Monday, June 24, 2019

WHY GO ON KILLING? (Perche' uccidi ancora, 1965)

Like Fritz Lang's Hollywood western Rancho Notorious, Antonio de la Lona's Spanish-Italian western is about "hate, murder and revenge." It has a slightly tragic quality to it, along with a grim appreciation of how a vendetta can sustain itself by drawing in outsiders until until its originators become disposable. Steve McDougall (Anthony Steffen) returns to his home town to avenge his father, who has been executed by a longtime enemy, the ruthless rancher Lopez (Pepe Calvo). Like many a leader, Lopez, who has a personal score to settle with the McDougalls, makes sure to implicate all his men in the killing. He orders each to fire a bullet into the old man, though Rojo  (Carlos Hurtado) does so with obvious reluctance, if not outright revulsion. Rojo will end up one of the film's most tragic figures, constantly conscience-stricken and clearly wanting out of the situation yet obviously too weak to take a meaningful stand until it's too late. His qualms matter little to the surviving McDougalls, which include Steve's sister Judy (Evelyn Stewart) and her husband. Once Steve arrives, all who associate themselves with Lopez are targets, or at least enemies -- which is too bad for Lopez's daughter Pilar (Gemma Cuervo), who carries a torch for Steve until he guns down her brother (Hugo Blanco).

Lopez imports new gunmen to eliminate Steve, but the feud begins to escalate beyond his control when McDougall kills one of the gunmen while the gunman's brother Gringo (Aldo Berti) stayed on the ranch trying to hit on Pilar. Now Gringo has a vendetta of his own that will lead to the death of Steve's brother-in-law, the kidnapping and torture of Judy and the deaths of Lopez and Pilar. Gringo cares about nothing but killing Steve and can't care less about Lopez's larger strategy. The moment Lopez appears to be holding him back, Lopez is a dead man, and when Pilar, who still loves Steve and has shown compassion toward the captive Judy, tries to intervene, she's mowed down without a second thought. Rojo sees all this but can't keep himself from being carried with the tide as Gringo rides off with Judy to force Steve into a fatal showdown.

The writers' treatment of Rojo is one of the film's quiet strengths but also an ultimate weakness. A long chase through the wasteland leaves only Gringo, Rojo and Judy alive after Steve picks off the rest of the ranch gang that Gringo has taken over.  With a gun on Judy, Gringo forces Steve to disarm. He taunts McDougall by promising to kill Judy after Steve dies. Through all of this, Rojo has a gun, and you can see that he's finally reached the point where he can't stands no more. All of Gringo's attention is on Steve.  So what does Rojo do? He throws his gun to Steve -- who can't hold on to it. Steve can do nothing to stop Gringo from blowing poor Rojo away, and it's not until Judy hits Gringo with a rock that McDougall can dive for the gun and shoot his enemy down. It's not hard to imagine Rojo surviving had he shot Gringo himself, but despite how much the writers have highlighted his conscientious observation of events, they could not imagine him claiming real agency by taking out the final villain. I suppose you can argue that tossing the gun is Rojo's ultimate refusal of agency, of a piece with his overall failure to take responsibility for anything. But it's easier to assume that it simply wasn't this flunky's place to defeat the bad guy as far as the writers were concerned, so of course he has to do something suicidal instead.  The writers' decision undermines Hurtado's decent performance, which is mostly a matter of facial expressions that transcend the typical spaghetti-western dubbing. It also exposes the formulaic skeleton on which they tried to hang a more ambitious character-driven piece. For the most part, however, the film manages to find the mood it's looking for with the help of sometimes-wistful landscape cinematography by Hans Burmann and Vitaliano Natalucci and an occasionally-effective score by Felice Di Stefano. The ending may infuriate you a little, but overall Perche' uccidi ancora is a good try at a relatively mature western story.

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