Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Stranger in Town (1967)

aka A Dollar Between The Death

Original title: Un Dollaro Tra I Denti

A nameless stranger (Tony Anthony) rides into a small, very dusty town in Mexico. The gunman arrives just in time to witness the bandit leader Aguilar (Frank Wolff) and his men slaughter a group of soldiers. The bandit has gotten wind that the army troop he's just gotten rid of has been ordered into town to accept a princely sum in gold the USA are borrowing to the bedraggled Mexican government.

Now Aguilar and his men only have to put on the uniforms of the dead and can accept the money in their stead. And if need be, the nice new Gatling gun the bandits just scored as a bonus to their new clothes will certainly come in handy.

The Stranger - who has changed from Clint Eastwood's old musty poncho into a cavalry uniform - makes himself known now. After a bit of threatening staring and other forms of blustering, the nameless one manages to convince Aguilar that he's the ideal man to help the bandit get the gold from their US counterparts without a fight. He knows the officer of the cavalry unit guarding it, after all (which is a lie) and so will be able to vouch for Aguilar's authenticity to him. Aguilar agrees. If need be, he can still attack the Americans. The plan works out well, surprisingly enough. The North Americans know that something's not right, but are in no position to fight, and so the gold lands in the hands of the bandits and their new friend.

The problems begin afterwards, when the Stranger decides that he'll be wanting half of the gold for his services. Aguilar disapproves and counter-offers one gold coin, a little roughing up and potential death. The Stranger doesn't like that offer too well, and just barely manages to escape with his life and the gold.

This starts the expected cat and mouse game between our hero and the bandits, with the gold changing owners a few times and the Stranger getting tortured for a time, until the decisive shootout leaves only one man standing.

Unlike the later adventures of the stranger I have seen, this first movie about the character isn't a whacky to completely insane comedic yet still violent take on the Spaghetti Western, and Tony Anthony isn't mugging like a loon. Instead, the film is closely shaped after the first film of Leone's dollar trilogy and Sergio Corbucci's Django. Anthony's character is a virtual carbon copy of A Fistful of Dollar's Joe, just played by a much less charismatic actor then Eastwood. Anthony's later turn to scenery chewing now makes much more sense to me. It's overcompensation for his excessive woodenness here.

Trying to mould one's film after two excellent models like director Luigi Vanzi does here isn't such a bad thing, at least when it is done with the appropriate style. At first, Vanzi plays it a little too safe, trusting in Wolff's proven abilities at playing a charismatic bad guy, Anthony's sleepy lids and reams of mediocre dialogue to carry his film, while not doing anything beyond routine pointing and shooting  himself, leaving a viewer acquainted with as many Spaghetti Western as I am by now dreading a competent yet unexceptional final hour with the movie.

Then, very suddenly, Vanzi changes his tune. The dialogue dies down nearly completely and is replaced by gazes and small gestures. A film of people talking (and very seldom shooting) at each other turns into one of people looking, and watching and very regularly shooting each other; the camera lingers and glides and waits; actual tension grows. Although the film might still use the basic structures taken from Leone and Corbucci, it now develops a breath and a rhythm of its own. If a film is like a dance - and this one surely is - Vanzi has gone from stumbling over his own feet to an unexpected display of unassuming virtuosity.

A Stranger In Town's plot stays rather thin, of course. There are no surprises, no unexpected or expected political or moral messages waiting for the viewer. There's just violence with an undercurrent of suppressed sexuality, and the threat of more nastiness than the film is actually going to deliver. A Stranger In Town is not a film out to explore any new depths or to find out some hidden truths about the concept of the frontier. Rather, it's a cheaply done cash-in on the Spaghetti Western wave whose director somehow stumbles into making a cheaply done cash-in that at times works so well it can delight and surprise.


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