Monday, November 2, 2009

THE PRICE OF POWER (1969)

The President is coming to Dallas. He's going to promote his social agenda, including racial reconciliation and an agricultural reform program that'll be paid for "from the pockets of the rich," despite protests from reactionary elements. It's so bad in some quarters that they've put up posters claiming that the President is "Wanted for Treason." His Texan Vice-President is of little help, since he's believed to be in thrall to powerful local interests who have damning evidence against him from his early days. The year is... Actually, I don't know what year it is. They never say, but I guess it would be Eighteen Something. For that matter, they never say what the President's name is, either, but you can guess who he represents. That's because Tonino Valerii's political thriller retells the story of the Kennedy assassination in the form of a spaghetti western.



Van Johnson is The President, but he's just Mr. President to his friends.

The nameless President is played by Van Johnson (though some filmographers claim that he's playing James A. Garfield), who did not stick around to redub his English dialogue in the recording studio. It's always strange to see a familiar actor and not hear his familiar voice, but if anything the vocal stand-in sounds more presidential than Johnson might have. This President was a Union colonel during the Civil War, and in that capacity condemned a Texas Unionist, Bill Willer (Giuliano Gemma), and his black sidekick Jack Donovan to ten years in prison for refusing to fire on Bill's father, a Confederate general. The elder Willer in the present day stumbles onto knowledge of an assassination plot because his old cronies don't realize that he's loyal to the reunited nation. The conspirators bump off the old man, but not before Bill thwarts plot number one: a scheme to blow up a railroad bridge as the presidential train passes over.



Giuliano Gemma weighs the charges against the President.


Jack, still Bill's sidekick and a resourceful character in his own right, is wounded in the early action. He recuperates in a central-city doctor's office that gives him a perfect view of the President's coach as it rolls through town -- and a perfect view of two snipers on an overpass who plan to plug the chief executive. Jack tries to thwart plot number two, but in the confusion is arrested as the successful assassin, playing the Oswald patsy role of conspiracy myth. Bill struggles to win Jack's freedom, reveal the real killers and get to the bottom of the obvious conspiracy, but his efforts are complicated by the conspirators' collapse into separate cut-throat factions (including one led by Fernando Rey) and a Presidential security officer determined to cover up the truth in order to avert a second civil war while pursuing the conspirators himself.



Back and To the Left: The President has been shot in The Price of Power. Who benefits? Fernando Rey, for one.


Il Prezzo del Potere is an act of cinematic audacity on a WTF level. Its generic cross of spaghetti action and conspiracy thriller is an unusual mix that gives the film a different feel from most Italian westerns. In the typical spaghetti the hero is always in control of the situation, or acts as if he is, apart from the requisite beatdown in the middle of the picture. Here Gemma must maneuver around forces that are clearly bigger and more powerful than he is, and the inevitability imposed by importing the JFK archetype gives the movie an atmosphere of inescapable doom, at least for the first two-thirds of it, that may be unique to the genre. The picture shakes loose of its pseudo-historical shackles late in the game, however, as Gemma gradually gains the upper hand and hunts down the conspirators who aren't busy destroying each other. Valerii doesn't do entirely without generic spaghetti shenanigans, introducing such details as a repeated guns-and-cigars game that requires antagonists to shoot at one another in the dark and a crippled journalist friend of Gemma who reveals his ownership of a crutch gun at a timely moment.



The corrupt sheriff (Benito Stefanelli) arranges for Jack Donovan's transfer to Fort Worth, with a posse of Jack Rubies lying in wait.


The film automatically raises the question of whether it reflects Valerii or screenwriter Massimo Patrizi's actual beliefs about the Kennedy assassination. Van Johnson embodies their idea of Kennedy when he speaks out in favor of racial equality and quotes lines associated with Robert Kennedy -- "I see things that could be and ask why not," etc. The Texan veep who's elevated into the Presidency by the assassination is aware of the conspiracy but torn by guilty feelings while wrestling with a determination to be his own man in Washington. His desire, shared by the security man MacDonald, to suppress any evidence of conspiracy for the sake of peace approximates what some people take to be Lyndon Johnson's own view, though in his case it's suspected that he didn't want to discover a Cuban connection to Kennedy's death because it might provoke World War III rather than an internal American conflict. The portrait as a whole of a relatively minor character is an ambivalent sketch of Johnson, who is more of an outright villain in some accounts. Jack Donovan's role as a patsy implies that the filmmakers believed that Oswald was one as well. While Oswald was seen as a leftist set up by rightists to take the blame, Jack, who is indisputably innocent, is blamed by the conspirator sheriff despite the exculpatory claim that Jack loved the President, "like all the poor and oppressed." The real enemy, the filmmakers insist, is a reactionary racist elite, some of whom are ready to risk renewed war to get their way, while others would be content to control the new men in power.



This, too, is America. Norma Jordan plays Annie, Jack Donovan's girlfriend who's willing to sell him out for a new wardrobe and the nearest thing to a femme fatale in The Price of Power.

Sometimes, though, the Kennedy conspiracy narrative and the spaghetti western genre don't fit well together. Consider the hero's determination that two men shot the President from the fatal overpass. Why two? Because no man can fire a gun twice in ten seconds. Leave aside the veracity of that claim and try to deal with the fact that this assertion is being made in a spaghetti western! Talk about what a motivated man can do with his rifle...

Oddly, The Price of Power ends up endorsing the idea of a cover-up for the good of the nation. In the penultimate act, an enraged Bill Willer forces MacDonald to turn over his documents proving a conspiracy so he can publicize the truth. He says he has two good reasons for taking the papers: he has a gun and he'll kill MacDonald if the security man doesn't turn them over. But in the last scene Willer returns the papers to MacDonald, saying, "You need them more than I do."

This is probably a spaghetti western that any genre buff should see, simply because there is and can be no other film like it. You may not agree with what it insinuates about the Kennedy assassination or about American politics in the 1960s, but the film is so uniquely and straightfacedly weird about its work that its worth a stop by any tourist in the wild world of cinema.

The Videoasia DVD of Price of Power, part of its new Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 3 set, comes without a trailer or bonus materials, but does present a letterboxed copy of the film. The Italian trailer, uploaded to YouTube by mart85, shows off some of the impressive location work and some of the impressive score by Luis Enriquez Bacalov.

5 comments:

Dave said...

Outside of Leone, spaghetti westerns are an area I'm a complete novice in... but considering my love of all things western, it's one that I really want to explore. I've found lists of "essential" spaghetti westerns and plan on explore them once I make it through the annual countdown. Any suggestions on your part would definitely be great. This movie sounds intriguing, as do so many others I'm encountering... it reminds me of noir, where this style of film can almost be viewed like a world unto itself.

Sebina C. said...

I second the love of westerns; I'll definitely check out this film as it certainly sounds interesting and down my alley.

Sam Juliano said...

Well Samuel, now here seems to be an interesting find, though I'll confess I've never heard hide nor hair of this film. I'm inclined to agree with that rather funny one-sentence reprisal by you:

"Il Prezzo del Potere is an act of cinematic audacity on a WTF level."

Yet despite your subsequent admission that the spaghetti western style clashes with the more serious matters at hand, there is some humorous potential here, especially since our most probing films on the subject (Stone's JFK at the forefront) don't contain an ounce of humor. The idea that the film "endorces the idea of a cover-up for the good of the nation" seems to be another wise decision, but I guess I'll have to seek out that Videoasia Vol. 3 DVD.

Typically, you again give ample reason to demonstrate why you may be the most underestimated blogger critic out there. Your reviews are always thorough, beautifullly-written and conveyed with a discerning eye.

Sam Juliano said...

Incidentally, Samuel, Mr. Bacalov wrote the infectious score to the 1995 film IL POSTINO (directed by Michael Radford) which I do believe won him an Oscar if I'm not mistaken. It was at least nominated.

Samuel Wilson said...

Dave, I don't know if I'd consider Price of Power an essential spaghetti western, but it might be considered essential in its own right as a sui generis cinematic eccentricity. Spaghettis really are a world unto themselves -- watch enough American westerns and you'll see the difference -- but the JFK juxtaposition puts Price in its own peculiar place.

Sam, I'm afraid most of the humor we might derive from Price would be unintentional, funny as a crutch gun. Many spaghettis stick tongues in cheek at different angles, but Price takes its allegorical assignment pretty seriously, which ironically guarantees an amused reception from many viewers.