Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Moment To Kill (1968)

It is about a year after the end of the US Civil War. Justice of Peace Warren (Rudolf Schündler) has sent for two old associates, the gunmen Lord (George Hilton) and Bull (Walter Barnes), to come to the nameless frontier town he resides in.

When Lord and Bull arrive, there's no trace of Warren to be found. His office is locked and empty, and nobody in town is willing or able to tell the men where the judge disappeared to, even though the two men prove to be quite persistent in their quest.

The duo's pesky asking around has consequences for them. One night, a rather large assembly of rather unfriendly armed men attempts to take them on. Lord and Bull aren't exactly surprised by this turn of events. This and their superior abilities in playing slasher-like tricks on their enemies in the dark are more than enough to keep our protagonists alive. It is becoming quite clear to the gunmen that the boss of the enemy horde is a certain Forester (Carlo Alighiero), the man who also controls the town.

Before they can have more than a nice little chat with Forester and his psychopathic son Jason (Horst Frank), the surprisingly still alive judge calls his friends to his secret hideaway. There, he discloses to them why so many people are trying to kill him and everyone looking for him and what it is he needs their help with. Turns out that the secret gold reserve of the former Confederacy is hidden somewhere in town. Judge Warren wants to get his hands on the gold to finance a second Civil War, but he has trouble finding the gold. He knows that there are two things he needs to locate it - Regina (Loni von Friedl), the wheelchair-bound daughter of the man who hid the gold and the man's favourite book of poems, but Forester has kidnapped Regina and stowed her away somewhere, and the book isn't to be found where it's supposed to be. Before they can discuss matters any further, the judge is killed and Lord and Bull will have to begin their search for girl and gold without further instruction.

Fortunately, they are quite capable men.

The Moment to Kill is only the fourth movie in the long and interesting career of its director Giuliano Carnimeo, and the second of thirteen Westerns he'd direct between 1966 and 1973. Going by the handful of them I have seen until now, most of these films aren't of the type you will find listed in books about the Spaghetti Western as being especially important for the genre's development. Carnimeo's films are instead the products of craftsmanship that should make up the middle ground of any proper genre. That is, unless we are talking about the Sword and Sorcery film, which doesn't have any middle ground to encounter.

Carnimeo's film is very much a Spaghetti Western like you'd expect it to be, taking place in a West where dusty men of dubious morals, with even more dubious motivations, walk dusty (or sometimes muddy, just for a change) streets, trying to outwit and outshoot antagonists clearly lacking any morals or sanity. While there really aren't any surprises to be found, Carnimeo's film does deliver the expected with a lot of technical acumen. You'd think that all the killing, torturing, and all those shifty looks would get stale when you have already seen a few dozen other Spaghetti Westerns, but Carnimeo injects his film with a nervous energy punctuated by scenes of a more brooding atmosphere I found quite thrilling. As befits a film with its title, The Moment to Kill is also on the more brutal side of the Spaghetti Western, but it does not seem to share the sadistic side of its characters as much as it wants to make us uncomfortable through it. Trying to disturb viewers with nastiness and brutality is an old Spaghetti Western trick, of course, and something that connects the genre in my mind as much with the horror genre as it does with the US Western.

What the film does not do is to develop any sort of depth. At the point where the judge explains his plans to "let the South rise again", I thought I was in for at least a little subtextual fun with the historic background, or even a few thoughts about the psychology of members of the losing side of a war, but these things are dropped as soon as they have been brought on the table and are never thematized again.

There also aren't any attempts at doing something more than the obvious with the characters - excluding one plot twist I am not going to spoil here - but everyone does his or her iconic job of laughing madly and looking even madder (Frank) or staring shifty-eyed (everyone else) well. As someone who got to know George Hilton through the sleazy pretty boy roles he played in a lot of giallos, I'm always a bit surprised to see him perform as a stoic Western anti-hero as well as he does here; he's a bit like Anthony Steffen with facial expressions.

All in all, I'm quite fond of The Moment to Kill, although I suspect that how much a viewer will get out of it will heavily depend on a given viewer's interest and love for the Spaghetti Western genre in general. I had my fun with it.


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