Wednesday – Today’s proceedings started with Sergio
Sollima’s masterly ‘The Big Gundown’, with Lee Van Cleef and Tomás Milian, on
which I had to pass, having made a loose appointment to interview Sergio Donati
at yesterday’s press conference. Donati, who co-wrote ‘The Big Gundown’ with
Sollima, turned up at the screening with every intention of watching it again,
but when I explained that I would have to leave for another interview before
the movie ended, he very kindly agreed to give it a miss too, saying with a
smile, “It’s okay, I know the story.” He did, however, ask to watch the opening
credit sequence before we left. Was this an example of a screenwriter, even
forty-one years after the event, just wanting to make absolutely sure that, no,
he hadn’t been screwed out his screen credit, or just a tribute to the film’s
wonderful titles and Morricone’s great score? Quien sabe, hombre?
Anyway, we spoke for the best part of an hour, and needless
to say, it was fascinating, not least because Donati is highly intelligent,
witty, and doesn’t speak in soundbites. As it would be impossible, as well as
bad manners, to try to summarise his responses in the context of an on-line
interview, we’ll have to leave it there for now. But did you know that Jason
Robards, while working on ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, heard of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, he
proceeded to drink the bars of Almería dry, telling anyone who’d listen that he
was sick of living in a country where such things could happen, and that he
wanted out? And that the next day, Robards arrived on the set and personally
apologised to everyone present for his behaviour? Nice story, don’t you think?
Jason Robards in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West
Saying farewell to Donati, who was leaving the next day, I
headed out of the Festival complex, beating my through a crowd of red carpet
rubberneckers who were being treated to a good dose of Morricone’s score from
‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ over the speaker system (the nearest they’ll
get to a real cinematic experience all day, I’d imagine), and up to the Hotel
des Bains, of dread memory, for a showdown with a man called Django.
I found Franco Nero (who’s lived up to his surname by
dressing entirely in black throughout his stay) finishing an interview. Beside
him sat a familiar figure, also immaculately attired, as always. Enzo G.
Castellari, the man I call “L’uomo più forte del cinema” (“The Strongest Man in Cinema”)
looked up and grinned: “Hey, John, have you been training?” This was a reference to our last encounter,
back in March, when we ended our interview by arm-wrestling across his desk. As you’ll probably have guessed, Enzo dismissed my best efforts with
embarrassing ease – though that’s not why I call him “L’uomo più forte del cinema”, which is a
story for another day. Enzo came over and we did the Continental hug thing,
from which I was glad to emerge without any broken ribs.
Nero, it transpired (though not to my surprise) had
forgotten our appointment, made the night before, just after Vanessa Redgrave
had finished playing bang-bang. Needless to say, everybody here wants a piece
of Django, including an hotel porter who was probably risking his job when he
asked me to take a photo of him with Nero. Well, I suppose you can always get
another job but you might only get to meet Django once . . .The interview was saved by Enzo, who stepped
over to Nero and said, “È un gran amico mio,” and immediately everything was
back on track. A good egg, Enzo, as you can see. One of the best, in fact.
Before the interview, I’d decided it was pointless to ask
Nero anything about ‘Django’, or indeed any of the other films for which he’s
already given quite extensive interviews for DVDs. When I told him this, he
seemed quite relieved, having done nothing buttalk about his most famous role for the
last two days. And so we talked of other things, but if what Lee Pfeiffer
indicated to me in an e-mail is correct, it looks like you may have to wait for
a future issue of Cinema Retro to find out what they were. Ain’t life a bitch?
(Seriously though, with between three and five films a day, plus churning out
copy, there just isn’t the time to transcribe lengthy interviews as well.)
Enzo and Franco were soon back in harness, introducing a
midnight screening of their masterpiece, ‘Keoma’ (1976), an astonishing film,
and all the more remarkable for having been largely improvised on the set
day-by-day. Enzo has always enjoyed a reputation for fast-moving plots and
terrific action scenes, but ‘Keoma’ delivers those and something more. To describe
the story would make it sound like just another revenge Western, so I won’t,
but ‘Keoma’ was the last great Italian Western, and if you haven’t seen it my
advice is simple – rectify the situation immediately and without further ado.
German lobby card for Keoma
‘Keoma’ was followed, at 2:00 a.m., by Sergio Corbucci’s
‘Compañeros’ (1970). The late starting time seemed a clear indication that,
three days into the retrospective, the organisers had decided to sort out the
men from the boys, the range riders from the tenderfoots, and their thinking
appears to have gone like this – “There are two kinds of people, my friend,
those who’ll miss the last bus for a Spaghetti Western, and those who won’t.”
‘Compañeros’ opens with a none-too-bright Mexican peon called Basco (Tomás Milian, who
else?) shining the boots of a federalista
officer whose men are busy rigging the presidential election by shooting anyone
not intending to vote for Porfirio Diáz. Put on the spot by the officer to
declare his voting intentions, Basco finally snaps, grabs the officer’s sword,
and skewers the hijo de puta to his
chair. Moments later, the revolutionaries sweep into town and soon Basco is
shining the boots of the rebel general . . .
This kind of cynicism about the Revolution (and, by obvious
implication, both the political Spaghetti Westerns and the ideals of 1968) was
not the sort of thing likely to endear Corbucci or Leone – whose own cynicism
was expressed even more forcefully in ‘Giù la testa’ the following year – to
Italy’s left-wing film critics (and is there any other sort?), and no doubt
played a part in reinforcing disdain for the Italian Western over the years.
Basco is made a rebel commander, but his life becomes
complicated by the arrival of a Swedish dandy and arms dealer, played by Franco
Nero, and the customary games of cat-and-mouse and tit-for-tat soon ensue.
‘Compañeros’ is a very well-made film, but its somewhat relentlessly jokey tone
renders it inferior to Corbucci’s earlier ‘A Professional Gun’ (1968), which
starred Nero, Tony Musante, and Jack Palance. The latter turns up here too, as
a one-handed, pot-smoking head-case with a pet falcon called Marsha. It’s one
of Palance’s more genially unhinged performances. Fernando Rey appears, to good
effect, a teacher who advocates peaceful revolution, and the film is
accompanied by one of Ennio Morricone’s most infectious scores. One of the most
enjoyable Spaghetti westerns, as well as Corbucci’s last good one.
The Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal, by Canaletto