Monday, November 19, 2012

THE HILLS RUN RED (Un fiume di dollari, 1967)

Like his American forebear, the spaghetti western cowboy is typically a laconic figure, if somewhat more sardonic than the original. He is a man of few words and many bullets. But every rule has its exception, and Thomas Hunter is an exceptional spaghetti western star. Carlo Lizzani's western was Hunter's second essay in the genre. He plays a wronged outlaw, one who sacrifices himself to the army, having stolen from them, in the expectation that his partner, who gets away with the loot, will take care of his family while he does time. He does some pretty hard time, as an opening credits sequence illustrates, and when he's released he finds his family home a ruin and his family gone. His wife's journal reveals her declining fortune and a betrayal by the hero's partner, who has not shared his plunder. The truth hurts, and Hunter wants you to feel it with him.

Before long, men are out to kill our hero, Jerry Brewster. Right at that time, Jerry discovers a squatter on his desolate property. The squatter, Winny Getz (Dan Duryea), is armed, but finding Jerry the underdog under siege takes his side. Jerry learns that his old partner has taken another name and used his ill-gotten gains to become a big rancher. Winny gets a job as a ranch hand to spy on the wealthy Mr. Seagull (Nando Gazzolo) while Jerry heads into the nearest town and picks a fight with some of Seagull's bullying ranch hands in a saloon. He impresses the saloon keeper, who complains of Seagull's oppression of the town and agrees to back Jerry's scheme to ruin the rancher. But before things can go further Jerry is waylaid by more of Seagull's goons, led by foreman Mendez (Henry Silva). Not knowing Jerry's real agenda, Mendez is impressed enough by the man's toughness against heavy odds to give him a job on Seagull's ranch. Along the way, Jerry befriends a boy being raised by Seagull's sister; the kid's mannerisms strongly remind our hero of his own long-lost son. He also makes an enemy of the local saloon singer, who resents the way his lucky gambling streak distracted from her performance his first night in town. She pines for Mendez while Mendez himself has eyes on Seagull's sister.

It sometimes seems like every Henry Silva movie has a shot like this.
If they don't, they should.

Jerry's now ideally placed to stage a large-scale robbery of Seagull's horses and to send the town intelligence on Seagull's plans. When Seagull orders a reprisal against the town, and Mendez expects him to ride with the other hands, Jerry entrusts a warning message to the kid, only to find that it never reached the saloon keeper. No longer able to rely on the town's support, Jerry finds the odds growing against him when the singer, having nabbed the kid, rats him out to Mendez. Our hero will need Winny's help if he hopes to get his revenge on Seagull.

Dan Duryea (below) is our hero by default just for getting Thomas Hunter (above) to shut up.

Thomas Hunter didn't do many spaghetti westerns, though he did return home to do a Gunsmoke episode and play Ike Clanton in a TV movie before making his most substantial contribution to cinema as author of The Final Countdown. His approach is all wrong, though director Lizzani, making his first western, probably should share the blame. Lizzani at least learned his lesson and followed up with Requiescant (aka Kill and Pray), a more highly regarded effort. Showing your emotions shouldn't be forbidden in spaghettis or any western, but Hunter's emoting goes way over the top. It would be over the top in any genre, and it's not a good idea for a western hero to sound like a whiner. Worse, Hunter's histrionics encourage the worst hammy impulses in Silva, with little apparent effort from Lizzani to check either actor. By default, Dan Duryea, a great villain in Hollywood westerns, comes off best, despite his age and apparent illness, as a comparatively laconic, enigmatic figure. Duryea doesn't really have much to work with but it's still cool to see him play a hero -- and ride off into the sunset -- in one of his last roles.


Lizzani -- still working at age 90, with a film out last year -- doesn't have the same pictorial genius as Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci, but he stages two impressive large-scale action scenes: the horse-rustling scene, complete with flaming logs reminiscent of Spartacus, and a gunfight in the deserted town pitting Hunter and Duryea against Silva's goon squad. Hunter's more personal showdowns with Silva and Gazzolo are anticlimactic by comparison. Ennio Morricone contributes a score that's characteristic but not much more than that. He's credited as "Leo Nichols," and you could believe that "Nichols" was just a Morricone imitator. The music still sounds good, but it's really just another day at the office for the maestro. At least he got a respectable pseudonym. Lizzani was stuck with "Lee W. Beaver." Hills Run Red isn't a top-flight spaghetti western; whether that's the fault of the star subverting the story or the story subverting the star is hard to say. But it has its moments and you definitely can do worse.

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