Wednesday, August 24, 2011

FACE TO FACE (Faccia a faccia, 1967)

Often ranked among the top spaghetti westerns, Sergio Sollima's second attempt at the genre is a character-driven and action-packed reflection on the mutuality of influence and the ironic ways in which seemingly diametrically opposed personalities change each other. Boasting superior production values and location photography and the ultimate mark of quality -- an Ennio Morricone score, Faccia a faccia pits two already-proven spaghetti stars against each other: Gian Maria Volonte (Sergio Leone's "Dollars" films) and Tomas Milian (The Bounty Killer, Sollima's Big Gundown). Volonte is Brad Fletcher, a New England college professor ordered west by his doctor for health reasons. Milian is Beauregard Bennett, a notorious and newly-captured bandit who becomes the object of Fletcher's compassion. In short order, Fletcher becomes Bennett's hostage and human shield during a daring escape. The intellectual talks Bennett out of killing him, but proves too squeamish to help the outlaw remove a bullet he took in flight. The two men find each other almost equally intriguing, though this is no bromance by any means.

Instead, Face to Face is reminiscent partly of Lawrence of Arabia, and partly of Delmer Daves's Cowboy. The Lawrence influence is obvious in Sollima's desert locations and the basic storyline of an intellectual outsider who teaches the natives -- outlaws, not Indians -- to be more effective fighters. As Fletcher grows more impressed with Bennett's courage and strength, he begins to see the outlaw life as a form of virile self-realization, and he makes himself into a criminal mastermind. The Cowboy influence will be less apparent because Daves's film is less well known. In short, Jack Lemmon's hotel clerk falls under the spell of Glenn Ford's trail boss and joins Ford on a cattle drive, during which he becomes disillusioned when Ford fails to live up to his romantic ideas of cowboy life, and eventually becomes a pitiless hardcase in embittered emulation of his role model. In both Cowboy and Lawrence, the outsider becomes hardened and even brutalized by experience to an extent that alarms the experienced natives. Just as, in Cowboy, the Ford character recognizes his own faults in Lemmon's exaggerated form, so Milian's bandit experiences a kind of intellectual awakening when exposed to the professor's learning and initial scruples, followed by a moral awakening as he sees the extent of Fletcher's corruption and ruthlessness, and its consequences for his friends.

The different stages of the doomed friendship of Beauregard Bennett (Tomas Milian, top left) and Brad Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonte, top right) in Face to Face.

Unlike in Lawrence, the outsider brings unmitigated disaster to his new friends, and unlike in Cowboy, reconciliation between the protagonists becomes impossible. Fletcher and Bennett hole up in the almost utopian multicultural community of Puerta del Fuego, which becomes a base for their banditry. When Fletcher plots a major bank robbery that turns into a bloodbath in part because Bennett finds himself unwilling to kill a child who recognizes him as an outlaw, a posse forms to destroy Puerta del Fuego and drive its people into the desert. Complicating things further is a righteous traitor in their midst: Charlie Siringo (William Berger) -- a rare spaghetti character based on a real person -- who plays a bandit but is actually a Pinkerton detective. He completes the classic spaghetti triangle, and the film climaxes with a threeway confrontation after a battle with the posse. Should a helpless Siringo be killed? If not, what does Siringo owe to his savior, and what does he owe to the law?

I'm inclined to agree with the high ranking generally given Face to Face after one viewing because, in its focus on character development and moral choices, it's more like an American western from the classic period of the 1950s, the high point of the genre overall, than the often cartoonishly amoral generality of spaghetti westerns. At the same time, Sollima and his cinematographers invest the picture with all the visual dynamism and violent energy that Italy contributed to the western genre, while his cast of spaghetti stalwarts, including Berger, all seem near the top of their game. There's a certain universality to the story that transcends the American period setting and the Italian aesthetic preoccupations, so that people who aren't keen on spaghettis in general should find this one easy to appreciate. I don't believe it's ever been released officially on DVD in the U.S., but you can see it for free -- in a single uninterrupted widescreen installment -- on YouTube. Face to Face deserves better, but for now that will do.


Kev D. said...

I definitely constantly miss that era of "ugly as sin" leading men.

venoms5 said...

Excellent write up on a truly wonderful spaghetti western, Sam. The film has been released multiple times everywhere but in America and it's a shame. There's a new DVD of it either out, or coming out. I forget where; possibly the UK. Last I heard, it was reportedly a cut version.