Thursday, November 11, 2010

MANNAJA (A Man Called Blade, 1977)

Just when the spaghetti western had seemed to die laughing, thanks to the popularity of Terrence Hill's comedies, there was a final surge of serious, violent Italian westerns in the mid-1970s, including Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma, Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse, Michele Lupo's California and Sergio Martino's sole contribution to the genre, starring poliziotteschi icon Maurizio Merli. Martino has made films in nearly every Italian exploitation genre imaginable -- mondo (Naked and Violent), giallo (All the Colors of the Dark, etc.), poliziotteschi (The Violent Professionals), cannibals (Mountain of the Cannibal God), post-apocalypse (2019:After the Fall of New York), etc. It's not surprising, then, to see some influence from other genres in Martino's western.

The horror influence is most obvious and immediate. A pre-credits sequence introduces us to a mountain-man type stumbling through a misty, muddy stretch of woods, with something clearly in pursuit. In some shots, we get the pursuer's point of view through the trees. Finally, the fugitive is cornered and backs up against a tree to fight. Now we see a man on horseback, his face concealed by fog and shadow, raise a tomahawk and throw it. The weapon strikes home, depriving the target of his right hand.

This butcher is Blade (Merli), a bounty hunter who brings his quarry, Bert Craven, into the nearest town to get his money. Impatient and apparently unwelcome in the company town, Blade stakes Craven in a double-for-nothing card game, after figuring out how his opponent uses a mirror to cheat. Blade isn't greedy; once he's won the equivalent of Craven's bounty, he sets the dismembered fugitive free, and is promised repayment by Craven.

Blade has a larger issue with the man who runs the company town, Mr. McGowan (Philippe Leroy). McGowan's land, stripped down by lumbering and mining, used to belong to Blade's father. McGowan seized it somehow, and in the course of a struggle Blade's father was killed accidentally by a falling tree. It may as well be murder as far as Blade is concerned, but McGowan, now a cripple, is an unappealing target for vengeance. Not to worry, though, since Blade makes enemies easily enough. His most ready-made enemy is Voller (John Steiner), McGowan's right-hand man, the secret lover of McGowan's daughter, and the secret leader of the bandits who've been robbing McGowan's shipments.

Blade's grudge with McGowan becomes small potatoes as Voller makes his play for power. Eventually McGowan has to depend on Blade to negotiate for him when the bandits kidnap his daughter, neither he nor Blade yet knowing that she and Voller are on the bandits' side. Their extortionate terms force McGowan to work his men all the harder, until a labor uprising breaks out. Voller takes advantage of the confusion to shoot McGowan in the back, but his is a pyrrhic victory after the workers destroy much of the physical plant, leaving him to reign over ruins.

Voller has left Blade buried up to his neck in the desert, his eyes pinned open to be blinded by the sun, a knife blade pricking his neck. This is on top of killing a prostitute Blade had befriended, one of a troupe that eventually gets massacred back in McGowan's puritanical town, in front of our hero's eyes. Now Blade has something fresh to avenge, but he's hardly in a position to do anything about it.

Fortunately, who should show up but Bert Craven, now sporting a fancy hook where his hand had been, to repay his debt by digging Blade out of the deathtrap. Craven's intentions aren't entirely honorable, however. When he learns that Blade is effectively blind, he figures he can profit by ratting him out to Voller. He leaves Blade to grope about in a deep cave, feeling his way through assembling some crude tomahawks, while Craven rides into town. In a struggle against time, our hero forces himself into the light to acclimate his eyes once more before Bert and Voller's goons come for him....

Martino's horror style comes through again in both the desert sequence and during Blade's ordeal in the cave, the latter being perhaps the most stylish sequence in the film after the prologue. Voller, the villain, sometimes seems like a figure out of a horror film, especially when he has his dogs with him, than a conventional western villain. I can't speak for the Italian-language original, but the Germanic drawl the English dubbing actor gives the character enhances his alien creepiness.

Mannaja isn't just an expression of unconscious style, of course. Martino makes some conscious choices of art direction, emphasizing mud and fog as much as possible. This is a grimy, slimy film -- not unprecedented for spaghetti westerns, but almost tactile in Martino's presentation. There's a primordial quality underscored by the eccentric theme song composed by the De Angelis brothers, its opening verse intoned in a deep, slow drone, here transcribed to the best of my ability.

You're ... alone,
A solitary man,
And when the sun goes down,
Your memory's back around
With you,
And your heart
Is breaking down....

Like...a wolf
At night you look, for whom?
To hold your soul apart
And make you run away
'Til now,
And your mind
Won't forget....

Spaghetti westerns have a kind of default ethos that often asserts itself regardless of the particular talent involved in any given picture. Maurizio Merli, for instance, may have been a right-wing icon in Italy for playing power-hungry tough cops in the Seventies, but Mannaja, like many spaghettis, is very much a left-wing film, its original villain a rapacious capitalist outdone only by a bigger, more brutal bandit who proves only more eager to crush the working class, even as the workers manage to deny him the spoils of his victory. There's an apocalyptic quality to the film that may anticipate Martino's Mad Max-inspired Eighties action movies as the troglyditic Blade emerges from the fog to face Voller in the wreckage of his kingdom. There's an overall strangeness to this late spaghetti, awkward plot and all, that helps justify the Italians' return to a genre they had nearly mocked into oblivion.

This version of the "Man Called Blade" trailer was uploaded to YouTube by ShobaryWesterns.


adtv12388 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

Mark said...

Dropping in to say hello, Sam. Keep up the great work - not usually my flavor of tea, but always a smart read.