldn't have caused people to mistake La Belva for a monster movie. See it this way if you must, but hold out for better if you can.

Take Back the West!


The Vicar of VHS said...

Wow...as usual, you point me toward a movie I've never heard of that I now desperately need to see. Wow!

Cinema Du Meep said...

One day i'll get the nerve to watch this one!

I just awarded you 2 blog awards--
The "Kreativ Blog" and "One Lovely Blog" awards. You rule.

Dave said...

I badly need to go on a spaghetti western binge... perhaps after the silents at WitD.