In 1969 Robert Hossein directed and starred in one of the great spaghetti westerns, Cemetery Without Crosses. It turns out that Hossein had a head start on most European auteurs, having made his first western almost a decade earlier, before there was a phenomenon to label. To be more precise, Taste of Violence is a black and white precursor of the spaghetti subgenre commonly called the "Zapata western," those films set in Mexico or some place much like it during the early 20th century revolutionary period. Hossein's film is set in an unnamed and thus for all intents and purposes fictional country experiencing a revolt against an unpopular president. The film opens with a rebel band led by Perez (Hossein) having scored a great coup by capturing the president's daughter, Maria (Giovanna Ralli). The rebels celebrate by executing the soldiers who'd been escorting her before Perez and two others set out to deliver the young woman to their commander. Perez hopes for a hostage exchange, getting numerous rebel prisoners freed in return for his prize. But in a volatile landscape there are many who would take Maria off his hands -- including his own comrade, Chamaco (Mario Adorf) -- for personal gain.
A perilous journey ensues. The little band has to burn their way through a cornfield to escape a village of pursuers, but Chamaco remains the real threat, thanks in part to his influence over the youngster of the band, Chico (Hans H. Neubart). Circumstances keep Chamaco from carrying out his own schemes until Maria shows her own ruthlessness. Recognizing Chico's infatuation with her, she persuades him to escort her to safety, only to be intercepted by Perez and Chamaco, the latter of whom kills Chico. Later, Maria gets the drop on the two survivors, only to surrender to Perez after he kills Chamaco to keep him from shooting her. The romance between Maria and Perez seems implausible, as does Giovanna Ralli's somehow immaculate makeup, but rest assured that Hossein isn't too much of a romantic.
As the film nears its conclusion the tide has clearly turned against the rebels. In a bookend to the execution scene at the start, Perez and Maria enter a city where rebels are hanging by the neck practically door to door. In the end, after a brief rest break at his sister's house, Perez learns that his faction has been decisively defeated; there's no one left to whom to deliver Maria. Then he finds that the government forces have burned his sister's house to the ground and most likely killed her entire family. Maria is all he has left now -- except for one thing. This might be the point where another filmmaker would have Maria run off with Perez to make a fresh start somewhere. Instead, Hossein has his hero and heroine go their separate ways, Perez to carry on in one-man rebellion, quite consciously hopeless. Maria doesn't love him that much. The closing shot shows two tiny figures riding off in opposite directions across a vast, bleak landscape. Unlike the "zapatas" that came later, Hossein isn't interested in violent catharsis, ending his prototype film on a note of tragic futility that makes it something more than a genre picture. See this and Cemetery Without Crosses and you'll regret that Hossein -- still with us at age 91 but apparently retired -- didn't make more westerns with his exceptional sensibility.