Sunday, January 17, 2010

No Room To Die (1969)

aka Hanging For Django (which is an interesting alternative title for a film without a Django or a hanging)

Some time after the US Civil War. A town near the Mexican border whose surrounding landscape looks a lot like autumnal Italy is the centre of a rather nasty affair. The local land owners, especially the evil Mr. Fargo (Riccardo Garrone, director Sergio Garrone's brother), have invented a fantastic method to replace the slaves who aren't working their farms anymore. Their henchmen smuggle in illegal Mexican immigrants to whom they have promised a better life and money to send back to their families. Obviously, the capitalist menace treats them even worse than they once treated their slaves. If it is convenient to kill the Mexicans to evade discovery by the cavalry trying to stop the human cattle trade, so be it. After all, there are a lot of desperate poor people left where the last batch came from.

It could all go well for our capitalist friends, if not for the fact that most of the people they employ to do their human cattle trading for them have prices on their heads. That sort of people tends to attract the attention of bounty hunters, and it doesn't take long until the first of those arrive. Johnny Brandon (ole wooden face Anthony Steffen) and the preacher Everett Murdock (William Berger) aren't working together, yet still manage to disrupt Fargo's business in their separate but equally bloody ways.

It is getting so bad that Fargo has to lead his next human buying spree in Mexico himself. As if the man didn't have problems enough already with his non-reciprocated love for Mexican landowner Maya (Nicoletta Machiavelli) and his tendency to have expressionist black and white flashbacks!

Brandon proposes to Murdock that they team up and make a little trip to Mexico themselves, so there's no rest for the wicked Mr. Fargo and his men there either.

More dead henchmen later, the capitalist tries to pay the bounty hunters off. Murdock - being a preacher and all - is quite susceptible to bribery, but Brandon isn't in the bounty hunting business for the money alone.

As far as I can remember No Room To Die is the first of the handful of Spaghetti Western directed by Italian Sergio (and isn't that a promising first name in this genre?) Garrone I have seen, and if the rest of them keeps what this one promises, there are quite a few films for me to look forward to.

As is usually the case with Spaghetti Westerns from the second row of the genre, Garrone's film is far from being flawless. It is a highly derivative film that grabs as many stylistic elements from the genre-defining works of those other Sergios, throws them in a hat and pulls them out in a rather random fashion. Fortunately, luck and Garrone's directorial talent (I wouldn't dare to decide which of those two has the greater share after having seen only one of Garrone's films) conspire to let these random elements add up to a surprisingly entertaining film. We might (I certainly have) have seen everything here before, from the Anthony Steffen's crotch to the incessant shots of people staring to the strange rifle (shotgun? mini gatling gun?) Berger uses, but we haven't seen these elements put together in exactly the same way. That doesn't sound like much, yet leads to a very entertaining little film.

When you decide to live with No Room to Die's derivativeness, you can start to admire the cheap but classical form all those stolen elements take here.

And yet, having said that, I also have to say that a feeling of nervousness seems to be lying below the usual emotionally calm but physically brutal surface of the film that isn't stolen or borrowed from anyone else's films, but belongs to Garrone alone. Even the physical and tactical superiority of the violent heroes feels somehow more brittle than usual, not only in the obligatory torture sequence, but even in the most banal of shoot-outs. One could nearly start to think these protagonists are only human.

How much of that feeling got into the film on purpose and how much just happened to manifest itself is for the people who made it to say (and they could very well be lying).

It is also possible I have just made all of this up based on the slightly shaking hands of William Berger and Anthony Steffen's atypically numerous facial expressions. The thought of the latter is a bit disconcerting any way you look at it. Either I have gotten so used to Steffen that I by now count every slight movement of his face as a change in expression, or he really shows at least three and a half different emotions here!



Samuel Wilson said...

It seems like any Italian western that didn't have Clint Eastwood or someone who looks like Sartana in it could be packaged as a Django film. This one sounds interesting (and I haven't seen anything from Garrone, either) mainly because William Berger's usually pretty reliable in this genre.

houseinrlyeh said...

They seem to have marketed this one as a Django and Sartana film, with Berger standing in for Sartana.