Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Spaghetti Western Week, Day 2

I only made it through one of the Giuliano Gemma movies on tap for today... but let me just say, in my own defense, that it was a LONG one. There's no excuse for the fact that MAN FROM NOWHERE (1966) lasts two hours. 80 minutes would have been more than enough time. Of course, I'm a bit biased. It's probably a form of movie geek sacrilege to say this, but I'm not a fan of Gemma's spaghetti western anti-heroes.

For the uninitiated, Giuliano Gemma rose to fame as the title character in A PISTOL FOR RINGO, one of the first spaghetti westerns to come along after Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS struck major pay-dirt. RINGO was wildly successful in Europe, but not so much in the States. The reason: Unlike Eastwood's Man with No Name, Ringo is clean-shaven and boyishly handsome. Somehow that makes him seem more smarmy than cynical, more bratty than tough... like a spoiled rich kid playing a gangster on the school playground. Nevertheless, A PISTOL FOR RINGO spawned an endless number of pseudo-sequels, including THE RETURN OF RINGO (a.k.a. BLOOD AT SUNDOWN) in which "Ringo" has a completely different (more mature and more intense) personality.

MAN FROM NOWHERE, which is known as RINGO III and ARIZONA COLT in some quarters, splits the difference. The first half is a tiresome game of cat-and-mouse between Gemma's smug gringo and a gang of crude, dumb Mexicans led by El Gordo (a character who could have been lifted right out of a Looney Tunes sketch). Then, about an hour into the picture, things take a slight turn for the better when Gemma promises to infiltrate El Gordo's gang for the princely reward of $500 and the hand ("or something like that") of one saloon keeper's daughter. He fulfills his mission, but also manages to get himself shot in both legs and both hands. Ouch.

I've read other reviews that say Gemma's character, Arizona Colt, is a cad throughout the film - constantly dismissing every possible commitment in life with the phrase "I'll think about it" - but it seems to me that he actually becomes vulnerable at this point in the movie. He doesn't want to be vulnerable to the saloon keeper's daughter, but he can't help himself... He's falling in love, and under circumstances that make him feel like less than a man. Consider the following exchange, which takes place as the hero is being nursed back to health:

Arizona: "Were you hoping I'd be killed?"
Jane: "I was hoping that you'd reconsider... That you were only joking."
Arizona: "I guess you were..."

This short, simple dialogue made me interested in Gemma's character for the first time. And that got me thinking about why I hated him so much to begin with. Western heroes almost never want to "settle down," but different filmmakers offer different reasons... Some of the heroes are mature enough to recognize that they're too wild or violent or solitary to make a good husband/father. When they wander off alone at the end of the film, it's with a mild sense of self-defeat. Other western heroes are too immature even to know what to do with a woman once they've got her; they flee because they don't know what else to do. Arizona Colt eventually falls into the latter category.

In the third act, Gemma miraculously recovers, learns how to shoot again and promptly dispatches El Gordo's entire gang. Unlike Django (another classic spaghetti western hero), who needed a gatling gun who wipe out an entire army of bandits, Arizona just needs a six-shooter. I don't think he even had to re-load. Once he's reasserted his masculinity and restored the status quo, he can go back to being Ringo. In the final scene, as Gemma prepares to ride out of town, the saloon keeper's daughter approaches him for the first time with lust in her eyes. This is how their second significant exchange goes:

Arizona: "I believe there's something you still owe."
Jane: "Anytime you want to collect it, you're welcome to... You could even stay."
Arizona: "For always?"
[She smiles]
Arizona: "I'll think about it."

With that, the terminal adolescent bails. He doesn't really want to marry the girl. Apparently, he doesn't even want to sleep with her. He just wanted to play cat-and-mouse. Once he caught the mouse, he didn't know what to do with it.

On the surface, the ending isn't all that different from the conclusion of John Ford's classic American western MY DARLING CLEMENTINE... but there is a world of difference between the heroes in these two films. At the end of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, Wyatt Earp leaves town with a vague promise to the woman he loves that he might be back some day. But - and here's the distinction - Wyatt isn't running away. Rather, he's running toward other responsibilities: he's a peace-keeper by nature, and he's needed elsewhere. Arizona is just running toward a less emotionally complicated world. In my mind, that makes him a pretty uninteresting hero. Why should anyone idolize a man who simply wants to be a 12-year-old boy forever?

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