Monday, February 13, 2012

A SKY FULL OF STARS FOR A ROOF (E per tetto un cielo di stelle, 1968)

The first seven minutes of Giulio Petroni's spaghetti western are extraordinary. A stagecoach rolls through a stark, mountainous landscape as a group of hard men watch from a ridge. We see their grim faces in close up before the gang turns to ride down after the stage. The gunmen close and flank the vehicle, shooting up all the passengers, helpless civilians all. A mortally wounded man, most likely a drummer of some sort, tumbles out the door and begs for his life before a fatal shot. A blond woman, already dead, is dragged out the other door and around so the gang leader can see her. He's unhappy; the man he expected to see isn't there. An underling has some explaining to do, but it does him no good; he's shot and left laying with the victims.

The credits begin and Ennio Morricone's music takes on an elegiac tone. The camera pans across the woman's body and closes in on her face; it's a moment of incongruous serenity. A hand appears to wipe some dust from her face. It's the hand of Giuliano Gemma, whose face registers dismayed horror at the scene he's discovered. A long shot takes it all in as he does, until he takes his jacket off and sets to work with a pickaxe to dig graves. He pauses to wipe sweat from his brow and sees that he's being watched. Mario Adorf is seated by his mule, eating a sandwich impassively. Gemma returns to his work and Adorf rises to pull a shovel from his mule's pack. Gemma seems surprised that Adorf has joined him at the job, but finally the men stand to pay some final respects at the four graves before going their separate ways. There is a gravity to the scene and the two performances that conveys the all-too-rare impression (in spaghetti westerns) that these are fundamentally decent men. I could imagine the scene in an American 1950s western, except that the Americans would try to make dialogue do the work of Petroni's direction of the actors and Morricone's music, and it wouldn't quite work the same way.

There was probably no way the rest of the film could live up to that opening, but E per tutto un cielo di stelle as a whole is not without virtues. Tim (Gemma) has reason to feel those deaths on his conscience, as we learn that it was him, under his alias of Billy Boy, that the gunmen were after. He turns out to be a con man, and it took me aback to see him con Harry (Adorf) when they reunite in Princetown. Tim warns Harry against a card shark and provokes a barroom brawl that lets Larry show his strength. Thrown out together (the courteous barflies throw their hats out after them) they learn more about each other -- actually, Tim learns that Harry has inherited a ranch and is carrying a bag of gold. He convinces Harry to deposit the gold in a Pueblo City bank that exists only as a snare for Tim's marks. Harry gets wise eventually, but when Tim explains that he's invested the gold in a more certain proposition -- the sideshow with the mermaid -- the big guy wants an immediate payback. He agrees to join in a grift in which he and Tim pretend to be traveling telegraph operators who'll send messages from the marks anywhere in the country. Their arrival makes the day a virtual festival -- complete with a barn dance that looks like a homage to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers -- until that gang of killers appears and our heroes make a quick exit.

Above, Julie Menard as Sirene the "mermaid."
Below, Harry joins the sideshow as a sack-masked fire eater.

The pattern is set for an on-again-off-again picaresque bromance marked by an increasingly odd indifference to the collateral damage that accumulates as the gang kills its way toward Billy Boy. The sense of responsibility to the dead that dignified the opening seems to have disappeared, which especially rankles after the gang kills the mermaid and the sideshow barker. Rest assured that Tim and Harry will wipe out their enemies, but when they're finally besieged at Harry's dilapidated ranch house it's really only a matter of self-preservation rather than justice.

Macro and micro action: above, Petroni masters the landscape as our heroes (upper right) get out of town just ahead of their pursuers; below, Gemma in characteristic acrobatic action against an epic outdoor backdrop.

I was probably more disappointed at first than I should have been, because I had a feeling that I'd stumbled into yet another ripoff of the Terrence Hill-Bud Spencer Trinity comedy-western formula of wiry slickster and big oaf. The packaging for Timeless Media Group's otherwise admirable Best of Spaghetti Westerns collection doesn't date its twenty movies, so it was only when I consulted IMDB that I realized that E per tetto was made in 1968, two years before Hill and Spencer's They Call Me Trinity. Hill and Spencer had actually first teamed a year before Gemma and Adorf, but God Forgives, I Don't is reportedly a far less comic film than was typical of the team. Did they possibly take notes from E per tetto? Well, they should have taken more. I can't abide the smirky Hill, but Gemma is just fine as a shifty antihero, even if you wonder sometimes why someone doesn't just leave him in a neat bundle for his enemies to finish off, and the mighty Adorf, who would do great things for Fernando di Leo in years to come, comes across as a more evolved version of Spencer. The unexaggerated likability of both actors carries you through the amoral rough patches of the story. And if that doesn't do it for you, the cinematography of Carlo Carlini and the set design by Piero Fillipone and Carlo Gervasi are extraordinary. E per tetto is one of the best looking spaghettis I've seen, and I suspect that many spaghetti fans will enjoy it even more than I did. It may lack the intensity of the best revenge stories and the baroque cruelty of some cult favorites, but it comes close to a happy medium of charismatic characters in energetic, colorful action.


venoms5 said...

Great write up as usual, Sam. I haven't watched the DVD in a good while, but GOD FORGIVES I DON'T has none of the comedy from the duo that would become known for in the 70s TRINITY movies. There was an earlier big budgeted film that foreshadows them entitled SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS (1966). A lively picture you should check out if you haven't already.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, the more I hear about God Forgives the more I'd like to give it a try. Haven't seen Seven Guns but have heard good things about it before and your spaghetti recommendations are worth heeding.