Friday, July 29, 2016


If spaghetti westerns owed their global popularity to Sergio Leone imitating Akira Kurosawa, it probably was inevitable that the archetypal circle would close with a spaghetti cowboy visiting the land of samurai. This was accomplished by Tony Anthony, an American who started more obscurely than Clint Eastwood and scored a hit with A Stranger in Town, a film he co-produced with M-G-M money. "The Stranger" became Anthony's spaghetti persona, with the exception of his title character in Blindman, where he was upstaged by Ringo Starr. The Silent Stranger was the third Stranger movie made, but despite the character's apparent popularity it sat shelved for seven years, not appearing until near the tail end of the spaghetti era, and after other east-meets-westerns (Red Sun, The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, etc.) had come and gone. Silent Stranger remained a novelty as a west-meets-eastern, and it's really more interesting as a samurai movie than as a transplanted spaghetti.

Why the film is called The Silent Stranger is beyond me, since Anthony offers a sporadic voice-over commentary on the action. The story opens in the Klondike, where The Stranger rescues a Japanese man from some ruthless northwestern types. The rescue comes just a little too late, since the Japanese man dies, but he's rescued enough to give Stranger a scroll, with instructions to deliver it to Osaka in return for $20,000. Crossing the Pacific, Stranger becomes the typical Ugly American visitor, expecting to be understood when he speaks pidgin English and drops names. Gradually a Red Harvest type situation emerges as two factions of samurai fight for control of a territory and Stranger, possessing the scroll everyone covets, ends up in the middle. Since this is a spaghetti samurai film, a machine gun factors in the conflict. The scenes showing the oppression of the common people are the best in the picture, particularly a sequence in which tax collectors compel peasants to come out of their houses one family at a time to pay up and rough up those who won't or can't pay, with one man nervously waiting for his turn while Stranger holds him captive. These moments of frantic cruelty feel authentically Japanese, at least in a generic sense, making me wonder whether there was an uncredited native second-unit man during the location shoot. Another highlight is a fight highlighting clashing national styles, as an unarmed Stranger tries to bludgeon a samurai with a hunk of bamboo, only to have the swordsman gradually whittle his weapon down to a nub. At its best, Silent Stranger benefits from an engaging grotesquerie that encompasses the smugly oafish Anthony himself and extends to a villain's dwarf sidekick. At its worst, it takes for granted what it should not, that Tony Anthony is a funny guy, or that anything can be made funny by playing a flute. Inevitably the film is an ego trip for Anthony, and that trips it up, since by a certain point The Stranger is the least interesting thing about the film. It's still an interesting and often entertaining picture, but I recommend it in spite of its star.

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