Tuesday, May 3, 2011

LONG LIVE YOUR DEATH (Viva la muerte...tua, 1971)

Despite evidence to the contrary at the global box office, spaghetti westerns and comedy don't really mix. The major turn toward comedy following the success of They Call Me Trinity was really a death knell for an Italian genre that now had difficulty taking itself seriously. Many supposedly serious spaghettis were getting ridiculous in their gimmicky action by this time, so the change (or decline) may have been inevitable. I'm no fan of the comedy westerns myself, but Duccio Tessari's big-budget production is one of the more tolerable efforts. Also known in the U.S. as Don't Turn the Other Cheek, it teams spaghetti stalwart Franco Nero with the iconic Eli Wallach, with Lynn Redgrave as the wild card -- the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, if you like.

The film (or its English-language version) opens with a montage of stills illustrating Nero's robbery of a wedding in the guise of a priest. After ditching the suddenly smitten bride, the fake clergyman drives off in his automobile, only to be stopped by two disreputable men who want the "padre" to hear their dying father's confession. Ignoring his protest that he's a Protestant, they take him to find out from their decrepit dad where he may have buried a treasure. Nero manages to extract some info from the moribund oldster, but isn't willing to share. When the brothers try to force it from him, he guns them down, but not before they inflict mortal wounds on his auto. Tessari recreates a legendary Bill Maudlin cartoon from World War II by having a sorrowful Nero put his faithful vehicle out of its misery.

To learn more about the treasure, Nero must visit an imprisoned Mexican bandit, Lozoya (Wallach) who isn't particularly cooperative. Lozoya is slated for execution, but his keeper has another use for the prisoner. He intends to pass Lozoya off as El Salvador, a notorious but long-dead rebel whom Mary O'Donnell, an Irish journalist (Redgrave) wants to interview. O'Donnell actually bribes the warden to free El Salvador so she can have an uprising to write about. But before that plan can play out, Nero breaks Lozoya out for his purposes, infuriating the sheriff (Horst Janson) who happens to be Nero's cousin. He has a grudge because Nero some time ago injured him and made him a "turtle," forced to wear an iron brace in order to stand upright. It serves Nero's interest to pass Lozoya off as El Salvador to get O'Donnell's cooperation, and he passes himself off as a Russian prince -- an alias he's taken before, from the sheriff's account. While O'Donnell hopes to deliver "El Salvador" to the restive peasantry, the "prince" needs Lozoya's help to piece together the way to the treasure. With armies crossing the landscape, the mismatched trio may find itself in the middle of civil war whether they want it or not....

Long Live Your Death is bearable in part because no one tries to play the lazy, smug type Terrence Hill specialized in, but it's not exactly a landmark of wit. One running gag mocks Mexican men's supposed defensiveness toward their asses. Wallach balks when Nero tries to boost him over a wall, protesting that no man may touch a Mexican's ass. But as it happens, the instructions for reaching the treasure were tattooed on the buttocks of two different men, so trousers will have to be dropped.

There's also an overlong slapstick sequence in which Redgrave must attempt to seduce and distract General Huerta while clumsily disconnecting his phone. Earlier, however, the English actress had starred in possibly the funniest scene in the picture. It earns that honor for the sheer absurdity of Redgrave rescuing Nero and Wallach by defeating at least a half-dozen guards with her bare fists. The brawling is well staged, Redgrave throws herself into the action with vigor, the stuntmen sell for her like mad, and the usual overstated sound effects really help put the scene over.

Lynn Redgrave, action heroine

Another absurd action scene takes the spaghetti western to just about its chronological limit of plausibility. In this scene, in the middle of a Day of the Dead uprising featuring adorable skull grenades, Nero has to fight tanks. Were there even tanks in Mexico during the revolution? I have my doubts, but I found the mere idea kinda funny. I suppose you could have a spaghetti westerner fight an airplane and make it more absurd -- and if that's been done, please let me know.

As a parody of the Mexican revolutionary subgenre of spaghetti westerns, Tessari's film also has the obligatory moment of consciousness-raising pathos. Here it's when Wallach finds his mute sister and nephew killed by Huerta's army and vows to kill one soldier for every hair on the woman's head. In this sort of film his sort of character has to end up a real revolutionary, even if only for a while, and this film lives up to its obligation while settling Nero's feud with the sheriff in fiery fashion. You might argue that Long Live Your Death isn't so much part of the spaghetti-comedy category as it is a continuation of a subgenre of Mexican-set revolutionary comedies dating back to Louis Malle's Viva Maria, which predates most of the Italian comedy westerns by several years. However you describe it, it was apparently deemed a tough sell for American audiences. It didn't open in the U.S. until 1974, and then with the alternate title reportedly suggested by Wallach himself. It didn't play much from what I could tell, and I'm willing to say that's too bad. This film is no classic as a western or a comedy but it was entertaining enough for its ninetysomething minutes.

I might have liked it even better had I seen it under better circumstances. I saw a letterboxed DVD of an English-language dub, but the aspect ratio was about all this copy had going for it. It's part of TGG Direct's 20 Wild Westerns: Marshals & Gunmen collection, which I picked up for $5 at a local WalMart. You get what you pay for: the twenty films (including a few other widescreen spaghettis and an English dub of Sergio Corbucci's The Mercenary under the title Revenge of a Gunfighter) are crammed onto two double-sided discs. The transfers make the typical Mill Creek Entertainment disc look like a Blu-Ray. This particular film was fuzzy, splotchy and stuttery, taking up a single 96-minute chapter on the disc. I worried that it would come to a dead halt on me, but against the odds it played to the end. It seems like many spaghetti westerns are coming out of the woodwork these days. Something like this collection can really serve only to help you decide whether Long Live Your Death or any of the other films included are worth pursuing in more worthwhile form.

This trailer looks better than my DVD. Chikungfu uploaded it to Dailymotion.

DONT TURN THE OTHER CHEEK - 1971 TRAILER Franco... by chikungfu


Rev. Phantom said...

I'm not a fan of comedy westerns either, but this sounds slightly intriguing. Just found the same box set on Amazon for a penny--think I'll pick it up.

Samuel Wilson said...

Good to hear from you again, Rev., and you can't really beat that price unless someone gives you the box.

venoms5 said...

Wild East recently put out a widescreen dvd most likely sourced from an Italian disc. I have a bootleg from an old VHS. There's multiple versions of this one floating around with varying running times, though.

CAPTAIN KRONOS was much more tolerable here, at least to me, playing a bad guy.

THE MERCENARY has an airplane featured prominently in some of the big battle scenes.

Great read as always, Sam.